Category Archives: Gardens

David Holmgren on Permaculture Principles

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and PathwaysThere is so much in David Holmgren’s Permaculture that I am sure I will return to it, but I wanted to capture the basics in one post. One long post.

Way back when I had a house and a garden, I found out about permaculture and read the huge manual by Bill Mollison and was immensely impressed and tried to grow all my own veg. I failed, and learned a lot in the process. It is many years on now, of living in rooms and flats and no access to gardens and moving and a publishing endeavour and a thesis. I am quite excited to come back to it in thinking about urban and public space and how we live, how we create community, how we leave every place we inhabit, and the earth itself, better than we found it. That’s rarely talked about.

Uncertainty about our place and our future and our knowledge, however, is more and more talked about.

We live in an uncertain age — theoretical science has opened up a whole world of uncertainty, modernity clashing with traditional values, crisis undermines possibility of certainty about the future, and the pace of technology-driven change

Even so, what surprised me — and shouldn’t have because it is a reality that we must face — is that this book starts with, and doesn’t bother to argue for, the reality of climate change, peak oil, crisis. In fact the permaculture movement started with that foundation forty odd years ago

Insofar as permaculture is an effective response to the limitations on use of energy and natural resources, it will move from its current status as “alternative response to environmental crisis” to the social and economic mainstream of the post-industrial era. Whether it will be called permaculture or not is a secondary matter. (xvii)

It argues for a true sustainability, looked at in different ways as befits a key principle for organizing life. One is ‘as a set of coherent system priorities’. There follows an interesting set of binaries that contrast industrial with sustainable culture —

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

I am trying to think more along continuums rather than through binaries, but this is useful I think.

So on to definitions.

Definition:  Expanded from Permaculture One: “Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for porvision of local needs.” People, their buildings and the ways they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved to one of permanent (sustainable) culture.

A second definition: the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the above vision. (xix)

And then there is this

Permaculture is a whole-hearted adaptation to the ecological realities of decline, which are as natural and creative and those of growth….The real issue of our age is how we make a graceful and ethical descent. (xxix)

and if you didn’t quite get that, he writes:

I am suggesting that we need to get over our naive and simplistic notions of sustainability as a likely reality for ourselves our even our grandchildren and instead accept that our task is to use our familiarity with continuous change to adapt to energy descent. (xxx)

Yes please, let’s do that. I wish everyone from now on could just start right here.

David Holmgren’s Ethical Principles of Permaculture

Three broad principles — pretty easy:

Care for the earth
Care for people
Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus (1)

I liked this:

In particular, we need to be suspicious of seeing the philosophy of individualism as the source, rather than outcome, of material well-being. Further, we should expect that the beliefs and values that have developed with a rising energy base are likely to be dysfunctional–even destructive–in a world of limited and declining energy. (2)

I loved this:

The stewardship concept demands that we constantly ask the question: Will the resource be in better shape after my stewardship? One cannot go far in this process without challenging the ethical validity of the ownership of land and natural resources that lies at the heart of our legal system. Control of land and natural resources has been central throughout history; in a low-energy future it will again become the primary focus for ethics, politics and culture. Indigenous land right and agrarian land reform in poor countries are two issues that continue to challenge the prevailing ethics about land. The ethic of earth stewardship provides a moral imperative to continue to work out more creative ways for vesting control of land in collective structures, rather than taking as natural the individual ownership of land that goes with our Western industrial culture. Efforts to do this over the last hundred years show that it is not an easy task.  (5)

It is part of care for the earth: understanding the living soil, stewardship of land, preserving biodiversity, seeing all living things as intrinsically valuable and minimising our impact on them.

Care for people? It means understanding the massive structural inequalities, doing what we can to undermine them beginning with ourselves and our families, our neighbourhoods, our communities. I think missing here is a little deeper thought into social and racial justice and how those intersect with environmental justice —  the words environmental justice don’t appear at all, but I think will have to be intrinsic to a wider movement. Graham Haughton‘s work is a start among that of many others I am now exploring.

And hell yes to redistributing surplus.

There then follow twelve principles:

Each of course links to the others, ‘In this sense, each principle can be thought of as a door into the labyrinth of whole-systems thinking.’ (xii)

1. Observe and Interact

icontreeThe icon for this principle is a person as a tree, emphasizing ourselves in nature and transformed by it. (13)

A process of continuous observation in order to recognise patterns and appreciate details is the foundation of all understanding. (13)

And lo and behold, a popular education spiral — I use this all the time to think through things:

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

2. Catch and Store Energy

iconcatchenergyThe icon of sunshine captured in a bottle suggests the preserving of seasonal surplus and a myriad of other traditional and novel ways to catch and store energy. It also reflects the basic lesson of biological science: that all life is directly or indirectly dependent on the solar energy captured by green plants.

The proverb “make hay while the sun shines” reminds us that we have limited time to catch and store energy before seasonal or episodic abundance dissipates. (27)

Energy is stored in landscapes — water, nutrients and carbon. This is what our presence should be working to rebuild. This means we think about the land we can manage, we think about catchment and regional planning, and we think about households and the built environment as stores of energy.

When considering the development of the tools, buildings and infrastructure , we should aim to emulate, where possible, the characteristics…for natural storages of energy. The following design criteria are relevant:

  • modest in scale
  • well-designed for long life and/or made frmo easily renewable materials
  • simple to maintain (not necessarily maintenance-free)
  • multi-purpose and easy to adapt to other uses. (46) 

3. Obtain a Yield

iconobtainyieldThe icon of the vegetable with a bite taken shows the production of something that gives us an immediate yield but also reminds us of the other creatures who are attempting to obtain a yield from our efforts. (55)

Then he goes on to talk about Kropotkin‘s refutation of the Darwinists in arguing that cooperation is as prevalent if not more than competition. Yay. It means understanding where and how we are dependent on social relationships — harder to see sometimes in the modern world, just as our interdependence with the other creatures in our world is obscured.

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

iconself0regulateIn modern society, we take for granted an enormous degree of dependence on large-scale, often remote, systems for provision of our needs, while expecting a huge degree of freedom in what we do without external control. In a sense, our whole society is like a teenager who wants to have it all, have it now, without consequences.

The Gaia hypothesis of the earth as a self-regulating system, analogous to a living organism, makes the whole earth a suitable image to represent this principle. (72)

This is really hard, because it’s been a really long time since we’ve done it. That’s all about to change.

Learning to think wholistically requires an overriding, or reversal, of much of the cultural heritage of the last few hundred years. With little experience of whole-system thinking and such cultural impediments, we need to focus our efforts on simple and accessible whole systems before we try to amend large and complex ones. (85)

5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

iconusevlaueThere is no more important example in history of human prosperity derived from non-consuming use of nature’s services than our domestication and use of the horse for transport, soil cultivation and general power for a myriad of uses. (93)

I love this, it encapsulates everything wrong with consumption, and a lovely definition of use value, evocative of William Morris somehow:

Appropriate use:

How well we use the products from natural resources is as important as the way those products are made. The dining table that is used each day to feed a large household is very different from the one used for the occasional dinner party in an otherwise empty house. One will become imbued with the memories and marks of living. The other will occupy space that is locked, insured, maintained and heated, doing little. (95)

6. Produce No Waste

iconearthwirmThe earthworm…lives by consuming plant litter (wastes), which it converts into humus that improves the soil environment for itself, for soil micro-organisms and for the plants. Thus, the earthworm, like all living things, is a part of web where the outputs of one are the inputs for another. (111)

A critique of privatisation, of built-in obsolescence. A recognition that the world’s poor know more about this than anyone else living, and instead of being looked down upon they should be held up as teachers and examples.

7. Design From Patterns to Details

icondesignThe spider on its web, with its concentric and radial design, evokes zone and sector site planning, the best-known and perhaps most widely applied aspect of permaculture design. The design pattern of the web is clear, but the details always vary. (127)

I don’t think it surprises me that he references Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language here, looking at the regular patterns to be found in our built environment. I quite love that he tries here to look towards beginning a similar pattern language for permaculture design.

