Permaculture Principles

Bruce Lee would be a Permaculturist

Bruce Lee was a genius. Unfortunately, many people only know him from his martial arts movies, which can be a bit cheesy by modern standards, and most people have never even seen his movies and only know him by his reputation as a martial arts actor. In reality, he was probably one of the most influential martial artists of all time. Personally, while I am not a martial artist by any means, although I have dabbled with karate and taekwondo a bit, I have always been a fan of Bruce Lee for his creation of Jeet Kune Do.

Jeet Kune Do, sometimes known as “the way of the intercepting fist”, is a martial art and philosophy that Bruce Lee created in 1967, just  years before his death. In very basic summary, Lee was frustrated with how martial arts, and fighting forms in general, had become more about form than function. Starting a fight is never the goal, but if a fight comes to you, winning is what matters. Knowing fancy moves that can be applied in very few settings are impractical. Bruce Lee looked across the world and through history to see what fighting techniques actually worked and really made sense. He borrowed the best from multiple Asian martial arts, boxing, and even fencing. He unchained himself from tradition, and he stepped out on a new path that made practical sense.

To me, this is exactly what Permaculture does. We study as widely as we can, and we incorporate the practical. Ingrained techniques and methods need to be questioned. We need to take what works and discard the rest.

This first quote is from Bruce Lee sharing his thoughts on Jeet Kune Do in 1971. If we substitute “Jeet Kune Do” with “Permaculture”, I think you will see why I feel Bruce Lee would be a proponent of Permaculture.

I have not invented a “new style,” composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from “this” method or “that” method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used, a mirror in which to see “ourselves”. . . Jeet Kune Do is not an organized institution that one can be a member of. Either you understand or you don’t, and that is that.

There is no mystery about my style. My movements are simple, direct and non-classical. The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity. Every movement in Jeet Kune Do is being so of itself. There is nothing artificial about it. I always believe that the easy way is the right way. Jeet Kune Do is simply the direct expression of one’s feelings with the minimum of movements and energy. The closer to the true way of Kung Fu, the less wastage of expression there is. Finally, a Jeet Kune Do man who says Jeet Kune Do is exclusively Jeet Kune Do is simply not with it. He is still hung up on his self-closing resistance, in this case anchored down to reactionary pattern, and naturally is still bound by another modified pattern and can move within its limits. He has not digested the simple fact that truth exists outside all molds; pattern and awareness is never exclusive. Again let me remind you Jeet Kune Do is just a name used, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not to be carried on one’s back.
– Bruce Lee (September 1971)

Here are some additional quotes from Bruce Lee. His philosophy aligns perfectly with Permaculture.

If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.

If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.

Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.

A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.

The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.

Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential.

To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.

Take things as they are. Punch when you have to punch. Kick when you have to kick.

Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any established style or system.

Obey the principles without being bound by them.

All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.

Real living is living for others.

It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.


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The Problem is the Solution… it ain’t Zen

One of Bill Mollison’s original principles of Permaculture states, “The Problem is the Solution.” This concept has been embraced by Permaculturists around the world, but if you are new to Permaculture this may seem an absurd statement… akin to Zen master Hakuin Ekaku’s famous kōan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

In reality, this principle is a powerful design tool in Permaculture.

Maybe a more clear way to say it would be, “In the problem lies the solution.” To be honest, it is quicker and more fun to say, “The Problem is the Solution.” It makes us sound more philosophical and mysterious, but my goal is to demystify Permaculture. I want to promote the science of Permaculture. There is a place for philosophical musings, but let’s not confuse the science with the art.

It is hard to say where this saying originated. Preliminary research shows that this phrase has been around for a long time, and from what I can tell, I don’t think Bill Mollison created it. In reality, it doesn’t matter. Permaculture is not about claiming original ideas, it is about designing effectively and using what works, regardless of where it originated.

So how is “The Problem is the Solution” a design tool? Let’s review some examples of this principle in action…

Probably the most famous example is when Bill Mollison stated, “You don’t have a snail (or slug) problem, you have a duck deficiency!” The problem, one which I have personally battled, is one of snail or slug damage to our young or tender plants in wet weather. We can battle the slugs and snails directly with chemicals or traps or prevention. This can take a lot of time and energy. We can potentially cause damage to the land if we are reckless with chemical attacks. But if we look at the “problem” as a neutral element or even as a resource to be utilized, then we can start to ask ourselves what benefits the slugs or snails may provide. Ducks love to eat slugs and snails. If we incorporate ducks into our landscape, then our problem will be a solution, at least in part, to feeding our garden allies. Simple to see it in hindsight, but less simple until we open our minds to this principle.

