maandag 31 januari 2011

The uncontacted

My favourite Amazonian pictures are those that show people in the landscape (like). Screw those close-up facials portraying some savage lost in thought or meditative gaze; the western concept of autobiography is not universal. Anyway.. these four images of 'one of the world's last uncontacted Indians' just released by Survival International are nothing but stunning. That resolution! Anthropologists prefer the word 'isolated' over 'uncontacted' but Survival is a charity that needs to make headlines so that is ok, but do read this old discussion on savage minds if the subject is of interest to you.  

donderdag 27 januari 2011

Iain Sinclair says "Psychogeography is not that interesting anymore"

The writer sitting in the back, shady and iguana like, mentally preparing for his lecture.   

Iain Sinclair was giving a lecture in The Hague the other day.

I AM a complete coward and I would never have the temerity to walk up to Iain Sinclair, the don of wiseguy psychogeography, and embarrass myself by boring him with my presence and rambling madman conversation. 

Afterwards I was waiting for Petr Kazil in the hallway, when it took longer than expected for him to show up I returned to the lecture hall to see what was delaying him. There I found him at the pedestal waiting for a chance to thank Sinclair for his books and so I half-heartedly joined him and, when the three of us walked to the hallway, I managed to present myself as the true socially uncomfortable halfwit that I am and asked him if he was following current work in psychogeography to which he responded that 'psychogeography was not that interesting any more' it is not an exact quote but what a complete tosser! So of course I could not resist the chance to reveal myself as the crazy self-obsessed freak in the room by showing him the error of his ways, telling him of the psychogeophyics summit in his own Hackney last summer (he did hear of it but was abroad) and (shudder) my own MK_Weeds festival to which he replied with an anecdote of walking with Richard Mabey and being told about grasses as food.

So Petr and I chatted a bit with him, exchanging book titles (I recommended John McPhee, especially 'Basin and Range' because it was similar in intent, oh shame, to his own books) but Sinclair was gracefully indulgent, talking back and telling us that his next book dealt with the US. He is a smart dresser and does not have a cute English accent. Petr recorded his lecture and Sinclair (can I call you Iain now?) said he did't mind if it was published online. (link to be inserted). 

In his books Sinclair presents himself as a kind of all seeing and all knowing genius loci, a presence larger than space and I was interested to see how he would be in his own human form. His talk was a pleasant intersection of thought and places, stories and walks. He was more outspokenly political than in his books, in clear terms condemning gentrification and the architectural legacy engineering behind, for instance, the London Olympics.     

maandag 24 januari 2011

Exploration Fawcett

About 9 months ago I ordered Exploration Fawcett for the sake of completeness: after 19 years of mapping uncharted areas of the Amazon rainforest Colonel Percy Fawcett had picked up enough lore concerning the lost cities of the Amazon, El Dorado and others, that he believed that he knew where to find one. In 1925 he went on a well publicized search for the City of Z in the Xingu area and was never seen again. We now know of the overgrown moats, ditches and roads collectively known as the Garden Cities of Xingu and with hindsight Fawcett seems to have been a visionary force in the rediscovery of the existence of pre-Columbian urbanity in the Amazon. 

Exploration Fawcett begins with him journeying to South-America for the first time and ends with his overview of the evidence for lost cities. It took me a long time to start reading it. I thought it would be tedious reading with undertones of obsessiveness and dullness and the cover didn't help either (and it is a trash book, it does not mention year of publication). It turns out that Fawcett was a headstrong but friendly humanitarian with a Victorian mind over matter and an acute observer. If Indiana Jones was not a film by Steven Spielberg but a book by Jane Austen this would be like it. Amidst the atrocities of the rubber boom Fawcett combines a firm grasp of the situation as a social wrong with a never wavering sympathy for human frailty. His stance on the Indians, believing their belligerence overstated, is incredibly modern and suits him well in his explorations. He is more Ray Mears than Bruce Parry.

The jungle is a place where stories are currency and hear-say is exchange money. Fawcett, ever the military man, tells quite a few stories of garrison humour, but there is even more strange ethnographic material that sometimes seems post-modern (like this earlier quote about cannibalism) but also sometimes seems incredibly pulpy. 
Every year the natives here celebrate a kind of sabbath in the forest. They gather round an altar of stones and brew the native beer, chicha, which they drink in huge quantities over mouthfuls of strong tobacco. The mixture maddens them, and man and woman give themselves up to a wild orgy. This often continues for a fortnight.
Fawcett feels modern in some aspects because he observed things with his own eyes and saw through dogma when he needed to. He made his own choices and this is why he survived. There are other parts of Fawcett that are resolutely distant in time from us: his firm believe in spiritualism that seems so at odds with his deep practicality. But (and I have made this point earlier) superstitions, the belief in active magic, might well be an adaptation of the human mind to cope with the conditions and challenges of life as part of the forest.   

