Some years ago I had a weekend workshop experience with an Andean shaman from Ecuador. After lunch on Saturday, the shaman instructed us, speaking through a translator, to sit absolutely motionless—he emphasized several times the importance of not moving a muscle—and then started singing to us in his native language. He’d sing for a while and then stop and let out a drawn-out sibilant sound like a combination of a hiss and a silencing Shhhh…  Then he would begin chanting again.

This process repeated multiple times. After a couple cycles, I noticed that as he sang I could feel myself being compressed somehow, as if being hugged from all sides. Then, when he made the sound like whooshing wind that followed, I felt release. And with each release, I felt myself expand beyond my previous boundaries.

I do not recall how many of these cycles we went through, but when the shaman felt complete with that process, he gave us our next instructions: Walk outdoors and find a piece of vegetation that you find attractive and bring it back in with you. I smiled as I stood up. I smiled as I watched the other participants walking a little unsteadily toward the doors. I smiled as the floor beneath me felt a little spongy under my feet. I smiled as I emerged into the October sunshine and looked around, wondering where to go.

I found a piece of Asian bittersweet to bring back in. True, it’s a noxious invasive plant. But when I looked at it, I liked it.

About fifteen minutes later, after everyone was seated back inside the nature center headquarters, the shaman asked a very interesting question: “Look at the piece of the plant you brought in,” he said. “What gives it the form that you see? “

I looked down at the twig in my hands, bare but for tiny orange fruits dotting its terminations, and the answer to the shaman’s question was obvious. I didn’t have to think about it. It was literally staring me in the face: The plant took this form because it enjoys being in this form. The form of the plant is an outward expression of its JOY!

As I’ve reflected back on this experience over the years, mostly what I’ve focused on is the amazing shamanic prowess that allowed our teacher to bring a group of distractible, half-crazy gringos into direct contact with the numinous layer of existence through the focused power of his voice and will alone. Lately, though, I’ve been focusing on the vision itself: what does it mean if joy is the maker of a living form? How can it affect my vision and my actions to see that the living world is a visible expression of joy?

I ask because this seems to be nearly universally unseen, from sassafras trees celebrating their sassafrasiness to curly docks curling luxuriantly in their own vital exuberance. Attempting permaculture as a survivor of a culture that sees form as something disconnected from joy (or any other aspect of subjectivity) will probably devolve into folly unless this error is corrected. Let’s take a look at how this affects our thinking, and assume that what’s true of plants is just as true of animals and possibly much else.

In this culture, when we see a plant growing or a chickadee flitting from twig to twig, we see it “doing” something:

Q: “What’s that bird doing?”  A: “It’s flitting from twig to twig.”

But I doubt such a statement would make any sense from the interior of the chickadee’s experience. The chickadee is a part of the world, but it remains intimately connected with it. Each twig in each moment draws forth that bird for unfathomable reasons—perhaps partly the relative positioning of bird to branch, partly the need to spring up and take flight that is built into the chickadee’s physiology, partly the timing, but mostly the onrush of interweaving stimuli in which, as Jon Young says in his course, Advanced Bird Language, the bird is inextricably linked as both a signal responder and signal generator. So the short answer is that, like the plant, the bird is moved by the joy of chickadeeing around as a chickadee, in its chickadee way in its chickadee world. To put that bird in a cage without even a branch to hop on, for example, would deprive it of its joy.


Photo courtesy Rick Scholz

“Nonsense!” says the ogre consciousness that seems to rule these days. “That bird can learn to trudge around on the floor of the cage the way sensible birds like chickens and turkeys do—if I allow them to do so, that is, before I eat them.”

The result of this kind of thinking, if we can call it thinking, is that the songbird thus treated would most likely sicken and die. But even if it should live on somehow, this much is for sure: It would be less of a chickadee. Deprive a living being of the opportunity to inhabit its form with joy, in other words, and its form would begin to weaken and possibly dissolve altogether.

We have a habit in this culture of denying subjectivity and creating a picture of the world through a grammar that by its very structure misrepresents it. To its credit, permaculture takes the dualities of noun and verb, actors and actions, people and landscapes, and tries to pull these into a better unity, its focus on relationships and dynamics replacing reductionistic cause and effect. But as a design science, permaculture is going to fall short if it focuses merely on form and not on what fills it, even if it brings in the moral dimension as part of the design process. What really distinguishes successful permaculturists is their joy in being part of this process, which is to say—in being. That joy is as much a part of their designs as is the joy within my sprig of bittersweet.

And, if there is truth in my perception that the quality of joy infuses and gives form to the living world—from sassafras trees to chickadees—it follows that it would also apply to people. One logical consequence of this would be that those who most fully inhabit their joy are also most fully present on the planet, and the best in-formed. Conversely, those who are not in their joy are not fully present. Note that joy does not preclude suffering. In fact, what I’ve seen is that only those who connect most deeply with their joy have the strength to suffer, to overcome obstacles, and to feel most deeply into the troubles of this world in their search for new ways.

For all of these reasons, the connection between being in joy and being truly present would seem to be enormously consequential. It throws into the open and validates the deep desire of many of us for a way of being in the world that really works, one that feels good on the inside and which does not amount to a continuous assault on our sensibilities. As a culture, we tend to ignore this desire, or worse, we get it backwards, and the forms we create are actively hostile to life. But we won’t be able to design healthy systems unless we really show up, and we cannot really show up unless we find our joy, more fully inhabit our forms and thus better connect with the living world around us.