Permaculture is a topic I have been reading about a lot over the last couple of years. I got to see some of its principles in action in a few places across England, including the Garth Hillside Community Garden in Wales (and to a lesser degree, the first Helpx place I went to in Scotland). It is basically a theory of agriculture marrying traditional practices — generally the pre-twentieth-century attitudes and practices — with modern science. It seeks to create a sustainable agriculture — permanent agriculture — by imitating natural processes and including human beings in the ecosystems. It is in many ways a garden agriculture, rather than a farming one. The idea is to have more food with less work, to share with the wild world and other people, to create beauty and bounty. It embraces ideas of stewardship, of responsibility, of reclaiming the land.
I like that it is sensible: it looks to what we can learn from old ways, and what we have learned through the wide-ranging experiments in chemistry that was the twentieth century, and what was trying to be gained in the back-to-the-land movements of the 6os and 70s, and what they were missing. Permaculture values deep thought and intelligent design over having to fix mistakes that could have been avoided. The goal is to have the waste products of one part of the system fulfill the necessary requirements of another part, rather than being waste — or needing artificial inputs.
An example I have come across recently is what’s called aquaponics. This is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics that theoretically, at least, should avoid the major problems of each by putting them together. One problem with farming fish is the sheer quantity of waste that fish make, and the exacerbation of the unhealthiness formed by keeping fish in a contained area. One problem with hydroponics (the growing of plants, usually vegetables, in a nutrient-rich solution rather than in the soil, obviously an attractive option for those of us in northern climates who still like fresh vegetables during the winter) is that the nutrient-rich solution used is full of chemical nutrients, which can build up to toxic levels, need often to replaced (thus using a lot of water), and require a lot of energy to create in the first place.
The aquaponics solution, according to its promoters, is to put these things together. The nutrient solution is formed by the water from the fish tank, pumped through the growing medium of the growing beds, broken down by the right combination of bacteria and compost worms. You still need the external input of fish food (though you could grow some of that, too), electricity for the pump, and lights for the plants through the winter, but the problem of the fish waste on the one hand and the chemical solution on the other are fixed through the combination of elements and smart design.
I should note that I have not tried this, but I do think it’s a very cool idea and intend to once I have the resources and space. (Fish are like worm compost bins or mushroom logs, not something I want in the same room I sleep in, even if they’re not actually going to do anything to me; they just wig me out a little. Dogs, certainly. Cats, no problem except that the kitty litter isn’t going anywhere near my bed, either…) I use it as an example of permaculture’s principle of finding the best use of waste — so it is no longer waste, but compost, water, energy, food. (William Morris’ principle in action! Manure becomes beautiful when it is useful?)
What, you may ask, has this to do with plotting? Well — quite a lot, I think.
You see, another principle of permaculture is the idea that things should have multiple functions — of which beauty or pleasure can definitely be one — and that each function should be served by multiple things, if possible, for resiliency, redundancy in case of any one part failing, and general strength of the overall system. This to me is what one strives for in writing, as well. Each scene — ideally each paragraph, maybe even each sentence — should fulfill multiple functions: reveal character, describe setting, reinforce (or introduce) the theme, drive the plot forward, be lovely, oh, there are all sorts of things. The strongest stories are ones where all that comes together at once; they are the ones that reward deep study, that are utterly satisfying on many levels.
This is why I love the Divine Comedy or Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (very, very different as those works are): they speak forth on many levels at the same time. You don’t need to be paying attention at each level, because the author was, and has shaped the story. I didn’t really like Herman Hesse’s Siddartha when I read it except for one brilliant realisation that has always stayed with me, that the whole book is found in the first line. The meaning of that line is not to be known until the story has unfolded out of it … but there it is.
This takes a combination of planning and inspiration and serendipity, I think; and all that is in the forming of a garden, too. Like the plants that go one way instead of another, characters take on a life of their own, the plot suddenly twists, you realise that what you thought was so is in fact something else entirely. It’s a strange feeling, the reciprocity involved in writing — as author you are both creator and somehow collaborator. In gardening it’s a lot clearer that this is so, and we have a name for the collaborator, Nature. But in both, I think, the beauty comes from the struggle to make depth and resonance out of recalcitrant parts and pieces that each have their several beauties. Combine them one way and one has a Japanese garden speaking koans; combine them another way and one has an English cottage garden speaking to us of Shakespeare and Austen.
I think that’s pretty cool.