In one of my first posts I promised to look at the various Principles of Permaculture in greater detail. Today I want to analyze two principles listed by my PDC teacher Scott Pittman, which interestingly neither Mollison nor Holmgren used as separate principles in their sets, even though they both keep referring to them throughout their works as important aspects to an efficient design. These two principles are essentially opposite sides of the same idea: every function is served by multiple elements and every element serves multiple functions, or more concisely: stacking functions and stacking elements.
What Do We Mean by Elements and Functions?
Elements are parts of a system. They can be plants or animals (wild or domestic), structures (greenhouse, driveway, rainwater tank), or even established systems (chicken orchard, fishpond). Functions are everything an element does, independently of whether we like it or not. So yes, the wild hawk flying over our farm on occasion is an element, and among its functions is to take our chickens. At the same time, I should point out, the same element also serves other functions that may be more desirable for us, for example keeping the rodent population in check.
As a good friend of mine once pointed out, elements have by nature many functions, and normally there are many elements fulfilling a certain function. There is really no need for us to “make them” fulfill a certain one in our design. Either they do it or they don't. Our job is to recognize this, and connect them to each other. That way we can get the most out of our design for the least effort (which interestingly is Mollison's principle of maximum effect for minimum effort - more on that later).
The two most frequently used examples to illustrate these principles are that of a tree and water. Let's consider the tree first as an element. What are it's functions?
- Fruit (for us, or for our livestock, or both)
- Foliage for the soil (especially in case of deciduous trees)
- Produces oxygen
- Slows down the wind
- Reduces the impact of rain
- Provides shade
- Offers habitat to birds, insects, small mammals etc.
- Offers food to creatures directly (fruit, leaves, wood, pollen)
- Offers food indirectly (predators eat those who feed on the tree)
- Roots protect soil from erosion
- Regulates evaporation
- Offers wood for construction, furniture, tools, instruments, firewood
The list could go on and on. We can even include things like a place to hang your hammock, or build a tree house, or simply beautiful to behold. Functions everywhere! Even once it's dead and gone, the remaining stump can serve to feed mushrooms. Amazing all the things a tree does! So we better not ignore all these functions. If we just focus on the fruit or the wood, we'd be wasting all the effort the tree is already providing, and we'd have to include other elements to serve them. Sure, it's possible, but at the cost of efficiency.
Water is an excellent example to illustrate stacking elements. It is one of the most vital elements needed by most other elements, including ourselves. So where does our water come from? Let's say there is a good well on our property. That should be enough to cover all our needs, which is nice. On the other hand, if we are 100% dependent on the well, it is not that great. This is where stacking elements comes in. Could we cover our water needs from additional elements?
- Rainwater catchment
- Surface water (from a nearby stream, for example)
- A small-scale solar desalination system (if you're by the sea)
- Gray-water filter
Once again, the list can continue infinitely, potentially including such things as catching condensation from our greenhouse windows, or even being connected to the water main. Some people may regard this last one as something to be rather avoided, but in combination with other elements it will reduce dependence on any one element, which is the idea here.
What's important with both stacking functions and stacking elements is our creativity. Just by having an element in our system gives us a number of functions. As good designers it is up to us to recognize these and connect them with the needs of others. The same is true vice versa: A need is potentially already served by several elements. We just have to recognize them and make the necessary connections in our design.
Creativity erm... let's see some more examples:
Finally, to give one last example on stacking elements, let's see an example that's not related to gardening at all:
Consider Earning an Income:
For most people with a regular day job the answer will be one place of employment where they spend most of their waking hours at one type of activity. Just like with the well, this job may be paid sufficiently to cover all expenses. In fact, in the case of highly specialized professionals it may pay more than any combination of other elements. Still, relying on only one source of income makes us dependent on it. Having two part-time jobs is a bit more stable, of course at the cost of double the hassle that comes with it. If you are like me, you may not have any regular employment at all, but offer certain goods and/or services. In my case these include language classes, translating / proof reading gigs, as well as home made soft-drinks and spirulina products for the producers market. Additionally you may have some passive income coming your way in form of royalties to a book you've written, or from renting out a property. Though none of these apply to me, I do count my trading of crypto-currencies, and the rewards from posting on Steemit. While some of these elements may be close to insignificant in terms of financial yield, they all contribute to the end sum, which could even rival the aforementioned day job.