Category Archives: Gardens

Market Day in Tavistock!

Tavistock market day — we were in the pannier market, in use as a market place since 1105 (though this building has only been there for a 150 years). I remember coming here when I was little, remember snapshots of this place I thought was so so magical as a child. When I was 5. When I was 13. When I was 16. I remember best this market, along with the church, the ruins, the Tavy — and yet I don’t really remember the high street at all. Strange.

This is the view at about 7:15 am, we left the house at 6 am and traveled across mist-covered hills to get here.

Tavistock Market day

I also remembered the wondrous lanes with their high beech hedges and the line of trees on the road out towards Lamerton. So beautiful. I wanted to go there, but there was work to be done…and it is very hard to get around here on your own without a car. So that will be saved for another time.

The market has changed from what I remember. Much more that is new (and cheap, though there was lots that wasn’t cheap of course), more food. I remember above all tables of antiques and old jewelry that resembled quite glorious treasure to me back in those days — and there is still an antiques day. I bought a little compass here last time I came — there was almost nothing like that on the Friday when we were selling though.

It was so strange being here as a worker with a stall, selling veg I had picked myself. I wondered how many times my grandmother had wandered through this market, what she would have thought to have found me here.

Why don’t I have more pictures of the stall in its full beauty? I just don’t know.

I enjoyed the work, if not the early hours and the loading and unloading and setting up and packing up and loading and unloading. Most of the customers are regulars. We talked about health and wealth and family plans, growing food, recipes (a layer of banana over the rhubarb in your crumble with some almonds on top to help reduce the sharpness? Interesting). I met a Quaker who travels the world volunteering in conflict resolution processes. He owns a purple bowler, bought from the hatter at the other end. He too had been a WWOOFER, and many of the other customers were eager to know if I were enjoying it and where I was from. Clearly Rob had long-ago explained why there was an ever-changing succession of people helping him with the stall.

Next to us was a geographer and urban planner, who had left work in townships in South Africa and then town planning here in the UK for retirement in Devon, and now sells Spanish olive oils and olives and beautiful vibrant pottery. A farmer on the other side, with homemade jams and marmalade and honey (I bought you jams, mum!) Peter Marshall pops in regularly apparently, who we published at PM and I always thought must be quite a wonderful  man based on our correspondence when I was working on his webpage. I am quite sad to find he is away on his boat at the moment. A retired oceanographer who knows James Lovelock. A surprising number of intellectuals have retired around here. It was an interesting mix of farmers and characters and wealthy women wearing extremely well and a very posh man quite interested in the many heirloom tomato plants also for sale.

One old man paused at the blue duck eggs, they make the most wonderful scrambled eggs you’ve ever tasted he said with happiness and nostalgia all mixed together. He had to get permission from the wife to get them he said. He won’t be back, said Rob. Rob was right, and that made me sad.

A number of people asked me if the produce was English. Rob takes in a selection of organic veg and fruits from elsewhere for things that aren’t in season here or just don’t grow here — oranges, bananas, tomatoes. Funny how many people after hearing no as the answer to that question did not buy. I wish I had asked them why — I hope it is a question of buying local.

The morning was quite brisk but the afternoon a bit slow. I loved the camaraderie between traders. The friendliness of customers. Talking with one of the other traders as we were packing up, I mentioned it seemed much different than working in a shop, that people recognised you were independent and working for yourself and treated you better. He and others agreed with that assessment, though it doesn’t stop everyone from being really rude.

If they are really rude, though, even your average market stall holder can tell them to just fuck right off. It’s nice.

Also interesting, Tavistock has enough critical mass of people who are willing–and able–to pay a bit extra for organic. Many regular customers have actually come out to visit the farm on open days — and they are the ones who make the stall worth it in terms of income. Holsworthy just didn’t have that critical mass being more remote and poorer, so they didn’t keep the market stall up there, though an additional outlet for the veg would be nice.

We sold quite a bit I thought — though never enough. I met up with mum’s cousin Rosemary for lunch, which was lovely. I went to a herb talk on the dandelion, which I will blog separately because it was awesome. We returned home with far too many broad beans, so we spent a while getting them out of their pods and ended up with this:

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Some to be frozen, but many to be enjoyed with butter as a side to some of the nicest vegetarian lasagna I’ve had in ages. A lovely day, though exhausting.

