Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Sustainable" defined

By Scott A. Meister and Douglas J. E. Barnes

As environmental awareness has increased, marketers have seen the importance of including the word “sustainable” in their pitches, particularly if what they are selling is not sustainable. It’s almost as if the definition has been twisted into meaning “beneficial” or “profitable.” In Japan, the word “LOHAS,” an acronym meaning “Lifestyles Of Health and Sustainability,” is being used to produce TV programs that promote the purchase and consumption of supposedly “green” goods such as re-useable shopping bags, and fair-trade goods, produced and packaged in layers of plastic and shipped from various corners of the underdeveloped world. The sustainability part of the word has been virtually all but ignored. An important part of sustainability is to reduce consumption, but the word LOHAS is being used to promote it. There have been dozens of “LOHAS” programs produced that simply reviewed vacations to remote areas to meditate and practice “shodo” (Japanese calligraphy), and the making of disposable Hawaiian leis made from Japanese wild-flowers (hardly a necessity, and hardly sustainable). By these TV programs’ definitions, virtually anything from old Japanese culture is sustainable, such as target practice with a blowgun, or growing “organic” monocultures of “edamame” (soy beans). Simply because they are grown organically, they assume they are grown sustainably. In short, the word sustainable has been twisted to mean “hippy or traditional vogue.” It is being used to sell a fashionable lifestyle, and the various consumer goods that go with it, but not a sustainable lifestyle. It is being used to promote consumption, not the reduction of it.

We hear of sustainable agriculture, sustainable consumption, sustainable development, sustainable forestry and sustainable energy. However, it is not often made clear what sustainability actually is. Merriam-Webster defines it as “capable of being sustained” and “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged…” One environmental science textbook says that “Sustainability implies that we cannot turn our resources into waste faster than nature can recycle and replenish the supplies on which we depend.” (William P. Cunningham, Mary Ann Cunningham, Barbara Woodworth Saigo, Environmental Science: A Global Concern, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2005.)

While this gives a sort of vague impression, it still leaves one unable to know what sustainable is or isn’t. If we rely on this vague definition, there can only be one definite answer: a negative one in which a resource use is unsustainable. With this fuzzy definition, it is like asking “Am I immortal?” Only your death can provide a definite answer. Using this unclear definition, if a set rate of resource use is found to be sustainable over time, there might arguably be a higher rate that is still sustainable. The only way to know resource use is unsustainable this way is wait until the negative answer is reached and that resource is depleted. This approach has been taken by civilisations such as the Sumers, the Anasazi, the Pitcairns, the Mayans and others. If we are to avoid repeating their mistakes, a more precise definition of sustainability is needed.

Let’s define sustainable more carefully. A system is sustainable if, over its lifetime, it produces more energy than it consumes. From this, it becomes much easier to see what is sustainable and what is not.

Looking at resource use from an energy audit perspective, we can attempt to determine whether a proposed action or system is sustainable or not. For example, concrete has an embodied energy of 5.6 mega joules per kilogram or 1.5 kWh per kilogram according to data cited by Australia’s Department of the Environment and Heritage. So, used as a construction material in a conventional building such as an apartment block, it is not likely to be sustainable. However, if the concrete is used as part of a thermal mass to absorb and reradiate heat and buffer temperature changes within the home as part of a passive solar strategy that greatly reduces the need for heating, there is a chance that, over the lifetime of the home, the concrete will store more heat than was used in its creation.

Additionally, areas full of high-density apartment buildings are not sustainable, because there is not enough land to support the harvesting of clean water for drinking (let alone washing and practice of flushing toxins to the sea). Nor is there is enough land for soil and trees to provide food, and there are not enough energy resources within immediate access to provide heating and cooling for large complexes. These high-density living areas must import virtually everything, and in the process of their construction, have often taken large portions of highly productive soil, out of production.