vrijdag 21 januari 2011

Alexander Marshack and prehistoric writing

Here is a scan of Alexander Marshack's article 'Exploring the Mind of Ice-Age Man' first published in 1974 in the National Geographic. It deals with the evidence for mark-making and notational inscriptions as found in artefacts and rockart from the ice-age.   

dinsdag 18 januari 2011

Humans taste like monkey-meat

From Hans Staden as depicted by De Bry

Later I will have more to say about Exploration Fawcett, the book culled from Colonel Percy Fawcett's diaries covering 19 years of exploration in the Amazon before he vanished in the Xingu, famously. Here is a strikingly relativist 1907 appraisal of cannibalism. 
Senor Donayre ... was an interesting man. At one time the German firm for which he worked on the Purus sent him to the Putumayo to contact Indians on that river, learn their language, and report on the chances of rubber and trade. In one large tribe he was given a wife, and stayed with them for two years. 
"These people were cannibals," he said, "and many a time I have seen bits of men - white men - cooked. They didn't care to much for eating whites - man of other Indian tribes were preferred. The taste is rather like monkey meat."
"Did you ever sample the flesh yourself?" I asked.
"I lived with them, remember, and it was necessary for me to adopt their habits. If I had refused to do what they did I wouldn't have lived to tell the tale."
"How developed were they -  I mean mentally, socially...?"
"Oh, they were intelligent all right! They had an organized government; and while each separate community had its own chief, there was a supreme chief who acted as a king over the whole tribe. They sometimes cremated their dead, but usually ate them. Women were plentiful, and though polygamy practised, their morals were of a high order."
"It's easy to condemn cannibalism as disgusting, Major [Fawcett was never a real Colonel], but when you come to think of it, is it any worse to eat a dead man than to eat a dead beast or bird? It as least provides a reasonable motive for killing a men, which is more than you can say for civilized warfare; and it's a convenient way of getting rid of the death, without occupying valuable ground and polluting clean air by burying the corpse! Of course, it is a matter of viewpoint. One's first thought is that cannibalism is revolting, but when you are familiar with it there seems little to object to."        

zaterdag 15 januari 2011

So what about 'foraging'? And what about 'art'? And what about the 'hype'?

Foraging pine needles, yummie, taken from a Phaidon cook it raw series
"Possibly the arts are well placed to lead an ecological insurrection by again valuing food as contiguous with cultural production, and possibly the arts are well placed to be radical again as it continues to attract odd bods and those that are not so well adjusted to a ‘profoundly sick society’ (Jiddu Krishnamurti)" - Patrick Jones.
The above quote, taken from an article by the yam foraging slow poet/Permapoesis blogger/homesteader from  the People's Republic of Abba has been on my mind for a while. What does it mean in relation to art that reflects on foraging and how does it tie in with the recent discovery of Neanderthal cooking (as understood from food traced in fossilized dental plaque, a discovery that immediately led to all sorts of speculation about the lifestyle and cognitive abilities of the 'other humans') ... and ... what do mean when we use the word 'art', exactly?: 
"The aura of fashionable sophistication that surrounds the world of the arts today tends to obscure their fundamental role in society: to provide basic vehicles for speculative inquiry into the nature of human experience."  
The above quote is from an obscure source, (Daniel M. Mendelowitz, Children as Artists, Stanford University Press, 1963) but it brilliantly formulates something that is at least implicit in the work of all my favourite 'artists': the museum, the gallery, all those pretentious bullshitters scavenging for leftover crumbs that have fallen from the art funding table have nothing to do with art, they are part of a totally corrupt and self-serving financial system.
"Always watch the quiet ones at the back, all they want is the smallest scrap" - Crass
Food as culture, cooking as art. 

Consider Rene Redzepi (earlier) whose restaurant Noma has moved away from the exalted spheres of fine dining into canteen like atmosphere serving Ikea-patterned foraged goods with intentionally mismatched cutlery. I hadn't realized this earlier but Redzepi's first book was marketed, to all intents and purposes, as an art book: as an expensive limited edition collectors item with the size of a large handbag. Given that most of the recipes are impossible to reproduce for a home cook and they often rely on Nordic ingredients it was not even a cookery book but a catalogue. Such tactics can backfire: once you are in fashion you must go, no you will be brought, out of fashion. Redzepi is even being Assanged as a criminal when sharing his knowledge with the public.  