 

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From Mines to Market Gardens — The Tamar Valley

Sovereigns, Madams and Double Whites: Fruit and Flower Pioneers of the Tamar ValleySovereigns, Madams and Double Whites: Fruit and Flower Pioneers of the Tamar Valley is a wonderful book I found in the library here. It emerged from a 2001 project to uncover the market gardening landscape, and is full of oral histories and quite wonderful photographs. It is the story of the long-gone smallholdings up and down the Tamar valley. They were built up and down the steep south-facing hills for the earliest flowers and strawberries.

Almost all of them have now become grazing and farm land, or woods.

There is so much here of England’s industrial and agricultural history that is long forgotten. It is so strange to think of this area as a centre of copper mining, much less arsenic refining, but so it was:

For a brief period of twenty years in the mid nineteenth century the Tamar Valley became the copper centre of England, the river crowded with shipping carrying ore to be smelted in South Wales. However by 1868 the largest mine, Devon Great Consols, was nearly exhausted and metal prices slumped putting hundreds of families out of work. Arsenic refining took over but in turn was abandoned. By the 1930s mining was dead leaving a strange and dramatic landscape of waste tips and ruinous buildings half hidden in lush woodland and intricately mixed with villages, farms, riverside quays and market gardens. (1)

Apart from copper, the Tamar Valley was known for cherry and apple orchards, and had the earliest strawberries in the country — that was where the money once was. Early strawberries and the famous Tamar Double Whites, a lovely fragrant daffodil planted here by the thousands and their remnants now left forgotten in hedgerows and bordering fields. But the market gardens along the slopes here reached their height in the 1950s, when they supported an industry of 8-10,000 people, more than the entire population today. Special tools to work the hillsides were invented (a special dibber!), and diggers to move soil up slopes.

It is amazing to think smallholdings could provide so much work, and that they once sent flowers and fruit all over the country. Somehow it pleases me greatly to imagine early daffodils from Devon arriving to bring joy in Birmingham.

Also fascinating is the role that changing transportation links played in this story. In many ways this agricultural revolution was due to the arrival of the Great Western Railway. It reached Plymouth in 1849 and bridged the Tamar to Saltash in 1859 — before this, the river Tavy had been the main way of transport. But the trains allowed a much faster movement of fruit — allowing it to be sold within 24 hours of picking. Because of the warm micro-climates here in Devon allowing the very early growing of fruit, the possibility of transport opened up new possibilities just after the waves of lay-offs from mining.

In the change to market gardening, many followed the pioneer James Lawry. On a visit to Crystal Palace in London in 1862 (I do so very much love accounts of Crystal Palace), he heard of Covent Garden market. Visiting it, he discovered their earliest strawberries arrived in June, while back home in Tamar Valley their crop was much earlier. Upon learning the  difference in price for Strawberries in London as opposed to Devon, there seemed little to lose. He started sending his fruit to a Mr. Israel in 1863.

Lawry helped establish not just strawberries, but also punnet-making, and thus began a thriving networks of smallholdings and associated employment for the whole family.

In 1966, Beaching’s cuts to train services and closure of multiple stations ended what was left of this industry as transportation costs became too high, fruit could no longer arrive to markets within 24 hours at a low enough price. I already felt like spitting whenever his name is mentioned. Of course, globalisation, and the flying in of fruit from countries around the world did not help either.

In 1971 there were still 250 viable holdings, by 1979 only 140 growers left, and the extreme slopes fell out of cultivation for the easier flats where mechanization could be brought in. Now they are all but gone.

We probably won’t be able to fly in strawberries forever, so perhaps this shall be full of smallholdings once again. Interesting thought.

The oral histories are short–a few paragraphs of key memories–but so interesting. Alan Rickard’s father had been to Canada to work in the mines there, then returned to work five acres growing cherries, dahlias, rhubarb, irises, strawberries and daffodils. This was apparently true of many families, John Snell’s father went to the mines first, then Ford’s Detroit plant and then returned home. Almost all of the gardens sold a similar variety, though most seemed to specialise in one or two. There are a few fishermen, who gardened on the side. Others seemed to be more gardeners who fished. A few German POWs who remained after the war. A number are still in the business, generally where their children and grandchildren have taken over — though in large modern greenhouses or polytunnels.