A sustainable community is one that is able to provide for most (if not all, ideally) of its own energy needs. If it is not able to provide for itself, it is able to trade with a bioregional neighbor to avoid the need of spending massive amounts of energy for the sake of importing. A sustainable settlement is able to provide most of their own water, shelter, food, heating and cooling and will have a renewable source of energy.

Being sustainable, does not mean that we wish to go back to the dark ages, live individually self-sufficient lives isolated from the rest of the world, while praying to this or that spirit or goddess for salvation. Being sustainable, does mean reducing our inputs and costs, while at the same time, increasing our productivity, health, sanity and leisure time so we can spend what we do have on more essential needs such as genuine happiness.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Jordan: The Kafrin Site, Part 1

In the first part of this series, we looked at some of the larger problems facing Jordan. This installment focuses on the initial conditions of a site in Kafrin, Jordan, in which a permaculture pilot project was carried out.

Earlier, we looked at some of the problems facing Jordan. The greatest among the obstacles is an “absolute scarcity” of renewable fresh water available for use [“absolute scarcity” being less than 500 m3 per capita per year]; and the situation has been rapidly worsening. In 1946, there were 3400 m3 per person available each year. This has dropped to 155 m3 per person today, making Jordan one of the world’s poorest countries in terms of water resources. Of the water available to the nation, 62.5% goes to agriculture and 32.5% goes to household use. So, through the introduction of permaculture techniques, it is hoped that more efficient use can be made of water in Jordan.

In 2000, a project involving permaculture designer and teacher Geoff Lawton was initiated on behalf of Japan’s Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development (NICCO) and the Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD), which currently funds the management of the project.

A 5 hectare site in Kafrin, Jordan, 10 km from the Dead Sea and 6 km from the Israeli border, was selected for the pilot project. The aim was to show techniques of sound ecological management in a region with otherwise very low agricultural output, to improve local agriculture and livelihood, and to study the effect of permaculture on soils, plants, agriculture and the local environment.

Rainfall at the site comes in 2 or 3 large events and amounts to only 100 to 150 mm per year. Regular hot, desiccating winds contribute to severe evaporation on the site. The soil is very infertile with little organic matter and extremely high salinity. Soil to a depth of 30 cm was found to have 98.1 dS/m, and soil from 30 to 60 cm deep registered 101.7 dS/m, making it extremely salty. [dS/m, or decisiemens per metre, is a measure of electrical conductivity which can be used to measure soil salinity. The United States Department of Agriculture considers soil over 4 dS/m to be “saline soil.” The soils at the Kafrin site are above this level by more than an order of magnitude!] Only sparse, intermittent vegetation could exist on the site at the time the project started.

In the next article in the series, we will look at the steps taken to turn the site around.

Monday, October 30, 2006

An introductory look at the Jordan Valley.

This article is the first in a series of articles on past and present permaculture projects in the Jordan Valley.

Image by Юкатан
The Jordan Valley is one of the most devastated landscapes on the planet. Once home to productive forests with rich soils, today it is denuded of its natural splendor and has been reduced to a salinated landscape which is spiralling into a completely dead environment.

Archeological evidence shows that Jordan had once been a green land. It is known that during the time of the Roman Empire, water harvesting features had existed in Jordan for the purpose of agriculture.

Unfortunately as has been the history of agriculture in most regions of the world, the practices of deforestation and overgrazing have created desolation.

The removal of trees results in a reduced capacity for soils to retain water. Trees increase local precipitation through condensation - this is precipitation that will not register on a rain guage. For example, upland slopes in coastal rainforests can account for up to 80% of the total precipitation. Removing the trees means that this precipitation will not be intercepted and drawn into the soil.

Additionally, trees transpire water into the atmosphere providing moisture for downwind rains. Cut out a forest and you will reduce the rainfall downwind.
Plough agriculture damaged the delicate soils contibuting to erosion. Today the land is characterised by wadis washed out of the hillsides - a telltale sign of serious erosion problems. This problem is compounded by overgrazing. Goats are currently stripping the vegitation off the land dooming it to become a totally dead environment.

