A rethinking of cities and ecologies in the trees at the magic hour of sunset. ‘Spontaneous City at Cow Tower’ by London Fieldworks: open to occupation by birds and insects. A time for imagination.
I’ve been wanting to read Oliver Rackham‘s History of the Countryside since my smallholding adventures. Now comes springtime, my upcoming birthday, finally a day to breathe after possibly the most punishing period of my working life…
I miss my blog so much.
Reading Rackham I am filled with such a glorious and enormous weight of knowledge, centuries of human activity intertwined with these myriad ecologies of soil, water, rock, flora, fauna. The ability (still untested of course) to better read a thousand years or more in the landscape. This is mostly just a collection of delightful facts which are rather better interwoven in the book. But this is much shorter.
First, this delightful thought.
Insights may also come at random from travels made, or documents read, for some quite different purpose. I went to Texas to discuss Cretan archaeology, and what I saw made me revise my views on hedges.
Another — the argument for history’s continuity over brutal violent change, the roller coaster of civilization and darkness we were once taught:
Many recent excavations reveal a gradual changeover with little apparent effect on the landscape; sometimes, as at Rivenhall (Essex), it is not easy to tell at what point the Roman Britons turned into Anglo-Saxons. The ecological evidence strongly favours continuity. When the curtain is raised by Anglo-Saxon documents, much of what we now regard as the ‘classic’ English landscape was already there, had already acquired its regional differences, and as far as we can tell was not new. It increasingly seems likely that, at least since the Iron Age, every inch of the British Isles has either belonged to somebody or has been expressly set aside for communal use. Not just main roads but wide areas of fields and lanes are Roman (or earlier) antiquities, and survived the Dark Ages almost intact. (xiv)
He divides the lowland English & Welsh landscape into Ancient Countryside and Planned Countryside, with various uplands (where I live now) — I find this transforms how I see countryside and England itself. So it’s not just a string of delightful facts after all.
Hamlets & small towns
Ancient isolated farms
Hedges mainly mixed, not straight
Roads many, not straight, often sunken
Many public footpaths
Woods many, often small
Pollard trees, if present, away from habitation
Many antiquities of all periods
Open field either absent or of modest extent and abolished before c 1700
Most hedges ancient
Many though often small woods
Non-woodland trees oak, ash, alder, birch
18th & 19th C isolated farms
Hedges mainly hawthorne, straight
Roads few, straight, on surface
Woods absent or few & large
Pollard trees (except riverside willows) absent or only in villages
Antiquities few, usually prehistoric
Strong tradition of open-field beginning early and last into Enclosure Act period
Most hedges modern
Woods absent or few & large
Heaths rare; little bracken or broom
Non-woodland thorns and elders
I quite love these, simple, quite obvious ways of reading the landscape and of course they explain so much. The ridge and furrow I loved — not as old as I thought, went tearing through ancient landscapes and over burrows and standing stones…maybe I don’t love them quite as much. I can’t decide.
He challenges accepted views of deforestation with two quotations, one from John Evelyn talking about the ways that the new voracious Glass and Iron-works have destroyed the woods and another from Defoe about the inexhaustible woods all around. He writes
Unfortunately many historians confine themselves to the written word or, worse still, to the literary world; they are reluctant to put on their boots and see what the land itself, and the things that grow on it, have to say. (6)
It turns out that most of the iron- and glass-works managed for hundreds of years on coppiced woods and that in truth, there was no great loss of woods at this time. The woods that were lost were lost primarily to agriculture. This is a constant theme, that it is all well and good to write histories of what people thought about the landscape, but ‘let us not confuse this with the history of what people did with the landscape, still less with the history of the landscape itself or of what the landscape did with people‘. (23)
He describes the Anglo-Saxon charters, the perambulations used to delineate the boundaries — they are amazing. He gives this example:
First up from the Thames along the merfleot [=boundary creek]; to the pollard stump; so to Bulung fen; from the fen along the old ditch to Cowford; from Cowford up along teobern [the river Tyburn] to the wide army-road; from the army-road to the old post-built St Andrew’s church; so into London fen; along the fen south to the Thames to mid-stream; along the upstream by land & shore back to the merfleot. (from the year 959)
The wide-army road is High Holborn, the fen around Fleet Street. These details give me such happiness, seeing old lines of water and earth beneath the city I know so well.
He talks of the rural maps of the 1860s and 70s, ‘which attempt to record every hedgerow tree and the details of every building…the zenith of rural mapmaking in Britain and perhaps in the world‘ (19). Notes the various traditions of preserving the boundaries, like Great Gransden where they dug a hole in a certain spot and held the Vicar’s head in it. There is so much to love about England.
There is also a real sense of how much has been lost by the rise of mass agriculture of the 1950s and 60s — he writes of four kinds of loss.
There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. The loss of freedom [of highways, movement across the landscape]…The loss of historic vegetation and wildlife…the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us. (26)
All due to big agriculture, ‘the makers of chemicals, fertilizers and machinery‘. I sometimes worry about the touches of nostalgia to be found here, but he’s not wrong about this. He’s also quite entertainingly curmudgeonly. Like his footnote complaint about the historical accuracy of producers of historical films: ‘they do not allow Charles I to fly in a plane, but they do let him ride among Corsican pine plantations or Frisian cattle!‘ (31)
There is a list of extinct animals — the aurochs, sad they are gone, and wolves. Even sadder. But this is fascinating:
In Anglo-Saxon times, unpersons (!) and men on the run were declares wulvesheafod (wolves-head) and if caught ended on a wolves-head tree. (34)
Then there is this partial list of what Henry III had for his Christmas dinner — him wot finished off the last of the wild swine in England (his demands for immense amounts of all kinds of things we no longer eat recur throughout the book, though at times contrasted with similar if not such extensive demands of lesser gentry)–200 wild swine from Dean and 100 from Pickering–he ordered the last remaining wild swine, found in the forest of Dean, killed for a friend (what a friend!) in 1260.
The polecat was also known as the foulmart. Amazing. Except that it is not actually a cat, though it is cute and endangered.
There is also the remarkable information about rabbits, but I might do a separate post about them. I had no idea rabbits were so interesting.
Another fabulous footnote (though you know I disagree utterly):
The horse-chesnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is quite unrelated (and poisonous) introduced in the sixteenth-century from Albania. It is still unmistakenly exotic and has not become wild. It is a sad example of a once glamorous species, associated with oriental romance and spectacle, being deprived of its meaning through being made the universal tree of bus-stations. (54)
God I know so much about woodland now. Also forests, which often had no trees at all, only deer. I know about coppicing, pollarding and all things brilliant about managing woods as a renewable resource. This chart, ah this chart:
The first evidence (he says in the world but I am not holding my breath) for woodsmanship — those amazing early Neolithic causeways across the Somerset levels, oak structures with underwood poles of ash, lime, elm, oak and alder. The causeways…my heart beats faster, wooden walkways across the fens now buried but how I wish I could have seen them.
Some lovely stuff about the local vernacular of building, the differing fashions not always dependent on local materials — thus Cambridge built primarily in wood (apart from the colleges) despite the presence of easily worked stone. He writes
‘The only generality is that, where a region has not much timber building, it will be urban…Timber was an architectural medium: a ‘wealth of exposed beams’ looked picturesque and expressed prestige; it was not necessary to hold up the structure’. (86)
And was of course plastered over again as fashion changed. He continues:
Most medieval buildings are made from large numbers of small oaks; ever timber, large or small, is made from the smallest tree that will serve the purpose. The carpenter chose trees of the sizes required and squared them up, usually leaving the corners rounded (‘waney’). Oaks, then as now, were crooked and carpenters made ingenious use of the irregular shapes into which they grow. This was from choice: carpenters could saw big oaks lengthwise into several beams when they had to….(86)
Again we return to errors of economic historians, who describe woods destroyed for fuel, particularly for the iron industry between 1550 and 1700. But it didn’t happen, they never touched timber trees only underwood, and drew this from their own woods managed over long periods of time. He even describes the ways that merchant ships were built of timber, but HM Navy preferred to scrounge from the wood-pastures. He writes ‘H.M.S. Victory, built 1759-65, is ingeniously put together from great numbers of the smallest, and therefore cheapest, practicable oaks (91).
