Introduction to Pattern Understanding in Permaculture

Permaculture Designers Manual




Section 4.1 –

Introduction to Pattern Understanding in Permaculture

The curve described by the earth as it turns is a spiral and the pattern of its moving about the sun… The solar system itself being part of a spiral galaxy also describes a spiral in its movement… Even for the case of circular movement, when one adds in the passage of time, the total path is a spiral… The myriad things are constantly moving in a spiral pattern … and we live within that spiral movement.

(Hiroshi Nakamura , from  Spirulina:  Food  for  a Hungry  World, University of the Trees Press, P.O. Box 66, Boulder, California 95006, USA.)

The patterns and forms of a tree are found in many natural and evolved structures: an explosion, event, erosion sequence, idea, germination or rupture at an edge or interface of two systems or media (here, earth and atmosphere) may generate the tree form in time and space. Many threads spiral together at the point of deformation or the surface and again disperse. The tree form may be used as a general teaching model for geography, ecology and evolution: It portrays the movement or energy and particles in time and space. Fetus and placenta; vertebrae and bones; vortices; mushrooms and trees; the internal organs of man; the phenomena of volcanic and atom bomb explosions; erosion patterns of wave, rivers and glaciers; communication nets; industrial location nets; migration; genealogy; and perhaps the universe itself are of the general tree form portrayed.

Simple or multiple pathways describe yin ­yang, swastika, infinity and mandala symbols. A torus of contained forces evolves with the energies of the pattern. Like the doughnut of smoke that encircles the pillar or the atomic explosion. (Bill Mollison, Permaculture One, 1978)

Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle… The Wind, in its greatest power, whirls… The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood and so is everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds and these were always set in a circle. The nation’s hoop, a nest or many nests….

(Black Elk)


Introduction to Pattern Understanding in Permaculture

It is with some trepidation that I attempt a treatise on patterns.

Nevertheless, it must be attempted, for in patterning lies much of the ground skill and the future of design.

Patterns are forms most people understand and remember. They are as memorable and repeatable as song and of the same nature.

Patterns are all about us: waves, sand dunes, volcanic landscapes, trees, blocks of buildings, even animal behavior.

If we are to reach an understanding of the basic, underlying patterns of natural phenomena, we will have evolved a powerful tool for design, and found a linking science applicable to many disciplines.

For the final act of the designer, once components have been assembled, is to make a sensible pattern assembly of the whole.

Appropriate patterning in the design process can assist the achievement of a sustainable yield from flows, growth forms, and timing or information flux.

Patterning is the way we frame our designs, the template into which we fit the information, entities, and objects assembled from observation, map overlays, the analytic divination of connections, and the selection of specific materials and technologies.

It is this patterning that permits our elements to flow and function in beneficial relationships.


 “The pattern is design, and design is the subject of Permaculture.”

Beyond the rigor of the simple Euclidean regularities beloved of technologists and architects, there remains most (or all) of nature.

Nature imperfectly round, never flat or square, linear only for infinitesimal distances, and stubbornly abnormal Nature flowing, crawling, flying, weeping and in apparent disarray. Nature is beyond precise measurement, and comprehensible only as a sensation and system.

Nothing we can observe is regular, partly because we ourselves are imperfect observers. We tell fortunes (or lose them) on the writhing of entrails or cathode ray graphics, on the scatters of dice or bones, or on arrays of measures.

Are the readings of tea leaves any less reliable than the projections of pollsters? Regular things are those few that are mechanical or shaped (temporarily) by our own restricted world view; they soon become irregular as time erodes them.

Truth, like the world, changes in response to information.


There are at least these worthwhile tasks to attempt:

1. A MORE GENERAL PATTERN UNDERSTANDING, both as attempts at forming more general pattern models, and as examples of natural phenomena that demonstrate such models.

2. A LINKING DISCIPLINE that equally applies to geography, geology, music, art, astronomy, particle physics, economics, physiology, and technology. This linking discipline would apply to conscious design itself and to the Information flow and transfer processes that underlie all our disciplines. Such a unifying concept has great relevance to education, at every level from primary to post-graduate disciplines.

3. GUIDES TO PATTERN APPLICATION: some examples of how applied patterning achieves our desired ends in everyday life, where rote learning, linear thinking or Euclidean geometry have all failed to aid us in formulating sustainable settlements. It is in the application of harmonic patterns that we demonstrate our comprehension of the meaning of nature and life.


There have been many books on the subject of symbols, patterns, growth, form, deformation, and symmetry.

The authors often abandon the exercise short of devising general models; or just as a satisfactory mathematical solution are evolved for one or more patterns; and almost always before attempting to create applied illustrations of how their efforts assist us in practical life affairs.

Some are merely content to list examples or to make catalogues of phenomena. Others pretend that meanings lie in pattern or number alone-that patterns are symbols of arcane knowledge, and they assert that only an unquestioned belief unlocks their powers.

The simple pattern models figured herein are intended to be a useful adjunct to designers and educators. They also illustrate how we ran portray our thinking about life, landscapes, and the communality that is nature.

Learning a master pattern is very like learning a principle; it may be applicable over a wide range of phenomena, some complex and some simple. As an abstraction, it assists us to gain meaning from life and landscape and to comprehend allied phenomena.

One can spend endless hours seeking further scientific, mystical, or topological insights into pattern. The process is addictive, and I am as unwilling to abandon this chapter as I was to start it, but I trust that others, better equipped, will expand and further explain the basic concepts.

I believe that it is in sophisticated pattern application that the future of design lies, and where many solutions to intractable problems may be found.

We have a good grasp on the behaviors of pattern in natural phenomena if we can explain the SHAPES of things (in terms of their general pattern outlines); the networks and BRANCHING of tributaries (gathering flows) and distributaries (dispersal flows); the PULSING and flow regulation within organisms or the elements of wind, water, and magma; and illuminate how SCATTERED PHENOMENA arise.

Further, if WAVE phenomena and STREAMLINES are contained within our pattern analysis, as real waves or as time pulses, these and their refraction and interference patterns form another set of pattern generators, responsible for coasts, clouds, winds, and turbulent or streamlined flow.

And, If we can show how the pattern outlines of landscapes, skeletal parts, or flow phenomena fit together as MATRICES (interlocking sets), or arise from such matrices (e.g. whirlwinds from thermal cells), then we can generate whole landscape systems or complete organisms from a mosaic of such patterns.

In nature, events are ordered or spaced in discrete units. There are smaller and larger orders of events, and if we arrange like forms in their orders, we will find clusters of measures at certain sizes, volumes, lengths, or other dimensions.

This is true for river branches, social castes, settlement size, marsupials of the same form, and arrays of dunes, planets or galaxies.

In the following lessons, I will try to include all this and to derive it from the basis of a single “simple” model, which, understood in all its parts, has each of these phenomena, and a great many more subtle inferences, within it.

Not all, or even many, of these shapes, symbols, symmetries, scatters, or forms will be individually described or figured here, but the basic pattern parts will be briefly described and related to each other. The basic model itself is derived from a stylized tree form.

We should not confuse the comprehension of FORM with the knowledge of SUBSTANCE – “the map is not the territory” – but an understanding of form gives us a better comprehension of function, and suggests appropriate strategies for design.

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