dinsdag 29 maart 2011

The genesis of Eskimo poetry

1. After noting the abundance of Eskimo songs and tales, Franz Boas goes on to give this image of Eskimo song making:

The eskimo sits for hours by the breathing-hole of the seal. During such times his fancy is free to wander and many of his songs take shape during these moments.

2. Knud Rasmussen recorded the following from an old woman living in a dark cave:

For our forefather believed that the songs were born in stilness while all endeavored to think of nothing but beautiful things. Then they take shape in the minds of men and rise up like bubbles from the depths of the sea, bubbles seeking the air in order to burst. This is how sacred songs are made.

3. From an Eskimo man called Orpingalik Rasmussen learned the following:

Songs are thoughts, sung with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. How many songs I have I cannot tell you. I keep no count of such things. There are so many occasions in one's life when a joy or sorrow is felt in such a way that desire comes to sing; and so I only know I have many songs. All my being is song. I sing as I draw my breath. 


maandag 28 maart 2011

The animal clientele of infrastructural engineering

The above image shows the A27 fauna passage connecting Utrecht and its outlying fields. The black line shows the artificial ditch (up to one meter in depth) that the animals must  follow to cross the barrier. The white dots mark the beginning and end of 2 smalls tunnels crossing the roads running parallel to the actual motorway that isn't tunnelled and must be navigated using a fenced-off passage underneath the bridge. The two sides along the motorway looked and felt different, something observed before.  

This cryptoforest is only a stone's throw away.

Compared to other fauna passages this one is unsophisticated to the point of being inhospitable to the animals. Surely they deserve some luxury? Like one of those horizontal escalators you see at airports. 

I went here in the vain hope to see animals or animal traces. Needless to say: I didn't, though I wouldn't now where to look in the first place.

The tunnels provides a thoroughfare for two types of frog, toad, snake, lizard, three types of mice, ermine, weasel and hedgehog.

The first pics from the passage (the left side on the top image) were made by doing something I feel terribly bad about: I jumped the fence even though the sign clearly states that doing so may pollute the area and discourage animals from using it. Though as you can see: I was not the first to enter it.

There were three of these heaps. My visit coincided with the end of the winter and I greatly look forward to returning and see what this will look like in spring and summer.

The reeds were all dried and snapped as I found my way.

The litter on the ground, also snapped as I went. I was the first human in a long time.

A path.

Hogweed, I later learned that Utrecht maintains an active extermination policy against it. This is the only I saw and they strike me, visually, as archaic remnants of an otherwise lost floral kingdom 
The view over the two meters high fence, under the bridge.

The other side of the motorway, less densely populated with trees, swampy and with a better defined 'road' for the animals.

The entrance on the side of the motorway.

The exit almost on the border of the agricultural fields that separate Utrecht from De Bilt

First time I have ever seen this plant, fatty, prickly and deep green. Much thanks to those readers recognizing it as a young hogweed.

A view on the tunnel on the city side.

Trees are named for the sound the autumn wind makes when it blows through the branches

Via BLDGBlog comes to us the budding scientific discipline of soundscape ecology: "A new scientific field that will use sound as a way to understand the ecological characteristics of a landscape and to reconnect people with the importance of natural sounds."

The notion will have hordes of Deleuzian DJ's drooling all over their rare Mille Plateaux glitch 12"s but I am not convinced. In comparison to most other mammals the human species has as much talent for hearing as the ostrich has for flying. But sound is a way to know about things. Consider Micmac (Míkmaq) tree names. 
In the Native American language Micmac, trees are named for the sound the autumn wind makes when it blows through the branches about an hour after sunset when the wind always comes from a certain direction.

Moreover, these names are not fixed but change as the sound changes. If an elder remembers, for example, that a stand of trees over there used to be called by a particular name 75 years ago but is now called by another, both names can be seen as scientific markers for the effects of acid rain over that time period.
Can you even imagine distinguishing a tree by the sound it makes? The detailed knowledge that goes into it (an hour after sunset, in autumn, when the wind comes from a certain direction) makes it even more esoteric and you would suspect a lively fantasy rather than an actual language but, even though I have not found a academic paper, this quote has appeared in a book published by Oxford University Press. That makes me trust it.