One of my favourite quotes from Alan Langsford:

When I was a little boy I wanted to be a Dutchman when I grew up. [The bulb-salesmen] all wore suits, drove nice cars and didn’t work outside on the land! (142)

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Herb gardening, and I use a scythe

Today we worked clearing out a bed of herbs that had been sadly overrun, hard work but most satisfying. The lemon balm smelled most divine. It was a beautiful day today, mostly sunny and warm.

Honestly, there may be nothing I’d rather be doing than working in an herb bed on a day like this.

An overall view of this afternoon’s progress.

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I wanted to learn more about herbs in this place, so here a few of the herbs I was working to clear around, the pictures probably give an idea of how much weeding remains to be done. These descriptions are all from Mrs. M. Grieve’s herbal, which I quite love.

Myrrhis Oderata – Sweet Cicely

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Sweet Cicely is very attractive to bees; in the north of England it is said that the seeds are used to polish and scent oak floors and furniture. In Germany they are still very generally used in cookery. The old herbalists describe the plant as ‘so harmless you cannot use it amiss.’ The roots were supposed to be not only excellent in a salad, but when boiled and eaten with oil and vinegar, to be ‘very good for old people that are dull and without courage; it rejoiceth and comforteth the heart and increaseth their lust and strength.’

Tanacetum vulgare – Tansy

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It is connected with some interesting old customs observed at Easter time, when even archbishops and bishops played handball with men of their congregation, and a Tansy cake was the reward of the victors. These Tansy cakes were made from the young leaves of the plant, mixed with eggs, and were thought to purify the humours of the body after the limited fare of Lent. In time, this custom obtained a kind of symbolism, and Tansies, as these cakes were called, came to be eaten on Easter Day as a remembrance of the bitter herbs eaten by the Jews at the Passover. Coles (1656) says the origin of eating it in the spring is because Tansy is very wholesome after the salt fish consumed during Lent, and counteracts the ill-effects which the ‘moist and cold constitution of winter has made on people . . . though many understand it not, and some simple people take it for a matter of superstition to do so.’

‘This balsamic plant,’ says Boerhaave (the Danish physician), ‘will supply the place of nutmegs and cinnamon,’ and the young leaves, shredded, serve as a flavouring for puddings and omelets. Gerard tells us that Tansy Teas were highly esteemed in Lent as well as Tansy puddings.

Culpepper says: ‘Of Tansie. The root eaten, is a singular remedy for the gout: the rich may bestow the cost to preserve it.’

Prunella vulgaris – Self-heal

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The Self-Heal holds an equal place with Bugle in the esteem of herbalists.

Cole, in Adam in Eden (1657), says:

‘It is called by modern writers (for neither the ancient Greek nor Latin writers knew it) Brunella, from Brunellen, which is a name given unto it by the Germans, because it cureth that inflammation of the mouth which they call “die Breuen,” yet the general name of it in Latin nowadays is Prunella, as being a word of a more gentile pronunciation.’

Cole further explains that the disease in question ‘is common to soldiers when they Iye in camp, but especially in garrisons, coming with an extraordinary inflammation or swelling, as well in the mouth as throat, the very signature of the Throat which the form of the Floures so represent signifying as much’ – an instance of the doctrine of signatures of which William Cole was such a ready exponent.

‘There is not a better Wound herbe,’ says Gerard, ‘in the world than that of SelfHeale is, the very name importing it to be very admirable upon this account and indeed the Virtues doe make it good, for this very herbe without the mixture of any other ingredient, being onely bruised and wrought with the point of a knife upon a trencher or the like, will be brought into the form of a salve, which will heal any green wounde even in the first intention, after a very wonderful manner, The decoction of Prunell made with wine and water doth join together and make whole and sound all wounds, both inward and outward, even as Bugle doth. To be short, it serveth for the same that the Bugle serveth and in the world there are not two better wound herbs as hath been often proved.’

