Design, Ethics and Wilderness

Permaculture is an earth science that views true wilderness as paramount. This is because there is the belief in Permaculture that observation of self-regulating systems in nature provides people with the knowledge to be better able to integrate their existence alongside all of the other users of the planet. The emphasis on wilderness is not unique to Permaculture, but what may be original is it's developed set of design methodology that can give practical expression to the lessons learnt from nature. Even in claiming that, I have to be careful since the importance of tying design to site and then evaluating the model, has some historical antecedents, as the following quote from a Shakespeare play will show (Henry IV Part 2, Scene 3):

".When we mean to build

We first survey the plot, then draw the model;

And when we see the figure of the house,

Then we must rate the cost of the erection;

Which if we find outweighs ability,

What we do then but draw anew the model

In fewer offices, or at least desist

To build at all?"

The writings of Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) provide another example of a precursor in thought to Permaculture. This is especially true when Leopold writes about ethics, which are a fundamental dimension underpinning Permaculture. Here is an extract from Leopold, putting forward his Land Ethic:

 "The Community Concept

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).

 The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these 'resources', but it does affirm their right to continued existence in a natural state.

In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."

From The Land Ethic, A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC, OUP 1949

Leopold grew up in an era when it was still possible to undertake great journeys in North America through remote wilderness, often by canoe (John Muir had done so a generation or so before). But he was no saint in his youth, taking on the outlook and tradition of those that used natural resources rather than nurtured them. This passage comes from a section called Thinking Like A Mountain and I believe it reveals his true value in allowing us to learn from his experience, just as he did himself (his re-evaluation of the model):

 "........... Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in the white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized to our error: it was a wolf. A half dozen others, evidently grown up pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the centre of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with that view."

From Thinking Like a Mountain, A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC, OUP 1949

Leopold was no sentimentalist, despite the imagery of that passage. His profession was forestry and game management, and it was through his working experiences that he developed a comprehensive view of wildlife ecology that led to him being one of the founders of the Wilderness Society. Leopold's ability to combine vivid imagery with natural and scientific understanding was complemented by his common sense in wanting to put his theories into practice. The seasonal descriptions in the first section of A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC are based on his observations and workings on a derelict farm that he bought in the sand counties of Wisconsin. He allowed Mother Nature to rebuild her wilderness there while he lived lightly around its edges.

Leopold's life is perhaps the aspiration of many who seek to translate their understanding of Permaculture into reality. Like Thoreau, we may see wilderness as the preservation of the world. What I am finding very hard to come to terms with is that wilderness is not understood in this land of my birth and that we are just handing on only man-made landscapes from generation to generation. Carry on in this way and there will be nobody left who knows what wilderness should be like, or even cares. Moreover, there will not be any of the basic ingredients left - the tools of Mother Nature - to turn the land back to what it should or could be.

Mark Fisher, 22 August 2003