Here is a fragment of Catherine Phipps review of cooking books of 2010: 
The inaccessible Noma Cookbook... I loved it, but was also incredibly frustrated by it – due to the specialist kit needed the dishes are nigh on impossible to recreate at home. I know it's not really the point of this sort of book, but looking at the photographs made me feel like a child squashed up against the sweetshop window; unable to get in.
Redzepi is the King of the Locavores, and with the Noma Cookbook that particular movement probably reached its peak. I think we're now moving away from books which focus on the local and seasonal, which have so dominated the past few years. This has to be a good thing - there is only so much you can say about our own produce without being repetitive, and going foraging to discover more outlandish ingredients is unrealistic for most of us and is even causing controversy with environmentalists.
That's what happens if you prefer a glossy tome over a Xeroxed zine like Nancy Klehm's "reap where you did not sow, a guide to urban foraging' or Edible, Medicinal, & Utilitarian Plants, Volume I. Art conveys prestige but at a Faustian price. Hohum...

donderdag 13 januari 2011

The naming of the 'cryptoforest'

The 'cryptoforest' is just my name for, ultimately, a few fields that I happened to discover while getting on with my own daily chores. At first I was being predictable and boring by trying to find and catalogue all of them in my own town; but nothing is to be gained from mere awareness of places as if they are different kinds of cereal on a supermarket shelve. Psychogeography (and foraging) depends on close observation and experience of a very limited number of places. For this reason I have so far resisted to post about things like the Chernobyl zone of alienation that are randomly and impersonally related. Call it the Miss Marple approach to psychogeography. 
Sir Henry Clithering: May I make a suggestion?
Conway Jefferson: Do.
Sir Henry Clithering: Did you know that downstairs in the foyer is one of the most formidable criminologists in England?
Conway Jefferson: Really?
Sir Henry Clithering: Oh yes. And I could lay you almost any odds you would never recognise her as such.
Conway Jefferson: Her?
Sir Henry Clithering: Mmm. There she sits, an elderly spinster, sweet, placid - so you'd think. Yet her mind has plumbed the depths of human iniquity and taken it all in a day's work.
Conway Jefferson: How do we involve her?
Sir Henry Clithering: (indulgently) I expect she's involved already. She lives in St. Mary Mead only a couple of miles from Arthur and Dolly's place. It's extraordinary, she knows the world only through the prism of that village and its daily life. By knowing the village so thoroughly, she seems to know the world.      
The concept of a 'cryptoforest' is just one effort to name a phenomena without a commonly accepted name. Richard Mabey's Unofficial Countryside (earlier), Bruce Sterling's involuntary Park and Ruig Groen (rugged green) as used by the city of Amsterdam are other names referring to roughly the same kind of land types.
Ruig groen (rugged green?) according to the City of Amsterdam
For future reference: Sterling's list of involuntary parks concentrates on big scale dramatic failures of economy and warfare.
A. The very large and slightly poisonous areas downwind of Chernobyl, which have been reported to feature wild boars and somewhat distorted vegetable and insect forms.
B. The Korean Demilitarized Zone, which is about a mile wide and stretches entirely across the Korean Peninsula. It is festooned with deadly landmines, and rumor says it has tigers.
C. The Green Line between Turkish Cyprus and Greek Cyprus. Intruders are shot or arrested there, and in the many years since the unrecognized Turkish secession, the area has become reforested; wildfires there are considered a public hazard.
D. Abandoned military test ranges.
E. Very old and decaying railroad lines in the United States, which, paradoxically, contain some of the last untouched prairie ecosystems in North America.
F. Aging toxic waste dumps, whose poisons legally discourage humans but not animals.  

dinsdag 11 januari 2011

Some additional wild plants that we hadn't tried before

Gary Snyder as a young man
In 1967 and 1968 Gary Snyder associated himself with the Japanese counter-cultural movement founded by the wayfaring poet Nanao Sakaki called the tribe. Hunger was sometimes an issue, and occasionally they had to take a risk and eat plants they hadn't eaten before. The quote is taken from 'The Real Work', the pictures appeared in some old edition of 'He who hunted birds in his father's village'.
Nanao [Sakaki] got the word that one of the Southern islands off Kyushu was underpopulated because it was too isolated and the soil was too bad and that no one would object if some people moved in there and did some homesteading.
So he and seven and eight people went down and spent the first summer doing nothing but cutting back the bamboo tearing out the roots and planting sweet potatoes. The second summer was last summer. I was with them both summers for part of the time. I don't mean to say that they do this just in the summer. They've been doing this continuously since they started, but the summer has been the biggest push in land-clearing.
Last summer we cleared some more land, burned the brush, burned the stomps, rooted out more lands, put more into cultivation, and simultaneously we were able to cut lumber and drag it down from the hills and square off logs towards building a house.
During that period, because of typhoon weather, the ship didn't come. The ship only comes once a week and this little ship can't even come into the island. It has to stop offshore and then a boat goes out to it.
Because the ship didn't come, the food ran out. And this is a common thing for that ashram: to be out of food for three weeks or four weeks at a time. As we ran short on rations, we simply cut down the daily amount of food for everybody to two meals a day - a bowl and a half of gruel per person at a meal - and scrounged upon the countryside, got edible nuts. Because of the heavy surf we weren't able to do much fishing but we were able to gather shellfish. And we tried out some additional wild plants that we hadn't tried before. 
Gary Snyder slightly older. 

zaterdag 8 januari 2011

I glean, you glean, we glean

Two days ago I learned a new word: gleaning:
Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. Some ancient cultures promoted gleaning as an early form of a welfare system.
Gleaning as an agricultural etiquette of leftover management; how excellent, In the past gleaners must have been a common sight, why else would a painting like the one above and the below be made, perhaps gleaners were the homeless people selling their papers at the supermarket of today?? Now the word will lead you to rural US Christian poverty relieve initiatives. 

It is telling that gleaning, which is a kind of weird agricultural-foraging hybrid, has been linked with the poor for as long as anybody can remember. It is a kind of foraging; gleaners live off the land and need to move to find food, but it lacks the deep skill and know-how, it is parasitic on human labour instead of a productivity based on an intimate knowledge of the surroundings. Gleaning as the foraging of the lumpen proletariat. Now people are starting to think of gleaning as a kind of cool grassroots humanizing and reinhabitation of mechanized agricultural factory fields. 

Reader Bryan Sonderman points us to 'The Gleaners and I" a 2000 film by Agnes Verda, the first minutes are online with English subtitles, the film deals mostly with urban gleaning: (poor) people collecting left overs at market stalls and the end of the day, as something shameful that inspires rappers to write lyrics about. Again: freeganism and Food not Bombs and other initiatives are adopting gleaning (dumpster diving/skipping) as a life style project that critically reflects on our production of waste and the uneven diffusion of wealth in our society.   

What mental distances we are crossing. 

Why was the word new to me: perhaps because I had no matching concept in Dutch. After checking several online translation services, though none of them authoritative, one came up with nothing, the second with 'sprokkelen' which is clearly an insane translation and the third came up with 'aren lezen' which I never heard before but which turned out to be the thoroughly old-fashioned, biblical but proper Dutch translation. As I can't imagine anyone saying something like "Vaader, ik ga thans aren lezen in 't ginderse veld', Dutch gleaners would probably announce that they 'are going to see if there is something left in the fields of Boer Harm'. This puts 'gleaning', in Dutch, in the same category as 'serendipity' and 'foraging': words that have dictionary translations that are so far removed from daily usage as to be of no practical use. But you won't see me going all Whorfian.

Of course someone has done a G-map glean app:
Van Gogh, 1885.

donderdag 6 januari 2011

The ill will of places

Here is an amusing 19Th century anecdote about the Macushi of Guayana relating to pre-Columbian rock art and psychogeography. Reichel-Dolmatoff writes about the special quality of certain sites that make them stand apart from their surrounding, this adds another piece of evidence to the ethnopsychogeography (duh) of the Amazon.  
Everytime a sculptured rock or striking mountain or stone is seen, Indians invert the ill will of the spirits of such places by rubbing red peppers (Capsicum) in his or her own eyes. Though the old practitioners inflict this self-torture with the utmost stoicism, I have again and again seen that otherwise rare sight of Indian children, even young men, sobbing under the infliction. Yet the ceremony was never omitted. Sometimes, when by a rare chance no member of the party had had the forethought to provide peppers, lime juice, was used as a substitute; and once, when neither peppers nor lime were at hand, a piece of blue indigo-dyed cloth was carefully soaked, and the dye was then rubbed into the eyes. 
This quote is taken from 'Picture-writing of the American Indians' by Garrick Mallery. First published in 1893 but my edition is the 1972 Dover reprint. This is an obsessive collection of examples of mnemonic drawings and proto-writing as found in petroglyphs and rock art in (mostly North) America. The writing is a bit dry but this set of two books are a joy to look at with 1290 (!) illustrations and 54 plates. Get a taste from the Google-books preview. 

The following two images are rubbing from Fairy Rock in Nova Scotia, these are palimpsests pressing into one flat image three layers of habitation:  new (English) , old (French) and very old (Mic Mac tribe, 2000 years old).      

zondag 2 januari 2011

About the Watunna

John Updike reviews the Watunna song cycles, I have this on my shelves but never managed to read it (because of its, to me, unreadability) but will try again some time. The forward, which deals with the function and the language of the Watunna is awesome though and available online. Another positive review is here.