The myth evolves from the big shift in rural society and economics — when wood became understood as primarily timber and not as energy. This shift, partly due to the rise of cheap coal, is is when the sustainable management and harvesting of woodlands shifted to purely timber production. And oh the damage that that has caused.
I hadn’t realised that most older woods will have earthworks along their boundaries, built to keep animals out and protect tender young shoots and leaves. These remain, though sometimes they have been overtaken by secondary wood expanding outwards and across the boundary. Things to look for I never knew to look for. And a splendid note: ‘(no Forest was complete without a resident hermit).’ (147)
We come to older ways of parceling out and working the land. Reaves…I had never heard of reaves, yet my love of Dartmoor is great.
Reaves tell a story of country planning on a gigantic scale: of an organization able to parcel out tens of square miles as it pleased, and which set its rules of geometry above the practicalities of dealing with gorges and bogs…(156)
They seem to have been in full use from the Bronze Age — and similar systems have been found elsewhere, including Nottinghamshire and Berkshire. Splendid.
This chart that shows how lynchets are created, some of them from the neolithic:
So after all the open fields, and the effect they had on the landscape aren’t quite as exciting as I once thought. Still, they do reflect a degree of collectivization of land and organisation of labour, which makes them really interesting. Rackham describes 7 cardinal features:
- Divided into a multitude of strips, with each farmer’s strips distributed regularly or randomly throughout the field
- These strips aggregated into furlongs and those into fields. All farmers grew the same crop in each furlong, each 3rd field left fallow
- Animals of all farmers released to graze the stubble and the fallow field
- farmers shared in labour of cultivating each others strips
- Hedges few, and no enclosed circuits
- Strips ploughed to form ridge-and-furrow
- Regular meetings held to decide cultivation practices, fine dissidents
There is so much there to love.
Along with this diagram of how ridge and furrow are made:
Interestingly enough there’s no clear date for when it started. Some believed the Anglo-Saxons brought it with them, but there is apparently no evidence in Germany that it was in existence there earlier than in England. Some date it to after the Norman conquest. The largest concentration of them is at Uffington Scarp, and Rackham argues that attention to the Anglo-Saxon charters shows convincing evidence that the open-field systems existed at the time — and therefore this distinction between planned and ancient countryside already existed — through their descriptions though there is no specific reference to open-fields. He also notes that similar systems can be found in Scandinavian, Welsh and Gaelic cultures in the UK and French, Germanic, Slavonic and Greek cultures in Europe.
He writes ‘Open-field, with its rapid spread, has all the marks of a Dark Age invention.’ (178) I don’t know why, but wondering just how that happened gives me chills.
We go on to hedges. I love them. There is some evidence of the Roman management of hedges of hawthorne and occasionally they were given names in the Anglo-Saxon records (ealden hegestowe – old hedge-place). Lovely.
Not so lovely, the great enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries required so many plants it became a big business and initiated the founding of several nurseries. They mostly used hawthorne and only hawthorne for speed and cheapness, unlike earlier hedges planted with various trees and shrubs.
I love, of course, the knowledge that hedges can be dated fairly well by identifying the number of species of plant present there — from among a certain list of plants. Some have been identified as 1000 years old, with up to ten of these present. He gives a number of exceptions as well, so you always want your hedge to match clues from the surrounding countryside.
A wonderful chapter about individual trees, in farmyards, villages, woods. Trees with names. The splendid black poplar which I shall seek out. The long life of stag headed trees.
Another chapter on Elms — there are more elms than we have name for as they primarily reproduce through suckers but occasionally something new altogether is produced through seed. He writes:
Without the restraining influence of sex on evolutionary change, elms (like dandelions and brambles) have produced a multitude of different forms. The taxonomist, devising Latin names, cannot keep up with this process). (232)
I quite love that.
Highways — and not modern car-filled horrible highways, but the ways that people cross the land. He contrasts England with Greece and writes
The much more stable road system of Britain is partly the consequence of our climate and multitude of rivers, which require paths and roads to be structures and not mere routes; it also reflects English and Welsh, rather than Scottish or continental, attitudes to rights of way. The idea that ownership of land includes rights to keep the public off it and to be rude to well-behaved trespassers is partly due to the general increase in landowners rights in the last 200 years; but traces of this idea can be found in documents from earlier periods and in the landscape itself. (248)
Again, a fascinating mention of the wooden trackways across the Somerset levels, but not enough. A bit about Roman roads — like they weren’t all completely straight, just the ones the army was building. Though they are mostly straight, to be fair. I love the idea of traveling old roads.
A little about purprestures — or people building into roads. A little about the trenches of Roman roads and the trenches and open spaces built along medieval roads to stop the predations of highwaymen. All of these histories can be seen now in varying forms — primarily the alignment of current roads, fields and parish boundaries. The formation of heath, with its stripes and polygons, and of moors and grasslands.
The fact that moles were once called moldywarpes.
There is more documentation of villagers coming together to undertake the work of irrigating meadows — not as at home to water them primarily, but to carry fertilizer in the form of calcium leached from the springs. Curious. A whole section on ponds, dells and pits. I was losing steam a bit at this point, but when I next encounter such a thing I shall remember. Or know where to look. Like marshes, fens and the sea.
There is so much more of course, a splendid book.
I found Timothy Morton’s book Hyperobjects fairly incomprehensible — I know next to nothing of OOO, or Object Oriented Ontology — but find the concept of the hyperobject compelling and incredibly useful in thinking about the world. I thank Mark, and Karolina and Anya giving us our time in Poland for bringing it to my attention…
Climate change is the hyperobject under discussion
massively distributed in time and space relative to humans (1).
it is bigger than we can comprehend but is also something caused by us. It is out there impacting in multiple different ways across the world and yet it is also the heat wave and the hurricane we experience directly against our skin. It started long ago yet it defines our future and thus squeezes upon our present. As Morton writes,
The very feeling of wondering whether the catastrophe will begin soon is a symptom of its already having begun. (177)
Because of all this, hyperobjects are reflected in our thought art action, conscious and unconscious. Capitalism is another hyperobject, and to me this opens up so many avenues of thought.
I’ve been trying to deal with the desolation and fear I have been flooded with since Trump’s election yesterday — a day in which I could not work, just restlessly do nothing much at all. In trying to understand this terrible thing, I think a lot can be argued for this idea of climate change as a hyperobject. I think ultimately Trump rode to power on the fear of the immensity and unknowability of climate change and these crisis days of capitalism. This terrifying future that people can feel approaching, the knowledge that everything is shrinking and everything is changing and resources do not exist to sustain America’s current way of life — or ever bring back the days when a high school diploma and a manufacturing job could get you a house and a decent life. The fear this inspires, even when not acknowledged or outright denied.
So the scramble for resources has begun I think, they will be saved for the few, the ‘deserving’, and Trump has made clear who those few are — based on the historic divisions emerging from Native American genocide, slavery, class warfare, and of course our current wars that are all about oil resources. So white folks earning over $50,000 a year voted Trump in through the electoral college once again — he lost the popular vote. Even among, especially among, the climate change deniers there is a bunkering down without any sense of irony. There will be a gathering of resources behind high walls and ever deeper divisions between ‘us’ on one side and ‘them’ on the other. A growing violence and ruthlessness towards ‘them’ in the name of survival — and god knows it has been terrible enough already. My mother will be one of ‘them’, most of my friends and all of those I stand with in solidarity. People of colour, muslims, the poor, immigrants, LGBTQI folks, the disabled. It is like my dad’s old pistol-packing coworker who he helped move a truckload of canned peaches into her bunker for the end of days. A kind of insanity that is based on the philosophy of getting mine, and fuck everyone else.
