Presence and Permaculture

…continued from last time.

permiedef3. Work from patterns to details

Los Angeles County needs water. To slake its thirsty millions, it supplements most of its potables from elsewhere, a major source being the Colorado River. At the same time, in order to divert flood waters during the winter rains, it has lined what was once the meandering Los Angeles River with cement, sending literally billions of gallons of (polluted) run-off directly into the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, ground water tables drop and the land gets dryer.

That’s the pattern, and that pattern has been going on since before I was born. Because I grew up there, I knew nothing else, and because of that, I thought nothing of it. That particular pattern was insignificant and therefore essentially invisible to me (and to most of the other nine million people in the vicinity).

pan1Tom used to say, “If you have a pattern that’s working for you, you might not want to change it because it’s probably okay as far as it goes, at least for the time being. But if you see a pattern that’s not working, then it might be worth going to the trouble of redirecting the situation.”

The problem is — or perhaps it would be better to say, the interesting thing is — we don’t seem to notice a pattern that’s not working until something “shocking” happens: we find ourselves on a runaway, or thrown to the ground, or on a horse who balks or pins his ears or bites or becomes barn sour or doesn’t want to be away from the other horses or doesn’t want to be with the other horses or doesn’t want to get in the trailer or get out of the trailer or who has become so stiff and rigid and full of tension that we need to go to the gym to lift weights just to keep an edge on our controls, and so on.

co river mapIn the case of a water source for Los Angeles, the Colorado River, already siphoned by six other states besides California, is now running dry. Suddenly, more than a few obscure whistle-blowers are aware of a problem. Enter Andy Lipkis, permaculturist and founder of Tree People, based in L.A. Long before anyone with broad appeal was posing serious concerns about the Colorado, he saw the pattern of his county diverting billions of gallons of water “away” every year while simultaneously crying out for more. Like Tom, he was eager to “get there earlier before the thing you don’t want to have happen happens.”

The ability that Tom had to see a pattern that would inevitably lead to a wreck before he had to get into a wreck in order to see it, had to do with knowing what a real working partnership was between himself and a horse. He hadn’t just seen it. He had felt it, experienced it, and therefore knew how the actions of humans could enhance a mutually beneficial relationship, or muck it up. From then on, anything that didn’t feel harmonious deserved attention and an adjustment to his approach.

andy lipkisAndy’s primary relationships were not with horses, they were with trees and soil, but the sentiment was the same. He didn’t just note their commonplace existence by the side of the road, taking for granted their presence while driving around in his car, rushing from place to place, the way most of us do. He felt the magnitude of their beauty and natural grace, an experience that had essentially saved his life. In contrast, any lesser connection with the natural world stood out like a sore thumb. The county of Los Angeles and its relationship to water was one of them.

The dry skeleton of the Colorado River where water used to flow, 25 miles from its historical end..

The dry skeleton of the Colorado River where water used to flow, 25 miles from its historical end at the Gulf of California. (The black spot in the middle is the shadow cast by a small boat, beached where it once floated downstream). Photo by Peter McBride

So, he set about raising money to design and build a project to demonstrate that it was technically and economically feasible to retrofit cities to function as living ecosystems, rather than merely as drought and flood-control managers. A hundred visionary landscape architects and engineers came up with a design that was applied to a house in south Los Angeles. Skeptical government agencies were then invited to a planned flash flood and witnessed four thousand gallons of water being dumped on the house within a 5-minute time frame. But instead of flowing off the roof, down the drive and

In contrast to the Colorado river basin, here is the Los Angeles River during the rainy season.

In contrast to the evaporating Colorado River shown above, here is a small section of the 48-mile long, cemented-in Los Angeles River during the rainy season, none of which is currently being used for irrigation or ground water refill.

into the street where curbside rain-gutters would have carried the spill-off into the Los Angeles River and “away,” the down-spouts were turned, directing the deluge into a lawn edged with swales and berms filled with mulch and planted with vegetation designed to absorb, sink and filter water, resulting in every inch of moisture remaining on site. No runoff. No flooding. Water-catchment cisterns could be filled and aquifers replenished. The jaw-dropping reaction from the county board of supervisors initiated a chain reaction that led to a re-routing of twenty billion dollars and a completely new approach to water.

Imagine the thought, energy and effort put into the details of that kind of project.

30So, when our horse balks, rears, runs away, rips a rope or a rein out of our hands, is too wired up or too lazy, what is our initial response? Sell the horse? Give it to someone else to fix? While those options may in fact be the most appropriate to our circumstance, what do we do when we get a replacement? Do we notice the same patterns reemerging after a time? In the same way that Andy approached L.A.’s water issue by working with natural systems rather than opposing them, dealing with a “problem” horse usually requires the acquisition of a new skill-set borne of seeing things from a different vantage point. This skill-set makes up the details that can be applied to the specific pattern we’ve become aware of.

Whether we keep our “problem” horse or not, what might it mean for us to explore the patterns of our relationship (rather than ignoring the dynamic) in order to learn and grow from the experience? Do we value our horse enough to grant the attention it takes to make a difference in our interactions? Do we see ourselves as an integral part of the relationship, or a superior authority with the right to impose our manipulations for an expedient “fix?”

It is often a vulnerable or scary feeling to step into the unknown in order to address an issue we have no experience with, even when we have help in doing so. And yet that is exactly the feeling that lets us know we are seeing a pattern we hadn’t before recognized the significance of, and are contemplating details necessary to make a change for the better.

Continued next time…


About findingpegasus

Author of 'Finding Pegasus'
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2 Responses to Presence and Permaculture

  1. Martin Maner says:

    Thanks Terry… This really helps, since it is kinda where I am at with my horse. He was trained, I was green, and he has “gotten my number”. Horses are mind/emotion readers… And I am trying to see things from his place, and still be direct enough to get his attention and respect… Challenges make us grow.

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