Oblique Gardening

I’m taking a course in permaculture design. Permaculture is a combination of “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture,” coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, but the basic tenets were developed by indigenous societies across millennia. It starts from the assumption that nature knows what it’s doing and encourages the designer to harness that momentum to human needs. Permaculture focuses on understanding environments as systems, not parts, and designing landscapes to closely mimic nature. Instead of even crop rows with one type of vegetable—like the American ideal of a farm—permaculture aims for a wide variety of plants, all interacting with one another horizontally, vertically, and over time.

What draws me to permaculture is its emphasis on making connections, among plants and among disciplines. It can be very narrow or far-reaching, from redesigning a backyard garden to creating cities and societies that are anchored in sustainability. I realize I’ve been looking for this kind of ethos my entire life. Our society is so set on specialization and myopic thinking. Permaculture pulls the blinders off.

I’ve started applying permaculture to music and audio recording. Designing a good permaculture system is very similar to a good audio mix. Every frequency, from bass to treble, sits in a specific auditory niche, and a good mix is balanced among these frequencies. Sometimes when I’m working on my own music, I’ll hear how “it needs something really treble-y.” That treble-y sound doesn’t sound very good on its own, but when it’s combined with the other frequencies, all the sounds work together in a way that’s almost magical, or like a landscape that has exploded to life after a little rain.

The permaculture design principles remind me of Oblique Strategies, a collection of prompts designed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975 to break creative blocks in the recording studio. Here are some of my favorites:

*Honor thy error as a hidden intention
*Use an old idea
*What to increase? What to reduce?
*Are there sections? Consider transitions
*Try faking it!
*Give the game away

Creative work can be incredibly frustrating sometimes, and logical thinking can actually be your worst enemy since it’s grounded in habit and the limits of knowledge. Oblique Strategies encourage lateral thinking and the breaking of habits. A little bit of chaos or randomness goes a long way, and the prompts’ gnomic nature—which you have to decipher for yourself—contributes to their use. They turn a frustrating situation back into a game and get you thinking in a more playful way. They get you back into the dirt like a kid.

And here are some of the more playful permaculture design principles:

*Observe.
*Stack elements in both space and time
*Make the least change for the greatest effect
*Optimize edge

Already, I’m thinking about how to apply these principles to the world of music, and conversely, how to draw on Oblique Strategies in my garden. That’s not what they were intended for, but that “wrongness” feels like a new Oblique Strategy. It creates the perfect amount of friction that can lead to spectacular (or spectacularly weird) results.

One of the books I read recently was Kay Larson’s Buddhism-focused biography of the composer John Cage, Where The Heart Beats. John Cage used the I Ching—basically an ancient version of Oblique Strategies—to write most of his scores (and a lot of his speeches, too). According to Cage, modern music suffered too much from the egos of the composers. There was no life to their creations, just endless logic and rigidity. You could hear their hands around the necks of every note. The I Ching offered randomness and loss of control, which is an incredibly lifelike and natural feature. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, one of Cage’s dearest teachers, counseled him that “the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation.” So that’s what he set out to do, and by doing so, he explored Coomaraswamy’s ethos of interconnection, where “art is religion, religion art, not related but the same.”

“I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases,” Cage said. “Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.” His music sounds like a natural environment: random, surprising, buzzing with the life of independent sounds bouncing off each other. His music is not “pleasing” to many because of this chaos. We’re hardwired to organize, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that need can lead to segmentation, segregation, and destruction for the sake of order. It’s how a manicured, geometric lawn turns into a lifeless, resource-sucking space. How much of the world do we not see because of this innate organization bias? How much of life goes unnoticed?

“Recognize that you don’t know where you stand, and you will begin to watch where you put your feet,” Larson writes. “That’s when a path appears.” In permaculture, this similar humility is greatly encouraged. Watch nature and work with it, don’t try to master it. Accept the randomness it gives you. Be a permanent student. All of this makes me realize how web-like our environments, interests, thoughts, and lives are. Music is nature is creativity is life—not discrete parts, but a whole. Not related, but the same.