Permaculture’s Dogma Problem 33

imageNot too long ago, two of our most internationally renowned permaculture teachers/consultants had some vigorous disagreement on social media. Hordes of commenters weighed in on either or neither side. The explicit topic of the disagreement was the value of contour ditches  – known in permaculture as ‘swales’ – for managing water in the landscape. Are they (A) a universal solution for every landscape? Or are they (B) barely worth considering, and then only in a few limited contexts?  It’s worth reading, if you’re into that kind of thing. (If you’re on FB, you should be able to find the thread here.) In brief, Geoff Lawton occupies the position A: swales pretty much everywhere. Darren Doherty takes position B: swales rarely or never, because off-contour ripping (aka Keyline) and woody perennials make swales superfluous at best.

For what it’s worth, I’m delighted to see this discussion emerge in public. Let 100 flowers bloom, let 100 schools of thought contend, etc. Full disclosure, though: I have a lot of respect for the work of both of these men, but I tend to be put off by Lawton’s style, which I find too evangelical and too dogmatic about technique. Doherty turns up the methodical design process and turns down the evangelism to a level I can handle. Of course, like Lawton, Doherty is trying to support his family and change the world – both of which demand some level of charisma and showmanship. I don’t fault either for that.

In the FB discussion about contour ditches, I was struck most by what wasn’t discussed. The unspoken limits of the discussion highlighted how much permaculture has to learn from agroecology – in particular, how to learn like agroecology. This debate over water harvesting serves as a window onto issues that run through the whole of permaculture.

Stay with me for a minute. From what I could see (note: I didn’t comb through every single comment in the thread), all the arguments in that discussion relied on two sources of credibility: personal experience and/or the authority of one’s teacher. I find the former much more useful than the latter, but they both have some severe limitations. I did appreciate seeing comments acknowledging the absence of and the need for experimental trials of different systems. But as those commenters noted, research is expensive and time-consuming, and it’s difficult to attract research money and (thus) researchers. So while we work toward a people’s science – which I hope we are doing – we can only evaluate claims with the tools we got now. Which are, it would appear, personal experience and received wisdom.

Hold on, though.

What about learning from traditional land users and traditional land management systems?

It’s self-evident that all traditional cultures, past and present, developed systems for managing water in the landscape in some fashion. Most, if not all, did this by modifying the topography: on- and off-contour, from patch- to landscape scale. And most, if not all, did it using strategies that evolved through long-term cycles of experimentation and feedback grounded in people and place.

These techniques – outcomes of millenia of invention and experimentation – represent a massive global library of practice. More and more of that library is documented and synthesized (and available on the web). We should expect that every practice in that library is ingenious, and not one of them is perfect. As with traditional ecological knowledge generally, we can expect staggering commonalities in pattern across biomes, and wide, wild variation in detail  – sometimes from one watershed to the next! This library should be one of the foundations of our debate and experimentation vis-à-vis  water harvesting. Especially in the absence of our own rigorous documented trials, the global library is one of the very first resources we should be turning to for debates about practice. Otherwise we are left – at best – with our default mode of extrapolating wildly from anecdotal evidence across dissimilar contexts. And at worst, we’re stuck with this – ahem – fucking absurd choice over which white Australian dude figured it all out in mid- to late-20th century.

Between P.A.Yeoman, Bill Mollison, and David Holmgren (originator of Keyline planning, and co-originators of permaculture, respectively) I know that Mollison at least claimed some direct influence by indigenous land management. But for those who would claim that Mollison already reviewed and synthesized that global library for us (and that we can therefore simply rely on what he taught and wrote), I say to you: Dude. Please.

There is a wealth of information on the web about water harvesting techniques from all over the world – but if we google “swales” we’ll only find the same stuff handed down from Mollison. As far as I can tell he’s the only one who ever used that term to refer to dead-level contour ditches. In fact, throughout civil and environmental engineering literature, ‘swale’ refers to an off-contour drainage ditch. Neither is the term used anywhere outside of permaculture in connection with water-harvesting systems for agriculture. Over the (too many) hours I’ve spent searching for the precedents and parallels of permaculture practices (!), these are some of the key words that have actually been helpful:

  • ridge and furrow
  • bunds and contour bunds
  • micro-catchment
  • contour ditches or trenches
  • water-harvesting agriculture
  • runoff farming / runoff agriculture