This is all about thinking how energy is stored in the landscapes we create, but its interesting to think of ‘site design as cellular design’.

We can think of a permaculture-designed garden (Zones 1 and 2) as a human rural settlement cell. There is a limit to efficient garden size before we have to jump up into a more complex production system. Successful gardens do not keep expanding. Instead, they provide a surplus of plant stock and human knowledge that help to establish new gardens.

Despite the great challenges in recreating community, the expanding interest in eco-villages and co-housing as part of the permaculture vision is implicit recognition of the problem that the nuclear family is too small in scale for many aspects of ecological living. (138)

8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate

iconintegrateIn every aspect of nature, from the internal working of organisms to whole ecosystems, we find the connections between things are as important as the things themselves. Thus “the purpose of a functional and self-regulating design is to place elements in such a way that each serves the needs and accepts the products of other elements.”

Our cultural bias toward focus on the complexity of details tends to ignore the complexity of relationships. We tend to opt for segregation of elements as a default design strategy for reducing relationship complexity.

The icon of this principle can be seen as a top-down view of a circle of people or elements forming an integrated system. The apparently empty hole represents the abstract whole system that both arises from the organisation of the elements and also gives them form and character. (155)

Then there is this:

Permaculture can be seen as part of a long tradition of concepts that emphasize mutualistic and symbiotic relationships over competitive and predatory ones. Declining energy availability will shift the general perception of these concepts from romantic idealism to practical necessity. (156)

There’s a section called rebuilding community, and god knows we need that.

…almost everyone active in the permaculture movement would agree that stronger development of co-operative relationships between people, families and communities outside the large institutional structures is the perfect complement to personal and household self-reliance. Without this alternative, political strategies for taming the global institutions are like King Canute telling the sea to retreat.  (172)

I like too the list of characteristics of a sustainable community:

  • Local and bioregional political and economic structures

  • cross-fertilization–biogenetic, racial, cultural and intellectual–giving natural hybrid vigour

  • Accessibility and low dependence on expensive and centralised technology

  • capable of being developed by incremental steps with feedback and refinement (172)
    Because the design of sustainable culture is beyond the capability of any mortal, the process must be organic and iterative. Each small step and stage should be immediately useful and workable and should provide feedback for refinement, and even changes, of direction. (173)

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions

iconsmallandslowThe spiral house of the snail is small enough to be carried on its back and yet capable of incremental growth. With its lubricated foot, the snail easily and deliberately traverse any terrain. (181)

Lovely — though the use of the word lubricated still makes me giggle like a twelve year old.

I also love how clearly this stands in opposition to Le Corbusier’s paean to speed adhered to by planner after planner.

The speed of movement of materials and people (and other living things) between systems should be minimised. A reduction in speed is a reduction in total movement, increasing the energy available for the system’s self-reliance and autonomy. (181)

10. Use and Value Diversity

iconbirdThe spinebill and the humming bird both have long beaks and the capacity to hover, perfect for sipping nectar from long, narrow flowers….

The great diversity of forms, functions and interaction in nature and humanity are the source for evolved systemic complexity. the role and value of diversity in nature, culture and permaculture is itself complex, dynamic, and at times apparently contradictory. (203)

It’s also interesting that emerging from nature, this value of diversity is connected to place and it is the cultures most attuned to the places where they live that hold the most wisdom.

Permaculture uses the patterns that are common to traditional cultures for design principles and models. the diversity of design solutions, strategies, techniques and species are a toolkit towards new cultures of place. Wherever we live, we must become new indigenes. (211)

This is particularly interesting in thinking about cities, the new cultures of place that grow in them, and how their connections to the land surrounding them can be made visible and healthy.

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

icontrailThe icon of the sun coming up over the horizon with a river in the foreground shows us a world composed of edges. (223)

I like that he looks at ‘marginal’ neighbourhoods, cites Jane Jacobs as noting that they are where space and low rent allow new things to grow and thrive. Also the ways that we see the edges between rural and urban, where it is the connections that are interesting.

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

iconbutterflyThis principle has two thread: designing to make use of change in a deliberate and cooperative way, and creatively responding or adapting to large-scale system change that is beyond our control or influence. (239)

We need to break out of the delusion of apparently linear acceleration of human material and numerical progress to a world view in which everything is contained by cycles, waves and pulses that flow between polarities of great stability and intense change, all nested one within another. (270)

Permaculture is a dynamic interplay between two phases: on the one hand, sustaining life within the cycle of the seasons, and on the other, conceptual abstraction and emotional intensity of creativity and design. I see the relationship between these two as like the pulsing relationship between stability and change. It is the steady, cyclical and humble engagement with nature that provides the sustenance for the spark of insight and integration (integrity), which, in turn, informs and transforms the practice. The first is harmonious and enduring; the second is episodic and powerful. The joyful assymmetric balance between the two expresses our humanity. (271)

I find all of these useful starting points for thinking about cities, planning, building communities. It is built for praxis, and while much of this book is highly detailed about how these have been concretely implemented in terms of household design and agriculture, I think it will be quite fruitful to explore how they can be usefully applied in a broader movement to help create a better world. All of these things fit together, and I am enjoying exploring the potential of this.

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

 

Edna Ferber’s remarkable Chicago novel So Big

257443So Big, Edna Ferber’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is a wonderful book. I question why it was not listed and taught among the rest of those American classics. I imagine it would be if it weren’t written by a woman with a woman as its main subject, though it tries to fool you in the beginning that it is about Dirk De Jong. Really it’s all about his mother Selina, and not in the creepy oedipal way male authors would have done it.

She is amazing.

Selina grows up alone with her father–a small time poker player who reminds me strongly of one of the Maverick brothers (But is it Brett or is it Bart?). They lead a roaming, eventful, varied life of highs and lows. His death shatters all that, and she goes to become a small teacher among the farmers in that ‘incredibly Dutch district southwest of Chicago known first as New Holland and later as High Prairie.’ She falls for a handsome farmer, and her life follows a path very different from the one she dreamed of.

There are details about this new community that I love:

She did not then know that spotless window-panes were a mark of social standing in High Prarie. Yard and dwelling had a geometrical neatness like that of a toy house in a set of playthings. The effect was marred by a clothesline hung with a dado of miscellaneous wash…

Above all, the perspective of a woman on the effects of work, the terrible weight of rural farming life. Here Selina meets Maartje for the first time:

Selina suddenly saw that she, too, was young. The bad teeth, the thin hair, the careless dress, the littered kitchen, the harassed frown–above all these, standing out clearly, appeared the look of a girl.

Selina fears it. Swears it will not become her own fate. But you know that it is.

When the next ten years had done their worst to her, and Julie had suddenly come upon her stepping agilely our of a truck gardener’s wagon on Prairie Avenue, a tanned, and weather-beaten, toil-worn woman, her abundant hair skewered into a knob and held by a long grey hairpin, her full calico skirt grimed with the mud of the wagon wheel, a pair of men’s old side-boots on her slim feet, a grotesquely battered old felt hat (her husband’s) on her head, her arms full of ears of sweet corn…a woman with bad teeth, flat breasts, a sagging pocket in her capacious skirt–even then Julie, staring, had known her by her eyes…and had cried, “Oh, Selina! My dear! My dear!”–with a sob of horror and pity…

It is Selina who comforts her. Selina who no longer minds. Selina who is not bound by the need to be attractive and thus is found by many to be the one who is truly beautiful, outside of those conventions. Selina who has lived the fullest of lives. The lives of the ‘successful’, the sons and daughters born into wealth and position, fall far short. Her position at the death of her husband:

Youth was gone, but she had health, courage; a boy of nine; twenty-five acres of wornout farm land; dwelling and out-houses in a bad state of repair; and a gay adventuresome spirit that was never to die; though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps painfully. But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.