I sit here, sick with worry. Even more helpless given my distance. So Morton’s abstractions and rhetoric seem a little too abstract — as they did before the election to be honest. But I shall give you a large taste — the opacity of the language may or may not hide something deeper that I am missing. I’m honestly not sure. I think this is a valuable concept to examine today’s world but this is quite a pick’n mix approach to the book that will probably horrify philosophers. I apologise in advance.
Morton’s summation of hyperobjects:
They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any “local manifestation” of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. … Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time. And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge… Hyperobjects are real whether or not someone is thinking of them. (1-2)
They are so big they impact everything, and we don’t have to be aware of it to be true. Which is what I find fascinating about this idea:
No longer are my intimate impressions “personal” in the sense that they are “merely mine” or “subjective only”: they are footprints of hyperobjects… (5)
The world has already ended, Morton argues. The first time in April 1784 when James Watt patented the steam engine. The second in Trinity, NM in 1945, the first atom bomb test. I feel like it has ended a third time in a way. But I mostly hate this rhetoric because while Morton argues this liberates us, I think it does the opposite.
I do however, like to recognise how small we are made by what we face:
For what comes into view for humans at this moment is precisely the end of the world, brought about by the encroachment of hyperobjects, one of which is assuredly Earth itself, and its geological cycles demand a geophilosophy that doesn’t think simply in terms of human events and human significance. (7)
An aside on OOO to place it within philosophy’s canon — this is part of
speculative realism is the umbrella terms for a movement that comprises such scholars as Graham Harman, Jane Bennett, Quentin Meillasoux, Patrica Clough, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, Steven Shaviro, Reza Negarestani, Ray Brassier and an emerging host fo others… to break the spell that descended on philosophy since the Romantic period. The spell known as correlationism, the notion that philosophy can only talk within a narrow bandwidth, restricted to the human-world correlate: meaning is only possible between a human mind and what it thinks, its “objects” … The problem as correlationism sees it is, is the light on in the fridge when you close the door? (9)
Part 1 What Are Hyperobjects?
The awful shadow of some unseen power
— Percy Shelley
This book draws on two things I enjoy, SF and quantum physics — all the things I struggled to come to terms with in Green and Hawking’s work (and failed, significantly in grasping really). Things like tiny forks vibrating and not vibrating simultaneously — visible to the human eye. I wish my own eye could see such a thing.
Hyperobjects are touching us, making our hair fall out, our skin blister, yet they are nonlocal — we are not the centre of the universe nor are we privileged actors. He writes:
Locality is an abstraction…Heavy rain is simply a local manifestation of some vast entity that I’m unable directly to see. (47-48)
In grasping at the local, the individual, we destroy the sense of the larger whole:
Stop the tape of evolution anywhere and you won’t see it. Stand under a rain cloud and it’s not global warming you’ll feel. Cut your throat into a thousand pieces — you won’t find capital in there. Now try pointing to the unconscious. Did you catch it? Hyperobjects compel us to think ecologically, and not the other way round. … Nowhere in the long list of catastrophic weather events…will you find global warming. But global warming is as real as this sentence. (48)
It touches all of us.
In a sense, we can expect human egos to be pockmarked with the traces of hyperobjects. We are all burnt by ultraviolet rays… We are poems about the hyperobject Earth. (51)
Yet this does not negate the specificity of things themselves.
When I think nonlocality in this way, I am not negating the specificity of things, evaporating them into the abstract mist of the general, the larger or the less local. Nonlocality is far weirder than that. When it comes to hyperobjects, nonloocality means that the general itself is compromised by the particular. When I look for the hyperobject oil, I don’t find it. Oil just is droplets, flows, rivers, and slicks of oil. I do not find the object by looking sub specie aeternitatis, but by seeing things sub specie majoris, sub specie inhumanae. (54)
He looks at Negarestani’s Cyclonpedia, suffused with oil — I struggled my way through this book when I first came to London. It is rather weird and wonderful.
Because we can’t see to the end of them, hyperobjects are necessarily uncanny. (55)
It is interesting to think that a bounded object we cannot see the limits of should seem greater than infinity, but I think he’s right:
There is a real sense in which it is far easier to conceive of “forever” than very large finitude. Forever makes you feel important. One hundred thousand years makes you wonder whether you can imagine one hundred thousand anything. (60)
Two asides (for me) on Einstein’s physics and things I don’t understand but rather enjoy grappling with:
…the pencil you are holding in your fingers is only a rigid extended body on account of a false immediacy. Nothing in the universe apprehends the pencil like that, really. Not even the pencil apprehends itself like that. (62)
Spacetime turns from a grid-like box into what Einstein fantastically calls a “reference-mollusk.” Reference-mollusks exist precisely because of hyperobjects that emanate gravitational fields. In these fields geometry is not Euclidean. (63)
There is quite a lot about space in here, theorised in opposition to Newton rather than sociology, which is more familiar to me. So Morton writes
To understand hyperobjects, however, is to think the abyss in front of things. (63)
and then this, which I thought Lefebvre and other had ended decades ago, but I suppose not in physics:
Hyperobjects end the idea that time and space are empty containers that entities sit in. (65)
Hyperobjects are phased: they occupy a high-dimensional phase space that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis.
We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time. (70)
I struggle with how this is different from non-locality
As it is, I only see brief patches of this gigantic object as it intersects with my world. The brief patch I call a hurricane destroys the infrastructure of New Orleans… (71)
Hyperobjects don’t inhabit some conceptual beyond in our heads or out there. They are real objects that affect other objects. Indeed the philosophical view behind thinking that objects are one thing and relations (which is what we’re really talking about when we talk about math or transcendence) are another positively inhibits our transition to an ecological age, even as it poses sophisticated theories of emergence or process. (73)
I need to think more about objects and relations maybe. This too I find rather difficult to get my head around:
The abyss does not underlie things, but rather allows things to coexist: it is the nonspatial “betweeness” of things. Whenever I put my hand into the toaster oven I am thrusting part of my body into an abyss. (79)
The abyss in front of things is interobjective. It floats among objects, “between” them… On this view, what is called intersubjectivity— a shared space in which human meaning resonates–is a small region of a much larger interobjective configuration space. Hyperobjects disclose interobjectivity. The phenomenon we call intersubjectivity is just a local, anthropocentric instance of a much more widespread phenomenon… (81)
Stop privileging the human, the anthropocentric. There are many indigenous systems that do this, to all my relations is this same idea, no? Easier to understand, easier to incorporate into a better way of life. But I continue the struggle with these words, where everything is connected interobjectively through what he calls the mesh, and goes on to write things I am not entirely sure I find useful or not:
Hyperobjects simply enable us to see what is generally the case:
Protagoras notwithstanding, objects are not made-to-measure for humans.
Objects do not occur “in” time and space, but rather emit spacetime.
Causality does not churn underneath objects like a machine in the basement, but rather floats in front of them.
The causal dimension, in which things like explosions are taken to happen, is also the aesthetic dimension, in which things like Nude Descending a Staircase are taken to happen. (89-90)
There is some interesting stuff about cities I shall collect together at the end, but a final thought:
The present does not truly exist. We experience a crisscrossing set of force fields, the aesthetic-causal fields emanated by a host of objects. (93)
PART II: The Time of Hyperobjects
A hyperobject has ruined the weather conversations, which functions as part of a neutral screen that enables us to have human drama in the foreground. In an age of global warming, there is no background, and thus there is no foreground. It is the end of the world, since worlds depend on background and foregrounds. (99)
Ah, the end of the world! I still can’t quite grasp this, but unlike some of the other concepts to be found here, I rather want to. This too:
Lifeworld was just a story we were telling ourselves on the inside of a vast, massively distributed hyperobject called climate… (103)
On sustainability — a major development engine and fundraising mechanism these days, making perfect sense of this:
The common name for managing and regulating flows is sustainability. But what exactly is being sustained? “Sustained capitalism” might be one of those contradictions in terms along the lines of “military intelligence.” (111)
I like, too, the insight that given the way capital operates and how it is based on raw materials –
Nature is the featureless remainder at either end of the process of production. (112)
This is one of the lies our world is built on that is crumbling at the approach of climate change as hyperobject.