There is a vibrant literature on these issues that you’ll never encounter if you only know the permaculture terminology of swales and earthworks. I’m far from the first to notice this. For the past few decades Brad Lancaster has built his life and career around reinventing and revitalizing the permaculture framework on water harvesting. His work is grounded in every way I could hope for: through years of personal experience and experimentation, direct contact with elders and traditional practice near and far, and familiarity with the extensive international literature on water harvesting. I’m happy to see the influence of his work growing! At the same time, we continue to see Mollison’s take on swales treated as canon to be faithfully preserved and transmitted, rather than part of a living, growing body of practice.

At the risk of derailing entirely, I’m going to indulge a fascination of mine and (hopefully) illustrate a point along the way. I’ve long been curious as to how Mollison got fixated on dead-level contour ditches, and why he adopted the curious terminology he did. In 1979, Mollison totally disses contour ditches in Permaculture Two. Just two years later in 1981 he raves about them – as swales – at the first permaculture design course in the US. What the hell happened?

Here is everything Mollison has to say in 1979 about what he would later come to call swales:

“What we tend to see [instead of effective techniques like perennials on contour and chisel plowing] are fairly massive contour trenches, allowing little soil absorption of water, creating dry strips on slopes, and exposing a great deal of subsoil; such heavy- handed approaches need massive machinery, and achieve little in the way of water control and soil improvement, compared with planned chiselling and planting, which makes a permanent and stable change on hillsides.” (Permaculture Two, p. 63)

By the time of the 1981 PDC, he is going big on swales. Here is a sample from among many comments:

“You cut shallow blade trenches on true contours, with no movement of water along the trenches. The trenches are quite broad, hardly ever less than four feet wide, and often much wider. You wouldn’t do this on a steep slope, just a moderate to shallow slope system. […] The water finds your widened areas, which are free, and soaks in, and thus charges your ground water instead of going down the hill and off the property. In three or four years, you will have 17 to 20 feet of fully charged soil. Your forest, just above your swale, is alive and has access to this water. Your forest will be alive when your neighbor’s ground water has flowed away out of sight.” (Transcript here, p. 15),

Somewhere on the road to Damascus Wilton, New Hampshire, the scales fell from his eyes.

He may have had his revelation (as so many do) in California. In that 1981 PDC Mollison speaks very admiringly of the naturalistic swales used in the stormwater management system at the famous Village Homes development in Davis, CA. He summarizes here:

“This system exists nowhere that I know of except in the village project at Davis, California. Here they sit on a plain near Sacramento, and because of swales the place is an oasis in a desert of disaster.” (ibid.)

Evidence suggests that Mollison learned the term swale on his visit to Village Homes, around 1980, from the very man who designed the development – Michael Corbett. Mollison as much as tells us so – by accident – ten years later. In 1991, on the Urban Permaculture episode of his Global Gardener series, Mollison takes us on a tour through Village Homes.  During this tour, Mollison credits Corbett for reviving the word swale from Old English. It’s easy for us now, with the web at our fingertips, to disprove this rather fanciful idea: the word was used throughout the 20th century to describe wet, generally linear, depressions in the landscape. But more importantly, at the time of Corbett’s work on Village Homes, the term was in regular use in the civil engineering disciplines, in just the way it is now: referring to a drainage channel. This makes some logical sense of course: Corbett had to wage a lengthy struggle to get official approval for his forward-thinking design. He may not have succeeded in that struggle if he insisted on using obscure Old English terminology to explain his ideas.

But whatever Mollison’s ideas about the origins of the term, it’s clear from his statement that he first heard it from Corbett. The tragicomedy of this connection is that the swales of Village Homes were not on contour. Like most engineered swales, their slope was shallow enough to perform infiltration functions, but steep enough to perform the functions of drainage and diversion. In this way, Corbett was using ‘swale’ in the conventional and accepted sense. Many references to swales in Corbett’s Designing Sustainable Communities make that clear that they were flowing – not static. Here’s one example:

“[Our storm runoff] finds it’s way into attractive, meandering, creeklike shallow swales that run through the common areas behind the houses. These swales carry the water slowly to larger channels that run through the greenbelts. […] Small dams in the channels, just sturdy pieces of wood, help to slow the flow of water and prevent surges downstream.” (p. 44)