And the wine-red cashmere. She laughed aloud.

It is Selina that you love and admire and think it would have been all right to have ended up that way — in a battered hat and men’s shoes and a shapeless body and still extracting every ounce of deliciousness from life.

Her story raises all kinds of questions. This deals with the conflict between love and self-realisation in this period (and I don’t want to say of course it does, because a woman wrote it, but really I mostly feel that way). Selina loved her husband, but she is not able to fully flourish until after his death. Not able to put into practice her innovative ideas for the farm like the asparagus beds that shocked the whole community rigid, not able to rise out of poverty and live a fuller life. She carries guilt over this because a part of her knows it…this is never resolved in the novel just as it cannot be in life.

I also question the narrative’s assumptions that innovation and a sense of beauty come from outsiders, that anyone desiring more  than survival via the truck farming methods passed down through generations demands running away the way Roelf Pool does. That is unquestioned here, a resounding yes. But unlike the many realist novels I have been reading, this is hopeful of what will and intelligence and creativity can achieve.

She is curious about everything, and I love that this novel also deals with food, how it is grown and who grows it. Their life. The political economy of vegetables and the poverty it creates, the transport of vegetables, the world grown up in Chicago streets around the wagons arriving from the farms:

Food for Chicago’s millions. in and out of the wagons. Under horse’s hoofs. Bare-footed children, baskets on their arms, snatching bits of fallen vegetables from the cobbles. Gutter Annie, a shawl pinned across her pendulous breasts, scavengering a potato there, an onion fallen to the street, scraps of fruit and green stuff in the ditch.

Selina is able to escape this by innovating, reading books, trying new things. She is fascinated by the beauty of what she grows as much as its importance to the health and wellbeing of all those who eat it. She imagines mothers making sure their kids are eating all of the spinach and potatoes she has grown. This is a time when people ate what was grown locally, could buy it direct if they chose, where farmers knew wholesalers and shopkeepers, where everything was organic. This novel fit in so interestingly with Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution, and you wished Selina might have met him. She would have loved permaculture too, just as she loved any field of knowledge that built, created, made — and that relieved those working the land from the terrible burdens that aged them so quickly, that killed them so young. That celebrated growing food and healthy lives.

Her son Dirk asks Selina her idea of a Chicago House, and she has already given it much thought, brings her experience of land and weather and living well:

Well, it would need big porches for the hot days and nights so’s to catch the prevailing southwest winds from the prairies in the summer — a porch that would be swung clear around to the east, too–or a terrace or another porch east so that if the precious old lake breeze should come up just when you think you’re dying of the heat, as it sometimes does, you could catch that, too. It ought to be built–the house, I mean–rather squarish and tight and solid against our cold winters and northeasters. then sleeping porches of course. There’s a grand American institution for you!

In many ways, this is an alternative narrative of the American dream of success. Not too different of course — it does lionize the business men who rose from butchers to meat-packing millionaires, those who made fortunes in grain, railways, vegetables and those who planned and built the city. It recognises not all of their methods were legal or moral, but that seems to be just part of their force upwards towards progress. They are set far apart from their beautiful discontented children who live empty though comfortable lives. In that it is very much like The Cliff-Dwellers, but pushes it further and offers a very different counter-narrative of where a woman’s happiness lies. Its sympathies in describing Dirk’s college for example, are always with those who have scraped and saved to work hard in gaining learning from the bored gilded youth who have arrived there for a little polish and take way as little actual knowledge worked for and won as possible.

There is also the uncomfortable fact that Selina’s escape from desperate poverty into a life with some comfort and fullness is partially funded by the family she befriended through the higher class boarding school her father had scraped up the money for her to attend before his death. They help her son as well Ferber doesn’t quite know what to do with that, has Selina expressing it only to have her doubts relieved because strength of character and intelligence like hers will always come out on top. The novel lets you believe it, so in the end you have to give thanks to gloomy realism once again.

Here is Dirk’s success, bounded socially, racially and geographically:

There was always a neat little pile of invitations in the mail that lay on the correct little console in the correct little apartment ministered by the correct little Jap on the correct north-side street near (but not too near) the lake, and overlooking it.

Hi office was a great splendid office in a great splendid office building in LaSalle Street. He drove back and forth in a motor car along the boulevards. His social engagements lay north. LaSalle Street bounded him on the west, Lake Michigan on the east, Jackson Boulevard on the south, Lake Forest on the north. He might have lived a thousand miles away for all he knew of the rest of Chiacgo–the mighty, roaring, sweltering, pushing, screaming, magnificent hideous steel giant that was Chicago.

Selina is the opposite.

Her years of grinding work, with her face pressed down to the very soil itself, had failed to kill her zest for living. She prowled into the city’s foreign quarters–Italian, Greek, Chinese, Jewish. She penetrated the Black Belt, where Chicago’s vast and growing Negro population shifted and moved and stretched its great limbs ominously, reaching out and out in protest and overflowing the bounds that irked it…They thought her a social worker, perhaps one of the uplifters. She bought and read the Independent, the Negro newspaper in which herb doctors advertised magic roots.

If she had read more of the newspaper, she would have known it was also full of quality reporting on world events and racism and local politics — The Chicago Defender was one of the most legendary of African American papers for example. Edna Ferber occupies that strange ground of American liberal that can’t really seem to question fundamental injustices and inequalities, while still exposing some of the cruelty and racism’s unnecessary boundaries. At the same time, she takes for granted white supremacy:

Never mind, Selina assured him, happily. “It was all thrown up so hastily. Remember that just yesterday, or the day before, Chicago was an Indian fort, with tepees where towers are now, and mud wallows in place of asphalt. Beauty needs time to perfect it.”

Ferber wrote Showboat, of course, which I have seen rather than read. Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel steal and subvert some of the overt racism of it, but it remains a fascinating commentary on the one drop rule and rife with stereotypes. She wrote Giant as well, which I am now more curious to read.

I’ll end on reading, and the nice things women do for other women — there is in the beginning a casual list of classics that Selina has read. It includes Dickens but is mostly women — Austen and Bronte, but also Felicia Hemans, who I had not heard of but will now read. And then there is a list of popular women’s literature of which much is available on Project Gutenberg and looks quite interesting — Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Bertha M. Clay and The Fireside Companion. Southworth wrote these amazing serialized stories about Capitola the cross-dressing madcap having fabulous adventures across the country. How have I never heard of those?

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Masanobu Fukuoka: One-Straw Revolution

Masanobu Fukuoka - The One-Straw RevolutionThis is a book that is a lot about food, food chains and agriculture, but more about how we live on the earth and the nature of knowledge. It owes much to Buddhism, here is the moment of Masanobu Fukuoka’s initial enlightenment:

One night as I wandered, I collapsed in exhaustion on a hill overlooking the harbor, finally dozing against the trunk of  a large tree. I lay there, neither asleep nor awake, until dawn. I can still remember that it was the morning of the 15th of May. In a daze I watched the harbor grow light, seeing the sunrise and yet somehow not seeing it. As the breeze blew up from below the bluff, the morning mist suddenly disappeared. Just at that moment a night heron appeared, gave a sharp cry, and flew away into the distance. I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of mu confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth: “In this world there is nothing at all….” I felt that I understood nothing. (8)

Nothing as a positive thing. The thing you reach when you realise how insufficient intellectual knowledge is, and struggle to see everything for what it, learn again. This moment so prized in so many cultures apart from the western, European one — and even then it is well know to some of the meditative strands of Christianity.

He left home to further this insight, share it.

At one stop, I saw a small sign which read, “Utopia.” I got off the bus and set out in search of it. …. (12)

Even in Utopia no one would listen to his ideas of nothingness, so he returned to his father’s farm to practice them. I remember reading about this book many years ago when I was in LA, trying to get it, not being able to afford it given its rarity. It’s affordable now, and quite awesome.