I rather like this sentence, what does it mean? I don’t know.
Marx was partly wrong, then, when in The Communist Manifesto he claimed that in capitalism all that is solid melts into air. He didn’t’ see how a hypersolidity oozes back into the emptied-out space of capitalism. (115)
So to come to the end, to look at the city metaphor he uses for the hyperobject — I am actually fascinated that we should have built something so legible, so mappable, that yet could serve as a hyperobject. That is rather fascinating. Morton writes:
The streets beneath the streets, the Roman Wall, the boarded-up houses, the unexploded bombs, are records of everything that happened to London. London’s history is its form. Form is memory. …
Appearance is the past. Essence is the future. The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility–it’s the future, somehow beamed into the “present.”(91)
Later in the book he returns to this:
A hyperobject is like a city — indeed a city like London could provide a good example of a hyperobject. Cities and hyperobjects are full of strange streets, abandoned entrances, cul-de-sacs, and hidden interstitial regions. (120)
I’m playing with that idea more. But a final glimpse at Morton’s own descriptions of hyperobjects
What best explains ecological awareness is a sense of intimacy, not a sense of belonging to something bigger: a sense of being close, even too close, to other lifeforms, of having them under one’s skin. Hyperobjects force us into an intimacy with out own death (because they are toxic), with others (because everyone is affected by them), and with the future (because they are massively distributed in time.) (139)
[Morton, Timothy (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.]
I loved The Colors of Nature, edited by poet Alison H. Deming and scientist Lauret E. Savoy, one white and one Black. I took it with me as mum and I drove through the desert, read pieces of it in Tuba City, Chama, Mountainair.
Both women understand that human history and natural history are braided strands in the weave of their existence. This, too, is a common ground given to them by their differences. But no monochromatic sens of human history will suffice to express their certainty that the pain at the foundation of American culture–whether one’s ancestors have been on the side of the wounding or the woundedness–informs our sense of place on Earth and our connections with each other. And so the women begin a new conversation. (5)
First things first though:
…nature writing remains, for the most part, the precinct of the Euro-American privileged class. The editors of this anthology are convinced that the “lack” of nature writing by people of color reflects the limited perspective of both the defining audience and the publishing community more than the lack of interest in the natural world by writers of color. (6)
So now that is out of the way, I loved the conversation between the editors that serves as introduction:
Savoy: What I’ve seen as a great potential strength of writing about nature is that narrative inquiry of a larger world extending beyond human institutions could refocus our attention outward, situate us, and ultimately help us understand better how to live in that world responsibly and ethically. Such writing, and the visions created in story, can inform and illuminate the processes of understanding ecological relationships, pattern and community within and beyond the human realm. But I also see this strength as only partially realized in that too many experiences of people not of Euro-American descent–experience that transcend history and point to deeply embedded cultural values and conflicts on this continent–seem to lie outside of the genre’s domain. (7)
Yet these are vital. Again and again it all comes back to where white experience is rooted. From Savoy:
The fulfillment of Euro-America’s exploration and empire–of land acquisition and use and expansion of a new nation on what was believed to be a clean slate of wilderness–owed much to the processes of colonization, of slavery, of dispossession and forced removal from homeland to reservation. (9)
Deming: Because the American past is stained with the ugliness of genocide and slavery (“No nation,” wrote James Baldwin, “has ever made so successful and glamorous a romance out of genocide and slavery”), most Euro-Americans continue to prefer seeing their lives as stories of rugged individualism rather than of culture making. And yet, just as every day of one’s life is embedded in nature, every day of one’s life is also embedded in this complicated cultural legacy. (12-13)
So these are writings that re-embed us, in community, in world, in culture. They do it beautifully, and so these selections — as so many of my ridiculously lengthy selections — are what happened to resonate most with me just now.
‘In History’ by Jamaica Kincaid (16-27) — a visceral reminder that our world was once so different. A reminder just how much has changed. A wondering about how we deal with that, think about that, write that.
What to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me?
Should I call it history?
If so, what should history mean to someone like me? (16)
Before Europeans brought slaves to these Caribbean islands, the genocide was almost complete…
It is when this land is completely empty that I and the people who look like me begin to make an appearance, the food I eat begins to make an appearance, the trees I will see each day come from far away and begin to make an appearance, the sky is at is always was, the is as it always was, the water surrounding the land on which I am just making an appearance is as it always was; but these are the only things left from before that man, sailing with his three ships, reached the land on which I eventually make an appearance. (21)
I have Kincaid’s book on gardens sitting in England, still unread. But a taste, here, of this tension filled love of plants and acknowledgment of the brutal history behind so many gardens and our botanical knowledge:
The botanists are from the same part of the world as the man who sailed on the three ships, that same man who started narrative from which I trace my beginning. And the botanists are like that man who sailed on the ships in a way, too: they emptied the worlds of things animal, mineral and vegetable, of their names, and replaced those names with names pleasing to them; the recognized names are now reasonable, as reason is a pleasure to them. (22)
From ‘At the End of Ridge Road: From a Nature Journal’ by Joseph Bruchac (49-66):
What European cultures call “wilderness,” carefully separating it from “civilization,” remained an intimate part of human nature in indigenous cultures. Rather than pasting human masks over the faces of the animals, we recognized the animals as people with nations of their own. (55)
I learned that all turtles have 13 large plates on their carapaces, and 28 smaller ones ring them!
There are thirteen full moons in any given year, roughly twenty-eight days between one full moon and the next. So it is that native people of the northeast say that the turtle’s back is a lunar calendar… (58)
From ‘Earthbound’ by bell hooks (67-71):
Humankind no matter how powerful cannot take away the rights of the earth. Ultimately nature rules. That is the great democratic gift the earth offers us–that sweet death to which we all inevitably go–into that final communion. No race, no class, no gender, nothing can keep any of us from dying into that death where we are made one. To tend the earth is always then to tend our destiny, our freedom, and our hope. (68)
I loved this story, loved the strength to be found in the land.
My sharecropping grandaddy Jerry would walk through neat rows of crops and tell me, “I’ll tell you a secret little girl. No man can make the sun or the rains come–we can all testify. We can all see that ultimately we all bow down to the forces of nature. Big white boss may think he can outsmart nature but the small farmer know. Earth is our witness.” This relationship to the earth meant that southern black folks, whether they were impoverished or not, knew firsthand that white supremacy, with its systemic dehumanization of blackness, was not a form of absolute power.
This reminded me of some of the thoughts of Wendell Berry, some of the ways I’ve been struggling with this difference between city and country.
…when black people migrated to urban cities, this humanizing connection with nature was severed; racism and white supremacy came to be seen as all powerful, the ultimate factors informing our fate. (69)
From ‘Sharing Breath: Some Links Between Land, Plants, and People’ by Enrique Salmon (72-89)
All of these authors are now on my list to be read more fully, to inquire deeper. I loved this exploration of the meaning of plants in indigenous world systems. Again, we are back to the wholeness, the interconnectedness of everything.
Iwígara is the soul or essence of life everywhere. Therefore, iwígara is the idea that all life, spiritual and physical, is interconnected in a continual cycle…. Iwígara is the total interconnectedness and integration of all life in the Sierra Madres. (85)
We are back to throwing out that distinction between us and world, that idealization of pristine nature that permeates Romanticism and continues into our present.