Fifty years ago, 1.3 billion cubic metres of water flowed through the Jordan river. Today, less than one tenth that amout flows through the river, and this flow is kept alive by sewage. The remainder has been diverted for agricultural purposes.

To make up for shortfalls in water, aquifers are tapped. And without any attempts to recharge them, they are being depleted, dooming the inhabitants to a waterless future. Compounding this problem, modern industrial agricultural techniques are contaminating the aquifers with pesticides and fertilisers.

Despite this seemingly bleak future, there is a working solution: one that has been employed in the Jordan Valley. The next article in this series will look at the solutions that have been employed and their surprising results.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

David Suzuki retires

No readers, this site is not turning into a newswire, nor will it. This story is here because, over the years, David Suzuki has been very influential to many of us, myself included.

David is now ready, he says, for a simple life out of the spotlight. However, he regrets that the highlighting of the destruction of the environment has not stopped, let alone reversed, the destruction of the planet:

"Nobody any longer knows what a sustainable future is," the bearded, bespectacled environmentalist told Reuters in a recent interview in Australia to promote his book, "David Suzuki: The Autobiography."

"I feel like we are in a giant car heading for a brick wall at 100 miles an hour and everyone in the car is arguing where they want to sit. For God's sake, someone has to say put the brakes on and turn the wheel." [Source]
David, good luck with your future move. We'll miss you on our TVs.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Mycorrhyzae help plants survive heavy metals/salt

[Updated Oct. 27]

It seems like the more we learn about mycelium, the more we learn how beneficial it is to all sorts of life. Research published in the African Journal of Biotechnology (on the Mycorrhyza Literature Exchange site) shows that mycorrhyzae can help plants survive higher levels of zinc and cadmium:
...From a number of physiological indices measured in this study, microsymbionts significantly increased dry weight, root : shoot ratios, leaf number and area, plant length, leaf pigments, total carbohydrates, N and P content of infected plants as compared with non infected controls at all levels of heavy metal concentrations. Tolerance index of cowpea plants was increased in the presence of microsymbionts than in their absence in polluted soil. Microsymbionts dependencies of cowpea plants tended to be increased at higher levels of Zn and Cd in polluted soil. Metals accumulated by microsymbionts-infected cowpea plant were mostly distributed in root tissues, suggesting that an exclusion strategy for metal tolerance widely exists in them.

This news from Scientia Horticulturae (also on the Mycorrhyza Literature Exchange site) shows that mycorrhyzae can benefit tomatoes grown in saline conditions:
This study was conducted to determine if pre-inoculation of transplants with arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi alleviates salt effects on growth and yield of tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill. Cv. Marriha) when irrigated with saline water. Tomato seeds were sown in polystyrene trays with 20 cm(3) cells and treated with AM fungi (AM) or without (nonAM) Glomus mosseae. Once the seedlings were reached appropriate size, they were transplanted into nonsterile soil in concrete blocks (1.6 m x 3 m x 0.75 m) under greenhouse conditions. The soil electrical conductivity (ECe) was 1.4 dS m(-1). Plants were irrigated with nonsaline water (ECw = 0.5 dS m(-1)) or saline water (ECw = 2.4 dS m(-1)) until harvest. These treatments resulted with soil EC at harvest 1.7 and 4.4 dS m(-1) for nonsaline and saline water treatments, respectively. Root colonization with AM fungi at flowering was lower under saline than nonsaline conditions. Pre-inoculated tomato plants with AM fungi irrigated with both saline and nonsaline water had greater shoot and root dry matter (DM) yield and fruit fresh yield than nonAM plants. The enhancement in fruit fresh yield due to AM fungi inoculation was 29% under nonsaline and 60% under saline water conditions. Shoot contents of P, K, Zn, Cu, and Fe were hi-her in AM compared with nonAM plants grown under nonsaline and saline water conditions. Shoot Na concentrations were lower in AM than nonAM plants grown under saline water conditions. Results indicate that pre-inoculation of tomato transplants with AM fungi improved yield and can help alleviate deleterious effects of salt stress on crop yield.

