Patterns

There are patterns in the natural environment that result from physical and/or biological processes. Looking into these patterns, understanding their structure, and applying them to a function is a powerful way to solve complex, dynamic problems. So what patterns do we see in the natural environment?

One of the most basic patterns found in nature is circles. Almost all natural systems appear to occur within cyclical patterns, like the movement of the Milky Way Galaxy, the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, seasons, molecular recycling like the rock cycle, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, and the life cycle.

Most industrial models of first world nations are linear, that is, there is an input (resources) and an output (waste). Sustainable models, on the other hand, are (would be) cyclical. That is, there is an input (resources) and an output (waste) that then serves as the next input (resources). This is what is known as a “closed-loop system”. In mathematics, functions that operate this way are called “iterative processes”.

The Recycling logo - a common symbol of a closed-loop industrial model.

This short video, Doodling in Math, is a fun introduction to more patterns that can be observed in nature. There is a Part 2 and Part 3 if you are so intrigued, plus many other related videos in YouTube land.

What those videos are getting at, in a nutshell, is a number of emerging, related fields we are now beginning to understand, including dynamical systems, fractal geometry, chaos and complexity. Here are some concepts which these fields build upon:

The Fibonacci Sequence = 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc.

This sequence is obtained through an iterative process. The mathematical steps are shown in the first video. (0+1=1, 1+1=2, 2+1=3, etc.) Any iterate (n) of the sequence can be calculated with the equation x(n)= x(n-1) + x(n-2). The more times you iterate the function, the ratio x(n-1)/x(n-2) approaches the number ‘phi’ (1.61803399…). This has historically been called The Golden Ratio, and was used in everything from Roman architecture to Renaissance art, from ancient African civilizations to modern metal songs like Tool’s Lateralus.

Another way to visualize phi.

The Mandelbrot Set.


These distinct patterns are called ‘fractals’ and although many had hinted to their existence throughout history, (as far back as Leonardo di Vinci, who noted the mathematical pattern of trees) we have only begun to truly understand the depths of these patterns. Our recent advantage comes from the computing power of modern technology that has allowed us to iterate functions millions of times (which would be very, very tedious work by hand). Many people have contributed to our understanding, including Pierre Fatou, Gaston Julia, Stephen Smale, and James Yorke. It was only in the 1980s, after computer technology at IBM was taking off, did mathematician and physicist Benoit Mandelbrot discover the complexity within fractal geometry. All of the necessary and sufficient conditions of something being a fractal is yet to be determined, but fractal properties include self-similarity (zooming in on any range of scale reveals a statistically similar pattern), a non-integer dimension (possessing geometry between 2 and 3 dimensions, as opposed to Euclidean geometry), and complexity (described by “D” that is derived from the slope of a double log plot). Since then, we have used this knowledge to explain how long the coastlines of continents are, how subatomic particles behave, how a forest is structured, how galaxies cluster, how weather forms, how mammalian brains fold as they grow, how plants maximize solar access, how erosion shapes the landscape, how populations change through time, how plate tectonics change through time, how fluid behaves in a dynamic system, how action potentials in neurons transmit signals, how roots grow, how to reposition satellites in orbit around the Earth, even how to model DNA, the structure of life itself. Fractals, then, have the ability to not only describe the structures in the natural world, but also model the processes by which they function. This is a very useful tool, indeed.

So, it is with this level of knowledge about the natural world that we step into realm much less quantitative, that of philosophy. In my next post I’ll describe some different worldviews, their relative merits, and introduce permaculture.

The Catalyst

You may be asking yourself, “Why would someone embark down the path of permaculture?”

For me, it all started when I asked myself the same question everyone asks themselves during their education – “What am I going to do with my life??”

