Succession for successful permaculture

YankeePerm YankeePerm at
Mon Jan 5 13:17:55 EST 1998

Hi Jeff:

It is important not to misrepresent permaculture while characterising it.  I
don't think it can be defined to anyone in a linear mindset and does not need
to be defined to people who already think recursively, to use Bateson's term.

Permaculture is both path and goal.  Any damn fool can come up with an idylic
vision.  This is easy.  How do you get there.  This is hard.  This is the
permaculture part, the process, the staging, to the sustainable vision.  

Having said that, it is also important to remember that permaculture is based
on the principles that we observe Nature to follow.  One of these is
succession.  Succession is very important in contemporary permaculture because
it is the natural process from getting from a damaged condition to a well

If you do something absolutely horrendous to the Earth, totally destructive,
like plowing it with a moldboard plow, Nature does not jump in and replant a
mature forest (avoiding the term "climax" here as misleading).  You get annual
weeds.  They have been there all along in case they were needed to clot the
wound to the soil, rather like the platelets in your blood.  Then there is a
succession of stages (hence the term) toward the mature forest or whatever the
quasi-steady-state ecosystem for the area might be.  

Now luck is with us.  Because the first changes are the most dramatic.
Succession operates on an inverted log scale when change is plotted against
time.  So initially we get a huge degree of change, weeds leaping in,
thrashing about, whooping it up, getting that soil covered and some organic
debris deposited.  Then some annual grasses and eventually perennial grasses,
side detours with allelopathic weeds like golden rod, bracken, sunflowers,
stagnation breakers like blackberry, and so forth.  Sometimes succession tries
to happen too fast and you see the prunus at the edge pruned back by tent
caterpillars, limbs lopped by little stem borers, excessive foilation
diminished by fungal spots and leaf curl viruses, etc.  As we get closer and
closer to the vision, the resource efficient mature ecosystem, change gets
slower and slower.

OK, so if you work for Dow Chemical and eat plastic, almost any change in the
direction of sustainaiblity is a  very big step.  Just take the step that is
in front of you, but keeping in mind the vision.  Remember your high school
physics.  To reverse direction is a phenomenal change in energies.  If you are
tearing toward the destruction of the world at 100 mph and take a step in the
direction of sustainability at 1 mph, you have a net inertial change of 101
mph.  Because F-MV(squared).  Therefore the effectiveness of the change is
10,000 times as much as the apparent effect implied by current velocity.
Hence the fatted calf is killed for the prodigal son.  Jesus was no dummy.  He
(she?  Who really knows?) remembered his high school physics.

OK   So we rejoice in every step in the right direction.

Now lets look at succession a bit more closely.  OK?

If you graph succession by apparent change, you find that it is not a nice,
smoot inverted exponential curve, as you would expect.  It is bumpy, it has
steps.  And it is the steps themselves that get shorter and shorter on the
vertical axis and longer and longer on the horizontal axis.  No blackboard.
Damn.  Well lets all think real hard.

Moreover, natural succession isn't always progress.  Sometimes the environment
obsesses on something, like bracken, which stalls out the process for a while.
Sometimes there is a fire, and some steps have to happen all over again, maybe
taking logner and being less species rich.  (Of course if you keep knocking
succession back repeatedly, you degrade the absolute potential for life on
site.  That is what we are doing in almost every respect in Western Society

So.  Materialism is addictive.  Therefore, we have an addictive society, for
it could not be otherwise and be so materialistic.  Other addictions are side

How many alcoholics go on the wagon once, forever, short of those struck by
trucks on the way out of AA meetings?  Right.

OK.  We give ourselves a little forgiveness for our lapses. Not excuses,

Now in talking about this to others I take a leaf from addict therapy and just
talk about my own struggle.  Permaculture is struggle--struggle to lead the
lifestyle we believe in.  If you want easy, go to a pawn shop, get a gun, buy
a bullet, and put a hole in your head.  Please do it at the bottom of a strip
mine pit scheduled to be refilled, however, so we aren't cleaning up your

If you describe permaculture in these terms, people will have an idea of what
it is about.  They can't know what it is until they actually change the way
they think (with scarce exceptions).  If they want to, you can help them.  If
they aren't interest, don't worry.  There are more than enough people who are
interested to keep us all busy.

Don't believe that 100th monkey stuff, though.  If that were true, it would be
impossible to practice permaculture in this society because most of the
monkeys are materialists.  Besides, the guy who foisted that story on people
lied because the real facts of the case didn't support his views.  Should have
run for president if he wanted to do a lot of damage, but Hey!

For Mother Earth, Dan Hemenway, Yankee Permaculture Publications (since 1982),
Elfin Permaculture workshops, lectures, Permaculture Design Courses,
consulting and permaculture designs (since 1981), and now correspondence
courses via email.  One is now underway.  Next Live program:  Paraguay,
8/10-22/98. Internships available. Copyright, 1997, Dan & Cynthia Hemenway,
P.O. Box 52, Sparr FL 32192 USA  YankeePerm at  

We don't have time to rush.

A list by topic of all Yankee Permaculture titles may be found at

In a message dated 1/4/98 5:46:18 PM, you wrote:

<<The first problem is mistaking the path for the goal.  A person
usually wants know specifically how Permaculture could be applied
to their lives, then they want to call this permaculture.  I'm also
guilty of this at times.  For example, someone using organic
methods and growing their own food could be on the Permaculture
path, or they could be on the chemical path.  If we call organic
methods part of Permaculture then eventually people will think they
are the same thing.  It seems we need to distinguish between what
is path and what is goal and make that clear to newcomers.  Maybe
some words to the effect that there are many ways to approach Pc
and the goal is very illusive for most of us.  We are struggling
down the path and what we have in common is a mostly goals and
facts about sustainable systems.  The proof of this is the fact
that we are here on the net and most of us utilize external energy.
Many of us drive cars, and use other imported energy systems.  We
are all on the path.

This problem also pops up in discussions where someone will say
Permaculture is impractical and that they need to pay the bills.
When I mention the path and separate it from the goal, they
usually keep the door open and the discussion continues.  This
then leads to a description of the start up process and how to
invest in it.

The second problem is trying to define Pc by using simple examples
or only one viewpoint.  This seems to create lots of
misconceptions and confusion.  I've heard that Pc is sustainable
agriculture, or that it is natural housing.  One definition started
by pointing out all the connections to a typical urban house and
family.  It then said Pc is about removing these connections.
After reading a few hundred words about connections, I was

What has worked for me is to say it helps to approach Pc from
different places and mention these three:

  1.  Energy usage and the definition of sustainability
  2.  Natural systems and the holistic view.  A historical
      view of the world help here.
  3.  Cycles and closed loops.  Community and a forest
      make good examples.  I suppose economics could
      fit here also.
These three things are saying the same thing in my mind, but the
words are different and most people seem to think they are different

Ideas, corrections?

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