Observation is the Key


“When trying to determine whether crops can be grown without fertilizer, one cannot tell anything by examining only the crops. One must begin by taking a good look at nature.” – Masanobu Fukuoka

As gardeners and farmers we would all benefit by keen and persistent observation of natural processes, events and elements in connection with the ecosystems in which our land is situated.

Here in the Shawnee Hills of Southern Illinois, at Dayempur Farm, we are experiencing a warm February as light southerly breezes carry a whisper of spring across the sixty acres we call home. The Shawnee Hills, also known as the Illinois Ozarks, are primarily a sandstone/limestone escarpment that arises near Mt. Vernon, Illinois and falls off gradually toward the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. A meeting ground of several ecosystems, including the Eastern Woodlands, Ozark Plateau and the northern most boundary of the Gulf Coast, the Shawnee Hills contain some of the most spectacularly diverse plant and animal landscapes in the United States, including 225 species of trees and over 100 species of mammals. Situated on the Mississippi Flyway migration route, an abundance of water and vegetation attracts 325 species of birds annually. As I stand on the ridge overlooking our farm, the last leaves of autumn cling mercifully to near bare branches: walnut, oak, maple, redbud, pecan, cherry, pear, peach, basswood, hazelnut, chaste tree, persimmon. A brisk late autumn rain recharges the ground and aquifers and echoes the renewal of the year next spring. The constant chopping and chipping of a pileated woodpecker makes sawdust and a meal of an old walnut branch. Two deer stop to listen. The cat chases a chicken around the yard. A great blue heron searches the pond from up on high. The turtles are already at home in the mud of winter. They will stir only when the sun rises higher in the sky at spring.

On a farm the change of seasons penetrates deep into the bones. Those of us that work the land spend most of our days out in the elements. Our bodies are like tuning forks tracking the heat, humidity, rain clouds, winds, the first frosts of autumn and the winter chill. When the snow quietly blankets the land we know intimately that the tracks imprinted on the pure white landscape will soon melt into spring and hasten the seed to its ultimate fruition.

A year on the farm is a year of constant change. The microcosm of the natural world is unpredictable. But we can always rely on the greater cycles of the seasons. We know that the sun will beat its path across an arc that is predictable. Though, what the weather will bring, we can only guess. We can attempt to read the signs, we can lay out our plans, and we can proceed with our work, but we must keep all of our senses open, our minds clear. We must stay present to the changes in air pressure, the shapes of the clouds, the levels of humidity, the movement of water and wind. To become efficient cultivators of the soil and caretakers of plants requires single-mindedness, focus and patience. We are part and parcel of the natural ebb and flow. What may appear chaotic in the natural world has an underlying logic all its own.

In the greater context this year is no more significant than any other year. It is simply that we, those that work the land, become more aware of the intimate metamorphosis through time and the more intimate metamorphosis of the way all life is in constant communication. Through observation we come to see the subtleties of the land and what we need to do in order to raise yields and the overall abundance that the land can provide. Abundance is not simply about raising crop yields. It is about reaping the infinite resources of our hearts, minds and bodies in sustainable and harmonious ways. It is about enjoying the fruits of our work with the larger community and aligning ourselves with an ethical basis for all we do. The land is a unity, everything working with everything else. There is no waste in the natural order of things. The economy of nature is such that life and death will always continue. Everything is food and sustenance for everything else, and we, as caretakers of the land, must consciously see to it that this ongoing process of death and renewal is not interfered with. We cannot “grow” anything. We can only nurse what is already there by consistently balancing all the elements and providing the platform for the Grace of Life to work its magic.

An astute Permaculture practitioner utilizes observation as the essential foundation of farming practice.

In essence, the guiding principle lies in the “connections”, or relationships, set up between all the elements in the landscape. Bill Mollison, the founder of Permaculture, has said: “Design is a connection between things. It’s not water, or a chicken, or the tree. It is how the water, the chicken and the tree are connected…as soon as you’ve got the connection you can feed the chicken from the tree”.

Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher, scientist and educator, introduced Biodynamic agriculture to a group of farmers in 1924. He often discusses the idea of a “farm organism”, a system of interlocking facets combining minerals and soil, plants, animals, humans and planetary forces. Form evolves through an integration of earthly and cosmic forces that give shape and meaning to the way we view and experience all the varied elements in our farm landscape.

John Jeavons, a student of Alan Chadwick and the Bio-intensive system, has spoken of his application of personal experience and observation garnered from native farming techniques from around the world (i.e. planting in raised beds, planting close together in a hexagonal pattern, thus creating a living mulch and higher yields per square foot than in conventional linear fashion).

Masanobu Fukuoka, a plant and soil biologist from Japan, and the author of “One Straw Revolution” and “The Natural Way of Farming”, came to an understanding of natural farming after inheriting his father’s orchards. He observed that the fruit trees were weak and diseased, after years of unnatural pruning practices and chemical applications, causing severe soil debilitation. He elected to allow the trees to run their natural course and die off, much to his neighbors’ chagrin and disbelief. After setting up a no-till, rice and legume rotation that he based on years of observing the natural world, his grain, bean, fruit and vegetable poly-culture produced exceptionally nutritious and healthy yields with some species reverting back to the form of their wild ancestors.

Observation in an on-going basis is tantamount for the novice square-foot gardener as well as the soybean farmer on ten thousand acres. Complete immersion with all of our senses in the natural world will teach us more than years of book study. With patience and persistence we become not only master gardeners and farmers, but masters of life as it is given in each and every moment.