Melissa officinalis – Lemon Balm

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(My favourite)

The word Balm is an abbreviation of Balsam, the chief of sweet-smelling oils. It is so called from its honeyed sweetness It was highly esteemed by Paracelsus, who believed it would completely revivify a man. It was formerly esteemed of great use in all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system. The London Dispensary (1696) says: ‘An essence of Balm, given in Canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness.’ John Evelyn wrote: ‘Balm is sovereign for the brain, strengthening the memory and powerfully chasing away melancholy.’ Balm steeped in wine we are told again, ‘comforts the heart and driveth away melancholy and sadness.’ Formerly a spirit of Balm, combined with lemon-peel, nutmeg and angelica root, enjoyed a great reputation under the name of Carmelite water, being deemed highly useful against nervous headache and neuralgic affections.

Many virtues were formerly ascribed to this plant. Gerard says: ‘It is profitably planted where bees are kept. The hives of bees being rubbed with the leaves of bawme, causeth the bees to keep together, and causeth others to come with them.’ And again quoting Pliny, ‘When they are strayed away, they do find their way home by it.’ Pliny says: ‘It is of so great virtue that though it be but tied to his sword that hath given the wound it stauncheth the blood.’ Gerard also tells us: ‘The juice of Balm glueth together greene wounds,’ and gives the opinion of Pliny and Dioscorides that ‘Balm, being leaves steeped in wine, and the wine drunk, and the leaves applied externally, were considered to be a certain cure for the bites of venomous beasts and the stings of scorpions. It is now recognized as a scientific fact that the balsamic oils of aromatic plants make excellent surgical dressings: they give off ozone and thus exercise anti-putrescent effects. Being chemical hydrocarbons, they contain so little oxygen that in wounds dressed with the fixed balsamic herbal oils, the atomic germs of disease are starved out, and the resinous parts of these balsamic oils, as they dry upon the sore or wound, seal it up and effectually exclude all noxious air.

John Hussey, of Sydenham, who lived to the age of 116, breakfasted for fifty years on Balm tea sweetened with honey, and herb teas were the usual breakfasts of Llewelyn Prince of Glamorgan, who died in his 108th year. Carmelite water, of which Balm was the chief ingredient, was drunk daily by the Emperor Charles V.

I used a scythe to cut grass for the first time this morning as well! It’s harder than it looks, and although using a scythe I wasn’t actually scything but ‘mowing’ in the proper terminology.

I also did more weeding on a bed of broad beans and some volunteer potatoes, and got one and a half episodes of Night Vale in.

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And to finish it all off, I milked the goat once again. I was better this time. Exciting day…

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Stockholm, lovely Stockholm

Stockholm has brought us tiny baby goats, Joe Bataan, Nietzsche’s death mask and more Munch paintings than I have ever seen before, an exhibit on Satyajit Ray and Tagore’s artwork, discovering how good the Swedish modernists were, the best boar sculpture, meatballs and reindeer stew and skinksmorgas, medieval alleys, turf houses and farms, the red room where intellectuals and artists once congregated that inspired August Strindberg’s novel by the same name, knowing that the king encouraged every Swedish household to grow their own tobacco, boats, wood-paneled working mens’ bars…amazing trip. I might write more later, but everything in life is going so fast and I am off to a new farm this morning.

Stockholm

From ferries to amazing buildings to food at Kvarnen and Pelikan, restaurants/bars in Södermalm (which is the area I by far loved the most). The red room in Berns. Boats and stick figures, also inlcuding a few pictures of Thielska Galleriet, where we saw: ‘Olof Sager-Nelson and his contemporaries. “Anywhere out of the world” along with an amazing collection of Edvard Munch and Nietzche’s death mask, a bit of Blasieholm as described by Fredrika Bremer…I love this city.

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Gamla Stan

The petrified medieval centre of Stockholm, with wonderful narrow alleys that we went slinking through so as to avoid completely all tourist thoroughfares. It is hell. of. touristy. But quite beautiful when empty, so I was sorry to spoil it for others with my own tourist self.

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Skansen

Stockholm’s open air museum, this I did want to write more about because I loved the ancient buildings. I am fascinated by the process of ripping them from the ground they grew out of to bring them here. We shall see when I write!

There were also baby goats.

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Snus- och tändsticksmuseum

Part of Skansen really, but incredibly amazing place…I will write more about this too, and it’ going into the novel too, but for now:

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Millesgården

Studio and collection of Carl Milles, and most of it was stunning though that crazy array of statues in front of the sea was a bit overwhelming… but I liked visiting a further island by ferry, seeing a bit more of the everyday city. Satyajit Ray and Tagore — amazing.

