Permaculture Designers Manual





Section 4.22 –

The Tribal use of Patterning in Permaculture

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As l travel about the world, I find tribal peoples using an enormous variety of traditional patterns.

These decorate weapons, houses, skin, and woven textiles or baskets. Many patterns have sophisticated meaning and almost all have a series of songs or chants associated with them.

Tribal art, including the forms of Celtic and ancient engraving have a pattern complexity that may have had important meanings to their peoples.

We may call such people illiterate only if we ignore their patterns, songs and dances as a valid literature and as an accurate recording system.

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Having evolved number and alphabetical symbols, we have abandoned pattern learning and recording in our education.

I believe this to be a gross error, because simple patterns link so many phenomena that the learning of even one significant pattern, such as the model elaborated on in this module, is very like learning an underlying principle, which is always applicable to specific data and situations.

The Maori of New Zealand use tattoo and carved patterns to record and recall genealogical and saga information.

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Polynesians used pattern maps, which lacked scale, cartographic details, and trigonometric measures, but nevertheless sufficed to find 200-2,000 island specks in the vastness of the Pacific!

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Such maps are linked to star sets and ocean currents, and indicate wave interference patterns; they are made of sticks, flexed strips, cowries, and song cycles (Figure 4.26).

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Pitjantjatjara people of Australia sing over sand patterns (Figure 4.27), and are able to “sing” strangers to a single stone in an apparently featureless desert.

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Many of their designs accurately reflect the lobular shapes and elaborate micro-elevations of the desert, which are nevertheless richly embroidered by changes in vegetation, and are richly portrayed in what  (to Westerners) appears as abstract art.

Some pattern mosaics are that of fire, pollen, or the flowering stages of a single plant, others are of rain tracks and cloud streets, and yet others involve hunting, saga, or climatic data.

Children of many tribes are taught hundreds of simple chants, the words of which hide deeper, secondary meanings about medicinal, sacred, or navigational knowledge.

All this becomes meaningful when the initiate is given the decoding system or finds it by personal revelation (intuition).

A pattern map may have little meaning without its song keys to unlock that meaning. Initiation can also unlock mnemonic patterns for those who have a first clue as to meaning.

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Dances, involving muscular learning and memory, coupled with chants, can carry accurate long-term messages, saga details, and planting knowledge.

Many dances and chants are in fact evolved from work and travel movements. Even more interesting are the dance-imitations of other animal species, which in fact interpret for people the postural meanings of these species, although in a non-verbal and universally-transmittable way.

We may scarcely be aware that many of our formal attitudes of prayer and submission are basic imitations of primate postures, for the most part taken from other species.

Even the chair enables us (as it did the Egyptians) to maintain the postures of baboons, and baboons were revered as gods and embalmed by the Egyptian chair-makers.

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We can remember hundreds of songs, postures and chants, but little of prose and even less of tabulated data.

Anne Cameron (Daughters of Copper Woman, Vancouver Press, 1981) writes of song navigation in the Nootka Indians of British Columbia: “There was a song for goin’ to China and a song for goin’ to Japan, a song for the big island and a song for the smaller one. All she (the navigator) had to know was the song and she knew where she was…

The navigation songs of the women on canoe voyages record “the streams and creeks of the sea” – the ocean currents, headlands and bays, star constellations, and “ceremonies of ecstatic revelation”.

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From California to the Aleutians, the sea currents were fairly constant in both speed and direction, and assisted the canoes.

The steerswomen used the (very accurate) rhythm of the song duration to time both the current speed and the boat speed through the water.

Current speed would be (I presume) timed between headlands, and boat speed against a log or float in the water. The song duration was, in fact, an accurate timing mechanism, as it can be for any of us today.

Song stanzas are highly accurate timers, accurate over quite long periods of time and of course reproducible at any time.

The song content was a record of the observations from prior voyages, and no doubt was open to receive new data.

People who can call the deer (Paiute wise men), the dolphin (Gilbert Islanders), the kangaroo (tribal Tasmanians) and other species to come and present them for death had profound behavioral, inter-specific, “pulser” pattern-understanding.