When the people speak of the land, the religious and romantic tones so prevalent in Western environmental conversation are absent. to us the land exists in the same manner as do our families, chickens, the river, and the sky. No hierarchy of privilege places one above or below the other. Iwígara binds and manages the interconnectedness of all life. Within this web there are particular ways that living things relate to one another. All individual life plays a role in the cycle. (86)
Salmon briefly describes how through gathering techniques, plant dispersal, controlled burning, and selective pruning and coppicing, the Rarámuri have enhanced their ecosystem, increased diversity … all of these things theorised and practiced through permaculture, and the same knowledge found around the world in indigenous and peasant communities. It isn’t rocket science to understand that such communities have developed immense stores of knowledge that can only come through daily work in the same landscape over generations — but it is only recently, slowly, becoming recognized ‘officially’. Generally, where those groups aren’t getting too much in the way of quick profits.
Cultural survival can be measured by the degree to which cultures maintain a relationship with their bioregions. Ecologists and conservation biologists today recognize an important relationship between cultural diversity and biological diversity. (88)
A more foundational text from one of the founders of environmental justice theory — ‘Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century’ by Robert D. Bullard (90- 97). I find this useful:
The environmental justice framework attempts to uncover the underlying assumptions that may contribute to and produce unequal protection. It brings to the surface the ethical and political questions of “who gets what, why, and how much.” (91)
From ‘Dark Waters’ by Yusef Komunyakaa (96-112), a different view of Bogalusa than I am used to, I am looking forward to reading poetry, but I loved this:
I realized that I had attempted to present how toxicity taints the social and natural landscape. (101)
From ‘Burning the Shelter’ by Louis Owens (142-145), again back to deconstructing euro-american understandings of nature, of distance and difference:
Gradually, almost painfully, I began to understand that what I called “wilderness” was an absurdity, nothing more than a figment of the European imagination. An “absolute fake.” Before the European invasion, there was no wilderness in North America; there was only the fertile continent, where people lived in a hard-learned balance with the natural world. In embracing a philosophy that saw the White Pass shelter–and all traces of humanity–as a shameful stain upon the “pure” wilderness, I had succumbed to a five-hundred-year-old pattern of deadly thinking that separates us from the natural world. (144)
‘Becoming Métis’ by Melissa Nelson (146-152) was so useful in thinking through how to move forward, how to decolonise the mind of old ways of thinking, how to embrace other ways of thinking without appropriating. It is a fine line, no? One you hope to walk well:
To indigenous people, the basic tenets of deep ecology are just a reinvention of very ancient principles that they have been living by for millennia before their ways were disrupted, and in many cases destroyed, by colonial forces.
Decolonizing the mind is not disregarding rationality or European heritage. It is transcending the self-centered, ethnocentric, and exploitative patterns of Western hegemony. It is explicitly questioning the so-called objectivity and universal character of the Western scientific paradigm. decolonizing the mind allows other more diverse and mysterious ways of knowing the world to enter the field of perception. (149)
It is not an essentialised kind of thinking, does not depend on blood though it is certainly conditioned by culture. For many, it means abandoning much of what we think we know. It certainly requires great humility.
…there are no special spiritual “goodies” in being part Native American. Traditional knowledge is really a deeper knowledge of the self within a wider ecocultural context. It comes with patience, hard work, and sacrifice.
The reality is that white, academic culture does not teach this or even respect it. It does not demand the inner knowledge, nor the ways in which we must wrestle with history, fight current injustices, make our stands. It is also, to a great extent, about place.
‘They must learn to honor the local, the distinctive, in the place where they live.’ (150)
I want to think more about that.
Environmental justice is so much about place — how certain people are pushed into places, other trapped in places, and everyone fighting for those places where toxicity abides because they are not just places — they are homes, communities, relationships. In ‘Hazardous Cargo’ by Ray Gonzalez (163-170), he describes El Paso, and the I-25. We were driving the I-25, but a little further north. This opened my eyes to a different aspect of this freeway — the running of trucks up and down it to dump hazardous waste. Did we see the HC signs in white on green backgrounds? I did not know to look. We just knew it was beautiful. I suppose corporations only see emptiness, not the beauty, the life.
From a 1997 report on the waste generated by the maquiladoras that fills many of these trucks — Mexico insisted that it be dealt with north of the border when they signed NAFTA. But in 1997, only 12 percent of 8 million tons were found to be adequately treated (167). 8 million tons. I can’t even imagine where this quantity stands now. Where it is dumped, buried.
And finally from ‘Crossing Boundaries’ by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (171-180), this description of the concentration camp at Manzanar.
…we finally emerge into glaring light, Mount Williamson rising before us in the distance, my spirit’s life, as I remember how that peak inspired us during our imprisonment. Solid and steadfast, it remained immovable through all times. (176)
There was so much more here, so I have an expanding list of people to read more of — Al Young, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Gary Paul Nabhan, David Mas Masumoto, Diane Glancy.
A wonderful book.
[Deming, Alsion H and Lauret E. Savoy, eds. (2002) The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World. Minneapolis: Milkweed.]
The community garden is only one of many community projects we are looking to start up in my day job. Multiple linked efforts that will begin to create a strong, caring and supportive community here. Much of the inspiration has come from Civic Systems Lab, particularly Tessy Britton and Laura Billings, and it’s been wonderful to go through their team’s detailed (and free!) research report on The Open Works research project in West Norwood — just down the road from me now! If only I had moved a year earlier…
This report is for several different audiences — foundations like Lankelly Chase who helped fund it, politicians and government workers like those of Lambeth Council who partnered in this particular project and really should be funding similar projects in the future. For that reason it uses a certain language, but it also manages to be very geared towards those who wish to do similar things in their own community, particularly the last chapters.
It focuses on participatory culture, building on many years of work studying best practices and building this kind of connectivity — a most impressive work of praxis. Civic Systems Lab’s report on Open Works studied on a most basic level whether multiple small-scale community projects engaging people on a daily basis could create real and lasting change on a larger scale.
So much of my life has been spent assuming that that is so — and happily the report agrees. It notes, however, that neither government services and commissioning cycles nor top-down organisation of services operate to support such efforts. Rather they work (just as market forces do) to segment and separate people from each other — serving the elderly, the disabled, the Spanish speaking, etc. Rather than building networks and collective efforts, they often destroy them to replace them with one-way relationships of dependency and service.
While I personally and politically am fully committed to full government funding for social services and a safety net, there were always fundamental issues with how these were delivered that no efforts to save them should ignore. We need full funding for better ways of creating healthy and caring communities — like this one. While this does actually fit into Cameron’s hated Big Society in many ways, it doesn’t have to — and this report for survival purposes I respect, has left either possibility open.
Civic Systems Lab – Designed to Scale
Their key findings in their own words:
- Building a dense participation ecology at scale is possible.
- A fully developed prototype of this dense participatory ecology is estimated to take 3 years to build.
- High levels of micro participation could be a key component for building local sustainability and resilience in a neighbourhood.
- Micro participation needs to reach a threshold to be effective. — early estimates are that around 10% – 15% of local residents would need to be participating regularly at any one time (c. 3 times a week) for multiplier effects to be achieved. This estimated level of participation greatly exceeds any current levels of participation through existing models.
- Two levels of participation typography are needed for the ecology to work… a fully developed participation ecology should consist of two levels of activity. The first level is a highly accessible and inclusive network of commons-based co-production activity built into everyday life. Building on this foundational level of mass participation in micro activities, the second level would see the development of community businesses, co-operatives and hybrid ventures through platform incubation programmes.
- Moving the centre of gravity through the platform approach has the potential to create a new collaborative model between citizens, government and other institutions.
