The Syntax of Chaos… [Print]

[Below is an adaptation of the content in the print edition of Intrinsic. See the image for what the actual layout we will send to the printer looks like now. ] 

The oil process principle

Say you are looking to buy land within the next few months. You’re weighing the options between two sites. Both green and lush, both about the same size and price. One sits on a massive reservoir of oil. Which would you choose?

Syntax> Structure or recognized pattern. In computer coding, syntax is programming language.

Chaos is what you might say made this oil a good million years back. The air at this ancient date was thick with oil. It was the air actually. Oil is hydrocarbons -hydrogen and carbon. You may recognize hydrogen as a gas, and carbon for its airy form when combined with oxygen -CO2.

Chaos> Usually implies negative, harmful disorder. Its origin in Greek is actually “gaping void,” or the unordered potential before creation. Here, chaos means neutral, natural potential and effect. It’s what happens in your absence.

An effect of higher carbon in the air is heat retention. With all the CO2 in the air, Earth was hot. The higher temperatures meant less polar ice caps and more liquid water in the ocean. Much of the world was steamy, tropical swamps and ocean.

All this oil started to trickle out of the air into a chaotic mess of plants. The plants sucked billions of tons of carbon from the air. As the plants died and sank into the watery surface of the earth, the carbon came with them.

Under the water, the carbon-rich plants sort of froze. The carbon was stuck, and became hydrocarbons. Today, these hydrocarbons come to the surface petrified as oil, coal, and the like.

So oil is actually the petrified product of fertile soils, a chaotic mess of plants, and air thick with carbon.

You would have an enormous advantage if you were looking to buy land back when oil was still up in the air. Choose a site where you could see the chaotic mess of living plants and you would ensure chaos gave you the long end of the stick. That particular flavor of chaos in this steamy world would become oil.

Oil may be an exotic resource in co parison to vegetable gardens, orchards and domestic animals. They’re just another flavor of chaos.

Do you find you are the one keeping your system from falling into an unpleasant, destructive chaos? You’re running your system on Extrinsic -resources you have to provide. Chaos is not the power source in an extrinsic system, it’s the enemy. The power source for Intrinsic is chaos -what happens without your intervention.

Chaos Ratio

Chaos doesn’t have to be destructive, does it? Chaos is just something that happens on a large scale we can’t control. Cut these events down to size, and they’re just things that happen we don’t have to make happen. They are nature’s intrinsic force.   Back in our tropical world when oil was still up in the air, what if you couldn’t get the land that already had the oil process of plants at work?   Change those conditions. Read the ratios of abundant carbon, higher temperatures, higher water levels, and plants, and you could alter the current chaos to the chaos that would result in oil.

Ratio> Usually refers to fraction -2:3 or 5:1. It also refers to calculations, or any relationship expressed through numbers. Here, it’s a reference for what nature makes happen in relation to what you make happen -Chaos:Organized System

If you make a change, is that change extrinsic or intrinsic? Extrinsic of course. But if that change becomes intrinsic, you have a ratio of extrinsic input : intrinsic value.   Right now, you are in the chaotic past that could become a future of Intrinsic resources. The future is still up in the air. Chaos Ratio is the bridge between resources you have to maintain to resources that are intrinsic. Chaos ratio is a progression from one to the other. The bridge comes from what I call the levels of chaos.

The Levels of Chaos Ratio

The concept for Chaos Ratio has its roots in Mollison’s Zoning Principle. Mollison’s Zoning Principle states that parts of a system that require work should be close to where you live. Parts of a system that need more work are closer, and parts that need less work are further.

The closest zone to where you live and work is called zone 1. The zones in-between are for elements with progressively less frequent maintenance and harvest.  Zone 5 is usually considered wilderness, or wildcrafting areas at best. 

Mollison suggested these wild areas as inspiration for more efficient nature-mimicking designs in zone 1. The goal is to make everything in zone 1 flow as smoothly as it does in this zone 5, untamed nature where you do nothing.

Chaos Level 1

I used these zoning principles to a degree when creating my food forest, Mortal Tree. I placed vegetable gardens in the front/center of the hillside where I entered daily.

I was mulching to remove grass and weeds and add fertility per the usual permaculture approach. Mollison always inferred that the newspaper and manure mulch for zone 1 would come from off site.