Over thirty years he has worked immensely hard to perfect a system that works with nature to grow as much food as any other farm with immensely less effort.

I fucking love that. You still work dann hard because it’s a farm of course, but the goal is always to work less, to have leisure, to enjoy life and live well and to leave the earth you farm better than when you started.

Masanobu Fukuoka notes that in the traditional farming year, the New Year’s holiday was three months long (though did women ever experience such a thing I wonder?).  He talks about the village shrine, and the many faded haiku villagers had composed and offered. Because they had some leisure. Over time and ‘improvements’ the holiday became two months, and then two days. Poetry is no longer written.

Modernised agriculture has always taken a different route, an arrogant route that demands ever longer hours of work for those who can still make a living through farming, and in solving one problem caused a cascading set of others. And now?

The reason that man’s improved techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them. (15)

Ivan Illich could have written some of what follows, both books contain the same insight that beyond a certain point there are limits on how technology and specialist knowledge can improve our lives, and many points at which it can become damaging. Modern agricultural methods of mass production, mechanization, monoculture and chemicals must be among the best examples:

The path I have followed, this natural way of farming…was first interpreted as a reaction against the advance and reckless development of science. But all I have been doing…is trying to show that humanity knows nothing.

During the past few years the number of people interested in natural farming has grown considerably. It seems that the limit of scientific development has even reached, misgivings have begun to be felt, and the time for reappraisal has arrived. (19)

For those of who who research and write, we know that this should always be true and rarely is:

Before researchers becomes researchers they should become philosophers. They should consider what the human goal is, what it is that humanity should create. (74)

He writes too:

I think an understanding of nature lies beyond the reach of human intelligence. (25)

In the West natural science developed from discriminating knowledge; in the East the philosophy of yin-yang and of the I-Ching developed from the same source. But scientific truth can never reach absolute truth, and philosophies, after all, are nothing more than interpretations of the world. Nature as grasped by scientific knowledge is a nature which has been destroyed; it is a ghost possessing a skeleton, but no soul. Nature as grasped by philosophical knowledge is a theory created out of human speculation, a ghost with a soul, but no structure. (125)

The argument is not that we should stop trying to understand it or work with it, more that we respect its intricacies, approach learning from it with humility, never assume we can untangle all of the symbiotic relationships developed over millenia, and so tread lightly.

An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.

The difference in the results of respecting, observing and working with nature, and not:

Make your way carefully through these fields. Dragonflies and moths fly up in a flurry. Honeybees buzz from blossom to blossom. Part the leaves and you will see Insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, and many other small animals bustling about in the cool shade. Moles and earthworms burrow beneath the surface. This is a balanced ricefield ecosystem. Insect and plant communities maintain a stable relationship here. It is not uncommon for a plant disease to sweep through this region and leave the crops in my fields unaffected.

And now look over at the neighbor’s field for a moment. The weeds have all been wiped out by herbicides and cultivation. The soil animals and insects have been exterminated by poison. The earth has been burned clean of organic matter and micro-organisms by chemical fertilizers. In the summer you see farmers at work in the fields…wearing gas masks and long rubber gloves. These rice fields—which have been farmed continuously for over 1,500 years—have now been laid waste by the exploitive farming practices of a single generation. (33)

It is the same picture as that laid out by Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire and his other works, by permaculture and organic farming experts. It’s crazy and the toll on the earth, the agricultural workers and those who consume this produce is still not fully known. Except that it is deadly, especially for workers, the soil and the multiple layers of life that once abounded here — those things least valued by capital.

The Four Principles of Natural Farming:

  1. No Cultivation — no plowing, or turning over of the soil.
  2. No chemical fertilizer or prepared compost
  3. No weeding by tillage or herbicides
  4. No dependence on chemicals (33-34)

A rhythm of growing and planting that allows desired crops to establish themselves without need for weeding, grown amongst cycles of clover or other such plants grown to keep down weeds and the use of the straw after the harvest to build the soil and protect the new crop. Companion planting. Allowing monsoon rains to sit for just over a week to kill unwanted weeds, weaken the clover, strengthen the rice. The use of hardy plants without fertilizer other than compost (or ducks loose and nibbling the fields) to grow strong and compact and thus resistant to pests. Allowing the natural ecosystem to flourish that ensures where pests exist their predators do also. Careful attention to weather and soil and plants native to the site. Trial and error.

Instead we kill the earth and everything in it dead, and pour chemicals into it. We eat them on our food, lacking in flavour and vitality, often dyed and waxed and grown only for perfection of form. Its medicinal power is completely lost. The chemicals run off into our waterways and oceans causing blooms of algea, doing god knows what else. Compare these two ways and you wonder what the fuck we were thinking.

Not that Masanobu Fukuoka’s system to grow food with little effort has come easily — like all good things it has taken a long time:

It involves little more than broadcasting seed and spreading straw, but it has taken me over thirty years to reach this simplicity. (45)

And of course, he understands that all of this challenges power and wealth. He describes going to conferences and speaking about it and always and immediately being shut down – ‘To do away with machinery and chemicals would bring about a complete change in the economic and social structures.’ (81)

A problem cannot be solved by people who are concerned with only one or another of its parts.

To the extent that the consciousness of everyone is not fundamentally transformed, pollution will not cease. (82)

Much of the philosophy comes at the end, along with some of the most powerful statements. My favourite was: ‘they trapped themselves in the endless hell of the intellect.” (165).

All too familiar, and funny for that reason. The other two are just true and deep:

If we do have a food crisis it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire. (104)

It is said that there is no creature as wise as the human being. By applying this wisdom, people have become the only animals capable of nuclear war. (156)

Depressing. So I will end with an offhand report of a true wonder:

In southern Shikoku there was a kind of chicken that would eat worms and insects on the vegetables without scratching the roots or damaging the plants. (65)

I once accidentally let two chickens in our vegetable garden and they had destroyed the whole of it in about 2 minutes, so this seems to me a most mythical creature.

For more about no-dig agriculture, food chains and permaculture…

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The framing of space at Haddon Hall

Starting from Bakewell, walking over the hills first to Magpie Mine and then past two tumuli in a lonely field, we gradually approached Haddon Hall.

Haddon Hall

Unlike later massive buildings of larger wealth and ostentation like Chatsworth, Tudor buildings, even the large ones like Haddon Hall, seem to retain their human scale. From their website:

Described by Simon Jenkins in “1000 Best Houses” as “the most perfect house to survive from the middle ages”. Set in the heart of the beautiful Peak District National Park, parts of the house date from the 12th Century, sitting like a jewel in its Elizabethan terraced gardens, and overlooking the River Wye.

I can’t say I disagree with any of that. It survived mostly because the family went to live somewhere more grand, and only visited occasionally, thus preserving it from any destruction – reconstruction for purposes of even more arrogant display.

My favourite part was the Haddon Hall Chapel, white walls drawn upon in the 15th Century. the designs still enchant, and the whole is a lovely example of sacred peaceful space.

Haddon Hall Chapel

Haddon Hall Chapel

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Reading Cullen or thinking about Alexander’s Pattern Language helped break down just what it is about this place that created such a sacred space far deeper than that simply created by putting a cross on a wall — the feeling of light and space given by high white walls — and the thickness of those walls, finely crafted windows as deep wells of stone letting in much light, old wood carved with love and skill, the beautiful timber ceiling, the seeming simplicity of the space, but broken up and framed in numerous ways by wooden partitions, these framings changing as your moved, and lovely corners you could not see without movement, the surprise they gave.

The beautiful and detailed drawings in black and white. The fashion for them long gone but these have survived. You feel you are glimsping a different way of relating to the world and a different vision of faith through their lines.