This segment is directly followed by the following quote that shows that in some languages edibility is embedded linguistic form, the source is the same interview with Susanna Romaine.
During World War II an American fighter plane returned from New Guinea into northern Australia, where it crashed. The four survivors had no compasses or navigational equipment but proceeded to set out to try to find help. Three starved to death with food  all around them. Unlike the Aborigines, the Americans had no idea what was edible and inedible. Many of the trees and vines have parts that can be made edible if treated in certain ways. None of this knowledge is written down but is passed on orally from generation to generation, much of it encoded in the classification systems of Aboriginal languages, which group all edible fruits and the plants that bear them into one category. This knowledge is always only one generation away from extinction.

woensdag 23 maart 2011

Time Landscape [fence=frame]

Just because Jane Jacobsen supported it does not mean it is a good idea. 

"Time Landscape" (1978) is a prominently located land art piece by Alan Sonfist recreating a pre-Columbian Manhattan forest. Or as Michael Pollen describes it:
A Pedestrian standing at the corner of Houston Street and La Guardia Place in Manhattan might think that the wilderness had reclaimed a tiny corner of the city’s grid here. Ten years ago, an environmental artist persuaded the city to allow him to create on this site a “Time Landscape” showing New Yorkers what Manhattan looked like before the white man arrived. On a small hummock he planted oak, hickory, maples, junipers, and sassafras, and they’ve grown up to form a nearly impenetrable tangle, which is protected from New Yorkers by a steel fence now thickly embroidered with vines. It’s exactly the sort of “garden” of which Emerson and Thoreau would have approved—for the very reason that it’s not a garden. 
A project like the Time Landscape is not so much of interest for itself but for what people make of it over time. A garden, even an anti-garden, is just a place to be in, a forest, even a cryptoforest, is a state of mind, a psychological condition that attracts shrinks and social health workers and the rest of the Cuckoo Club.

The Village Voice website has a 2007 article on a volunteer mass clean-up that sought to eradicate invasive (non-native) species as well as the creation of sight-lines to prevent people from hiding in the bushes.
"Although a chain-link fence encloses the area and entrance is by key, there is a hole in the fence and it is possible to climb over the waist-high barrier." 
The fence is not to frame the art but to keep art lovers outside of it.
Nonnative plants and weeds have spread to the garden, and the sight of morning glories clinging to the fence troubled many.

“The concept was to have native species,” said Tobi Bergman, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Parks Committee, in a phone interview before the cleanup. “But there is a reason we call them invasive species: They have no natural enemies.”

Sonfist dismissed these criticisms.

“This is an open lab, not an enclosed landscape,” he said. “The intention was never to keep out all nonnative species, but rather to see how they come into the space with time.”
The Time Landscape is a hegemonic plant community that refuses to interact, like a silent Indian who is the last of his tribe and who refuses to engage with his own feelings or those of outsiders and instead just waits and waits and waits.

In terms of PR the fence is the problem: in contrast with the Ramble it doesn't allow visitors who in turn cannot become participants as they create a bond with the landscape.

As a challenge to the peasant obsession with productivity, order and plow-schedules the problem with Time Landscape is that the fence is not high enough. It functions as a screen on which urban sub-conscious fears and phobias are projected: 500 year after Robin Hood the outlaws are still hiding in the forest.
Google streetview on Time Landscape.

vrijdag 18 maart 2011

A farming field turned cryptoforest

There is only one way a cryptoforest can be found. I keep repeating it. It's by getting lost.