So between 1979 and 1981, Mollison learned the term swale from Corbett, and either misunderstood their basic design or decided to spontaneously appropriate and re-direct the term to describe a related but categorically distinct technique. Let’s be clear: Mollison’s body of work is full of genius and inspiration, and his contributions are truly mammoth. But he’s neither a prophet nor infallible. Permaculture didn’t spring fully-formed from his (or Holmgren’s) forehead like Athena from the head of Zeus. More to the point, permaculture didn’t emerge from a thorough review of global best practices – how could it? How would that even be possible for an institution-phobic iconoclast like Mollison? Stating these facts isn’t actually a criticism of permaculture itself – and only a rather gentle criticism of Mollison’s very human braggadocio and sometimes-slipshod scholarship. It’s a criticism of how we use and develop permaculture.

To his credit, it’s clear that Mollison himself has continued to investigate the fine details of arid land water-harvesting, and to learn from dedicated researchers in long-term research projects – as shown here – who are in turn studying traditional land management. But the permaculture movement remains saddled with a tendency to view the writings of our founders as complete and infallible, and retains a dangerous weakness for fetishizing particular techniques as universal solutions. We often seem committed to an arbitrary and idiosyncratic terminology that isolates us from our natural allies and teachers around the world (don’t even get me started on ‘guilds’). And we are prone to severely undervaluing – in practice if not in lip-service – the depth and breadth of traditional ecological knowledge, and by extension overvaluing the comparatively puny and partial synthesis we have assembled.

So we come to one of the great strengths of agroecology – and one of the things I think we should try and learn from it. Agroecology, as a discipline and a movement, was founded with the explicit aim of understanding and defending traditional and indigenous agriculture, even as we offer resources to support improvement and grounded innovation. As permaculturists think critically about where our ideas come from, we need to also think about where we want to take them. For those of us working in international development, the belief that our toolbox already contains all the best of best practices will render us incapable of the protracted and respectful observation and learning that makes the difference between grounded success and evangelical failure.

There is no shortage of innovation needed, as permaculture makes more inroads into broad-scale production. As we innovate, we would be well served to return again and again to that global library – whether we encounter it transcribed in books or embodied in communities. We need to exercise our humility alongside our critical curiosity, and learn from the incredible diversity and commonality of traditional land management strategies, experimenting and adapting over millennia.

Selected Resources:
FAO Water Harvesting Online Catalog

WOCAT publications – all highly recommended


  • Great article. I will be sharing!

    Taking things a step further…seems to me like we need to remember to look not just at ancient/indigenous peoples, but at the handiwork of Mother Nature, before we try to reinvent the wheel.

    Permaculture enthusiasts often criticize me for not having swales (of either definition), and want me to–quick!–put them in! But…the whole farm is in an extremely effective swale already–the Kansas River Valley!

    And beyond remembering to look and see if Nature has already constructed our water harvesting system for us, the other question that I feel goes unasked too much is whether there is even a problem to be solved! In the case of my farm, there isn’t. Simple as that…ground water, unlimited, from the river flowing 17′ below the surface year in, year out. Soil that drains straight down, infiltrating, perfectly, quickly…and stays at a proper moisture nearly all the time if kept covered.

    • Thank you, Natalya. I would add that careful observation of the landscape (or Mother Nature) is already part of traditional land management.

  • Holly

    This right here!!! ::sunlight emerges from behind cloud, lands on laptop:: I am so happy you have articulated what I have tried to articulate for so many years! (Not sure why I am so elated at reading thoughts that I have previously thought, haha) My initial curiousness for permaculture “science” was quickly diminished by the proselytizing of so many of the die-hards for the unfallable word of Go…..I mean, Mollison. I kinda of drank the kool-aid for a while there, doing a bit of proselytizing myself about the “founders” of permaculture, but after focusing my social justice and feminist lenses in my mid-to-late twenties, I said, wait a minute! The quote of his “This system exists nowhere that I know of except……” is a phrase that really gets to the heart of the issue for me and what I think you are trying to say later in this piece about maintaining an awareness of the limitations of permaculture and an appreciation of other schools of thought, other related disciplines and other ways of knowing. It was short-sighted of Mollison to say that since a system did not exist anywhere else to HIS knowledge, and I am making an assumption here about his conclusions, that he assumed the system did not exist anywhere else, which is likely not the case at all. Its a theme I see repeated as I’m sure you have noticed as well, hence, this article. Which I am grateful for! And your blog in general! 🙂 Have a great day, Rafter!