Haddon Hall itself was much the same. The courtyard is simply lovely, a place that invites you to spend time in it:

Haddon Hall

A little grand for me, but wood paneling brings such warmth to a room, and these stone steps were unique and wonderful:

Haddon Hall

Haddon Hall

I loved the blocks and the shape to this fireplace, and oh the wooden roofs. Maybe it’s having grown up with a roof of wood but there is something about them I think, that brings the natural world into a room and creates a feeling that your are being held somehow:

Haddon Hall

The older parts of the house have lovely thick walls, old battered doors, climbing roses and herbs. This entrance was rather swoony…

Haddon Hall

Haddon Hall

Beautiful strips of garden — I was just sad the kitchen gardens have not survived because those are what I love most of all:

Haddon Hall

But the mysteries of the kitchens remain:

Haddon Hall

Also remaining are fascinating spaces created over various periods of construction, like this one, created by the building of a defensive wall:

Haddon Hall

I also loved their little collection of things discovered hidden away long ago and left by their owners, inlcuding copious amounts of dice and some playing cards:

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This is a beautiful, welcoming space. Wealth had much to do with that, of course, and there are some of the rooms where you just can’t forget that with their tiresome (though still beautifully crafted) repetitions of family crests — peacocks and boars dressed in frilly ruffs. Everywhere peacocks and boars, at their worst when monumental.

Haddon Hall

But given its age and organic growing over time, it is again a place of odd corners, sudden surprises, always beautiful craftsmenship of workers who seemed to love the works emerging through their labour. The tiny diamond window panes are shaped and curved to maximise the sun, I have never heard of such a wonderful thing. They frame the gardens and the view of the peaks.

Even the tapestries had some lovely touches, and I don’t usually care for tapestries.

Haddon Hall

Monkees and serpents and bagpipe monsters!

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Chatsworth

We started in Bakewell, beautiful Bakewell with pies that taste the way you always dreamed pies should taste, and the tarts are quite nice as well.

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

We climbed up and up, past some grandstanding llamas and into some beautiful woods, here we are off our planned route and well into our several-mile accidental diversion:

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

I loved most the Carlton Pastures, with Bronze Age tumuli dotting their great expanses, the dead overlooking the views from the hill tops.

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

We continued to pass an inordinate amount of sheep clustered ominously under the trees — it did indeed rain.

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

Finally to Chatsworth itself — a great change from glorious rolling hills and the grounding of farms and livestock, or the evocative tumuli of ancestors who lived very different lives, much harder lives than we do. Here it sits, a great square presence on the river Derwent. It is meant to look like wealth and power, and look like wealth and power it does.

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

Here it is from above, looking down from the pastures. You have to remember that this is a landscape sculpted and shaped to accentuate its great romantic sweeps and, of course, the wealth and power of its owners. First by gardener Capability Brown, and then by Joseph Paxton, an immense amount of money and labour have been expended to create a landscape that tries demurely to appear natural as though no such thing took place. This is one of that plural noun hatred of gardens that I have expended venom on before. Funny how many of them are in the Peak District, Keddleston Hall is just around the corner, vying with this one. I did want to see how it sat within its landscape, and the walk was worth it.

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

Of course the Duke of Devonshire trumped almost everyone by the removal of the local village that once sat along the Derwent. He rebuilt it with the help of Joseph Paxton (who built the Crystal Palace in my own patch, who also built a remarkable conservatory for the Duke, demolished in 1920). Rumour has it that the Duke himself sat with a pattern book and picked out a different pattern for each of the homes there.

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

It bothered Mark and I that it was this picturesque, and undoubtedly the homes were of better quality than those that had been lost and lives thus improved. But in the end this seemed to add insult to injury, because these lives were thus put on display when ancestral homes were moved at a whim and the Duke able to show off his philanthropy and his taste to his friends, his dependents become showpieces.

We left that place, set off into a misting kind of rain that helped erase the ugliness of unchecked power and massive gaudy aristocratic bling. We headed to see the Ball Cross Iron Age hillfort, which sat overlooking the valley though the view is now obscured by trees.

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

A great walk all in all, whatever your feelings about Dukes and things, and Bakewell is very well served by public transport.

And did I mention that steak and stilton pie? I dream of it still…from the Bakewell Pudding Shop.

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Building benches at Canning Town Caravanserai

Canning Town Caravanserai is an incredible space right beside the Canning Town DLR, ‘architect Ash Sakula’s innovative concept for a dynamic and economically sustainable 21st Century Urban Public space.’ But so many people have been involved building and creating things there (look at this outpouring of creativity and effort), and it has been all about recycling, reusing, reimagining. There is a cafe and theatre space, tables and chairs and room for workshops and so much more.

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These extraordinary ripples of color are actually created from old saris pressed into the the shape of corrugated iron and encased in something to make them hard and strong and waterproof…

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It has been up for over four years now and so much has happened here — and sadly it is all coming to an end. You should definitely get down there for the final closing down party this Saturday, September 26th and a final week of events, including two productions of Macbeth and some dancing and steel drums and more… Still, it was only ever meant to be a temporary ‘oasis-like meeting and trading post’, and its spirit will be carried on in the projects it has inspired and supported with help making and imagining things.

Like this Wednesday when Che and Makhosi helped Gabby and I build two beautiful benches that will soon sit in our yurt cafe. They are built entirely from pallets — here are some of the ones we used for our project. We hope now when you see them discarded and sitting on the pavement, you might not just walk past…

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We started with a very simple design:

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Which was made reality through playing with wood, bringing together pallets of the same shape and general feel (there are many varieties of pallet as you soon learn…) and thinking about ways to make it lighter, sturdier.

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Then the sawing began — old school, and extremely beneficial for the upper arms:

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Almost before we knew it, the first bench was done…though there was some extra work in a removal of excess slats after thinking through how to build it in a way that would allow us to sand it all down and remove splinters, and then varnish or paint it — I think we’re going to do a bit of both, but in the next few weeks.

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The second one came together with a little more work, because the form of the pallets wasn’t quite as amenable, and they were much fuller of rusty nails. Forests of them. This work saves wood from landfills, reduces the demand for new timber…it’s part of both the ethics and the aesthetics we hope to promote in St Katharine’s precinct. It’s not meant to stand forever, but to recycle materials and be recycled in its turn when the project is done. It does take extra time but we still managed to finish them both.

Caravanserai

Here they are in formation, as we hope to see them in the cafe alongside the stove.

Caravanserai

This was a wonderful project and we hope to do several more. The main lessons we took away were:

  1. Just how immensely fulfilling and good it feels to build things like this yourself, to work with your hands and take something like a pallet and make it into something newly useful and beautiful.
  2. Having someone who knew what they were doing and wholly enthusiastic about this kind of work made the experience enjoyable instead of just hard work, especially at the end — so an immense thanks again to Che and Makhosi.
  3. It took much longer than we expected — that seems like such an obvious thing, but good to keep in mind. Just plan to give it a day, because you’ll want a bit of a rest after as well…
  4. Our group of 3-4 was about the right size for this project building to a new design, more people wouldn’t have had much to do without a larger project planned in much more detail in advance and some thought given to splitting up tasks — but that is hard because it was through the process of actually building it that we made lots of small and impromptu decisions to improve the design. You’re also limited by the tools available — hammers, electric drills, saws, chisels.
  5. This would have been faster with a crowbar. We need to get a crowbar. And a large selection of screws. And something that helps remove or break off long rusty nails that does not require quite so much brute force.
  6. It was important to have a wide range of pallets available to mix and match sizes and styles and etc…
  7. Did I mention how wonderful it is to be outside and to build things with your hands? It’s wonderful. I had somehow forgotten. It’s definitely something we need to think more about as we explore how people can find out what wellbeing means for them here at St Katharine’s.

You can visit and even sit on our new benches if you head to the Caravanserai this weekend, they will provide seating for the final festivities before they come home to us.