Just as the Eskimo navigated, in fog, by listening to the quail dialects specific to certain headlands, we can achieve similar insights if our ear for bird dialect is trained, so that song and postural signals from other species make a rich encyclopedia of a world that is unnoticed by those who lack pattern knowledge.

People who can kill by inducing fibrillation in heart nerves have a practical insight into pulser stress induction; many tribes’ people can induce such behavior in other animal species, or in people (voodoo or “singing“).

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The attempts of tribal shamans to foresee the future and to control dreams or visions by sensory deprivation, to read fortunes by smoke, entrails, water or the movement of serpents or to study random scatters of bones or pebbles are not more peculiar than our efforts to do the same by the study of the distribution of groups of measures or the writhing of lines on computer screens.

By subjecting ourselves to isolation, danger, and stress, we may pass across the folds of time and scan present and future while we maintain these “absent” states, as described by Dunn (1921) in his Experiment with Time and as related by participants in the sun dances of the Shoshone nation.

As we drown, or fall from cliffs, our lives “pass before our eyes” (we can see the past and future).

We need to think more on these older ways of imparting useful or traditional information, and of keeping account of phenomena so that they are available to all people.

Number and alphabet alone will not do this. Pattern, song and dance may be of great assistance to our education, and of great relevance to our life; they are the easiest of things to accurately reproduce.

Apparently simple patterns may encode complex information.

There may be no better example than that of the Anasazi Spiral, with 19 intercepts on its “horizon” line (Figure 4.28).

Figure 4.28 Anasazi Spiral

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This apparently simple spiral form is inscribed on a rock surface near the top of a mesa in the desert country in the southwest USA.

Three rock slabs have been carefully balanced and shaped, as gnomons which cast moon shadows or (by their curvature) direct vertical daggers of sunlight to the points of the spiral.

The 19 points at which the spiral intersects the horizontal axis are those at which the shadow of the moon is cast by a gnomon on the spiral, and indicate the moon elevation or 19-year (actually 18.6) cycle caused by the sway of the earth’s axis.

Thus, one simple spiral records lunar and solar cycles for the regulation of planting, the timing of ceremonies, and (as modem science has just realized), the prediction of the 19-year (18.6 year) cycle of drought and flood.

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A very simple pattern encodement thus represents a practical long-term calendar for all people who live nearby.

The Anasazi culture is extinct, and only a persistent investigation by Anna Soaer (an artist with intuitive observational skills) has revealed the significance of this arrangement.

Scientists have often doubted the capacity of tribal peoples to pattern such long-term and complex events, which in terms of our clumsy alphabetical and numerical symbols are not only forgettable, but would take a small library to encode.

The knowledge so presented is available to very few (ABC TV Science program, Australia, 20th January ’84). However, wherever tribes remain intact, there are many such sophisticated pattern-meanings still intact, all as complex and information-dense.

In the complex of time-concepts evolved by Australian Aborigines, only one (and the least important) is the linear concept that we use to govern our life and time.

Of far greater everyday use was phenomenological (or phenological) time; the time as given not by clocks, but by the life-phenomena of flowers, birds, and weather.

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An example from real life is that of an old Pitjatjantjara woman who pointed out a small desert flower coming into bloom. She told me that the dingoes, in the ranges of hills far to the north, were now rearing pups and that it was time for their group to leave for the hills to collect these pups.

Thousands of such relationships are known to tribal peoples. Some such signals may not occur in 100 or 500 years (like the flowering of a bamboo), but when it does occur, special actions and ceremonies are indicated and linked phenomena are known.

Finally, in tribal society, one is not wise by years, but by degree of revelation.

Those who understand and embody advanced knowledge are the most intuitive, and therefore most entitled to special veneration.

Such knowledge is almost invariably based on pattern understanding and is independent of sex or even age, so that one is “aged” by degree of revelation, not time spent in living (there are some very unrevealed “elders” in the world!).