Humans throughout history have looked to nature as the ultimate teacher; nature is the sacred text from which all wisdom flows. As druids, we know the more time you spend in nature, the more you align with its rhythms, and the more you discover its many teachings. One of the reasons I am so committed to permaculture design as part of my outer druid practice, is that permaculture design is rooted in that same natural wisdom. The permaculture design principles, which I’ll be discussing today in this post, are the core of permaculture: we use them, along with the three ethics, to help us make every decision, not only for design work, but also for daily living. If we are going to continue our journey into the inner and outer realms of permaculture, and how this concept ties to druidry and other earth-based spiritual practices, a discussion of the design principles is our logical next step!
The Design Principles with a Druid Lens
I’ll be drawing my principles from three sources: Holmgren’s (2002) Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, Mollison’s Permaculture One, as well as from my Kay Cafasso’s Sowing Solutions Permaculture Design Certificate course.
I’ve also found it useful to group the principles under one banner of the elements and the druid animals (with my own addition of the bee of inspiration for spirit). The principles don’t all work in the same way, and this grouping helps us understand them in a new light. In terms of the actual principles, in some cases, I have kept the principles the same. But in other cases, I have adapted these principles to be shared and most applicable to those following nature-based, earth-centered paths. This meant that I may given them a more appropriate name that will better resonate with our values, and in other cases, I have created new principles that are rooted in the spiritual traditions in honoring the living earth.
I want to note that my lens is by no way present in mainstream permaculture, although certainly can be found on the fringes of the current movement and, I believe, is being woven more and more into permaculture as a practice. As people regenerate and heal the land, they are naturally drawn to it spiritually. As a druid, know that these principles go much deeper. I’ve also included the original design principle in parenthesis when necessary.
Spirit Principles: The Wisdom of the Bee
The principles of spirit, through the magic of the bee, ask us to observe what is around us, to rethink and resee those experiences, and to understand the connections to all things. Bees are master alchemists; they transform nectar into honey that can stay preserved for 1000 years. Bees embody the principle of transformation, teaching us that we, too, can work our magic upon our earth, especially if we work collectively.
Observe, Interact, and Intuit (Observe and Interact, Holmgren). This principle is simple—it asks you, before you do anything else, to spend time observing your surroundings, interacting with them in a non-judgmental way, and (and this is my addition) using your intuition to guide you. We can gain incredible insight from this simple activity, and using the information before us is a way into all else. All living beings use this same principle: observing, interacting, and working on instinct to survive and thrive. We do this in the AODA, where members are asked to spend at 15 minutes a week in nature in stillness and focus, for example.
Reflect and Revise (Apply self-regulation and value feedback, Holmgren). This principle has two parts, and we’ll briefly consider each. There is tremendous value in when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions—this is the act of reflection. Reflection, through meditation, journaling, and quietude is a cornerstone of nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action. Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.
Work on Multiple Levels (New principle). There are a few ways to think about this principle, derived from both systems theory and hermetic occult philosophy. On the side of systems theory, we need to have an awareness and engage in designs that allow us to consider and work on multiple levels: the micro/individual, and the macro/system. When we recognize that a single element is part of a larger system, that changes the way we think about that system and about that element. Working on multiple levels encourages us to think in these two perspectives at once, and consider the interplay between them. This same interplay also takes place between the inner and outer realms. The bee, as both an individual and as a superorganism, helps us better understand this principle: a solitary bee functions on her own, but does so as part of that larger hive (system of bees) working for collective good.
On the hermetic side, this practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on our inner realms. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. It is a principle that is well worth including here, as this principle has been enacted by humans, upon the landscape, for millennia. Outer transformations lead to inner transformations, and vice versa. We heal the land, we heal ourselves.
Air Principles: The Wisdom of the Hawk
The air principles focus on integrating our knowledge and wisdom to see more paths before us and using the power of air through our logic, intellect, and pattern recognition. These principles ask us to embody the energy of the hawk: first to fly high, take stock of what is before us, and offer us new was of experiencing and interacting as we begin the path towards positive change.
The Problem is the Solution (Mollison). This is one of my favorite of the principles, and for good reason. We spend so much of our lives hearing about the problems that plague us and feeling unable to address any of them. This principle turns that powerlessness on its head and suggests that the solution to any problem lies within the nature of the problem itself. For example, lawns are contributing substantially to climate change and the loss of ecological diversity; and the solution is there before us: change the nature of the lawn. It is often than when we look at problems not as insurmountable obstacles, but as opportunities, we can do a tremendous amount of good.
Mushroom Eyes (New Principle). This principle is one I first learned as a wild food forager and mushroom hunter. Before we can act, we must see and in order to see we must understand. Observation and interaction is part of this, but mushroom eyes How we see the world is how we inhabit it and how we interact with it. You might think of this is seeing through different lenses–when you put the lenses on, everything is colored by that experience. But these are lenses of knowledge and wisdom. Think about the hawk here—he knows exactly what he is going for. Nature wisdom is about not only awareness but knowledge. Animals teach their young skills necessary to survive; and humans, part of nature, used to teach these same natural lessons to their own offspring. So there is a knowledge component that is necessary for us to do design, and mushroom eyes helps us be able to see in deeper ways.
Design from the Patterns to Details (Mollison). Sometimes, when we are working to solve a problem, we focus on a specific thing we want to do (e.g. I want to build a waterfall) without thinking about the overall patterns (in this case, is there an existing resource flow? What is the overall pattern in the landscape?). Often, designing this way leads to trouble because you have the specific elements you want but you are missing the larger goals and purpose. This principle asks us to start with the biggest picture, like the outer edge of a spiral, and slowly work our way into the details of the problem. We think about the patterns of nature and energy first, and then work or way down to the specifics of that design. We design with the goals first and work our way down to the specific details of how we enact those goals. By starting with the larger patterns that nature provides, we can more effectively design–and attend–to the small stuff.
Fire Principles: The Wisdom of the Great Stag
Fire is about energy and change, and these three principles embody what we can do with energy and the many shifting changes around us. The Great White Stag is present in these principles as he lords over the forest: change is a constant in our great earth, and it is the many cycles such as the path of the sun, that we can harness for better life and living.
Catch and Store Energy (Holmgren). We live in a time of tremendous expenditure and waste of energy–this principle suggests that we catch and store that energy instead. If we look at a forest as our example, we see that forests are exceedingly effective at harnessing and storing any energy available: the trees grow in fractal patterns to store solar energy, and that solar energy is used over and over again, cycling through the system. In our own lives and designs, catching and storing energy to put to productive use is a key principle. This energy is any resource: external resources like sun, wind, or water and inner resources like time, joy, or passion. We can harness that energy and store it, later to be used. Humans currently have an unbalanced relationship with energy, and it is cause devastation throughout our lands. This principle, then, asks us to be mindful and think about existing energy flows and how they can be most effectively used.
Spiraling Changes (Use small, slow solutions, Holmgren): You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks. When we enact spiraling changes, we focus on what is managable for us in that moment and how to build momentum over time. Because, in reality, it are the small things, done over a period of time, that leave the most lasting impact.Rather than starting big and going all out with a 3 acre design, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. The principle of the spiral is critical here. We can’t burn ourselves out with trying to do too much, too quickly, and we can’t maintain our momentum. This principle also asks us to consider, for example, the role of ecological succession: we like to create designs thinking 100 years in the future, not just the immediate goals of tomorrow.
Creatively use and respond to change (Holmgren). Change happens whether or not we want it to; the world is always moving. Rather than see change as a bad thing, in permaculture we anticipate and embrace changes as a way to open up new possibilities and growth. This closely ties to one of the air principles, “the problem is the solution.” We often see change as a negative thing–we like how things are going, we don’t want things to be different. But change brings opportunity, if only we can see it. Here’s an example: I try putting up an arbor and my plants are so abundant that the thing collapses without adequate support. A creative response to this is to cut the vines back, use the cuttings for wreaths, and build a better arbor that allows me to sit under it!
Water Principles: The Wisdom of the Salmon in the Sacred Pool
The Salmon and the element of water focus on interconnections and relationships—and the three water principles ask us to attend to those connections. In order to be effective as practitioners and designers of permaculture, we have to pay attention to many relationships. Permaculture, like druidry, is ultimately a path of understanding and facilitating connections and relationships, and the energy of water helps do this very thing.