Update: As discussed elsewhere on these pages, Glomus mosseae helps plants resist the uptake of arsenic and thereby increase the uptake of phosphorus. Glomus mosseae has also been shown to reduce the uptake of copper, zinc, lead and cadmium.
A glasshouse pot experiment was conducted to investigate effects of the arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus Glomus mosseae on the growth of Vicia faba and toxicity induced by heavy metals (HMs) (Cu, Zn, Pb and Cd) in a field soil contaminated by a mixture of these metals. There was also uninoculation treatment (NM) simultaneously. Mycorrhizal (GM) plants have significantly increased growth and tolerance to toxicity induced by heavy metals compared with NM plants. P uptake was significantly increased in GM plants. Mycorrhizal symbiosis reduced the transportation of IlMs from root to shoot by immobilizing HMs in the mycorrhizal, shown by increasing the ratios of HMs from root to shoot. Oxidative stress, which can induce DNA damage, is an important mechanism of heavy metal toxicity. GM treatment decreased oxidative stress by intricating antioxidative systems such as peroxidases and non-enzymic systems including soluble protein. The DNA damage induced by heavy metals was detected using comet assay, which showed DNA damage in the plants was decreased by the GM treatment. [Journal of Environmental Sciences-China also see University of Ljubljana]
Oyster mushrooms, a type of saprophytic mushroom (not mycorrhizal), have been used to detoxify soils contaminated with cadmium. However, these mushrooms would not be fit for human consumption. When using mycelium to detoxify land or help plants resist toxins, do not eat any mushrooms that fruit.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Seed balls.

Seed balls are a method of propagation widely promoted by Natural Farming innovator Masanobu Fukuoka.

Seed balls are simply seeds mixed with equal proportions of dried compost and clay, formed into small balls, and dried for later sowing.

To make them, simply select the seeds to be used - thick-skinned seeds will need to be scarified, and some seeds need heat or cold to bring them out of dormancy. Legumes will require inoculant if they are to fix nitrogen. Also, for species that can benefit from mycorrhizal relationships, adding the spores of mycorrhizal fungi such as the genus Glomus and/or Rhizopogon, species Gigaspora margarita, and/or Pisolithus tinctorus would be beneficial, though not necessary. [This list is not exhaustive, but these are readily available through Fungi Perfecti.]

Mix one part seeds with one part dry compost.

Next, add one part dry clay and mix.

Then spray in water a little at a time and mix it together until you have just enough water to hold everything together without crumbling.

After that, form the mixture into balls 2~3 cm in diameter.

Finally, dry the balls for later use.

Once dried, the balls are ready to be spread over land that you want to plant. When the rains come, the seeds will germinate.

Using this method along with other Natural Farming techniques, Fukuoka san was able to produce 590kg (1300lbs) of winter grain (barley or wheat) and 22 bushels of rice per quarter acre of land. Moreover, these techniques require the labour of just two people working a few weeks a year to attain the crop. There is no plowing, no weeding, no application of biocides in any form, and no fertilising.

Seed balls may be obscure in North America, but in parts of the world already badly damaged by human activity, their use is easily recognised. The BCIL Alt.Tech Foundation of India uses seed balls to regreen Bangalore. And as most of the planets deserts are the creation of mankind, we can follow their lead to undo the damage we have done.