    • Thank you, Holly – so glad this connected for you. Excellent point about acknowledging the broad sweep of what we don’t know. Not to mention the irony that the system Mollison was describing itself did not exist at Village Homes…

  • Miroslav

    Nice article 🙂 …
    I am constantly looking for Permaculture “sacred cows”, too… and found many. But, they change 🙂
    Sharing your view on the World of Permies, there’s nothing else I can do than to accept it, as is. There must be a reason for that, as well 🙂
    By the way, do you know why Mollison and Holmgren never appeared together, since 1978? There is some information about it on the internet, but not enough…

  • Having hosted courses on water harvesting by Geoff Lawton and Darren Doherty and hosted PDCs taught by Mollison, Holmgren, Doherty, Morrow and many others we have been exposed to a huge array of opinions on how we should approach water harvesting. I too find Brad Lancaster’s work the most logical and easy to follow.

    Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Lancaster provides the backbone of the water harvesting component on all Milkwood Permaculture Design Certificate courses. Simple, principle based rather than dogmatic and extremely practical.

  • Clayton

    “How would that even be possible for an institution-phobic iconoclast like Mollison? Stating these facts isn’t actually a criticism of permaculture – and only rather gentle criticism of Mollison’s very human braggadocio and sometimes-slipshod scholarship. It’s a criticism of how we use and develop permaculture.”

    Iconoclast… really.

    Rafter, I find your braggadocio style of writing to be awful. After reading this and another piece of your work, it’s obvious that you enjoy fueling controversy and feeding your ego. Please consider writing in a more positive way that actually helps people.

    • Sorry you’re not into it, Clayton! I’m bewildered as to what you actually offended you here. But then again – despite my well-fed ego – I don’t expect everybody to be into what I do. 😉 Peace.

      • Clayton

        Perhaps I was too hard on you. I just don’t want everyone to get caught up on picking sides. We won’t get anywhere like that. I’ve seen a lot of that sort of thing lately and it’s making me frustrated.

      • Jay

        I saw nothing in this article that suggests the picking of side, rather in fact the complete opposite. From my impression of the discourse the actual aim is to promote finding your own stance on the issue and to remain open to the experience of others in the field

  • Gabrielle Harris

    As someone who dips into both learning groups (Various permaculture, Regrarians, and Brad Lancaster’s water harvesting, it was very helpful to learn about this background. Sometimes the points of argument make my head spin! And, the swale (or not the swale) road argument between Geoff and Darren was a great illustration.

  • Absolutely. Personally i like the idea of swales as a great way to draw on the land. My land has very deep soil that is very absorbant. My swaled areas are just for redirecting excess rainwater, and cleaned rainwater. Because the soil is so absorbant they are only a spade deep and one wide. They never actually fill up even though they recieve huge amounts of overflow, they just take the water further on the landscape and stop marshy areas appearing around my buildings. The appearance of reeds next to my tanks told me what was needed.

  • Excellent piece Rafter and thank you for exposing me to new areas to research. Having been introduced to the idea of sustainable farming a year ago thanks to permaculture, it is only recently that I have started to venture out and see what others from outside of the permaculture world are saying.

    Coming from the interminably wet West Wales, where I am about to start a 15 acre mixed small farm, I am a natural sceptic of the universality of ‘Swales’ (in inverted commas thanks to your illumination above) – as the last thing I want to do is to increase the water stored in my landscape! My biggest issue will be how to keep the land from being waterlogged. I want to know what is the most effective way of keeping our landscape well drained, without just dumping it straight off site, as is so often done here – which to my mind must be a contributing factor to the terrible flooding the UK suffers downstream – and something I have seen one farming magazine discuss this winter. Is there a way I can ‘slow down’ the movement of the water intelligently. I’ve always had this nagging feeling that the permaculture idea of swales probably make sense in many parts of Australia, but for the majority of the Western parts the UK I can’t see the logic. Looks like I should work my way through the research out there.