- The estimated costs of building and maintaining a participatory ecology represent a low percentage of public spending for an area. (21)
I don’t know when we forgot that a mutually supportive and connected community was key to our survival…perhaps when we no longer faced starvation and the need to build our own homes. But sometimes I feel like we are facing a starvation of the spirit here in the developed world, even as people starve in other places intimately connected to us through trade and consumption yet removed from our immediate knowledge. From exactly those places, the development literature grown around decades of aid (making little impact as you can see) has brought us terms such as resilience. It is still perhaps useful here, and will be ever more so through austerity’s bite and the onset of deeper poverty:
Resilience as an integrative construct
The construct of resilience offers a useful lens through which to discuss how neighbourhoods might be re-organised for both individual and collective wellbeing. People and families need to find ways to manage the ongoing ups and downs of life, and this is done through a combination of resources which are collectively referred to as ‘protective factors’.
Resilience resource indices include:
Biological factors (e.g. regular physical exercise, genetic resilience factors).
Individual factors (e.g. optimism, agency and executive functioning).
Interpersonal/family factors (e.g. secure family relations and close social ties).
Community/organisational factors (e.g. green space, volunteering).
The resources used to cope in challenging circumstances are not evenly distributed in or across neighbourhoods – perpetuating unequal access to resilience resources. (24)
I translate that in my mind to more concrete things like access to healthy foods and time for exercise, access to education and the ability to have power over your own life and the political and economic forces impacting you, close and supportive relationships that provide love and intellectual discussion and laughter, and a networked and supportive community.
I think that physical space should be separated from that as its own factor — access to nature, to growing things, to earth, safe and decent housing that makes you feel like you’re home, safe neighbourhoods that encourage you to spend time outside rather than flee, public spaces that encourage chance meetings and bring different people together, perhaps also transportation that ensure no one is trapped and all have good access to all parts of the city. All these things that Gehl, Appleyard, Whyte, Adams and Cullen among others describe.
An Ecology of Place
They don’t quite engage with that literature or work on space, but it fits in well with the thinking embodied in terms like ecology and ecosystems, it fits in also with thinking around networks and emergence, and the growing body of work on permaculture I’ve just started to dig back into.
Where roads and pipes allow for the efficient flow of transport, water and power, this participatory ecosystem aims to create a new and essential piece of connecting social infrastructure for our individual and collective wellbeing.
The report does bring us to the geography of it all — how place and people connect and the fact that ‘Resilient places support resilient people’. Hardly a surprise, though I am amazed at how many development experts consider the two to be separate. So returning to their thoughts on what a resilient place would look like:
An ecology of place:
The projection for a fully formed ecology after 3 years of development would see life experienced through the following participation opportunities:
- Within a 5 to 15 minute walk from your home you would have approximately 140 opportunities every week (20 opportunities every day) to participate in free activities with neighbours. These might be in spaces on your nearest high street, or in kitchens, workshops or gardens on your own housing estate.
- These activities would be practical, low commitment, low barrier opportunities that would be open to everyone, that you could decide to join at short notice, depending on your other home or work commitments.
- These opportunities would be imaginative and creative project ideas, some of which you would find particularly interesting and which would also help you with your day-to-day life. For example, some projects could save
you money through bulk cooking or bulk buying, you
could learn new things and share what you know through
weekly short lesson skill sharing, you could share, fix or
make things that you need everyday such as equipment,
food, clothing or furniture.
- The network of opportunities would also include free regular incubation programmes which might help you cultivate new interests or livelihoods. These peer-to-peer incubators would allow you to develop your ideas without any formal qualifications and could lead to self-employment or employment.
- Through these activities you would be able to get to know many local people in very informal and enjoyable settings. These people might be like you, but also might come from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and cultures, many of whom might have very different social and work networks, and these could be helpful for you to learn or progress to employment.
- The new local community businesses, including collaborative childcare, energy, retail, or urban farming would create opportunities for you to balance your work and family commitments more easily and affordably.
- For families there are projects, kitchens and workshops which enable you to make baby food, toys and clothing in social settings, which save you money and build supportive social networks and friendships.
- Your new local networks would enable you to understand what public resources and benefits would be available to you, and help you easily access professional support when you need it. (26)
I love the illustrations in this evaluation/manual, this is just one example:
I quite love their ambitions as well:
A UNIVERSAL VISION
Active, connected neighbourhoods as a universal ambition
People want to live in places where they know and like their neighbours, where they can do things together regularly, where they can help to create welcoming and safe communities in which to raise their children and grow old.
Through the participatory ecology described in this report, neighbourhoods could be re-organised not just for practicality, but also to be inspiring and exciting places to live: expanding our horizons, growing ideas and projects, inventing new livelihoods. Examples of which already exist.(28)
Not bad at all.
From a community organising background (and one more built around popular education, positive community projects and working with individuals and families rather than a focus on working through institutions to amass power to challenge power which is more IAF’s model), so much of this seems self-evident. Still, I know well from working with many service-providers that this is often opposite to their normal practice (and demands of funders and government and often academics), and key to emphasise how this differs just to be very clear:
- People participate on an equal footing
- There are self-directed pathways of progression from
micro levels of participation through to employment
- There are new dense networks for friendship, support
and resources, as well as opportunities to develop new
skills informally… (30-31)
These networks and participation need to reflect the community and all of its diversity — a challenge in a world that works to effect the opposite. I write and obsess about racism, and there are multiple other factors involved here that such an approach needs to work hard not to sustain, much less to undo — and there isn’t a great deal here about to how to do that, but I think this is an approach that can begin to tackle these issues despite the challenges:
Traditional attempts have largely failed to bring people from a wide range of different backgrounds, with different abilities and cultures, into the same spaces regularly enough to develop the connections and friendships necessary to build large bridging networks.
Experience has shown that creating and sustaining dense and diverse networks is harder than it looks. The way our systems are currently organised shows that these relationships do not develop as naturally as we would hope or as easily as they once did. (42)
This is one place where I think we definitely need to put more work and thought.
Building Platforms and Building to Scale
They also start to struggle with scale — again for us as community organisers this was always a big issue that we never quite cracked and debated endlessly.
The challenge of scale
One of the key strengths of many new participatory models is that they are small scale in nature. Typically, practical activities are done in functional local settings in small groups – and it is these highly personal peer-to-peer experiences that are proving to build relationships and generate mutual benefits. Study of many of these successful projects identified that they offer whole sets of different outcomes, and that they are productive, imaginative and engaging at a time when interest in some traditional community activity is declining in many places.
However, despite all these obvious strengths of participatory culture, we concluded that participatory projects of this kind are unlikely to fulfil their promise to transform places and people’s lives if they remain scattered, unsupported and small scale.
The reality that when things get too big, their truly participatory nature becomes harder and harder to maintain. I think, however, a broad base of people used to this kind of ecology of daily participation in multiple smaller projects with multiple relationships of trust and respect in an area could make a much more participatory society work on many different levels. I think if we created it, we could much more easily start to talk about scale with some integrity. In its absence, everything seems a little hollow and I myself haven’t much hope.