Imagine tanks used, not for warfare, but to pull land imprinters to give seedballs an advantage. Imaging cluster bombs, not killing, but being used to distribute seed balls over deserts creating green explosions. While some of these ideas may seem unrealistic, they are within the realm of possibility... if we only act.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

竹 Bamboo

Here is a list that designers might find helpful:

Clumping Bamboo:

Ampellocalamus scandens
Bambusa arnhemica
Bambusa arundinacea
Bambusa aureostriata
Bambusa balcooa
Bambusa beechyana
Bambusa beechyana var Pubescens
Bambusa blumeana
Bambusa boniopsis
Bambusa burmanica
Bambusa chungii
Bambusa cornigera
Bambusa corniculata
Bambusa diaoluoshanensis
Bambusa dissimulator var albinodia
Bambusa dolichomerithalla
Bambusa dolichomerithalla cv Silverstripe
Bambusa eutoldoides
Bamabusa eutoldoides var. basistriata
Bambusa gibba
Bambusa heterostachya
Bambusa heterostachya variegated
Bambusa indigena
Bambusa Lako
Bambusa longispiculata
Bambusa maculata
Bambusa malingensis
Bambusa multiplex
Bambusa multiplex cv Alphonse Karr
Bambusa multiplex cv Fernleaf
Bambusa multiplex cv Cream stripe
Bambusa multiplex cv Golden Goddess
Bambusa multiplex cv Goldstripe
Bambusa multiplex var Riviereorum
Bambusa multiplex cv Silverstripe
Bambusa multiplex cv Stripestem
Bambusa nutans
Bambusa oldhamii
Bambusa oliveriana
Bambusa pachinensis
Bambusa polymorpha
Bambusa pervariabilis
Bambusa pervariabilis viridis striata
Bambusa Ridleyii
Bambusa Sp. var Mrs Small
Bambusa sinospinosa
Bambusa stenostachya
Bambusa textilis
Bambusa textilis fusca
Bambusa textilis var glabra
Bambusa textilis var gracilis
Bambusa tulda
Bambusa tuldoides
Bambusa valida
Bambusa vario striata
Bambusa ventricosa
Bambusa ventricosa f. kimmei
Bambusa vulgaris
Bambusa vulgaris cv Vittata
Bambusa vulgaris cv Wamin
Cephalostachyum pergracile
Chusquea coronalis
Chusquea pitteri
Dendrocalamus asper
Dendrocalamus asper f. niger
Dendrocalamus bambusoides
Dendrocalamus brandsii
Dendrocalamus brandsii black
Dendrocalamus brandsii variegated
Dendrocalamus Calostachyus
Dendrocalamus giganteus
Dendrocalamus hassakarliana
Dendrocalamus latiflorus
Dendrocalamus latiflorus var Mei Nung
Dendrocalamus maroochy
Dendrocalamus membranaceus
Dendrocalamus minor
Dendrocalamus minor var. amoenus
Dendrocalamus strictus
Dinochloa scandens
Gigantochloa apus
Gigantochloa Albociliata
Gigantochloa atroviolacea
Gigantochloa atter
Gigantochloa levis
Gigantochloa luteostriata
Gigantochloa pseudoarundinacea
Gigantochloa ridleyii
Gigantochloa robusta
Gigantochloa sikkimensis
Gigantochloa wrayii
Guadua amplexifolia
Guadua angustifolia
Guadua angustifolia cv striata
Guadua panniculata
Melocanna baccifera
Nastus elatus
Neohouzeaua sp
Otatea acuminata aztecorum
Otatea acuminata acuminata
Schizostachyzum brachycladum
Schizostachyzum glaucifolium
Schizostachyzum dumetoreum
Schizostachyzum hainanensis
Schizostachyzum jaculans
Schizostachyzum lima
Schizostachyzum lumampao
Schizostachyzum sp Murray Island
Schizostachyzum zolligeri
Thamnocalamus Spathaceus
Thyrostachys siamensis

Running Bamboo:

