I am a person who like to get things done. I know it’s important to move slowly, take space for self-care, rest, and rejuvenation, but honestly, that’s not how I thrive. I want to throw myself fully into projects, to stay up late and wake up early to complete them. I feel anxious if I’m not planning and enacting. I want to feel that I am living a life that challenges me to live fully and do more.
Which is why the first step of the permaculture design process is particularly challenging to me. We are asked to start with observation. Simply observing forms the foundation on which the rest of the design process rests. The idea goes: without sufficient observation, I am just imposing whatever pre-conceived idea I have of what should happen (whether on the land, in my personal relationships, or with my work). Observation asks us to fully listen to the place (or relationship, moment, or task) that we are in, to explore what it wants, and then to base our design off of what would truly serve.
We moved to Shutesbury to start Dig In Farm in July, and I was chomping at the bit to get projects started, implement designs that had been floating around my head for the last several years. I wanted to make a massive site map and plan out what we would plant and build for the next one, ten, fifty years. I still want that.
But that wasn’t reality. Our home needed a lot of work before it was livable, and we didn’t end up moving here until November. Fall and winter came quickly and intensely—our land has mostly been under a foot or more of snow since Thanksgiving. We’ve been spending time inside drinking tea to stay warm, visiting with old friends and making new ones, working on computer-based projects, and bundling up to walk in the woods on sunny days. We’ve been figuring out the kinks of keeping chickens happy through the winter, often shoveling their coop and yard before our own driveway.
But this nature-imposed pause has led me to the first step of permaculture design despite my innate “make a to-do list and crank it out!” tendencies. We have been spending time tracking on our land, and have learned about the neighbors who already live here. (Jacob says that tracking is like reading the newspaper in the morning.) There are two owls who fly through in the early morning to find their resting spots on the back of the forested part of our land. Red and grey foxes meander through the woodpile in the morning, and a coyote likes to use the stone wall as a road. There’s a wet low spot where a few low bush blueberries are nestled near a mama of a witch hazel; big old sugar maples and a small stand of birch that might one day offer some spearmint-y syrup.
It helps me to think of the first step of observation like the first step of nonviolent communication: listening. In order to really understand what someone else is saying, you have to listen before coming up with some response. Otherwise you’re just waiting for your chance to speak. (Lord knows I’ve been there.) Similarly with permaculture, and having a relationship to place, you have to listen to the land, its patterns and its potential, its hidden secrets and its challenges.
We haven’t stopped planning and scheming and dreaming about this land, but we’ve stopped pretending it’s all going to be figured out soon. We are still reading seed catalogs and doodle possible herb garden spots over coffee in the morning, but we’re becoming comfortable knowing that this year it’s likely the land will look very much like last year. And that we will start small: we will implement projects in little chunks, and see how the place responds. While it’s very hard for me to lay down my mindset as the person who has a plan for everything, all the time, it’s the only way I can come into real relationship with a place and a process. It’s also the only way to grow anything that will actually thrive.