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We saw the photography museum as well, missed lots of things but hopefully we’ll be back. When we’re both much wealthier because it was by far the most expensive place we have ever been.

Writing Countryside. Also Farming. Day 1

Days are really long in the countryside, especially when you’re not quite used to this work. They leave your muscles aching at the end of them. It is not yet 8 o’clock and I am thinking about going to bed. I have 3 almost-but-not-quite-yet blisters, I do hope they stay that way.

But it is just my first day.

I missed lambing, which made me sad because I do love lambs. Now they are all four weeks old and still hell of cute but a little skittish. Look at them though:

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These guys were hanging out next to me while I was mucking out the lambing shed through almost the whole of the morning. I think they hoped I might feed them, or they were just hanging out next to the hay.

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I had heard of this mucking out malarky. It is good for instant gratification. Good for your back muscles. Good for bringing out unknown abilities with a pitchfork.

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You feel it afterwards though. It was sunny for a while, grey for a while. Then it rained. I was in the lambing shed

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It hailed. I moved on to weeding a bank of willows, wild garlic, daffodils and bluebells. The hail was large as you can see.

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It snowed a little later on, because hail isn’t slushy, right? But I was eating a delicious sandwich.

Back to work I discovered gloves don’t fully protect you against nettles and those bastards are totally going to win the long-term weeding war given their root systems. Dock is as hard to get out, worms love clay soil, and there are actually tiny centipedes here. Two kinds of ants living secretly underground. Weeding on steep slopes is also no joke. But look at this beauty

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I didn’t mind when it snowed later, I was definitely ready for tea.

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The sun came out, the snow still fell. This place is beautiful though, especially this view down to the old mill.

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A good first day. But hail and snow in April? Hello crazy weather days…

Starting a Community Garden

To go from gravel covered ground to a vibrant community garden of raised beds is going to take a lot of work, so we thought the sooner we started the better. The 5th of March was chosen and we stuck to it and we had a number of brave and wonderful people brave the weather to join us:

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We planned a number of activities so that all ages could participate even at this stage of the community garden, from planting seeds to planting sacks. We set up a few tables in the foyer though, so people could plant some seeds to take away and grow food on their windowsills, and if possible to bring us back a plant or two that could grow and flourish here.

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The sack planting was a bit chilly but very cool, and tomorrow’s post will be a complete how-to on how to make your own. They are very useful ways to grows vegetables in small urban spaces like balconies or a little patch of paved garden.

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The key learning, however, is that it is not too early for strawberries.

The main things for Saturday, however, was to build one of the large herb beds we want to set alongside the path across the Precinct site, so people can pick fresh herbs for their meals as they walk from Cable Street to the Limehouse DLR and back.

We started with the large but fairly flimsy structure that our first load of firewood was delivered in. To get it in out of the first drops of rain, I had already sawed this in two as you can see:

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To shore up those flimsy sides we broke up two other pallets (given to us by a wonderful foreman name of Gary running a building site off Commercial)

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And screwed it all together:

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At that point it started to hail. We brought it all inside the hub.

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Paint doesn’t usually last too long on outdoor beds, cracking and peeling with sun and rain and, er, hail. But we have gallons of marine paint left over from painting the trim on the containers and that is much more resilient, so we went ahead and used that to paint our first herb bed. Half orange and half turquoise.

It isn’t the best paint to use inside and in enclosed spaces, but we made do…

community garden

community garden

We’ll be lining it and filling it with wicking materials to conserve moisture despite the windiness and exposure of our site, then soil and plants, probably also adding a bench to make it somewhere people can sit and enjoy the fragrance once it warms up a bit. Looking at it, I wonder if it doesn’t need a few more planks and a little more solidity, but we’ll be keeping some of the spaces as things will grow as happily out of the side of it as they will from the top. We’ll be posting another how-to once it is all done, but for a first day this was absolutely lovely and we got so much accomplished.