Arundinaria dushanensis
Chimonobambusa quadrangularis
Chimonobambusa marmorea
Chimonobambusa marmorea cv Variegata
Hibanobambusa tranquillans cv Shiroshima
Indocalamus tessallatus
Indocalamus tessallatus f hamadae
Phyllostachys aurea
Phyllostachys aurea f flavescens-inversa
Phyllostachys bambusoides
Phyllostachys bambusoides cv Castilloni
Phyllostachys bambusoides cv Castilloni-inversa
Phyllostachys elegans
Phyllostachys flexuosa
Phyllostachys humilis
Phyllostachys meyerii
Phyllostachys nidularia
Phyllostachys nigra
Phyllostachys pubescens
Phyllostachys rubromarginata
Phyllostachys viridis
Phyllostachys vivax
Pleioblastus argenteostriatus
Pleioblastus argenteostriatus f akebono
Pleioblastus argenteostriatus f albo-striatus
Pleioblastus chino
Pleioblastus chino f angustifolius
Pleioblastus disticus
Pleioblastus fortunei
Pleioblastus fortunei f albo-striatus
Pleioblastus linearis
Pleioblastus nagashima
Pleioblastus pygmeus
Pleioblastus shibuyanus f tsuboii
Pleioblastus simonii
Pleioblastus simonii f heterophyllus
Pleioblastus viridi-striatus
Pseudosasa japonica
Pseudosasa japonica tsutsumiana
Sasa palmata
Sasa tsuboiana
Sasa veitchii
Sasaella glabra f albo- striata
Semiarundinaria fastuosa
Semiarundinaria fastuosa viridis
Semiarundinaria yashadake f kimmei
Shibatea kumasaca
Shibatea lancifolia
Sinobambusa rubroligula
Sinobambusa tootsik

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Alright, it's not about permaculture, but it's the only poem I know, and I love it:

There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.

The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

But in my spirit will I dwell,
And dream my dream, and hold it true;
For tho’ my lips may breathe adieu,
I cannot think the thing farewell.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Progress update: Work on the Barnes home

I'd published earlier the draft for the Barnes home in Toronto. Looking again at where I'd started:

Here is what has been happening. First, seed trays were prepared:

To prepare the ground, all pulled weeds, tree prunings and even some light waste lumber was placed on the ground, which was then treated with kelp meal as a soil amendment.

Next, the ground was watered and covered with cardboard sheets as a weed deterrent. The Portugese on the cardboard says "one tonne of paper equals 17 to 20 adult trees, 10,000 litres of water and 25% to 60% of energy."

On top of this was placed about 20 cm of hay mulch.

On top of this was placed about 3 cm of compost, except over the paths.

Finally, a 5 cm layer of woodchips was placed over everything and this was sowed with nitrogen-fixing clower as a groundcover.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Beavers and humans as groundwater rechargers

We already knew this, but it is still interesting. News from the American Geophysical Union via Eurekalert:
Beavers, long known for their beneficial effects on the environment near their dams, are also critical to maintaining healthy ecosystems downstream. Researchers have found that ponds created by beaver dams raised downstream groundwater levels in the Colorado River valley, keeping soil water levels high and providing moisture to plants in the otherwise dry valley bottom. The results will be published 8 June in Water Resources Research, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.


The researchers suggest that the elevated moisture levels found in soil surrounding the dams would otherwise require water from a very large natural flood, which they estimate as the 200-year flood, to achieve the same expansive water availability to the valley bottom. Additionally, beaver dams built away from natural river channels further redirect water across the valley, enhancing the depth, extent, and duration of inundation associated with smaller floods; they also elevate the water table to sustain plant and animal life during the dry summer season.

People achieve the same results through the use of water catchment systems including dams, swales, and gabions, which are common features of permaculture systems.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Pollution in People

The Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition has just release its study of ten Washintonians for toxins.

Among the key findings are "[e]very person tested had at least 26 and as many as 39 toxic chemicals in his or her body.... For some chemicals, the levels we found are at or near those believed to be capable of causing serious problems, such as infertility and learning deficits.... "

To read the full report, see Pollution in People.

