Thinking about how we design and the influence culture plays.

The New Beauty

Aesthetic: a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. (ref:Merriam-Webster)

Since advanced permaculture design, or any design process, is influenced by the designer’s personal values, we need to assess our aesthetic defaults. We need to critically examine and reevaluate why we act the way we do and how decisions and choices are made. We see more with our eyes through the aesthetic filter of our culture than through our instinctive biological vision. We appreciate “beauty in the natural world that we do not incorporate in our controlled living space. We have been taught a separation between that natural world and our personal space defines us as “superior or civilized”.

How we perceive beauty, which is the learned cultural aesthetic, conflicts and causes stress in the permaculture design process. In serious ecological design, we need to redirect our vision to the functional aesthetic of natural systems. In our design process we use all the steps in a scale of permanence and apply our design process in a progressive manner. This refines our personal aesthetic to a more natural expectation. For our design work we will use a structure of decision-making, from large-scale patterns to details. Following an organic design process allows us to discover the design solutions rather than impose them[i].

In order to do ecological design in a sustainable manner we follow a functional aesthetic as nature does. What we perceive as beauty in nature is the functional anesthetic that is the result of billions of choices for efficiency and fitness of living organisms. These patterns that repeat in our vision show us the most efficient use of space, resources, transportation of resources, and resilience.   Organism fitness is directly related to its ability to thrive. Each cell, each genetic mutation either increases or decreases the fitness of the affected organism. The simplicity of design for the most efficient use of space, resources, and structural resilience, must also be sufficient to allow the system to survive changes. These changes may be climactic, geological, meteorological, or through competition as other species change.

When we, as Permaculture designers, begin to read the land, we want to make sure that we are being imprinted by the land so that our design is not imposed (forced) on the land. That is why the site assessment process cannot be motivated by extraction (taking) of resources. We are only looking for available resources that we may enhance, restore, and integrate in a design. This will increase the fitness of the land and its ability to buffer extreme events that may deplete its resources. We are in a sense raising the carrying capacity of the land.

Within the boundaries of the property for which we are making a master plan, we are the new genetic code. We are like a virus in its most positive sense. We as ecological designers can supply a  “new genetic code” bringing increased resilience to a property. We can help the land restore itself to natural fertility. We can assist the land in developing deeper and richer organic material on its horizon. As stated in many permaculture articles, we accelerate succession and see ourselves as a steward of the land, not its master.

By increasing the ecological services available to the natural systems we create increased resources for ourselves. We are the primary livestock in this natural system, yet as the stewards of this land we know that if we were to vacate the property, the natural systems will be more resilient, deeper in organic materials, and at a higher state of natural restoration than if we had never appeared. There will be increased diversity of flora and fauna and increased levels of complexity in the ecology.

The biggest challenge we have in ecological design is refraining from imposing our personal, cultural, and economic aesthetic on natural systems that already exist.  We ourselves are imprinted by our culture to create personal space that follows the cultural aesthetic of our origin. It is not hard to imagine the design of a house owned by a consumerist suburban American. It is also not hard to imagine how that design would change based on the cultural origin of the designer. That subconscious design driver, which infiltrates our design, is most likely contrary to natural ecological design. This assumed beauty is the predetermined aesthetic that is subtly incorporated in our concepts.

As we walk an undisturbed property, we can see the natural aesthetic of ecological systems, mostly in what we would call Permaculture zone 5. The natural aesthetic or beauty is the functional design of natural ecology. As we move down the zones to zone 4, zone 3, zone 2, and zone 1, we can see the cultural design choices appear and begin to disturb the natural ecology. The greatest challenge we have is trying to adapt the predetermined economic and cultural design drivers (defaults) to our goal of a natural design (intention) based on enhancing ecological services rather than imposed economic and lifestyle preferences.

In the SouthWoods Design Process we observe, through a tour of the built environment, the differences between learned beauty, cultural defaults, and an appreciation for nature’s functional aesthetic. In ecological design, nature’s ecological functions and patterns are valued as the principal pathway to beauty.

[i] Meaning, decisions are based on necessity rather than preference.  As will be shown in the design process, plant species are not considered until all other design items have been defined. It is the last consideration in ecological design.