I had thought I wanted to become an Art Therapist, but after checking out the job market and work conditions, I realized that just wasn’t for me. So what now? Since I was in my sophomore year and needed to pick a major to complete my degree, my college advisement office suggested some tests. So I took them. I mean, it’s not like I would let some personality tests dictate the rest of my existence, but maybe they’d point me in the right direction; I was clueless, and I really needed that direction. The results all came back the same: science science science! I had always been more of an artsy fartsy type, but hey, I figured I’d give it a go. What’s the worst that could happen? Turns out, I LOVE IT. And I’m good at it! I’ve got 3 out of 4 semesters in the program rocking a 4.0 with my lowest grade a B. Who says you can’t be both left and right brained? But is inevitable that while in a science program, one will be exposed to the stark reality that is the world today. And not only are you exposed to it, but you learn how to measure it, analyze it, draw conclusions from it…and that can be a hard thing to come to grips with. It was for me at first. I didn’t want to believe that all of the pollution, habitat destruction, deforestation, desertification, homogenization, starvation and destruction was happening one the scale that it is, and I really didn’t want to believe that most of what was behind it all was power and profit.  Growing up everyone always tells you how great and advanced the world is and how America is the best country in the world. It’s a bit of a slap in the face when you realize how far that is from the truth.

Then everything I had been hearing in lecture landed on my doorstep. Every year Winona State has a theme for fairs, community lectures, and hosts a book that is worked into almost every curriculum. Two years ago, WSU’s theme was “Food” and the University book was Michael Pollen’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. During one of the community lectures, an organic farmer, Arlene Nelson, came as a guest speaker from Lewiston, MN. Lewiston is only about a half hour drive through the corn fields from Winona. Arlene came to talk to the community about water poisoning in the Driftless Region, an area in Southeastern Minnesota that is characterized by karst topography, or limestone geology. Every town I have ever lived in is in this region: Plainview, Lake City, Rochester, Cannon Falls, and Winona. The water here is contaminated with Nitrates, or fertilizer applied every season to the vast corn and soybean fields. Thousands of private wells are above health and safety standards, and many families are forced to drink bottled water. Tap water in some rural areas fizz from Nitrogen gas escaping. The contamination is linked to cancer, and directly causes a lethal blood disorder known as “Blue Baby Syndrome”. This term describes an infant with cyanotic conditions, which reduces the oxygen carrying capacity of hemoglobin in the blood. The decreased levels of oxygen result in a blue pigmentation, hence the name. Two infant human deaths have been reported in the region from Blue Baby Syndrome, an undocumented amount of miscarriages, and many farm animals have all been victims of industrial agriculture. It’s so ironic, isn’t it? That a place which produces so much food for the country, the world even, is toxic, and the people who live here can’t safely live on the resources. The metaphorical magnifying glass is the geology. We experience the consequences of industrial agriculture sooner than other areas due to the Karst Topography. Limestone and sandstone, which make up the bedrock in this region, erode quickly, and carve many caves, caverns and sinkholes that lead directly into the water table. So when conventional farmers spread fertilizer over their vast monocultures, what is not absorbed by plants percolates right down into our aquifers. Arlene’s contaminated well is at 400 feet below the surface; a new one at 500 feet would cost $35,000, and there is no guarantee that water at that depth is clean. She has also witnessed some of her adult dairy cows literally drop dead, and it is very common for the animals to give birth to dead fetuses. Nothing can be done politically, because farm runoff is classified as “non-point source pollution” despite the fact that the source of the contamination is scientifically documented.

The chemical structure of Nitrate (NO3-).

The saga continues as the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities and the Bell Museum of Natural History prepared to release a new documentary entitled “Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story” in October, 2010. The topic of the film was the effect that agriculture at the top of the Mississippi affects the environmental conditions both here and downstream. It discussed issues of water contamination, hypoxic “dead” zones in the Gulf of Mexico, what causes the problem and what solutions are here or on the horizon. The film featured Arlene, and many other farmers, scientists, and professors. Just weeks before the first public viewing was scheduled, the film was pulled. At first, the U had no explanation. Then it was said that the film required “more scientific review”. A local non-profit organization, The Land Stewardship Project, http://www.landstewardshipproject.org, had been looking forward to the release, and didn’t buy the whole “more scientific review” excuse since the film was reviewed by 27 scientists, 17 resource managers, and 10 farmers, plus every fact stated in the film was verified by 3 independent sources, and was produced by a National Geographic film maker. They used a Data Practices Act Request to pull e-mails sent by University officials. The internal documents can be found here, http://www.landstewardshipproject.org/pr/10/newsr_101029.htm and show that Karen Hilme, Vice President of University Relations, pulled the film to protect the special interests of corporate industrial agriculture, which is criticized in the film. The decision was made before contacting the director, executive producer, or the funders of the film. And if the situation wasn’t scandalous enough, Hilme is the wife of John Hilme “CEO of the public relations firm Himle Horner Inc., and former executive director of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, the state’s largest corporate ag lobbying group. Himle Horner has had numerous agribusiness clients over the years, including the Agri-Growth Council.” After the true motives were revealed, the documentary aired on Public Television and has been shown multiple times at public gatherings, including the Frozen River Film Fest at Winona State. Hilme was forced to resign to prove the University promotes educational freedom and dissemination of information for the benefit of the public and the greater good of society.

So with all of that in mind, I have decided that I think the most meaningful work lies in sustainability. If I understand things correctly, our current system, our model for functioning within and participating in reality, is failing, and is in the process of creating anew. Some people call this “raising consciousness”. Whatever new-age term you want to slap on the idea, I now know what I want to do is build up what is sure to be the future of a sustainable, healthy, free society. There are many ways to approach the problem, but the most comprehensive, rational idea I have found is Permaculture. A word that embraces both “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture”, Permaculture is an ecological design approach that is both sustainable and regenerative.  The concept reaches beyond agriculture, seeking to synthesize solutions within other realms like the built environment, economics, technology, health, community governance, education, and land stewardship. The practice uses biomimicry (to mimic nature) and is rooted in three ethics: Care of the People, Care of the Earth, and Redistributing Surplus to further invest in creation. From these ethics stem many principles in varying form. Permaculture systems can appear very different from one another, but commonly include diverse, multifunctional polycultures, edible forest gardens, an emphasis on perennials, rainwater catchment, nutrient recycling, and non-linear borders.

Co-founder David Holmgren's Permaculture Flower.

I figure there only need be pockets of sustainability to ensure the comfortable survival of future generations. And what better place to learn how to make these pockets than to go to the people who have already created one? And why not get college credit? So, I googled “study abroad in ecovillages” and it brought me to Living Routes (www.livingroutes.org), a program that has changed my life. The summer of 2011 was spent doing a travel study at Sirius Community, (www.siriuscommunity.org) learning about sustainable design and permaculture. My teachers included Kay Cafasso (professional designer and earth plasterer), Llani Davidson (professional designer), Bruce Davidson (founder of Sirius), Ryan Harb (Chief Sustainability Coordinator at UMass-Amherst), Adin Maynard (professional retrofitter of Cozy Home Performance LLC), Jonah Vitale-Wolff (professional natural builder and timber framer of Hudson Valley Natural Builders), Jono Neiger (professional designer and professor at Conway School of Landscape Design), Connor Stedman (instructor, tracker, blogger http://renewingthecommons.wordpress.com/2010/11/30/renewing-the-commons/), Dave Jacke (professional designer and author), Mark Krawczyk (author and professional earthworks designer of Keyline Vermont), and Jonathan Bates (designer, professor at Yestermorrow Design and Building School, and owner of Food Forest Farm Permaculture Nursery; lives with Eric Toensmeier, author). You can read our blogs from the program at http://blogs.livingroutes.org/greenbuild-2011/ and http://blogs.livingroutes.org/permaculture-2011/

And that folks, is how it all began. Cue a graceful, ethical, descent culture.