Update: Same thing goes for Canadians.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Playing small doesn't serve the world.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God; your playing small doesn't serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
- Nelson Mandela

Friday, May 05, 2006

Patterns: The Language of Nature

Nature presents itself in patterns and patterns are the natural way for human beings to interpret the world. Facts and figures are difficult to grasp and more so to remember. We may not remember that Christopher Columbus was born in 1451, but we remember that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It is not the number we remember, it is the singsong rhyme. How many feet are in a mile? I would never remember that there are 5280 feet, but I can remember “Five to eight! Oh I’ll be late!”

“Art” was traditionally used to encode information. A modern day Westerner transported back in time to a Polynesian ship might mistakenly think that the men are really jolly sorts because they are always singing. In fact, their “singing” is really pattern-encoded navigation data.

Long before western science ever figured it out, the Anasazi developed a spiral calendar that described the wobble in the Earth’s axis of 18.6 years, which is important for understanding flood-drought cycles. Having majored in physics, I can say unequivocally that the Anasazi system is far simpler. The Anasazi system could be learnt by almost anyone, but the Newtonian description of the same thing can only be understood by a tiny number of people.

Another example of art as information is the “song map” of the Pitjantjatjara women. Today the “Aboriginal art” that is produced mostly does not encode much meaningful information, if any. The traditional pictures, however, encoded geographical information. The pictures had accompanying songs that others could use to navigate with even if unfamiliar with the terrain. (Songs have a tempo that remains highly accurate over time. This can be used to time out travel distances, and the songs themselves can encode information about the surrounding environment.)

We can group together many physical patterns under one unified pattern referred to in permaculture as the “general model.” This model resembles a tree and can differentiate into waves, streamlines, spirals, cloud forms, toroids, branches, scatters and nets. When a two-dimensional representation of the model is tessellated, or put together to make a grid, it can reveal many other patterns.


Also revealed in the general model is the Overbeck jet – a pattern that is ubiquitous in nature.

Overbeck jet evident in an embryo and placenta:

If a flow is interrupted by an object in it’s path, alternating Overbeck jets appear creating a Von Karman trail. As a flag flaps in the wind, it is mapping out the Von Karman trail created by the flagpole.

Similar to Von Karman trails are Ekman spirals, which have a significant effect on weather. They occur when wind encounters an obstacle such as trees along an edge. The wind is thrust up but cannot oscillate to create Von Karman trails. Instead, spiralling waves are created. The upward flow of air can reach 20 to 40 times the height of the trees compressing the air. This can create rain bands under the right conditions.

Patterns in flow over time are regulated by “pulsers.” Pulsers control growth – prescribing when a function is to begin and end. The Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, which creates a non-linear chemical oscillator, is an example. In it, the Overbeck jet often occurs.

Pulses in the human body control heart beat, peristalsis, circadian rhythms, menstruation, etc. Pulses out of balance are evident in fibrillation, seizure, etc.

In a system, elements have their own order. Order defines relative size and placement of elements in a system. Our bodies’ organs demonstrate order. Consider the lungs. They start with trachea which branch into the primary bronchi to the secondary then tertiary bronchi to bronchioles to terminal bronchiole to respiratory bronchiole to alveolus. It is the same with the spleen, liver, kidneys, etc. Everything has its place in the order, and the system will function poorly with elements out of their order. Catchment dams are beneficial to the environment; large valley dams are destructive. In systems containing different orders, certain species will fit in a certain order; others will not. Rainbow Darters (Etheostoma caeruleum) do just fine in a fast stream – not so well in a pond. Landscape comes in orders. Headwaters have rough, rocky soils with shrubs and hardy vegetation. Estuaries have deep sand and sediment and have a richer variety of life.

Knowing flow effects like Von Karman trails, Ekman spirals and Overbeck jets not only inspire design ideas, they offer us a way to manipulate flow with minimal effort.

The following flowforms are used to oxygenate water: