Tag Archives: Gardens

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

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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…

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[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.

Three Inspirational Community Gardens

Only a fraction of the places you could look, because they are so many! What more do you need in searching for some kind of hope for humanity, because these gardens are amazing and they all exist because people worked hard mostly in their free time to create them. Just because they love gardens.

I’m half excited and half pure panicked about the thought of setting up our own community garden at the precinct. So much work, so much I don’t know. So I’ve been visiting lots of people and talking things through.

I know that’s not the same as doing it of course. Our first event to build some herb beds and plant some sack gardens is Saturday and I’m pretty scared.

Still, look at what is possible.

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This might just be my favourite — they have boats after all, and sit alongside the water and have an old routemaster puppet bus.Who can compete with that?

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Stephen Shiell working with local residents has built one hell of a beautiful garden in this very industrial space, a place of wonder even on a bitterly cold February morning.

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Dancing grasses, a splendid area of bog, an unexpectedly successful succulent garden that stunned everyone with its flowers

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A scattering of art across the landscape, like these wind pipes and a living woven fence of willow. I confess, I never knew this was possible with willow. I can’t wait to see it after it leafs out (though some of it has died back, something about the site or the preparation not having been quite to its liking, and this is the greatest lesson I have taken away from all of these gardens. You never really know what will happen and everything will still be okay):

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They have built these beautiful and very simple glass lids to some of the growing beds that we might want to consider for the end of this year so we can start some seeds early (a bit too late now sadly!):

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An incredibly inspiring place I can’t wait to return to, especially as they are working to further reclaim the pathway along the canal, with its ancient reed beds and stillness in the heart of the city.

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Storm warnings were in force when Ana Mae Contreras showed me around several of the gardens on the estates, and despite that I got to see community building in action. Not much had happened at one of the gardens over the winter, so as soon as we started looking around people came down to find out when things were starting up again.

Nice.

As is the garden, built with strong scaffolding to grow kudu, a gourd popular in Bengali cooking:

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I am looking forward to growing some of this, and even more to learning how to cook it. They are in the middle of building a bottle greenhouse here, which I love (Stepney City Farm has a lovely one as well)

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They also have a nice and tidy composter, which might be useful for our gardens, though I think we have space for the more traditional kind and its much larger capacity.

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Just around the corner from here is a new orchard, which each of the fruit trees adopted and cared for by a family. I loved that, but my heart was truly stolen by an curious square of rubber set into the ground — turns out it is a trampoline, one big enough to hold three grown women sharing a moment of pure joy.

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Ten minutes away their youth project is working on their own garden — a different form of bed, and beautiful

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Walk down a narrow grassy alley perfect for hosting community cooks and food sharing, there are more immensely solid allotment beds:

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And this awesomeness still somewhat under construction:

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Woolwich Community Centre Garden

This was a little off the beaten track, but I went to an amazing training put together by the Greenwich Co-operative Development Agency on starting a community garden. I would highly recommend it. It walked us through thinking about everything we need to start a garden…this what we came up with

  • Space, soil, water, sun, gravel, compost
  • Raised beds for growing
  • seeds and plants
  • committed group to help start and manage gardens, but multiple opportunities for people to drop in and out, volunteer short term
  • process for access, managing security
  • meeting space, and place for planning building, crops, care
  • marketing to get people involved
  • fundraising, process to capacitate community to do the fundraising
  • budget
  • relationship with neighbouring gardens and city farms and allotments for resources and support
  • plan for statement of purpose as we can’t have simple allotments, how we might divide harvest, could we do some communal cooking
  • insurance

The training was about how we manage to pull together all of those things, and immensely useful.

The weather, as per usual, was freezing cold. It also rained.

Here is the garden at the centre:

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The best kind of compost system, and the kind we hope to build:

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A handy way to store things, especially all the bits you need to make bee houses:

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I would love to do a workshop building those. I’d also love one of these — a worm farm, useful for organic fertilisers, though I am as sold on nettle and comfrey teas.

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We definitely have a lot of work to do to be this amazing.

We’ve had more help from Caravanserai, Stepney City Farm, the Women’s Environmental Network and others still to get in touch with. There is so much happening around food growing and urban agriculture in Tower Hamlets, it is exciting to be a part of it.

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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

 

Food is Free: A Practical Lesson in Community Gardens

In my day job we are looking at creating a community garden among other projects — which seems like it should be easy enough if we get the right people together and just figure it out. Better yet, I have asked for a little help from local organisations of people committed to growing food in the city, and there are lots of people working in the East End on just exactly this. But I thought I would also just see what the internet had to offer, doing a little more research on projects to learn from when we come to build our own gardens.

Besides going a little overboard on permaculture books, which I’ve been obsessive about for a long time, but without much chance to do anything at all about for the past few years. I’ll be writing about those as I go through them, I am so glad that my garden-drought is ending.

Food is Free

If not free now, perhaps some of it can be free in the near future — with food banks on such a steep rise, I think we should be doing all we can to work with people to grow their own healthy veg. Only yesterday through a friend’s post, I stumbled across the Food is Free project, which seems to me to have a particularly lovely way of both framing the project and breaking down the process of bringing people together in urban spaces to grow food not just for themselves, but for neighbours.

This is making me wish I had made a little time to do this ages ago.

In explaining who they are, they write:

The Food is Free Project is a community building and gardening movement that launched in January of 2012. We teach you how to connect with your neighbors and line your street with front yard community gardens which provide free harvests to anyone.

The gardens are built and offered for free using salvaged resources that would otherwise be headed to the landfill. By using drought-tolerant, wicking bed gardens, these low maintenance gardens only need to be watered every 2-4 weeks. This simple tool introduces people to a very easy method of growing organic food with very little work. A wide variety of vegetables along the block promote neighbors to interact and connect, strengthening our communities while empowering them to grow their own food.

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They work with people who have brought friends, family and neighbours together to build bed gardens in a whole variety of available places. They’ve even put a how-to booklet together to allow others to do what they do. The simple steps summarised:

1. Declaration – let people know what you’re doing so they can get involved!

2. Location – find a spot

3. Discover Resources – look at what you have and what you need to get — and don’t be afraid to ask for things that can be reused and recyled

4. Planting! – pretty self-explanatory, just know you will make mistakes.

5. Sharing – share the harvest, it’s nicest that way.

We love how this breaks everything down, makes it sound easy to start up something in any neighbourhood. I like the way this opens up the city so that food can be integrated into improving everyday life along every street, not just for those with allotments or a car or a garden.

food is free7

What is great about this is that these kind of projects can be done almost anywhere, even in very small spaces, so they complement our amazing local city farms like Stepney and Spitalfields, as well as existing allotment spaces.

Other Examples of Street by Street Awesomeness

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There are people doing this everywhere. From Ron Finlay in Los Angeles, who helped changed LA’s laws to allow people to plant vegetable in medians and along sidewalks, to the Yorkshire village of Todmorden growing its own food all over the place, to Growing Communities in Hackney, with its patchwork farm made up of 12 market gardens.

There are also incredibly beautiful and creative ways of making plants that we normally only think of as being grown for food both decorative and inspiring. Like this wonderful archway of squash:

pumpkin_gourd_vines_trellis

Or this spiral of flowers (that could have been strawberries or tomatoes or herbs):

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From the community gardens we hope to grow on our community site now to the rooftop gardens that could lie in our future, there is so much to learn from and be inspired by as in joining this growing movement.

For more ideas, look at the amazing collection of stories about what people are doing here, on the Community Lovers Guides site. But this is probably the first of many a post on local food growing.

I like the idea of Food is Free. It should be. Especially the food that is so good for us, both as something to eat, but also something that gives us joy to plant collectively, tend and grow.

 

The framing of space at Haddon Hall

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

Haddon Hall

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

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

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

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

Haddon Hall Chapel

Haddon Hall Chapel

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

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

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

Haddon Hall

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

Haddon Hall

Haddon Hall

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

Haddon Hall

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

Haddon Hall

Haddon Hall

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

Haddon Hall

But the mysteries of the kitchens remain:

Haddon Hall

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

Haddon Hall

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

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

Haddon Hall

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

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

Haddon Hall

Monkees and serpents and bagpipe monsters!

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Chatsworth

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

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

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

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

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

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

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

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

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

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

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

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

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

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

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

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

Bakewell to Chatsworth Walk

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

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

Bakewell To Chatsworth And Back

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Aragon on Gardening and the Phallophoria of Trafalgar Square

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

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

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

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

It is most unexpected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Topophilia (pt 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beautiful fragment from Thomas Traherne:

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

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

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

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

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

The contrast between Chinese landscapes and others:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The East India Company and the Natural World

22572408Given the single-minded purpose of the East India Company, it is hardly surprising that it should put everything in service of its profits — everything. I am only now learning the full contours of its terrible legacy: the millions dead of famine in Bengal, the industries destroyed, the conflict fomented, the culture and knowledge denigrated, the uprisings horribly put down. Impossible to summarise the damage that transformed Bengal from one of the wealthiest regions to one of the poorest or what that has meant to its people.

Could the colonised natural world have survived such an onslaught untouched?

What I appreciated about many of these stories, is that nature, on the whole, held its own. But not every time.

Frustratingly for me, being fresh and new and autodidacting this subject of Empire and the natural world, the principal theorisation for much of this, and the work that all of these authors are building upon, lies here: Green imperialism : colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, 1600-1860 by Richard Grove. The strength of this collection lies in the well-researched detail and the breadth of subjects and disciplines represented. Not so useful for a theoretical overview though, so I am looking forward to Grove.

Still, this was enjoyable and I pulled out a few quotes, like this from the intro by Alan Lester, on John Mackenzie who I also have not yet read:

‘Rather than thinking of core and periphery as two interacting but discrete spatial containers, each maintaining its own essential identity, he saw that one of these containers was actually constituted by the other’ (2).

That seems common sense to me, perhaps more in the sense of each acting upon the other…but I’ve never much liked ideas of core and periphery. CLR James is most effective in theorising the intensity of these connections in a different way through his work on the Haitian Revolution and cricket for example. Interesting, though, to think of scale as socially constructed projects:

Like gender, race and class in post-structuralist historical thinking, we might productively think of scales as entities constructed through particular projects with real effects in the world. These are the ‘effects of networked practices’. (12)

Not sure what I can do with that, but interesting.

Deepak Kumar is another among several writers here who seem to me to be forced to state the obvious:

Colonial discourse, it is true, is neither dictated nor possessed entirely by the colonizers. Postcolonial theorists find ample instances of ‘ambivalence’, ‘hybridization’, and ‘mimicry’ within it. (20)

But I loved how the various works in here explored this through diaries, log books, letters. They traced the movements not just of human beings (and some of their words echoing from the past have an unexpected emotive power), but of plants and animals, both from the colonies to London, but also from colony to colony. I sit here in my London room, which is full of cactus because a piece of me will always long for the desert, and I wonder that academics had to ‘discover’ the way that people traded both within and without officially ordered botanical practices in familiar crops and familiar plants, to fill their homes and gardens, their medicine cabinets and their bellies. This in spite of the undeniable fact that ‘official’ botanical knowledge and classification resided in the major city of the colonizing power. Still, it is fascinating to read of the ways New Zealand was landscaped along broad and sweeping lines first practiced in India, and the close trading ties between the two that did not involve the home country at all.

I liked the examination of the roles of men of science, both amateur and professional:

They had a dual mandate, one to serve the state, the other to extend the frontiers of knowledge. The state claimed superiority in terms of structure, power, race and so on. Science claimed superiority or precedence in terms of knowledge and, inter alia, helped the colonial state ‘appropriate’, ‘assimilate’ or ‘dismiss’ other epistemologies. (Deepak Kumar, 28)

It was fascinating how these shifted over time, from a much more respectful position of mutual learning in the early days, yet where knowledge was still appropriated and almost never credited. These early days of botany and medicine are most interesting to me, but so much is lost, not valued thus silenced, despite the vast amount of documentation the company produced. I also wanted to know more of men like Richard Blackwall – a surgeon who turned against the East India Company and joined the Mughals in their struggle against it.

I learned a little, but not enough, of Mughal traditions:

gardens designed to introduce new crops and to provide materia medica for local hopsitals had existed for a long time in both Hindu and Muslim traditions and had spread to Europe in the form of the ‘physic gardens’ and ‘acclimatisation gardens’ that emerged in Italy, Portugal, later Holland, and finally England and France and their colonies (60) In Mughal towns of the period, ‘householder gardens’ were common, along with royal gardens and tomb gardens and the leasing of gardens could provide civic revenue (Anna Winterbottom, 44).

The article closest to what I was expecting was Rohan D’Souza’s ‘Mischievous Rivers and Evil Shoals’, detailing the East India Company’s immense and ultimately wasted efforts in attempting to control the mighty delta in Lower Bengal. A textbook in everything that is wrong with this approach to the world and how we live in it:

Despite the delicate nature of the drainage pattern, colonial rule had, during the course of the nineteenth century, inaugurated a number of projects for road, railway and embankment construction in the region. These modes of transport with their emphasis on permanent all-weather structures and mostly built in unrelenting straight lines marked a sharp break from movement in the earlier era, which was predominantly based on circuitous rough paths and ‘crooked’ routes. The colonial transport network in Bengal, in fact, radiated along the East-West axis, while the region’s natural drainage lines, in contrast, dropped from North to South (139).

The river won, but the decades of struggle, and the resources used by engineers is sobering, as is their despair or resignation. Yet the real tragedy is in the human cost of flooding and famine as older, more flexible methods of navigation, cultivation and agriculture working with the changing river are lost or no longer possible. I don’t know that there is enough rage in this book for me.

One consolation was an entire chapter on the rafflesia arnoldii, the largest flower in the world and proof of a true ‘Malaysian encounter’ when sited by a tourist, also known as a corpse flower for its smell of rotting flesh and parasitic nature:

h1dkeUB Rafflesia-arnoldii

 

In 1819 Robert Brown was Secretary of the Linnaean Society, and it was his task to identify the flower, and he faced a conundrum. Should he name the flower for Raffles, who oversaw the expedition and was well known in scientific circles in London, or Arnold, who had been the chief naturalist, and the first white man to see the flower on the expedition? Brown spent the next eighteen months confirming whether or not it was a botanical novelty and contemplating it’s official classification (Barnard, 160).

This encapsulates so much of early botany — carried out for profit, subject to strict hierarchy and structured by racism, still partaking of adventure and a scientific excitement (on Arnold’s part) not fully tainted by the colonial enterprise of which it was part. Arnold would not survive to see the final classification.

My favourite Raffles is still this one, and I can’t help but think of Arnold as Bunny. But that is absolutely doing my favourite dynamic duo a disservice.

Christopher_Strauli_and_Anthony_Valentine

 

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