At the time I didn’t call on-site resources intrinsic. But you can see, I have been after this ideal from the start, and am quite satisfied with what I have found.

The first is a method for managing zone 1 I call Group and Conquer. This entailed mowing the mess of long grass and weeds in my zone 5 to use in zone 1 for mulch. I didn’t have much of a zone 2, 3, 4. My system jumped from 1 to 5.

By grouping a large area of scant grass and weeds over a small area I was actually killing off and keeping out the same grass and weeds. What’s more, the area suddenly grew lush and healthy. The soil became friable, and moist. What’s more, that patch of ground could now grow more plants and more mulch than it did before.

I realized that I was using the disorder and chaos outside my ordered system as the power source for its own maintenance. I wasn’t just using my zone 5 chaos for inspiration by bringing design concepts from nature to better organize my zone 1. I was using the actual material of chaos to create order. I cover the fine details of Group and Conquer in protocol 2: A Point in Time.

System> The roots for this word mean “stand together.” By definition, a system is a set of elements that function by interacting with each other.

I began calculating ratios of how much wild space would be necessary to maintain order and fertility levels in a system. These vary, of course. With some study and trials, I found that even the high fertility needs of vegetable gardens could be sustained with equal parts garden to wild areas. These areas had been modified to grow a mix of nitrogen-fixing plants, and non-nitrogen-fixing plants that together grew lots of biomass. In other words, I had altered chaos, to foster a mulch-making system that had maximum intrinsic value. The mechanics behind how this intrinsic value can be scaled and maximized are covered most under protocol 2: The Intrinsic Origins of Plants, and 3: Nitrogen: The Quality of Life.

I called these systems that could grow annual vegetables PASSIVE gardens, or Permanent Agriculture Systems Sustaining Intensive Vegetable Ecology.

Chaos Level 2

Although PASSIVE systems work, there are still systems that are more efficient. Perennial crops, like chicories, asparagus , and many others don’t need as much fertility as annual vegetables.

However, perennial vegetables are vulnerable to weeds. PASSIVE gardens keep weeds out by drowning everything under the thick mass of fertile mulch. Perennial vegetable plantings needed a new strategy. Again, the answer came from the zone 5 chaos on the borders of my organized planting.

Some plants are very good at wiping out other plants. We call them weeds. I used these weeds and versions of these weeds that are more civilized garden plants. At this point I was building systems for clients. They were quite pleased with the results of my alliance with these weeds.

This may sound like a very small scale, fiddly tactic. Even field culture can benefit from this kind of designed chaos.

Garden beds where I worked let say creeping charlie work with me were attractive and healthy, with much less weeding. When a weed becomes part of the intentional design, the need to weed becomes obsolete. The fine details of these sort of tools, I published a small book on: Mastering the Growing Edge. But I cover the concepts and several examples in this book under protocol 4: Space is a Problem for Extrinsic, and 5: Covering Ground.

Living plants are on a whole new level of chaos ratio. On chaos level 1, I was moving mulch from one place to another to improve intrinsic value. One plant can cover a whole patch of ground, and come back year after year. It’s a far more powerful, intrinsically valuable mulch.

Windbreaks made from living plants, buildings, mulch made from living plants or rocks -any long term element added to change how a system works -I call chaos level 2.

Chaos Level 3

Permanence is relative. Fruit trees that could produce for decades may be damaged. Many hybrid and grafted stock plants are not expected to last decades, only years. Annual vegetables must be started over and over from seed every year. For many of the clients with whom I installed PASSIVE gardens, the system required minimal work and proved highly productive. The clients still had to start vegetables every year and asked me to re-install. I just didn’t have the time.

Back to the weedy chaos for inspiration.

Even in the commercial fields of GMO corn and soybeans, farmers gripe at corn from last year’s crop coming up as persistent weeds among the soybeans. Weeds sow themselves and show up every year. Although we have bred the vigor for self-seeding out of many garden vegetables and fruit trees, a surprising number can reseed if managed right.

There are many very old grafted or hybrid trees. Longevity of any one fruit tree can be extended and its presence in a system become an intrinsic element with the right approach and choice of species. These tactics are covered under protocol 7: Coding your End Results with Genetics.

I call this level 3 chaos—when a system recreates itself even down to the genetic material. This is when you can plant a tree, or sow some seeds, and find the same genetics growing and thriving in the system, ten to a hundred years later.