Here are some more examples:

  • The problem of deer in the garden? Hunt them and you have a solution for your food bill!
  • The problem of occasional flooding of a river? We can plant trees to capture the silt the flood is carrying, and we have a solution to building good soil!
  • The problem of too many “weeds” on our land? Eat them and we have a solution to lowering our grocery bill and increasing our nutrition! Plus we can identify the type of weed to give us an answer (solution) to our soil condition.
  • The problem of a wet spot (poor drainage) on your land? You have the solution for where to place a pond!
  • My own problem of too many sticks from overgrown bush trimmings that were not good for our fire place and too woody for the compost pile? I laid them out over an area that may be a small sinkhole. This was the solution to keeping my children and dog away from that potentially dangerous area, and it provided a great habitat for the local population of lizards… right next to the vegetable garden, so they can come over and eat pests whenever they choose!
  • My own problem of a sudden population of caterpillars eating through my Kale patch? I did nothing, and ended up with two Kale plants that were not affected. I now had a possible new caterpillar-resistant Kale variety… solution! (I documented this incident in an article here)

“The Problem is the Solution” is an amazing tool that can be used in all areas of life, not just with land and food systems. It is key to recognize that very few things we call problems are negative or “evil” by their own merits. They are neutral. But they pose a problem to us and our ideas and ideals. If we try to see how that item or element or energy can be harnessed as a resource, then we will be more productive, more sustainable, and significantly less stressed in our day to day life.

So go out and become a Permaculture Zen Master!


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Practicing Permaculture Principle One… Observation

I have written previously about Permaculture Principles. Since discovering Permaculture years ago, I have slowly been trying to put these principles into practice in my day to day life and thinking. If you are new to this site, you will know that I do not say this in some esoteric or pseudo-religious manner. Permaculture is a practical science, and its practice has actual implications. Understanding what these implications are and how to achieve them is what the science of Permaculture is all about. Ultimately, it strengthens resiliency in our day to day existence, and it is to this end that I am most drawn.

Principle One states to Observe and Interact. The first part of Principle One, observe, is the starting point to understanding pretty much everything else about Permaculture. Observation, through the lens of Permaculture, allows us to critically examine the world around us, to see systems. It is the foundation allowing us to design new systems, because it is from these observations, i.e. what we have seen, that we are able to create new systems in the first place.

Another way of saying this is that Permaculture Design is really an amalgamation of multiple systems which we have observed in nature in one form or another (or from other human-made designs, which were themselves originally created through observation).

So in the vein of practicing what I preach, I realized that it has been quite some time since I put the first part of Principle One into overt practice. Really, I am always trying to observe. I am always trying to understand the world around me. Why is that plant growing there? Why is that plant doing so well? Why is that plant about to die? Why are the hills shaped just that way? Why is the fog drifting in that direction? Why is that cow lying down in that spot when all the others are lying down in another?

This is just a scratch at the surface of the thoughts that run through my head every day. I am actively trying to observe all the time. However, it has been too long since I have sat down and observed my own garden. So I did it today.

I went out and laid down in my garden. Grass under me and sky above me, I just relaxed in the warm sun and cool ocean breeze. I was looking up at Bird of Paradise and Hibiscus to my right, and Fava Beans, Garlic, Rosemary, and Tomato and Corn seedlings in one of my garden beds to my left. At my head was my one Century Plant (Agave americana marginata) and a large bed of Aloe with wild Azorean Blackberry canes snaking their way between the succulents. I could hear the Sparrows chirping non-stop and the Ocean crashing on the volcanic rocks about a hundred yards (90 meters) away. I could smell that great scent of clean soil and also fresh mint as my dog stepped on some runners growing along the edge of the shrub line.

I almost fell asleep, but then my dog decided to lift his leg and urinate about five feet from my head. Inner tranquility is rather diminished in the presence of highly odiferous dog urine. Oh well, it was time to get up and get some other things done.

For this exercise, I spent twenty minutes just taking it in and resting. I can’t remember the last time I did this. To be honest, I didn’t make any revolutionary observations, but I was rejuvenated. It was worth it for that alone. I will try to make this a more regular habit from now on. Maybe I will stumble upon something life changing. Probably I will just get to know my little garden better, or perhaps I will just get a little much needed, often neglected rest.

But next time, I’ll lock the dog out of the garden first.