I also like their idea of platform, as a goal, as a foundation, as a construct and invention:
The Open Works project set out to discover if we could invent a platform approach that would allow us to change a whole set of existing participatory infrastructures, and accompany this with a change process that could build a larger system of these small scale experiences. (42)
More on the platform idea, that I’m still trying to get my head around:
Platforms for participation and mutualism: Unlike many government or third-sector led projects of the past, the new participatory project and civic ventures don’t seek to involve people in processes or representative structures, but are direct opportunities for participation. They operate on a platform logic: thriving on uncovering, inviting and combining multiple, unpredictable sources of input such as dormant existing resources or ideas from multiple sources, rather than just focusing on creating new products. For example with overcrowded hospitals a platform approach would look to system redesign, prevention and needs reduction, a products approach would procure more hospital beds. The former is a highly generative approach, as the wide range of unplanned, indirectly facilitated exchanges between platform participants can generate independent momentum. (151)
The scaling ideas they present are really impressive, showing how small projects could grow or serve as groundwork for or even federate into larger, more transformative ones. Here is just one example around growing and energy:
A question of Agency
Much of the literature they draw on is far removed from that of critical theory (not surprising) or community building and organising or even health and wellbeing (a little surprising but not too much). I enjoyed it, and how it presented small snippets of unfamiliar theory that I found quite thought provoking around social change and democracy, like this summary of agency as described through social cognitive theory by Albert Bandura (2006), which ‘incorporates the concept of a humans are both products and producers of their environments.’ Lefebvre says that too of course, a major innovation of critical geography, and I wonder if there is cross-pollination there, but that is to digress. They quote Bandura at length and so shall I:
Social cognitive theory distinguishes among three modes of agency, each of which is founded in people’s beliefs that they can influence the course of events by their actions. These include individual, proxy and collective agency.
In personal agency exercised individually, people bring their influence to bear on their own functioning and on environmental events.
In many spheres of functioning, people do not have direct control over the social conditions and institutional practices that affect their everyday lives. In those circumstances, they seek their well-being, security and valued outcomes through the exercise of proxy agency. In this socially mediated mode of agency, people try by one means or another to get those who have access to resources or expertise or wield influence to act on their behest to secure the outcomes they desire. For example, children work through parents, marital partners through spouses, employees through labor unions, and the general public through their elected officials.
People do not live in isolation. Many of the things they seek are achievable only through socially interdependent effort. In the exercise of collective agency people pool their knowledge, skills and resources, provide mutual support, form alliances, and work together to secure what they cannot accomplish on their own. People’s shared beliefs in their joint capabilities to bring about desired changes in their lives is the foundation of collective agency. Perceived collective efficacy raises people’s vision of what they wish to achieve, enhances motivational commitment to their endeavours, strengthens resilience to adversity, and enhances group accomplishments.” (123)
I quite love that definition of collective agency, particularly in thinking about organising and what so much of my life’s work has been about. It’s interesting arriving at these thoughts not through Freire or Horton or Camilo Torres, but social cognitive theory.
So, a recap from Civic Systems Lab on just what is key to these participatory projects:
Emergent: The projects we have studied have all been
started by citizens as ‘ordinary people’. Not primarily in
a formal role such as community organisers, or to make
money, nor because they were invited to by governing
authority or organisation, or given a pot of money to entice
them into action.
‘Live’ and ‘lean’ development: The initiatives are not efforts to compel some other party to solve a problem, but are
rooted in practical DIY ethos.
Oblique approaches: These initiatives develop oblique or
secondary ways of addressing social, environmental, and
economic issues. (150)
Scale: Most of these projects work on a local scale. They tend to be rooted in the very tangible opportunities and problems of people’s lived experience in local areas and the social networks embedded in them. (151)
I think DIY can only get you so far and sometimes you have to fight bad things, too often really, but it’s true that the building of positive local initiatives has not received nearly enough study or attention. In some ways I agree with this, being always optimistic about what local people working together can achieve — and utterly pessimistic about how long it will take it to be smashed. But that’s for another post maybe, the rougher things become, the more necessary these initiatives will become, and in imagining an ideal base from which to create a different world, I cannot think of a much better one.
This foundational research suggests that a radical re-think of our institutions needs to occur: because of their valuable multiple social outcomes, the autonomous activities of civic initiatives and ventures are worth supporting as a complement to current developments in public service reform and innovation. The challenge is to create structures and investment mechanisms that work with the grain of what citizens are already doing together in this domain. This will be an important next step in the evolution of the relations between the state, the market and citizens in the UK and beyond. There is growing case study evidence on how, at the scale of individual projects, neighbourhoods and whole cities, this evolution is already underway, giving ample cause for optimism. (132)
I found this interesting too, a curious mix of things that on the whole I’m not sure I agree with — and it’s paragraphs like this that make me feel most that I am not the intended audience as this is not a critical study, but a practical one demonstrating not just how to do this, but why it should be funded.
What characterises the participation culture and civic entrepreneurialism we are witnessing now is that it brings together the diverse values of civic society with the new approaches and culture of 21st century start-ups. Where in the 20th Century, civic action was frequently focussed on protest against the state or market, or on demands to be included and represented in government decision-making, the new citizen participation and entrepreneurship firmly focuses on seizing opportunities that make life better or create more enjoyable places through practical action. They are marked by innovative and energetic hands-on design processes and a DIY ethos, drawing on existing resources where possible – whether physical resources in the locality, online tools or collaborative relations with people.
In sum, a ‘many to many’ culture has grown. People now have the access to tools and platforms to act independently of established players: market and state institutions, but also traditional local community power structures. (136)
I’m not sure what I think of ‘civic entrepreneurialism’. So I will let that go for now…and keep thinking about how this approach could lead to a deeper transformation of injustice and oppression in our society than such paragraphs allow. More nuts and bolts to follow, but this is already far too long…
For more on building social spaces…
Is it nice to live in them, work in them, learn in them, play in them? Are they part of the answer to both the housing and environmental crisis?
When I moved to L.A., they became part of my landscape in a new way, though I confess I rarely made the trip to the port:
This is the MSC Fabiola, the largest container ship — it’s scale is almost lost in this picture, at 1,200 feet long it can carry 12,500 containers, and only a handful of ports have the capacity to handle its size and depth:
The second series of The Wire exemplifies the size, the feel, the tragedy of automation on the docks. Containers are symbolic of trade, the industrial side of consumption. Now, increasingly they are being used as building blocks for places that form part of our daily lives.
I was surprised to find multiple projects in London, beginning with the Container City Project:
Devised by Urban Space Management Ltd, the Container City™ system re uses shipping containers linked together to provide high strength, prefabricated steel modules that can be combined to create a wide variety of building shapes and can be adapted to suit most planning or end user needs.
This modular technology enables construction time to be reduced by up to half those of traditional building techniques while minimalising on site disruption and remaining significantly more environmentally friendly.
What does significantly more environmentally friendly mean? In looking deeper I found this way to measure the impact of building that takes into account not just the sustainability of heating and cooling it over time, but also the materials involved in its construction, the idea of embodied energy:
There are two forms of embodied energy in buildings:
· Initial embodied energy; and
· Recurring embodied energy
The initial embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed in the acquisition of raw materials, their processing, manufacturing, transportation to site, and construction. This initial embodied energy has two components:
Direct energy the energy used to transport building products to the site, and then to construct the building; and
Indirect energy the energy used to acquire, process, and manufacture the building materials, including any transportation related to these activities.
The recurring embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed to maintain, repair, restore, refurbish or replace materials, components or systems during the life of the building.
This reflects all the costs of mining, processing and transporting of building materials, while also the cost of construction and then the ongoing cost of inhabiting and maintaining the building.
Recycling containers in this way is not only far more energy efficient than melting them down and attempting to reclaim the metal, but also far more efficient in terms of construction materials and process. This makes them ideal for building genuinely affordable housing. This is a project from Arkatainer (more pictures here) for a YMCA scheme to provide housing for homeless teens:
This is stripped down and simple, but there is a huge list of container architecture projects from around the world here at inhabitat, here at altdotenergy, and here at designcrave. Some of my favourites (though surely the more ornate they become, the more glass they involve, the more energy they use):
And finally London’s own Container City:
Fascinatingly, Container City was also the title of a 2009 video game (see a walk through here), where the container city was instead a shanty town, a makeshift ghetto built of port detritus, filled with criminals that need to be hunted down and destroyed.
It is the same kind of look but on a massive scale, rusted out, grafittied. It provides a vision of a possible future far removed from the brightly painted and hip constructions now decorating London, and being built around the world. Given a widening inequality, I’m not sure which is a more realistic depiction of our future.
