In physics, the concept of entropy dictates that life is full of “irreversible” processes. If you throw a sorted deck of cards from the roof, recollect them in a pile and throw them again 100 billion times, they will never result in a sorted deck of cards reemerging. This observation is one way we can experience energy leaking out of a system.
The original sorting took energy in the form of thought, intention and the physical act of picking cards, considering them, turning them and placing them in the proper order. Once wind and gravity get involved, that energy is lost and your deck of cards won’t ever be resorted without intentionally putting energy back into that system.
By their nature, closed systems find resting states of lower energy. Water pools, things roll downhill, stuff cools down and rusts. Things wind down naturally. Practicing permaculture, we look to naturally occurring patterns to show us how systems form when left to their own devices. Since these systems will generally by definition be lower in energy, we can assume they will take less energy to maintain and often to implement as well.
One pattern of interest to most permies is the spiral - a circle that slowly gets smaller until it reaches an infinitely tight curve and ends in a point. It’s aesthetic, it’s fun, it’s easy to wrap your head around, easy to build and it’s found in many places naturally. It’s also extremely useful, because it’s a way to fit a lot of edge into a small amount of space, and permaculture is all about embracing edges.
A snail or a nautilus construct their shells using spirals - as they grow larger, they wrap around the shell they already have, forming a beautiful recursive arc. The rosettes of many plants, the shape of most spiderwebs, the construction of bird’s nests, weather patterns, water going down a drain, all of these form spirals because it is a simple construct that occurs easily when energy takes a holiday. Even the spiral form of our DNA gives us the ability to store 3 billion base pairs of information into a space so small it is stored inside the nucleus of every cell in your body.
Spirals also let us stack functions with minimal effort. One of the techniques we wind up showing in agricultural contexts is the herb spiral - a 3 or 4 course spiral about 1 adult’s height wide at its base that rises to a point about waist height. This provides a remarkable amount of versatility in a very compact space - northern facing slopes for shade, southern facing slopes for sun, exposure and shelter from wind, and varying degrees of moisture as water flows down it and pools near the bottom. It allows for a significantly diverse collection of plants to exist in a very close-by space, a mini herb supermarket perfect for placement right outside of a kitchen door.
Spirals can also find themselves of use as single level gardens built as islands or peninsulas in miniature. Building a double spiral, one for walking and one for planting, you can build a garden of any size where every point in it can be reached by hand, without ever walking on your growing space. These labyrinths also provide contemplative spaces to walk and consider the natural world without taking up much space.
Recent discoveries in material sciences have allowed engineers to wrap one-atom thick sheets of graphene in the shape of spirals, allowing miles of surface area to be packed into tight spaces, creating the supercapacitors that will one day replace limited use chemical batteries. Spiral conveyors move material efficiently and are long lasting. Spiral walkways and staircases can be beautiful while minimizing space and allowing more airflow through a building.
The fibonacci ratio, derived by theoretical studies of animal populations, when plotted forms a spiral - a spiral that approximates the golden ratio used by artists and designers to provide an underlying base aesthetic. People find comfort in designs based mathematically or geometrically on spirals. While the golden ratio’s existence is often intentional or outright fictional (it’s importance is held to semi-religious beliefs by some), there’s no doubt that much art, design, engineering, statistical work and scientific theories spontaneously resolve themselves around Fibonacci spirals.
The concept of the meme was developed from the postulate that societies respond to changes by building additional levels of understanding upon existing levels. Much like a snail growing in spirals around its own shell, our customs and culture is formed on top of the ruins of previous attempts at understanding and reacting to the world. Understanding this spiral nature of the human value system helps us understand how to interact with others and build resilient teams and sustainable societies.
Spirals, with both ends living off in mathematical infinity also can cause significant drains on resources and can be the result of terrible designs and natural phenomena. A spiral can result from a un-dampened feedback loop - feedback amplified indefinitely will “spiral” out of control, building each new iteration on the successive one until a system’s resources are exhausted, leading to clipping or crashing. In economics, deflation can occur when decreases in price lead to lowered production, which drives prices even lower in a vicious cycle driving poverty and misery. The trash vortex in the North Pacific, an area of floating trash the size of Texas is the result of unchecked waste production collecting at the central point of several spiral oceanic systems, constantly being ground into tiny particles and becoming an unfortunate part of our ecosystem.
As designers, we take experimentation and turn it into the practical. There is considerable room in both phases for spiral concepts, both as principles of design and as cautionary tales.
If you need to produce a Monte Carlo model of a population, and you have no baseline to start with, feeding it Fibonacci data can give you a good start. If you need a design that provides simplicity, aesthetics and ease of use, time spent working with spiral construction will often produce a good starting point. When you need to fit something compactly or ensure it is accessible from many vantage points, turn it in on itself and see where that takes you. If you want to streamline a complex procedure, try to break it down into simpler behaviours that envelop each other, reinforcing a good foundation shape and building on it to infinity.
- Observe and Interact
- Design from Patterns to Details
- Integrate Over Segregate
- Create Edges and Value the Marginal
New here? Reading “what is permaculture” will help you catch up quickly.