    Having just got back from spending 3 months in Australia it only reinforced that idea. I found it very interesting that at David Holmgren’s place he doesn’t have swales, and said that they are one of those techniques that get over-applied in permaculture. He didn’t believe that on his farmstead they would benefit him. On the other hand I spent a week at Geoff Lawton’s place – and I’m full of respect for the man – and his extensive use of swales and dams seems to working very well. Context is key.

  • Steph

    Thank you for this, very refreshing. I have been frustrated with the whole concept for a while. Where I live, the land is quite flat, and it seems counter intuitive to put swales in. The answer I always got ‘no land is ever 100% flat there must be a slope’ was frustrating and seemed to just lump all lands; flat-ish, light slope, and heavy slope, all together. Why yes the land isn’t flat, it drops about a few meters every 1-2km. A second answer I received ‘if it’s that flat, then you can put the swales anywhere and create a contour’ also seemed terribly wrong.
    And yes I would like to get you going on guilds. What is your opinion on them?

    • “Create a countour?” I hope no one has actually said that to you. “Dig a ditch with zero catchment” is more like it.

      As for guilds… Well. The term is unfortunate, as it’s the logical opposite of the way the term is used in ecology. I’ll be lazy and quote myself here:
      “An example of idiosyncratic use of scientific terms in permaculture is the use of the term “guild” to refer to complementary, mutually beneficial plant assemblages (Mollison and Slay 1997; Holmgren 2004; Bell 2005; Burnett and Strawbridge 2008; Hemenway 2009; Bane 2012). This is nearly opposite of its scientific meaning, which describes a group of plants that occupy a similar niche and make use of the same resources—in other words, plants that are especially unsuited to being grown in a polyculture assemblage (Simberloff and Dayan 1991).”

      That quote is from “Permaculture for Agroecology” which you can find on the Publications page.

  • Thanks Rafter for the article, the further I go in life the less interventionist I’ve become…certainly this was not true of my first decade when, like Lawton and Mollison et al. I found myself digging and planting first, being in abject sales mode and whilst not ever evangelical, was certainly very encouraging of clients to do so — that said they were up for it to as many people want to do something! This period has no doubt contributed to my reputation as a ‘doer’ and looks great in the photo gallery.

    Fukuoka’s ‘doing nothing’ philosophy has never rung truer in the nearly 31 years since I first read his work — we’ve discussed this a lot during these 2 #REX’s — the need to exert dominion and how that is expressed in #GettingShitDone

    We talked yesterday about prioritising works around a personal/enterprise transition whilst negotiating a landscape transition — again the strong tendency of the permaculturalist that I was once was to dig ponds/dams, keyline plow everything, apply mineral and biological amendments, build roads, water conservation channels and so on…since I’ve gone through my HM-stimulated reboot I’ve shaken off Permaculture and Keyline as being my dominant paradigm’s and influences.

    Through the REX experience I find myself following a pathway in which we are actively testing the #RegrariansPlatform as another integrative means to make participatory decisions that are self-determined — and in the case of the REX, highly supported and optioned.

    Thanks again Rafter, and here’s to more fearless feedback and self-regulation.

    • Thank you for weighing in, Darren. I think the convergence and integration of frameworks like permaculture and HM is very encouraging. Even if you disavow permaculture these days 😉 I’m looking forward to catching up when we can, and learning more about the new direction(s) your work has taken in the meantime!

      And more broadly, I hope it’s clear to readers that although I used the exchange between you and Geoff as an entry point, this article isn’t about either of you – it’s about all of us.

  • Very nice work. Permaculture needs more proof of concept and fewer feelies.

    I found room for improvement in your article, however.

    There is something missing in this sentence: “Here is everything has to say in 1979 about what he would later come to call swales:”

    • Nice catch, thank you! Fixed.

  • Jan Shuster

    In China they used terraces. There is a value to on contour swales, the spacing depending on the climate. The WPA during the depression used shelterbelts and I read a story about how someone out west looking at a neighbors land that was much lusher than theirs because of work some beavers did. They discovered some WPA remnants on their property and mimicked the beavers work to keep more water on their property. In the North East, keeping water on your land is less of an issue.

  • 1. While indigenous practices are worth looking at, put them in context. Slash and burn is an indigenous practice in many parts of the world. Works fine, as long as the used part has recovery time. Lots of civilizations have fallen either due to erosion, saltation, or the inability to cope with a change in rainfall.