[also posted on St Katharine’s blog]

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Aragon on Gardening and the Phallophoria of Trafalgar Square

93111Marcel Noll suggested going to Montparnasse, and I was unable to think of anything more original than drinking. This kind of twilight of decision-making drifted along with us as far as the Châteaudun crossroads, the favourite meeting place for Parisian accidents. (133)

Thus Louis Aragon and co. venture out from the arcades and the cafes, not to Montparnasse in the end, but to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, where they spent an evening of adolescent adventure as winsome as schoolboys.

"Paris et ses environs 1890-1900 square des buttes chaumont" by http://gallica.bnf.fr - Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, PETFOL-VE-1356. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Paris et ses environs 1890-1900 square des buttes chaumont” by http://gallica.bnf.fr – Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, PETFOL-VE-1356. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I have heard similar stories of alcohol-fueled adventure from my brother Dan and his co, which almost admits Aragon into the family as it were, but this installment of Paris Peasant offers not simply rather sweet hijinks to end his evocations of Paris life, but gardens as well [more on the rest here].

It is most unexpected.

Everything that is most eccentric in man, the gipsy in him, can surely be summed up in these two syllables: garden. Not even when he started adorning himself with diamonds or blowing into brass instruments did any stranger or more baffling idea occur to him than when he invented gardens. (118)

From such a sentence you might imagine Aragon some stranger to gardening, some bewildered observer of this phenomenon…and yet his descriptions betray a rather surprising knowledge of plants. Even so, they are most wonderful when most abstracted from unexpected details:

This evening the gardens are marshaling their ranks of great dusky plants that look like nomadic encampments in the heart of cities. Some are whispering, others are smoking their pipes in silence, the hearts of others are overflowing with love. There are some which caress white walls, while others touch elbows with the foolishness of turnpikes and moths flutter in the hoods of their nasturtiums. There is a garden which is a fortune-teller, another which is a carpet-vendor. I know all their professions: street-singer, gold-weigher, meadow-footpad, lard-pilferer, Sargasso Sea pilot…

Nor, of course, does he ignore gardens as places of tryst and forbidden encounter:

Thus, in public gardens the densest part of the darkness is no longer distinguishable from a kind of desperate kiss exchanged between love and rebellion. (141)

And thus his clear advice on the creation of green public spaces in the hearts of our cities, which should never take their cues from the suburbs:

Do not allow avenues to proliferate, is the advice of the technical manuals. And I say to you, gardeners, that your laws, your wisdom are of no consequence. You fear that if a garden us divided up too much it may look small. Ah! You have been spoiled by your suburban customers, that’s quite clear. You have lost the taste for greatness. May the sinuous concept of the avenue capture your minds again and lead you to real labyrinthine follies, may we read on the ground over which we wander the comical, despairing expression of your disquiet.  (146)

The history of the park reveals it is a yet another creation of Haussman…a curious success it would seem, and the politics of that not lingered over here.

Instead Aragon utters admonishments on  the subject of statues, asking questions that remain unanswered:

And what will become of humanity on that fast-approaching day when the population of statues will have grown to such huge proportions in town and country alike that it will scarcely be possible to make one’s way along the streets choked with statues, across the fields of poses? (152)

This must be one of the best words in the book:

Then we have the phallophoria of Trafalgar Square… (153)

I’m not sure about the one-armed Nelson’s presiding over a nation’s hysteria, perhaps it was simply in the column’s erection in the first place…

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Boules, Moveable Chairs and Public Life

For any complaints about the lack of mystery, Paris does have wonderfully vibrant public spaces. On the hot summer days we were there, they were full of life and people — and it’s good to think that for all they have erased memories of a revolutionary past, these private, often royal gardens are now open to all. Like this enclosed garden of Le Palais Royal, where multiple families and friends were playing boules.

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The Jardins des Tuileries revealed a key feature of this success — not worrying about grass in most places that people have to keep off, and benches but also light and moveable chairs.

They’re not even rented. You can sit in them as long as you want. You can move them in groups to accommodate your friends or family, and you keep following the sun or the shade. People were picnicking, chatting, reading, observing, drinking wine, laughing, cuddling, enjoying themselves. This is the place to be, no? An escape from small rooms and jobs and nuclear families too confined between four walls.

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Gardens are everywhere. Here we looked down the long arm of Jardins de Luxemberg, with people clustered on chairs in the shade

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And entering from the other end, more formal plantings

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saucy statues

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cool water features

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and a view of the single solitary skyscraper we saw in this city, as well as back towards to main body of the park, full of people enjoying themselves.

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But it is not just in parks, the centre city is scattered with squares, like this one in Les Halles — not enough seating by any means, but vibrant all the same:

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All along the Seine we saw people out for a stroll or sitting on the embankment (except those places to rich with the smell of urine)

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Everywhere are scattered little plazas surrounded by cafes. The cafes are not, of course, public space exactly. But they spill out onto wide pavements — god I love wide pavements, facilitating not just the spill of cafes but of shops and pedestrians and proclaiming them more vital than cars to the life of the city. This square was pedestrianised entirely on a Sunday. Streets and squares facilitate people meeting, bumping into neighbours and friends, talking, moving through space. The way they used to before cars. I love these cafes also, and the interaction between inside and outside, public and private, diners and coffee drinkers and passers-by that they provoke.

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This is carried into what is most private as well, brought out into public space — many of the balconies were well used here, tiny as they are.

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It’s a different way of life than I at least am used to, lived much more in the visible, the public realm. Public life — I like it. We tried it ourselves on the last evening in our splash-out hotel:

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I confess I could get used to it — even though it’s worth remembering that these central spaces are where the money is.

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A Pattern Language (or building anarchist utopia)

A Pattern LanguageThis is an extraordinary book, not least because I’d seen it referenced as an architectural handbook and a good source for thinking about public space. It is all that.

But really, it is quite a mad reimagining of our world as it could and should be, but at the same time serves as a blueprint of how to build it. After that final scene in V for Vendetta when the world is reduced to rubble and everyone is like oh shit, what next? You want to think through what happens after the revolution if you’d prefer not to find all the bondage leather you can carry and go off into the desert to kill other people other for fuel and for fun and for vaseline and always drive really fast?

Get this book. But why did no one say?

Maybe because the authors use the introduction to emphasize the ways that this new society can be built piecemeal, can grow organically within the old (but really, can it?). Still, I struggled to hold that in mind as I continued to read given they seem wildly prescriptive at times, pulling out studies and equations and optimal numbers as guides. Ultimately, I grant them, their larger ethos consists of building for the ways that people actually use space with a view to making them (and the earth) happiest. They write:

We believe that the patterns presented in this section can be implemented best by piecemeal processes, where each project built or each planning decision made is sanctioned by the community according as it does or does not help to form certain large scale patterns. We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or of a neighborhood, can be created by centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans. We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there (3).

As I say, this doesn’t stop them from thinking really big:

Wherever possible work toward the evolution of independent regions in the world; each with a population between 2 and 10 million; each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each one autonomous and self-governing; each with a seat in a world government, without the intervening power of larger states or countries. (14)

I didn’t realise that this is actually a part 2 (and there is a part 3, The Oregon Experiment). The earlier book, A Timeless Way of Building goes more into this fascinating idea of patterns and language and how we write them across the city. So I’ll wait to delve into that, this is way too long as it is. But essentially this book breaks up the components of cities, towns, neighbourhoods and homes into numbered pieces for assembly, ranging from 1. Independent regions to 37. House cluster to 135. Tapestry of Light and Dark to 204. Secret place (YES! Every home needs a secret place) to 253. Things from your life. It’s an impressive number and thoughtfulness of patterns. So what follows are a few that struck me in particular, but there is so much richness here in thinking about different kinds of spaces, and it pulls on a variety of literature, you’ll always be finding different things.