I classify designs that use planned intervention to run on level 1 chaos. Systems that run on level 2 chaos have added elements like ground covers that block weeds or superior genetics that yield more mulch or fruit from the same patch of ground. If these elements regenerate themselves, and become intrinsic elements of the system, I classify them as level 3, altered chaos.

A given system may have all three levels of chaos at work. Sometimes they overlap. The levels of chaos and chaos ratio are a language for making our desired resources intrinsic.

Story Addition: My Model for System Design

One of my clients explained to me what he thought made a food forest more efficient than a normal orchard or farm. He compared such efficient systems to the immense inertia of a train. Once you get such a mass moving, it goes on without your input.

I didn’t quite agree. While the analogy does make clear that work you invest in a system can work for you when you’re away, this change is still extrinsic. This system is just a battery for your energy that needs recharged. The quality and quantity of energy at work is all you. .

I told him my idea of a well-designed system is like a whip -which takes some explaining

If you have ever toyed with a simple rope, say 15 feet long, and treated it like a whip, you’ll know it takes enormous effort to get the tip to whip around—if even off the ground. The tip certainly could never travel faster than 741 miles per hour to shatter the sound barrier—no matter how strong or skillful you are. Whips smash through this barrier with ease from the twitch of your wrist. A whip is simply a rope with specialty ratios of weight in certain parts.

The ratio of the whip diameter from the thick handle to the slender tip is 5:1. This tip graduates into a single string called the fall, and the fall graduates at its end to a sliver thread called a cracker. To further accentuate this ratio of heavy weight to slender tip, the handle up to 1/5 the length of the whip is filled with lead beads. This simple, highly-calculated ratio of mass allows normal ropes braided together to shatter the speed of sound with only small kinetic input. What you put into the whip is very different from what you get out. It is not just a battery of your input. It transforms your input beyond anything you could ever hope to achieve—breaking the speed of sound.

This design is very important because it mirrors exactly how I find the most efficient biological systems should work. They should give the user complete control to change the direction of how the system runs, with minimal effort. They should also enable the user to achieve yields never possible in labor-intensive systems. The potential for this kind of system depends on the quality of the ratios, or qualities of the intrinsic nature of the system.

A rope is like a normal, labor-intensive system. Your input equals your output. This is one reason why normal agriculture requires so many machines. We need superhuman strength to get anything done.

The levels of chaos and the methods in Intrinsic are simply a series of very specific ratios using just the same material any other system would. They give superhuman results. Your input is chaos level 1. The well-designed system of ratios is chaos level 2. Level 3 chaos is a response from the system. In my own experience, this is the echo of the shattered sound barrier reverberating from the hills and valleys all around.

I’m not sure if my client got my meaning with this far more technical analogy. His employee, who was sitting nearby as we discussed, remarked, “You don’t even have a girlfriend. What the heck do you need a whip for?” I hope this analogy carries more quality weight here.


  • Chaos is what happens. If we want our designs to happen without our intervention (to become intrinsic), we must use chaos as the power source for our designs. The three levels of chaos, chaos ratio, and detailed ratios and numbers of how a system works are our language, or syntax, for setting up such a power source.
  • Chaos level 1 is to actively alter chaos. You design the labor you put into a site.
  • Chaos level 2 is to add elements that alter chaos when we aren’t around. You design the elements you put into a site.
  • Chaos level 3 is the system’s response to our designs. You design the and alter the tendencies or chaos of a site. At this level the changes you make are intrinsic.

[What do you think of this preview? Are you excited about Intrinsic? Let us know! Just comment below. Feel free to share this page with anyone that might be interested in Intrinsic. Thanks!]


  1. Sounds like we are on similar journeys with slightly different ways of describing and processing for how nature has been existing for so long. Great journey to be on. Looking forward to the rest of the book.


    1. I’m really glad to hear you and several others are finding their own thoughts mirrored here. It’s the ultimate vote of confidence, thanks. I think a central technology is the single most powerful tool for advancing a science. My aim by articulating all this is to give everyone a central language of ecology design. That, I believe is the best way to bring everyone’s experience and unique views into a blossoming practice. Thanks so much for reading Steve!


  2. Hi Luke,

    It took me a little while to get on board, but I do see the view and believe I have started to apply some of concepts without having verbalized and crystalized them which you have done so well.

    I look forward to conversing with you in person and on site when the weather starts to warm.



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