I was picking stinging nettles the other day, wanting to get my fill of them before their season is over. I was also hurrying a little, feeling in a rush, feeling the pressure to go faster, do more, be somewhere. My mind was not on what I was doing. I had one hand snipping with scissors and one hand holding a bowl, positioning the two elements of the operation in such a way that the nettle leaves would fall into the bowl without dropping on the ground, or stinging me. Reaching into the patch with the bowl hand to catch what I was snipping, I was paying attention only to the juicy nettle leaf-bud I was reaching for, and not to my situation, my environment. Focussing too much on my snipping hand, I stuck my bowl-holding hand into the front of the nettle patch where I’d already snipped.
I felt myself brush the nettles and yanked my hand back, suddenly present again. I dropped some of my haul, and clutched at my hand reflexively before I realized that I hadn’t been stung. The nettles gave me a gentle reminder to get my head in the game, just enough to startle me but not enough to sting. It was also maybe a warning shot, too: pay attention to us, be grateful for us. Don’t just treat us as though we’re here for your use and forget about us once you’ve gotten what you came for.
The lesson of the nettles has stuck with me, especially since I’m playing a game about Permaculture principles with the students in the Permaculture Design Course that I’m teaching right now at the Richmond Sharing Farm. Everyone is responsible for one of David Holmgren’s 12 Permaculture Principles, to watch for, share observations about, and to speak for in the learning communtiy that we are building together. Each person takes on learning deeply about their one principle, and reporting back to the group what they learn and helping others learn better about the principle that they are studying for us. It’s a collaborative learning game where we get to build our group wisdom together and benefit from putting our learning energy together, and at last week’s class we started our circle with an observation or story about our principle. I shared the story of the nettles as an example of the principle “Self-Regulate and Accept Feedback.”
In ecosystems, feedback cycles act to keep the system in balance. They prevent the overuse or misuse of resources and energy, which negatively impact the system’s ability to perpetuate itself. Feedbacks can be positive, speeding up a process, or negative, slowing it down. When a disturbance like a fire or flood causes a forest to revert to a grassland, it introduces a habitat that attracts grazing animals. These grazers help keep the habitat the way that supports them by the action of their grazing, rolling, and the trampling that results from their moving through. Because these actions nurture grasses but are detrimental to trees, they prevent the succession back to forest and create a positive feedback where grassland brings grazers which in turn help maintain or even spread the grassland. Likewise, the predators that prey on the grazers apply negative feedback by “culling” some of the population, preventing it from ballooning beyond the land’s ability to sustain it. The population levels of the prey also control the predator populations, too, because too few prey will lead to starvation among the predators, another layer of feedback, this time of the negative variety. Many different overlapping systems of positive and negative feedback keep self-managing systems functioning.
I like this quote from David Holmgren, which sums up nicely the concept of feedbacks and how they work in ecosystems, and in Permaculture design:
“Organisms and individuals adapt to the negative feedback from large-scale systems of nature and community by developing self-regulation to pre-empt and avoid the harsher consequences of external negative feedback.”
A feature of feedbacks that effects their functioning is how tight the feedback loops are; how quickly the feedback mechanisms respond to pressure, and how easily their signals get through. Both the feedback I received from the nettles and my response to it were quick because the nettles were right there in front of me. I’m grateful to the nettles both for feeding me, and for the reminder to be present and mindful of what I’m doing — and also for applying the feedback I needed without stinging me! Such a small reminder of limits is all it takes when the feedback loops are tight, when the elements interacting are close to one another. Unfortunately, our industrial food system puts so many steps between us and our food that we don’t receive the signals until they approach a level of direness that can reverberate across a continent, or even across the world. By the time they get that big, much of the damage that is potential in our actions has been done, before we get a chance to apply self-regulation and check ourselves.
Here in this protected little corner of the world, where life giving water is just falling freely from the sky as I sit here writing, many people are fairly insulated from the feedback our ecosystem is giving us. This insulation is not ecological, but rather social — or maybe it’s better to say that it comes from our social ecology, not our phsyical ecology. Our food comes from “somewhere,” our water appears magically from the tap and the lights come on when we flick the switch. Our trash goes “away” where we don’t have to look at it. A person or a culture without tight feedbacks loses a sense of the sources and sinks of its energies and resources.
All this diminishes our capacity to self-regulate, atrophies our skills at observing our environment, and also ourselves. Our relationships to other elements in our social and physical ecology is how we know who and where we are, and when we lose those we lose ourselves. We cease to pay attention to our body’s feedbacks as well, pushing ourselves beyond our capacity to replenish our resources. We inflict upon ourselves and others a set of expectations which Ursula K. LeGuin amusingly and astutely calls “Ethicus Laborus Puritanicus, also known as Adam’s Disease,” pushing ourselves always to produce more and do more and accomplish more because we are not conscious of all that we are wasting. Our feedbacks aren’t tight enough to provide us information about all the abundance that we are wasting or destroying, be it abundance of natural capital or abundance of our personal energy and power, and so we trick ourselves into thinking that we live in a world of scarcity. This culture of separation also trains us to think that the power to effect the world does not lie in our hands, that our actions don’t matter — if they don’t make bad impacts, then they must not be able to make good ones either. We learn to think that our power is outside of ourselves because we don’t do things for ourselves, we never see the consequences of our actions, we never see what a huge impact we make on the world.
When I feed myself from my garden, or from the forest, my feedbacks are tight enough to remind me to observe the incredible abundance around me. I am filled with gratitude for its presence, able to see the parallels between the abundance in the external world and the abundance and power within myself, and driven to put my power to use to protect them both. By integrating myself into my ecosystem and tightening those feedback loops, I can learn how to interrupt the disease of separation that my social ecology suffers from. I can engage myself in a process of replacing that disease with an understanding of patterns that are healther, feedbacks that share vital signals and information between me, the earth systems that support me, and the human ecology that both reflects and shapes that relationship. That’s another feedback cycle, but this time a positive one; whatever kind of relationships we build with ourselves, other people, and the earth are the kinds of relationships that will perpetuate. So gratititude to the nettles, for reminding me to take responsibility for tightening my feedbacks wherever I can, so that I can learn how to build a social ecology around me that can respond effectively to our collective feedbacks before gentle reminders become big stings.