    2. Swales, keylines etc depend on both the nature of the soil, and the rainfall patterns in your are. If you have multiple feet of course texture fast draining soil, then it doesn’t matter. Except where it is packed, it comes down and soaks in. If you have subsoil that is a brick factory waiting for a chance to spring forth, then it’s going to run off and all you can do is slow it down a bit on the way.

    If you routinely get 2 inches of rain in a day, then you have to design for 6000 gallons per acre.

    On our farm in Alberta we have had summer water runoff ONCE in 18 years. This year the opposite: The snow is gone and the dugout is still below the spillway. Normally it fills by mid March. So this summer I’m drilling another well.

  • Thom Foote

    IMO, dogmatism arises from permaculture users forgetting that permaculture is ultimately purpose and site specific.

  • Rushka Johnson

    very interesting
    Thankyou for posting.

  • Great article! Thank you for the links to research we can follow up on in our own time. I need pieces like this to forward to clients who’s list of ‘goals’ for their property includes swales… It is sometimes a challenge to convince them that swales are not necessary on their land and to redefine their goals based on the outcomes they would like to see.

  • Jason Gerhardt

    Hey Rafter!
    Always love to read your work. This brings up a topic for me that is in the heart of this essay. Dogma in teaching. As teachers (we all are in some form or another, but this may apply most to “teachers”) I so want to encourage teaching without dogma. Brad Lancaster was one of my earliest teachers and I can say he is amazing at shattering attachment to concept. He is a process person, as am I. If we get to the root of most of “permaculture” or any design methodology, it should be pointing us in the direction of processing what we experience and developing technique from there. A “swale” could work, and so could planting “on contour” depending on the designer, goals of client, resources available, intervention desired, etc. Classic, “it depends”. We need to be instructing in a way that is not based on laundry lists of what to do, but instead giving a process for how to think about what to do. It’s about how to become an organism that is intelligent, responsive, adaptive, and creative with an ecosystem, perhaps as an ecosystem. Swale or no swale, whether that’s the right word or not (and I do like to be very careful to define terms correctly, as you do) it’s a metaphor for how to think critically and openly about anything. I think the majority of students coming to me for “permaculture” have no idea about swales. They are attracted to the course because it strikes a deep level of being the kind of organism as I described above. If I boiled that instinct down to a bunch of stuff to do, then I failed their deeper yearning. That to me is what all this non-dogma gets to. I truly do love your work Rafter! Keep sharpening all our minds along with you.

    • Peter Marshall

      Dear Rafter ,

      Thanks for the lucid article .
      Modest observations from outside the Permaculture tradition .

      Our shire in Southern Highlands of NSW Australia is littered with swales , some made by the luminaries .
      Many are abandoned , few seem to contribute anything to the health of the land or the pleasure of the owners .

      Permapeople visit our very hydrated farm and ask why we have no swales . I ask why we should ? The answers confuses me .
      Apparently permaswales are built to increase water infiltration . Maybe they do , in Malaysian rubber plantations .
      But here they dramatically decrease it . The use of heavy equipment back and forth crushes our granite based clay soil to beyond its’ Coulomb plastic failure point . The soil under the swale is even more compacted than the surrounding paddocks crushed by hard hoofed stock .It becomes adobe and bakes to ceramic in the sun . Water pools in the swales and evaporates not infiltrates .
      It is then explained to me that special spike rooted plants must be seeded into the swales . These will , we are told , hammer deep into the soil and break it up . Plants roots can’t grow much in soil over 350 psi on the penetrometer so I am even more baffled to hear that they will defy their usual growth habits to try to break into oxygen free soil at 1,000psi .

      Surely such an infiltration swale depends on overland flow from up hill washing down in to it ?
      We consider sheetwash an erosion evil and just don’t allow it . If rain is absorbed right where it falls then no pricey swales required .Competent non inversion ripping is vastly cheaper and is reversible , whereas the cost of decommissioning a failed swale is at least the same as making it in the first place .
      Seems to me that a ripline is an infiltration swale every 18″ ( spacing of tynes on our Yeomans ) .That’s as far as overland flow moves on our place , then it moves underground carrying oxygen and life with it .
      On a site which was bone dry 20 years ago , rivers run again and we have 30 acres of wetland . Ripping works without big money and can be done progressively as the new owner becomes acquainted with the site .