I don’t usually like quotes from native people’s taken out of context, but this one is beautiful, and a way of thinking we have moved far too much away from:

I conceive that land belongs for us to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living, and countless members are still unborn.
–a Nigerian tribesman (37)

The one place they completely lost me in the book — the whole 1166 pages of it — was their ‘mosaic of subcultures’. The principle here:

The homogenous and undifferentiated character of modern cities kills all variety of life styles and arrests the growth of individual character. (43)

I might agree with that, but how strange to go from that to neighborhoods divided up into subcultures and separated one from the other by belts of industry or other land uses? They write that this is so no one more powerful or wealthier subculture might be tempted to interfere with their neighbors, but this seems a deathknell to diversity and fortuitous mixings and glorious circumstance.

Funny that this emerges with their understanding of how people view property values and how they value homogeneity — things that I think this separation plays into even though such ideologies have been constructed for all of the wrong reasons and have immense negative effects. I am back to wondering why people just can’t seem to even attempt to grapple with class and race in the city. Probably something to do with class and race. Still. They grapple with a lot in this book, primarily physical space and how we live in it, and so I will allow it some exemptions given its already massive nature as utopian blueprint. But i would prefer an equality of class, race, gender, sexuality and etc to be explicit in that.

Hell, if they’re going to call for an evolution of independent regions a la Kropotkin, they can throw a little intersectionality in there.

But I do like acknowledging that ‘People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to’ (81). That neighborhoods need to be small in number, small in area, and guess what, large streets driven through their middle destroys them.

I like the section on ‘The Magic of the City’, the ways that they are ‘rich, various, fascinating.’ (59) I like that they don’t really try to define it, just let it stand as it is. Because obviously, they just have some magic.

So do railways, and I love that the Swiss have a massive network that ties in the smallest villages to the largest towns after the ‘democratic railway movement’ of the 19th Century demanded and won that they do so. This has avoided some of the centralisation seen in France and England, maintaining the viability of smaller areas. Go Switzerland.

There is a whole section on how terrible high-rises are, and how they negatively impact the mental and social well-being of the people living within them. Children start playing outside later and less-often unattended and free, people feel isolated, it’s a larger barrier to get out into the world. There can be few casual interactions, you are removed from everything and no longer can feel part of the street and the life on it. A lot of this makes sense, though it also reminded me of the Doomwatch episode where the female scientist tests the new council highrises and has a nervous breakdown. You get the feeling it’s more because she’s female.

But I loved this poem from Glasgow

The Jelly Piece Song
By Adam McNaughton

I’m a skyscraper wean, I live on the nineteenth flair,
on’ I’m no’ gaun oot tae play ony mair
For since we moved tae oor new hoose I’m wastin’ away,
‘Cos I’m gettin’ was less meal ev’ry day

Refrain
Oh, ye canny fling pieces oot a twenty-story flat
Seven hundred hungry weans will testify tae that
If it’s butter, cheese or jeely, if the breid is plain or pan,
The odds against it reachin’ us is ninty-nine tae wan.

****

We’re wrote away tae Oxfam tae try an’ get some aid,
We’ve a’ joined thegither an’ formed a “piece” brigade,
We’re gonny march tae London tae demand oor Civil Rights,
Like “Nae mair hooses ower piece flingin’ heights.” (117-118)

Moving on to 45.  ‘Necklace of community projects’, how cool is that? They write:

The local town hall will not be an honest part of the community which lives around it, unless it is itself surrounded by all kinds of small community activities and projects, generated by the people for themselves. (243)

These are political projects of opposition in part, but free and low-cost space for any number of things to begin, projects to come together, things to be created. Exactly the kind of spaces that real estate capital tends to destroy.

Pattern 47 is Health center — and they look at Peckham Health Center as a model. I’ve been meaning to look into that place for ages, and its early focus on staying healthy and thinking about it holistically rather than simply seeing health as the absence of disease.

Green streets? Yes please, many small residential roads do not need asphalt and would be perfectly lovely with paving stones or concrete treads for tires, allowing natural drainage, reducing heat trapped and use of non-renewable resources and making it feel good to be and play in. I’m in.

Lots of small public squares — wonderful. Here they make the point that the operative word is small, that it is small plazas that are most used unless there is a very large flow of people past a place. The authors have put so much time and thoughtfulness into this book, they suggest 60 feet in diameter (at least in width, long and skinny seems to work as well), bigger than that and places don’t feel used, vibrant.

The idea of outdoor rooms, both public and private — we should have them. It is true as they say that

There are very few spots along the streets of modern towns and neighborhoods where people can hang out comfortably, for hours at a time. (349)

I’d go further than that and say that such a thing would be frowned up and disapproved of in the US and UK these days, that kind of social fabric is something belonging to the past. There is to be no more enjoyment of time. Unless  maybe you’re on the Mediterranean, or Aegean.

We need to end speculation and profit on housing of course. Of course. ‘Rental areas are always the first to turn to slums.’ But as importantly,

People will only be able to feel comfortable in their houses, if they can change their houses to suit themselves, add on whatever they need, rearrange the garden as they like it… (394).

This is a book that describes thick living walls that can be carved out, shaped by incoming families. Niches made and filled. Gardens created. Rooms added on. Their rule of thumb for this pattern?

Do everything possible to make the traditional form of rental impossible, indeed, illegal. Give every household its own home, with space enough for a garden. Keep the emphasis in the definition of ownership on control, not on financial ownership (395).

They want to reinstitute the inn, a warm centre where strangers can stay, congregate, meet, entertain each other. Yes, I say.

Open space and gardens are used if they are sunny (with deserts being somewhat of an exception). So put them on the south side. How hard is that?

Connect your buildings, create some density, don’t create dead space between buildings! They write ‘Isolated buildings are symptoms of a disconnected sick society’ (532), and I think they may be right. make sure they’re insulated for sound of course, but that saves on energy and space and all kinds of things. I also like the idea of lines of long thin houses facing the world on the long sides, rather than the narrow ends as they do now. That makes sense to me in terms of sunlight and view, but apparently mathematically it creates the greatest feeling of spaciousness and allows the maximum flexibility in arrangement of space. Who knew?

They go all the way down into seemingly minor details of what makes us happy and comfortable, but still so important. A wall at our backs when outside, arcades that bridge the spaces inside and outside. Building edges should be crenellated to create interest and space for people passing by, and as much care should be given to the space surrounding the buildings as to the buildings themselves– they form a whole. They notice that people tend to hug the edges of squares — if those don’t work, the square will never work. That homes should have an entrance room to make it feel as though you have truly arrived somewhere. They write:

The most impressionistic and intuitive way to describe the need for the entrance room is to say that the time of arriving, or leaving, seems to swell with respect to the minutes which precede and follow it, and that in order to be congruent with the importance of the moment, the space too must follow suit and swell with respect to the immediate inside and the immediate outside of the building. (623)

Cool.

They think of what children most need from space as they grow, ending with possible private entrances and private roofs. They junk the Victorian ideals of tiny bedrooms rooms in favour of children having bed niches surrounding shared space for living rather than sleeping, small dressing rooms for that which we want to keep most private. Distance and space alone for parents. Rooms that are never perfectly square or uniform. Building materials that are easily used by people without much experience, cheap, and ecologically greener. They even have some plans and rules of thumb for building.

I read through this — skimmed often, as this is more meant to be a working book, one you flip through as you plan your own space and its building — and was immensely impressed. So much of this lies outside commonly accepted wisdom on ‘good’ development, yet intuitively so much of this feels right. I want to sit and just imagine what society might transform into if more were built this way.

It makes me want to build.

(Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns. Buildings. Construction. NY: Oxford University Press.)

More on building social spaces…

and even more…

 

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Topophilia (pt 1)

4462961I’d seen Yi-Fu Tuan mentioned  a number of times, but it was still whim that led me to pick up this book because I thought it might help with some of the ways I’ve been thinking about how human beings connect to places. This particularly in a still unfinished response to some of Doreen Massey’s work on the politics of place, which to me mirrors many of the problems in capitalist development and also sadly in Planning and Geography both. I saw this

Topophilia is the affective bond between people and place or setting. Diffuse as concept, vivid and concrete as personal experience, topophilia is the recurrent theme of the book (4).

