Permaculture is many things. Is beauty one of them?

Throughout my travels, I have encountered a perception that permaculture and aesthetic beauty are mutually exclusive endeavors. According to multiple sources in the public garden sector, this divergence is at least partially responsible for non-inclusion of permaculture in some public gardens, with a perception that permaculture is, whisper, untidy. Even, shhhh, messy.
In the permaculture sphere, aesthetics are rarely mentioned. Where there is mention, it is usually discussed in one of two ways. First, permaculture is beautiful based on the inherent beauty of living systems. Bill Mollison, in a 2001 interview with Scott Vlaun of Seeds of Change, says, “We do good systems and they work very well and they’re full of life. And when they’re full of life, to me, they’re full of beauty because things are happening there that you could never design.” Graham Bell, in his book, ‘The Permaculture Way,’ echoes this simply: “Every living thing has its own beauty.” Clearly there are many who recognize such inherent beauty in natural systems.

But look at any public garden and you will see that humans around the world have been cultured and accustomed to label something quite more manicured as beautiful. And by comparison, messy, untidy, and even unsightly are adjectives often ascribed to permaculture by non practitioners.

Perhaps not everyone is innately disposed to recognize such living, thriving systems as beautiful. Particularly if the function behind the system is misunderstood. Bill describes the beauty in the context of its function, and explains his understanding of the function as the reason for his appreciation of their beauty. It would be quite an interesting research project to see what the correlation is between people’s understanding of permaculture at play in a garden and their perception of its beauty.
In permaculture, as a design science based on multiple uses, all signs point back to productivity supported by ecologically sound and interconnected practices. Bell explains this in no uncertain terms. “Being aesthetic doesn’t count as a use. Looking nice,” he explains, “is not a use.” In his interview with Bill, Vlaun asks, “So when you design a garden, beauty is not the issue, its function.” To which Bill replies, “Function.”

Which leads one to wonder – Is beauty not of human use, value or function? Can we fairly discount beauty as a compelling human desire? Does it not fit in with life, love, friendship and the pursuit of happiness in the quality of life conversation? At the very least, people are at least in part motivated by beauty. Countless poems, world famous works of art, and million dollar industries based on the human desire to attain beauty can back me up on this. And public gardens are no exception. If public gardens are quite concerned with aesthetics, and permaculture is not at all concerned with designing for aesthetics, one might conclude this divergence of objectives justifies the disconnect. However if the permaculturalist is willing to embrace aesthetic beauty as but one design function among many, the path to public garden integration, and ostensibly acceptance by the public, may be quite shorter.
Compared to the potential gains, what does permaculture have to lose?

Permaculture was never meant by the its co-originators to be rendered philosophical. Rather it was designed to manifest in practical application. In this spirit, part two of this topic will be about designing beauty into the permaculture garden, featuring permaculturalist Cecilia Macaulay. Keep your eyes open!


5 responses to “Permaculture is many things. Is beauty one of them?

  1. I’m in full agreement, Erin. Beauty is important, and permaculture designers do themselves (and the movement toward more holistic ecological design) a disservice if they ignore this. When we lived at the permaculture farm on Orcas, Sam Bullock told us that he never wanted roses at their place. But Yuriko, his wife, was in love with them. He finally relented, and now they have several gorgeous thriving rosebushes lighting up their yard with blossoms, perfuming the air, and looking like they belong there every bit as much as the fruit trees, medicinal herbs, and other more “functional” plants. (and the roses provide gorgeous vitamin-C-packed hips every fall, so who says they’re not also functional?)

    But I think the detractors who say permaculture is too messy are comparing apples and oranges. Permaculture plantings will probably never look like a manicured botanical garden – that’s a very different take on “beauty” and would require more maintenance than ecological designs would permit. Permaculture never aimed to emulate this aesthetic. But compare a permaculture planting with a forest, and it will likely be a favorable comparison in terms of beauty (once the planting has matured anyway). Don’t most people who appreciate gardens also appreciate wild natural areas?

    Maybe there’s a middle ground here. If more permaculturists designed with beauty in mind as a function, and if people who tend to prefer manicured landscapes could be taught to cultivate an appreciation for functionality AND beauty, permaculture would be more likely to take off and gain mainstream public acceptance.

    Then again, acceptance into the mainstream often kills the spirit of a movement, so I’m not convinced that is what we’re striving for, but that’s a whole different can of worms 🙂

    Keep the stories and observations coming!

  2. Pingback: Cecilia’s 13 steps to creating beauty in the permaculture garden | Permaculture in Public Gardens

  3. Pingback: Cecilia’s 13 Steps to Creating Beauty in the Permaculture Garden Permaculture Research Institute of Australia.

  4. Thank you for this post, I think this is a critical issue in exciting more people about permaculture. I wonder, whether as designers we can include other aesthetics without compromising on the permaculture design. Have either of you seen permaculture design that really excite and appeal to your sense of aesthetics?

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