      Every sales campaign needs a ‘hook’ and every action movie must have a McGuffin . The Lost Ark for Indiana Jones , The Maltese Falcon for Bogart , Milla Jovovich for the Fifth Element . I wonder if the overuse of swales in inappropriate places and cultures might be consultancy sales theatrics which got a little out of control ?


      • Thank you for that perspective, Peter – and to the others that commented with their experience with contour ditches. It seems clear that in biophysical terms, the performance of contour ditches (berms/bunds/basins) is determined by the intersection of soil structure, slope, and humidity. And that their appropriateness is driven by the intersection of biophysical performance and land user resources and goals.

        I would really love to see a systematic breakdown of (at least) the biophysical factors, identifying the ranges along each of those three dimensions (and their interactions) that contour ditches are more and less functional.

  • Benjamin Aaron Rosen

    This is an excellent article. Thank you for writing this. I have analogous ideas about the three ethical principles on which permaculture is build. While I think that there is much to be said for having ethical foundations as your bottom line, not profit, I am not in agreement with the way in which these three rules are treated with the fundamentalist reverence by which some people view the Mosaic Ten Commandments. Rather, I like to see an open discussion probing the ethical principles that we might use as our foundation, and a healthy skeptical look at the place of profitability in the scheme of things. There is a tension here that is widely ignored in the permaculture discourses. Let’s not make a religion of permaculture. And let’s not extract ourselves from the constraints of reality.

  • Lyndon

    Interesting read. I keep running into this division in permaculture in my area. Recently met a potential client and first words out of his mouth were “If you’re just like the last two who said completely different things but their way was the only way you can turn around”. Similar occurrences have happened over the last year. I stay off the permaculture sites because the conversations are usually argumentative about who has the “best right way” of doing something. Here in the desert I do things completely different when it comes to water collection. I don’t use Swales because in the summer monsoon they fill with silt and debris, which yes is a good thing, but not if you have to redig your Swales every year. Also, Swales are an expensive endeavor which in my opinion for this area (low income) equipment cost is better utilized toward more versatile water collection. So towards that I do what I like to call “sand wells” or “sand traps”. By identifying where the water naturally flows during monsoon rains I then excavate the “wash” about 8 ft deep, 8 ft wide and however long I need to get the proper water storage amount. It is then lined or sealed. I place a 12″ culvert pipe with holes drilled in it on end and then put in one to two feet of gravel. This is covered with four to five feet of sand and another foot or two of gravel on the top. When the rains come it hits the gravel, soaks into the sand and is then pumped from the culvert pipe. You now have sand filtered water that stays cold even in our summer heat and does not evaporate as it would when sitting in a pond or other exposed waterway. All hard surface runoff can be tied into it as well. That’s my solution here but I know it’s not exactly permaculture. But it works well so I will take it. Thanks for the article.

  • Wow!! Stimulating read. This type of critical analysis & synthesis of discussion has been a key element missing from my permaculture diploma’s action learning pathway. Thanks for a great article.

    Is the bulk of this discussion on Facebook? I found this article through Charlie Mgee, since I unplugged from the FB.

    Lastly, speaking of eclectic terminology, we call the act of “fetishizing particular techniques as universal solutions” – “permabling.” Haha! Thanks again. High five for being awesome.

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  • ☀️🌾☔️

    permaculture as the swiss army knife in the toolbox of nature co-existance
    easy to reach for but like guns to a drone fight
    each situation/moment determines
    how many swales does it take to change a lightbulb?

  • Rafter nice to chat after all the years since the PDC course in up state New York. I have always been on the ground and always will be, Zaytuna Farm my home base learning community farm and research institute training Center, mostly for permaculture project managers today. We produce a lot of films that show the obvious evidence and these are available online for all to see along with a lot wrtten articles and evidence that is relevant. The main thing we need to realise is that landscape is stabilised by trees as the major eliments of ecosystems productive or not, and Swales are tree growing systems as they should be and are intended to be in permaculture design. To stabilise our productive landscape to be truly sustainably we need 70% in forage forest cover.
    Kind Regards Geoff
    Google Swale please

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