So it was surprising, and a little delightful I confess, to go from there bounding off through some social biology like this:

Ultraviolet rays are invisible to man, though ants and the honey bees are sensitive to them. Man has no direct perception of infrared rays, unlike the rattlesnake… (6)

I am easily distracted by thinking of how much in the world we are missing, all the things out there that we cannot see or feel or smell. I am easily impressed by rattlesnakes, have loved them ever since we were little even though we invariably killed them when they came too near the house. But it is interesting to think of the biological bases for our perceptions.

It turns out that this is a sprawling book that unearths various academic disciplines, art and poetry to examine from different viewpoints our connection to land. I’m still considering what ties it all together, it is not at all obvious, so this reads something like a collection of my favourite bits. Which it is, but in that sense it mirrors the book itself.

The first half in particular took me back to my old undergrad sociology and anthropology days raising no small degree of nostalgia with section headings like ‘harmonious whole, binary oppositions, and cosmological schemata,’ and citations of Durkheim, Mauss, Levi-Strauss. There were stories of remote tribes and how they related to the world. A man emerging for the first time from the Amazonian rainforest and unable to judge distance, like Dougal from Father Ted (who had no such excuse) unable to tell what was small and what was just far away. He also calls upon Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, poets Eliot, Sandburg and cummings.

This walked a thin line for me as I hate it when people gaily argue we are all the same, but I think he managed to stay on the right side of it — teasing out processes, ways of thinking, methods of making sense of the world that peoples around the world hold in common rather than the content of our understandings. Something I find useful though it can be by no means definitive. Like this one, which I particularly liked:

Generally speaking [my partner usually attempts forlornly to shut me up when I start a sentence like that], we may say that only the visitor (and particularly the tourist) has a viewpoint; his perception is often a matter of using his eyes to compose pictures. The native, by contrast, has a complex attitude derived from his immersion in the totality of his environment. The visitor’s viewpoint, being simple, is easily stated. Confrontation with novelty may also prompt him to express himself. The complex attitude of the native, on the other hand, can be expressed by him only with difficulty and indirectly through behavior, local tradition, lore, and myth (63).

I think he misses here the role that art can play, the different ways in which a photographer/ painter/ writer/ self-aware person might compose scenes, layer history and character and experience on top of them. But I like to think about how we experience place when we’re not thinking about it, which this attempts to capture. He argues the vistor’s ‘evaluation of environment is essentially aesthetic…The outsider judges by appearance, by some formal canon of beauty. A special effort is required to empathize with the lives and values of the inhabitants (64).’

He is not initially writing about modern redevelopment here, but captures in a nutshell its purpose of attracting visitors and its ugliness as it discourages such empathy — and goes on to cite the work of Herbert Gans’ study of Boston’s West End, a much-loved neighbourhood demolished for urban renewal.

There is a section on changing views of mountains, and this:

A great Alpine tourist, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer of Zurich, made nine extensive trips through the mountains between 1702 and 1711. He was a botanist and a geologist. He made barometric measurements of height and theorized on how ice moved but he also gave a reasoned catalogue of Swiss dragons, arranged according to cantons.

A beautiful fragment from Thomas Traherne:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with stars (98).

He reminded me of how we have lost our awe and fear in face of the wilderness — because nature no longer exists in the raw overwhelming power it once did. We have for the most part confined it to parks and preserves, big and wondrous as they are we are still aware of their boundaries and their vulnerability in our minds. He writes ‘As a state of the mind, true wilderness exists only in the great sprawling cities’ (112). I have to think about that.

I laughed when I read ‘The Sudan is monotonous and niggardly [! a word that dates this as surely as the all male pronouns] to the outsider, but Evans-Pritchard says that he can hardly persuade the Nuer who live there that better places exist outside its confines’ (114). Evans-Pritchard, what a dick. Only proving the point that it is often where we are raised that defines our aesthetic sense of a good place to live — and we desert dwellers often suffer for it. Yet sadly it still doesn’t stop people stealing the land.

There is a wonderful section that looks at the relationship between the natural world and how we depict and recreate it through art, words, gardens. He writes:

Only roughly do painted landscapes image external reality. We cannot depend on the visual arts to provide us with clues as to how particular places looked in the past; nor can we depend on them for what the artists personally delighted in, but we can take painted landscapes to be special structurings of reality that for a time enjoyed a measure of popular acclaim (122).

The contrast between Chinese landscapes and others:

…the Chinese have never developed linear perspective with the mathematical rigidity that for a time found favour in European painting. Perspective existed but from shifting standpoints. There is no single horizon. Elements in the landscape are drawn as though the eye were free to vary the horizontal direction along which it looks into the depth of a picture (137).

I love his discussion of cathedrals, in medieval times surrounded by clusters of buildings, never really meant to be seen in its entirety:

…to see the cathedral from a distance would diminish its impact of bulk and verticality. The details of its facade would no longer be visible. The medieval cathedral was meant to be experienced; it was a dense text to be read with devout attention and not an architectural form to be merely seen. In fact some figures and decorations could not be seen at all. They were made for the eyes of God (137-138).

From cathedrals to gardens — it’s like he knows my favourite things. Clearly there is a relationship here with traditional Chinese landscapes:

The Chinese garden evolved in antithesis to the city. Poised against the rectilinear geometry of the city are the natural lines and spaces of the garden. In the city of man one finds hierarchical order, in the garden the complex informality of nature, Social distinctions are discarded in the garden where man is free to contemplate and commune with nature in neglect of his fellow human beings. The garden is not designed to give the visitor a certain number of privileged views; seeing is an aesthetic and intellectual activity that puts a distance between the object and the observer. The garden is designed to involved, to encompass the visitor who, as he walks along a winding trail, is exposed to constantly shifting scenes (138).

How liberating these must have seemed to Europeans, and he captures their gardens perfectly:

The garden was for show: it glorified man. From the royal bedroom at Versailles the Sun King of France could gaze down a long central vista, which was made to seem even longer by the flat sheets of water and the sentinel of trees. Such a show of human will in formal design left no sense of nature or of the divine.

… emphasis is put on the increasing tendency to see the garden as an environment for the house, the garden as a place of controlled aesthetic experience from a limited number of standpoints. The garden caters primarily to sight. .. the habitual use of the eyes leads us to appreciate the world as a spatial entity of well-defined lines, surfaces and solids. The other senses teach us to perceive the world as a rich unfocused ambiance (140).

I am loving thinking that through, turning it over in my mind. Tuan then looks at how this translates into language, which is rather fascinating I confess, though I am wary of such generalisations:

The cosmos of premodern man was multistoried; nature was rich in symbols, its objects could be read at several levels and evoke emotion-laden response. We are aware of ambiguity in language. The language of ordinary discourse, and a fortiori of poetry, is rich in symbols and metaphors. Science, by contrast, strives to remove the possibility of multiple readings. A traditional world has the ambiguity and richness of ordinary and ritual speech. The modern world, on the other hand, aspires to be transparent and literal (141).

Again it is a shutting down of meaning, of richness into clean definitions. This reminds me of Voloshinov and especially Bakhtin’s celebrations of the carnival of language and how that continues always, but often in opposition of those who would seek to control and kill it.

I feel that there is so much in here that offers a particular insight to a particular problem, roughly like a cloud forming I feel what it might mean for our lived spaces and how we experience them — how they experience us. Do they encompass us, hold us, are they forced to frame our greatness like a backdrop or inspire others with an awe of our power over them. Do they control our points of view, our interactions with others, or do they allow us to relax, look and wander, feel respite from the presence of people. I still struggle with this book as a whole, want to move on to something a little more concrete. This is far too abstract for the intensity of connection I feel, and I know others feel, for certain places and the struggle that invariably arises over that under capitalism.

It was also particularly rich in the final sections on the city, so those will fill a future post