Permaculture Designers Manual



Section 3.3 –

Observational Design by expanding on direct observations of a site

Unlike the preceding analytic method, this way of arriving at design strategies starts on and around the site.

Short practice at refining field observation as a design tool will convince you that no complex of map overlays, library, computer data, or remote analysis will ever supplant field observation for dependability and relevance.


Observation is not easily directed, and it is therefore regarded as largely unscientific and individualistic.

Process and events, as we encounter them on a real site, are never revealed just by maps or other fixed data. Yet it is from the observation of processes and events (such as heavy rain and subsequent run-off) that we can devise strategies of “least change”, and so save energy and time.

No static method can reveal processes or dynamic interactions.


A camera and a notebook are great aids to observation, allowing a re-examination of information if necessary. A good memory for events helps. Video recorders are very useful to review processes.


How do we proceed? As we approach the problem, we can adopt any or all of these attitudes:

  1. A CHILD-LIKE AND NON –SELECTIVE APPROACH, in which “I wonder why…” may pre-face our actual observation.
  2. A THEMATIC APPROACH, where we try to observe a theme such as water, potential energy sources or the conditions for natural regeneration.
  3. AN INSTRUMENTAL APPROACH, where we measure, perhaps using equipment, a factor such as temperature gradients, wind, or reflection from trees.
  4. AN EXPERIENTIAL APPROACH, using all our senses as our instruments, trying to be fully conscious both of specific details, sensations and the total ambience of the site.

In order to develop a design strategy, possible procedural stages are as follows:

  1. Make value-free and non-interpretative notes about what is seen, measured, or experienced, e.g. that “moles have thrown up earth mounds on the field.” Make no guesses or judgments at this stage (this takes some discipline but gets a lot of primary data listed).
  2. Later, select some observations which interest you, and proceed to list under each of them a set of SPECULATIONS as to possible meanings: e.g. (on the moles).
  • That molehills are only conspicuous on fields, and may actually occur elsewhere.
  • Or that they occur only on fields.
  • That fields are particularly attractive to moles.

And so on.

Many speculations can arise from one observation! Speculations are a species of hypothesis, a guess about which you can obtain more information.


To further examine these speculations, several strategies are open to the observer:

3. Confirm or deny speculations by any or all of these methods:

  • Library research on moles, and even on allied burrowing species (e.g. gophers).
  • Asking others about moles and their field behavior.
  • Devising more observations on one particular THEME just to test out your ideas.
  • Recalling all you know about moles or allied species in other areas or circumstances.

This process will start to further elaborate your knowledge of an existing and specific site characteristic, and may already be leading you to the next step:

4. Examination of all the evidence now to hand:

  • Have we evolved any patterns, any mode of operating?
  • What other creatures burrow in fields and are predators, prey, or just good friends of moles?

Now, for the last decisive step:

5. How can we find a USE for all this information?

What design strategies does any of it suggest?


For example, we may now have found a lot of data on burrowers and fields, and look upon the mole (if mole it is) as a fine soil aerator and seed-bed provider, and therefore to be encouraged – or the very opposite.

We may have discovered places where moles are beneficial, and places where they could well be excluded.

Or possibly they are best allowed to go their way as natural components in the system. Methods of mole-control or data on how to prepare moles for eating may have surfaced, and so on.

As the research and observation phase (plus others’ observations) goes on, the mole will gradually be seen to be already connected in one or other way to worms, upturned soils, fields, lawns, gardens, pastures, water percolation and even perhaps soil production.

Dozens of useful strategies may have evolved from your first simple observations, and the site begins to design itself.

You may begin sensible trials to test some of your hypotheses.

Some cautious trials and further observation will, in time, confirm the benefits (or otherwise) of moles in the total system or in specific parts of it. A great deal of practical information will be gathered, which will carry over to other sites and to allied observations.


A study of earthworms may have co-evolved, and the disconnectedness of natural systems has become evident.

No analytic method can involve one in the world as much as observation, but observation and its methods need to be practiced and developed, whereas analysis needs no prior practice and requires less field research or first-hand knowledge.

As an observer, however, you are very likely to stumble on unique and effective strategies, and thus become an innovator!

The uses and strategies derived from observation, experience or experiments on site the basic tools of aware, long-term residents. A set of reliable strategies can be built up, many of them transferable to other locations.

Here, we have used nature itself as our teacher. That is the greatest value of nature, and it will in time supply answers to all our questions.

Thus, the end result of systematic observation is to have evolved strategies for application in design.

A second and beneficial result is that we have come to know, in a personal and involved way, something of the totality of the interdependence of natural systems.