Best of all, I think, was the time we were able to work outside and chat with people on their way through who just came up to to find out what we were doing, to say how happy they were that this vacant piece of land was finally being put to a community use, and even just how much they loved gardens. It really felt like we were creating a sense of community then, and gave us a good taste of what will be possible when the sun is shining and people are looking around for things to do outside…

I’m going to end this gratuitously with a puppy, Nala is the Precinct Art Space’s newest tenant and made Saturday even more wonderful than it was before. Along with always having strawberries, may we suggest trying to find a puppy to join you…

community garden

[also posted on St Katharine’s site]

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Amazing Container Gardens from recycled materials

I started research on what to do for our community container garden just looking at pallet constructions. There are some beautiful DIY designs, this one from Caravanserai, who were amazing enough to help us build the benches for the cafe and who are coming on Saturday to lend a hand:

b32dc9eb52b5b05d8da6fd6194fb0295And more…

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from palletsdesigns.com

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A vertical pallet herb garden…I’m pretty excited about that…

pallet-vertical-garden-ideaThese are perhaps more classy…more work too. But so beautiful from palletsdesigns.com:

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Put all together they are lovely, as you can see in a post from 99pallets.com (I clearly am far from alone in loving pallet construction):

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There are some more complex designs that require a little more than a hand saw, though I suppose you could manage with just that:

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from palletfurniturediy.com

all the way to more professional loveliness that still seems within reach

b sq. Design Studio, Canada Blooms Garden Festival
b sq. Design Studio, Canada Blooms Garden Festival

These varnished and waxed vertical systems for succulent seem just as fancy — also doable:

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from palletfurniturediy.com

And what to do with that sunny but vertical slope?

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You think it can’t get better and then you look at this amazing project from Johannesburg: you start with something so simple, that becomes more complex:

Brothers-in-benches-pallet-social-project-done-in-Johannesburg-1-400x300Put a few more together and holy shit:

Brothers-in-benches-pallet-social-project-done-in-Johannesburg-3-400x291There is a write-up of the project ‘Brothers in Benches’ here — what better way to allow people to creatively interact with and shape social space?

That’s enough about pallets, because while looking into them I heard from a wonderful friend about African Sack gardening, as they had planted them in the school where she worked with their students. Who loved them unconditionally.

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Part of a wonderful how-to post from Humanitarian Aid & Relief: Stories and updates from World Concern

 

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(RIGHT) Ms Harriet Nakabale plucks spinach from a sack that doubles as a garden in her compound. (LEFT) Ms Nakabale shows a section of straw berries from her home based farm. From The Daily Monitor.

Looking more at them,  I began to find my way into the wider wonderful world of container growing in the Phillipines. There is Peñalosa Farms, Negros Occidental. I mean, my god:

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Paradise.

Ramon_Penalosa vertical organic gardenYou can stay there too.

I was amazed by how people have recycled plastic, inspired, and then momentarily cast down after stumbling across an article that suggested they might well be unsafe. Then I recalled all those posts about why you shouldn’t drink bottled water and the carcinogens leaching out of the plastic and etc. So a little more research… Some plastic is unsafe, but some is (probably) safe. For a long discussion of that try this article on the fresh organic gardening website.  These are the ‘safe’ plastics

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PETE or PET bottles. You see the triangle symbol with the #1 inside at the bottom of the container. This type of plastic is used for most clear beverage bottles.

HDPE (high density polyethylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #2 inside at the bottom of the container. This type of plastic is used for “cloudy” milk and water jugs, opaque food bottles.

LDPE (low density polyethylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #4 inside at the bottom of the container. This plastic is used in food storage bags and squeeze bottles.

PP (polypropylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #5 inside at the bottom of the container. This is used in rigid containers, including some baby bottles, and some cups and bowls. Examples are the wide-necked milky white containers usually used for yogurt.

This is an issue with some reclaimed wood as well, we’ll be lining our beds so there’s no possibility of toxins leaching from creasote-treated or painted wood. I’m glad some bottles are probably safe, because there is recycled bottle tower growing — I am so looking forward to trying this:

p1070455-copyYou can find a wonderful how-to post from Dr Van Cotthem here, which is a site where my vertical and container gardening learning has advanced in leaps and bounds. More from the Phillipines:

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From Rancho Delicioso in Costa Rica:

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But those bottles don’t have to stay vertical, they can be laid out horizontally like so:

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Hung from on high

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Put into pyramids even

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More vertical gardening ideas use gutters — all the lettuce you could use for your salads:

http://ranchodelicioso.com/recycled-bottle-gardens/

Amazing what we can do, how much we can grow even in small spaces.

Now, to grow it.

Sustaining Worlds

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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