I’ll definitely be exploring London’s container building and this concept further…
It’s hard to imagine two more different visions for architecture and urban/home living than Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and Paolo Soleri’s vision for Arcosanti. We didn’t know until the tour that Soleri had been an apprentice at Taliesin in 1947-48. There are at least two things tying them together, however, and that is the building of a community, and a method of learning by doing. I love both of them.
You can stay at Arcosanti overnight, and so we did. Soleri writes:
The planet is richly endowed with what mass-consumption culture calls marginal lands. Far from the main transportation networks, hard to “colonize”, and poor in resources, such lands are for the most part beautiful and at times inspiring. These are reserves where future cultures might flourish, saving the fertile plains for much needed crop cultivation.
The Project is located on such marginal land. Part of the test is to demonstrate not just the viability (self-reliance) of a community on such land, but also the beauty and inspiration such environs engender. The so-called cradles of civilization seemed to opt for such razor-edged conditions.
We arrived in the late afternoon, the mesa took my breath away:
Arcosanti is founded on this central principle:
From bacteria to God, three basic parameters are present:
COMPLEXITY: Many events and processes cluster wherever a living process is going on. The make-up of the process is immensely complex and ever intensifying.
MINIATURIZATION: The nature of complexity demands the rigorous utilization of all resources — mass-energy and space-time, for example. Therefore, whenever complexity is at work, miniaturization is mandated and a part of the process.
DURATION: Process implies extension in time. Temporal extension is warped by living stuff into acts of duration. A possible resolution of “living time” is the metamorphosis of time into pure duration, i.e., the eventual “living outside of time.”
A community meant to become a “living organism” succeeds if it is congruent with the complexity-miniaturization-duration paradigm. If it is not, it will not continue to improve itself. Although the paradigm is very general, it is also a clear, forceful, normative light for any living process to follow. At Arcosanti, we try to be aware of such norms and be coherent with them. Nature and the living are dependent on such coherence. The rewards are many as the following topics point out (11).
I had just finished reading The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene, and this language resonated so strongly, is so influenced by the breakthroughs in quantum physics Greene describes (and much more clearly too). Soleri uses the concepts of space-time and energy and entropy, holds astronomers dealing with the immense and the minute as models, his later topics describe Arcosanti as a useful model for the settlement of space. It is hardly surprising that this mix of science, philosophy and a kind of 1960s spirituality without the hedonism called Arcology (architecture + ecology) would become immensely popular with SF writers (though mostly in the cause of evil, as in Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle).
Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory? is a series of 63 single-page topics to thought about, meditated over, it is almost a religious text and the preface is by a professor of theology. This particular book doesn’t enter into eros at all, but the drawings and later writings do. This poster is from the cafe along with a model of the original vision for Arcosanti, and represents the joining of the male and the female, there is as much D.H. Lawrence here as Frank Lloyd Wright:
Our lodgings were very simple, clean and comfortable as you could imagine given that ‘The Project proposes frugality as a better way of life’ (60). The view was anything but frugal however:
Cold though. Very damn cold. It’s like architects from afar don’t understand the extremes of temperature experienced in the desert. We heard more talk of passive solar heating, but I smelled the delicious wood fire of at least one long term resident. Our inefficient space-heater paled by comparison. We went for a little walk before dinner to more fully experience the space:
Dinner was delicious, but as you can imagine the dining hall/cafe was also very hard to heat. We went to bed early, the cold demanded it. Interesting to find another utopian building (though Soleri rejected the idea of utopia) built in massive concrete, but of a completely different form to Britain’s social building of the 50s and 60s. Again I wondered at the lack of insulation.
This is Arcosanti in the morning from across the wash that runs along the bottom of the mesa, our guest rooms and then the main complex:
It’s beautiful set there in the side of the mesa. Eating breakfast we saw deer coming down the hill:
It has plenty of inspiration, but ultimately fails in achieving Soleri’s vision I think. This is a key insight into what was needed (and is still needed by any such community developing a new way of life through how we structure our living and working spaces):
11: Exodus of Populations Toward the Megacities
This is one of the most critical problems of population, resource, culture and ecological coherence. There are no real answers in sight. How shall we balance the magic of the big city with the magic of the village or the small town? Economic enticement is not a sufficient nor an adequate solution to the problem of decentralization. A culture is not just a by-product of economic proficiency.
The Project is 65 miles from Phoenix, 36 miles from Prescott and 80 miles from Flagstaff. It will succeed as a “population fixer” only if the mentioned but not described magic can become an integral part of it. It goes without saying that the magic is found in the intense and spirited “urban effect” we might be able to generate at Arcosanti (23).
Arcosanti was also supposed to be a laboratory in planning. Many of the topics deal with the evils and wastefulness of suburbanization and sprawl, commuting, and above all segregation:
Segregation is the most pervasive threat to the dignity and well-being of the individual and the group. Segregation is endemic It goes from the segregation of ages to race, ethnicity, occupation, wealth, religion, and real estate. To reduce its impact and to construct a condition more effective and equitable is an enormous task and an urgent one (35).
In Topic 28 ‘Social Science Versus the Art of Living’, Soleri writes:
One intent of the Project is to “legislate by design.” Two instances are: A) by not having roads, Arcosanti excludes the presence of the car; B) by mixing living, learning, and working, Arcosanti breaks down the ill effects of zoning. What the project wants to avoid is planning the lives of its residents. They are offered a specific grid of environmental resources (the instrument) within which to act and play out their lives (the music) (46).
This concept is remarkably like Lefebvre’s city as ouevre, though Lefebvre would undoubtedly insist that the residents have as much to say about the construction of the grid as to how they play it. Like Lefebvre, Soleri also touches on the fundamental question of land ownership in topic 33: ‘Ownership: Public Versus Private’ (though avoiding any discussion of capitalism, the forces behind property ownership, the forces making the building of his vision impossible/why the State has never invested in such a project and etc):
The “God given right to private property” is an egregious lie. Nothing is more alien to grace than holding on to something other than knowledge and emotions. But then, reality is not graceful, and there are contingent reasons for the existence and justification of ownership. The fact remains that both science and religion tell us that everything is interlaced with everything else, therefore anything I hold onto also belongs to others (53).
An attempt to build an arcology failed here under our current system of government and land ownership. What you find at Arcosanti is a kernel of the original vision, a glimpse of what could have been. It is too small, far too small, to achieve anything like the magical ‘urban effect’, 50 to 100 people live here now rather than the 5,000 envisioned by Soleri. There is no ‘urban’ magic. This has made so much of the intellectual, artistic and cultural dynamism Soleri dreamed of impossible to create.
The project was never meant to be self-sustaining, rather self-reliant while still enmeshed in a larger network. Still, I was surprised at what seemed a fairly half-hearted attempt just at self-reliance, especially with all the work around permaculture that has been developed and fits in so well with ideas of arcology. Such self-reliance also requires an immense amount of specialised knowledge and skill, and without a larger population I imagine this is difficult to find.
Instead it seems to have become a symbol of an alternative, a concrete reminder that something else is possible. This is important in itself of course, but in this monument I hate to see the grandness of the vision lost, though perhaps the kernel will still grow. Today it seems to have become almost entirely about an alternative lifestyle, and teaching and learning by doing, focused very concretely on earthcasting as an architectural/metal-working/ceramic technique. The tour showed both how the famous bells were made through molds of sand, as well as many of the arches and tiles:
Just as at Taliesin West there is a very cool performance space (though still waiting for its roof):
More lovely communal spaces — and the music on top of the piano is an interesting reflection of a diverse community:
But the idea of an urban laboratory still seems remote, particularly one that is breaking down segregation by race, age and etc. Even so, I am glad to have such a symbol in the world, still working as a community while remaining open to visitors to allow them to find their own inspiration and further think about and develop ways that we can live well upon the earth.