Today I went out to take some photographs of an object alongside the A25 motorway (post forthcoming), did a little detour to check up on something, lost my bearing, was led a few kilometres astray as the motorway did not allow me to a take a turn in either way, ended up in the posh village of De Bilt, backtracked a little, found myself as 2 Km distance of Utrecht, cycled home and spotted a cryptoforest of gigantic proportions and ditto diversity. Judging by its form, the neighbouring fields and the gate (see above) this field used to home to sheep or maybe a few cows. The shape is oblong, maybe 80 meters in width and 350 (?) meters in depth. In any case: it felt immense. What was striking was the diversity as vegetation seemed to change every 40 meters, the most eye-catching plants tended to appear only once. I hope the following pictures and comments do justice to the qualities of this cryptoforest.

The blackberries and the dense undergrowth made getting to the back of the field quite a challenge, so it will be good to learn what it will be like in summer when the plants are ready to defend themselves with more vehemence.

It turned out that this field is only a couple of hundred meters down the road from where my journey took me to in the first place but in a direction I would have never have taken.

The field itself was remarkable free from debris, though there were trails.This is the exception.

A bit of hairy colour with bug attached, only one specimen of this plant seen.

A view on one of a small number of Blackberry 'islands' that can completely overtake an area. In Dutch 'blackberriezation' is a word.

Fingers on buttons: what is this name of this plant?

My heart stopped when I spotted these Giant Hogweeds (?): it was like I was suddenly transported back to the age of the dinosaurs. The picture doesn't do justice to their immense size, 2,5 meters high, with the stems as big as my arm. These were localized in a tiny patch and I haven't seen the plant anywhere else in it. 

One zone: flat,flat flat.

Another zone: trees, trees, trees.

A flowering plant that radiated its colours, again only one seen.

Two spruce trees (?), Christmas leftovers?

A lonely pottery shard.

As if a slimy blob from outer space has landed here.

A Bog.

Majestic sign of desolateness, trees haunted by the wind.

Right in the middle of the field (!), under a tree and it took me some effort to get to them.

Zone: reeds, reeds, reeds.

Rabbit droppings.

donderdag 17 maart 2011

A forager's critique of the 'Anthropocene' [updated]

The civilized world blinking in the night...

The following excerpt from Richard K. Nelson's 'Make Prayers to the Raven' (previous) about Koyukon coexistence with nature could be replaced with citations from heaps of other sources (for instance or for instance). But this one I happened to have by my side:
To most outsiders, the vast expanses of forest, tundra, and mountains in the Koyukon homeland constitute a wilderness in the absolute sense of the word. For the Western mind, it is wilderness because it is essentially unaltered and lacks visible signs of human activity, and it must therefore be unutilized. But in fact the Koyukon homeland is not a wilderness, nor has it been for millennia. 

This apparently untrodden forest and tundra country is thoroughly known by a people whose entire lives and cultural ancestry are inextricably associated with it. The lakes, hills, river bends, sloughs, and creeks are named and imbued with personal or cultural meanings. Indeed to the Koyukon these lands are no more a wilderness than are farmlands to a farmer or streets to a city dweller. At best we can call them a wildland. 

The fact that Westerners identify this remote country as wilderness reflects their inability to conceive of occupying and utilizing an environment without fundamentally altering its natural state. But the Koyukon people and their ancestors have done precisely this over a protracted span of time. From this viewpoint, they have made a highly effective adjustment to living as members of an ecosystem, pursuing a form of adaptation that fosters the successful coexistence of humanity and nature within a single community.  
The reason for quoting this is that it clarifies something that may otherwise by lost as the case for the official recognition of the Antropocene progresses.

In a recent discussion by Crutzen and Schwägerl on the reality of the Antropocene a reference is made to the anthropogenic biome work of Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty:
Geographers Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty argue we are no longer disturbing natural ecosystems. Instead, we now live in “human systems with natural ecosystems embedded within them.” The long-held barriers between nature and culture are breaking down. It’s no longer us against “Nature.” Instead, it’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be. 


Where wilderness remains, it’s often only because exploitation is still unprofitable. Conservation management turns wild animals into a new form of pets. 
The major results of the anthropogenic biome mapping project are:
- In 1700 the biosphere was less than half wild and only 5% used. 
- In 2000 40% of the biosphere is used, 37% of the biosphere are novel ecosystems and that 23% is wild. 
- