Permaculture is a design system based on ethics and a set of principles modelled on Nature. When we consider the millions of years of evolution and adaptation to conditions by species, we can glimpse how Nature has the best R & D lab in existence. A deep observation and an understanding of natural systems can teach us many things.
The science of biomimicry1 teaches us that microbes, plants and animals have billions of years of experience engineering soltuions that enable to them to survive and thrive. Janine Benyus, biomimicry’s pioneer, quotes mother of pearl as an example. An incredibly tough substance that surpasses even the highest tech ceramics, mother of pearl does not need to be baked at high temperatures in a kiln but is formed inside an abalone at ocean temperatures. Instead of harvesting mother of pearl from the wild or farming it, biomimicry prompts us to study the design of the abalone and try to learn its formula. With this approach, we can make a super tough material, whilst the abalone remains alive in its natural habitat.
Three levels of biomimicry
There are three levels of biomimicry. The first one is about mimicking a natural form – like abalone – to design superior materials and products that replicate specific organic components. The second step is to move beyond the form and mimic movement and articulation – how the organism functions as a system with specific behaviours. The third level of design takes the whole ecosystem into account, integrating the forms of organisms and their functions and behaviours and understanding how they all interact within the larger ecosystem.
While permaculture designers do not take organic components or compounds and replicate them in a lab, we can learn many lessons from biomimicry in a garden. We study the form and function of individual plants, understand their niche and how they fit together in complimentary guilds, and then consider how all the elements – soil type, plants, slope, climate and microclimate – can all interact together to create a healthy, abundant ecosystem. Instead of using chemicals, we use our observational skills, adding elements like water harvesting, mulch, windbreaks, structures, domesticated animals like chickens, ducks, or rabbits, wildlife habitat to enhance the system, making it a more diverse, fertile ecosystem.
On a bigger scale, the regenerative farm uses techniques like holistic planned grazing, alley cropping, multi-strata agroforestry to produce yields and hold the land in good heart for both human and the more than human world. A publishing company too can be designed as a regenerative ecosystem, minimising waste (pollution) whilst maximising yields – not just financial resources but employment and wellbeing – whilst spreading the seeds of knowledge across many media platforms all over the world.
Many of us have spent much of the last year in relative isolation, the numerous lockdowns in many countries having minimised our social lives. Most of us are suffering from this sense of isolation, bereavements, a lack of communion and physical human contact, and light-hearted fun. It’s very tough, especially on the young. Time in Nature is my solace. There is a rhythm to be found in the flowering of bulbs and the blossoming of trees, the subtle shifts of the trajectory of the sun as we move slowly away from winter towards summer, the waxing and waning of the moon … The vast rhythms of Nature put my little life into perspective.
I visit the honeybee hives in the garden most days to observe their activities. Honeybees apparently come from an ancient lineage of cavity-nesting bees that arrived from Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. They therefore have 100,000s years of R&D. I watch the colour of the pollen the bees bring in, follow their flight paths to see where they are foraging, look out for changing behaviour as the days warm and lengthen, and watch the forecast for unexpected weather events like snow and Artic winds in April. I try to intervene as little as possible, leaving enough stores for a long winter, opening the hives only to feed them if absolutely necessary when the Spring brings unseasonal cold if the Queens have started laying brood that must be tended and fed.
Bees teach me many things: the power of community, organisation, precision (wax) engineering, the capacity to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, to cluster, conserve energy and resources (and be reflective) when the environment demands, to cleanse and gather nectar at any opportunity … They are collectively adaptable, intelligent creatures and seem to know the vagaries of changing weather long before I do.
Life is throwing us all many difficult, painful and challenging experiences. The capacity and power of adaptation will only become more vital, forcing us to dig deep into our inner resources and creativity to solve problems. Bees teach me to appreciate natural intelligence, see the whole rather than the parts, how to bend and flow with change, and to adapt rather than to stay the same when changing circumstances can no longer support what has been.