Integrate rather than Segregate (Holmgren). When you look at a typical vegetable garden, you see the veggies all in nice little rows, just waiting to eaten by whatever pest enjoys a good monocrop. Permaculture sees things differently: a healthy forest, after all, is never a monocrop but rather an integrated system. By integrating multiple elements in a design, we allow them to work with each other for good. This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs; a diverse ecosystem is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield. So, too, is a diverse group of people more resilent! This principle asks us to consider how each part in a system is related to each other and to the whole system. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together, rather than in isolation. This principle also builds on the spirit principle of working on multiple levels and understanding better how each individual part plays a role.
Layered Purposes (Each element performs many functions, Mollison). This principle suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions, there are others). My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations. The more purposes a single element has, the more effective the design. Any single plant or animal species in the forest offers an example: an oak tree provides shade, captures the energy of the sun, prevents erosion, drops leaves to offer habitat, offers nuts, and so many more things.
Use the Edges and Value the Margins (Holmgren). As a wild food forager and herbalist, I know that the margins are always the most abundant and diverse in an ecosystem–that’s where I go for much of my medicine and food. The edge of the pond or forest is where the activity is happening, where the bursting of life is taking place. This same principle can be applied to many other things: it is often at those edge spaces where we find the most interesting things happening! This can be the space between a forest and a field, the edge of your yard or, even, the spaces between two people, the spaces where we overlap.
Earth Principles: Wisdom of the Great Bear of the Starry Heavens
The element of the earth and the great bear focus on the material things: what we do with the resources that we have and how we gain those resources. The earth principles ask us to manage and understand our own resources so that we can live in an earth-centered way. The bear, and his medicine, is often of root, seed, and stone.
Obtain a Yield (Holmgren). This basic principle says that we should work to obtain some kind of yield for our efforts. However, in permaculture, the idea of a yield is not limited to that which benefits humans (like a crop of tomatoes). Yields can certainly include food and medicine (the most obvious) but also intangibles like beauty, harmony, and peace. Yields in the natural environment can include blooms for nectar; fruit, seeds, and nuts for wildlife; habitat; soil fertility; erosion prevention, and more. This principle asks us to go beyond our own immediate needs and understand, ultimately, that the abundance of nature is for all to benefit from. Nature is a great provider, and intentional design can help maximize the many yields she offers. This principle also asks us to see a yield beyond that which is immediately physically beneficial to our own lives.
Waste is a resource (Mollison): Our culture is drowning in our own waste; I detailed some of the problems we have with waste in earlier posts on waste and humanure. In permaculture, waste (of any kind) is seen as a resource that has not yet been given a proper place. We can work to, as Holmgren says, “produce no waste” by focusing our efforts on redirecting waste streams towards productivity. For example, human waste and urine can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions. Old office paper can be turned into greeting cards using basic papermaking practices. Spent grains from brewing can be added to the compost pile, and so on. Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling and instead encourages us to re-envision our waste streams.
Embrace Renewables (Use and value renewables, Holmgren): Stemming from the permaculture ethic of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. Our planet has finite resources and the extraction of these resources is causing increasing suffering, destruction, pollution, and habitat loss. In permaculture, we instead embrace things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy). When we integrate renewables into our designs, we slow and/or eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels.
Weaving the Design Principles and Elements into Practice
Just as we weave together the elements in rituals and in our own lives, so too, can we weave the different permaculture principles into our daily living. As I discussed in my post last week, these principles aren’t just useful to us as “designers” when we are planning, but they also can be useful to us as mantras for meditation and just as principles for daily living–I try to use the principles as I go about my daily practice. In the past, when I was first learning permaculture, I spent a month intensively studying each of the principles (you could do this for a week or even a day). This meant that for the “problem is the solution” month, I would spend time reflecting on it in meditation and working to embody the principle, seeing where it would work in my daily life, and using it to explore and think through larger societal problems.
It has taken me the better part of two years to come to this understanding of permaculture and how it maps onto the druid animals and elemental symbolism. I hope that this framing, along with my new additions and revisions to the principles, are a useful way of understanding these principles and how they can work in your life. In our next post, we’ll explore these same principles from an “inner landscape” perspective and then subsequent posts will move into exploring each individual principle and how we can use it to change our lives, regenerate our lands, and better our world.
PS: I especially want to thank David N. for his conversations and feedback on this line of thinking!