The first steps toward sound observation on the farm obviate these questions: What is the lay of the land, the wind and weather patterns, mineral and soil constituents, the health of vegetation and its location in the landscape? Where is the insect and animal life taking place? What are the native plant guilds? How does the water move and flow? What are the natural cycles and how do they give shape to the land? What are the smells that waft up as we walk about? How does the soil feel when we rub it between our fingers? Do we notice temperature fluctuations in different areas of the farm or home? How does the ground feel under foot? Rock hard? Springy? Soft?

Rudolf Steiner always stressed viewing things with the eye of an artist. As we walk and examine the landscape we are constantly looking for significant and tell-tale shapes, colors, textures, edges, negative and positive spaces of figure and ground, relative layering of plants in vertical and horizontal dimensions. It’s as if the landscape were a giant canvas supported by an underlying design matrix that is constantly shifting with the seasons, weather and natural cycles that carve and sculpt the farm with an awesome dance of form and function.

In Permaculture, we are constantly on the lookout for general patterns that shape events, complexing, compaction and the loosening of components that are all working together in scintillating and diverse edges and boundaries. We consistently ask ourselves how things branch, flow, how things relate to one another, what eats and what provides food. We might ask: toward what goal does each process in this web of life and death move? Patterns emerge and shape our awareness. We begin to notice orders of magnitude from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, the cause and affect relationships of each and every being in the inevitable cycles of birth, life and death. We notice how the white tail deer moves about in small herds from tree stand to tree stand. If we sit quietly and watch long enough, we witness other animals using the same trails, following the path of least resistance. We observe that some of these trails lead to the edges of our fields. We awake one morning to find that our five, one hundred foot rows of healthy Swiss chard have been decimated to level ground. The deer tracks circle around and exit the same way they arrive. Upon further inspection we see fresh deer scat. All the signs are there for the taking. As we look closer we notice worm castings that look like miniature deer pellets in long chains knit together in a variety of patterns. We see earth raised in sinuous mounds where moles have tunneled underground. Over here is the casing of a strange insect stuck to the fence post. Cicadas? The more we look the more we see, the more we begin to paint a picture of how things move and flow over and under the landscape of our farms and homes.

As we collect more and more information from our observations, and as we analyze and diagnose the plusses and minuses of our landscape, thoughts about how we design and manage our land-base, our sights turn more readily to processes and connections. We begin to notice that isolated events do not exist, that everything in the landscape is about relationship. What we deduce from our study of nature will guide us successfully in the way we set up farm and land management: our soils, composting techniques, mulching, tillage and cultivation, greenhouse design, construction and operation, rotations, seed and crop selection, irrigation, microclimates, hedgerows and shelter-belts, house placement, energy resources, building materials and ultimately, our lifestyle choices. How do our ideas coincide with nature’s pattern and flow? How can we fit in successfully so that the health of our farm or garden reflects the health of the surrounding habitat? Is it mutual give and take, or do our practices cause injury to the natural succession and growth in the local bioregion?

Zone and sector analysis, the two mainstays of Permaculture, provides us with circular models for observation and planning. Zone 0 is where our house stands, the area of most frequent activity. Zone I contains kitchen gardens, sitting areas, miniature fruit trees, the chicken house, any element in the landscape that will be visited at least once, and probably more times, on a daily basis. As we move concentrically from the center of the circle outwards, orchards, vegetable and grain fields, large animals, tree cultures and forests fit into zones based on the frequency of visits we make there for work, study and play.

Sector analysis gives us the opportunity to place seasonal movements of sun, wind and weather patterns onto a circular map that reveals subtle directional nuances of incoming and outgoing natural energies and events. If we extend the circle outward even more we end up in the planetary and starry realms. The movement of the planets and stars has a profound effect on the magnetic and etheric matrices of our land. Rudolf Steiner relates how the outer planets, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, stimulate underground (root zone growth forces), and the inner planets, Moon, Mercury, and Venus, affect the process of growth above ground. The Sun acts as mediator between the two.

The possibilities of making detailed observations are numerous. Through a synthesis of the information we gather, from ongoing awareness and focus, we detect patterns within which we proceed with our hands-on practice of gardening and farming. With perseverance we inevitably acquire the means and know-how to augment yields for personal pleasure or for market. The quality of our crops will demand a high price at the roadside stand, the farmer’s market, the local food co-op or the supermarket shelf.

“We need to learn everything we can about gardening- we need to become biologically literate” (John Jeavons). The way leading to “biological literacy” begins and ends with how we walk the earth, how we feel, sense, interpret, integrate what we take in with what is already there in our experience. And, observation is the key.


  • Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, 1988. Tagari Publications. Tyalgum, Australia.
  • Mollison, Bill. Introduction to Permaculture, 1991. Tagari Publications. Tyalgum, Australia.
  • Fukuoka, Masanobu, The Natural Way of Farming, 1993. Bookventure. Madras, India.
  • Fukuoka, A One Straw Revolution, 1978.Other Indian Press. Goa, India.
  • Jeavons, John, How to Grow More Vegetables, 2002. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.
  • Steiner, Rudolf, Agriculture, 1993. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Inc. Kimberton, Pennsylvania.
  • Storl, Wolf D, Culture and Horticulture, 1979. Bio-Dynamic Literature. Wyoming, Rhode Island.
  • Shapiro, Howard-Yana and Harrison, John, Gardening for the Future of the Earth. 2000. Bantam Books, New York, New York.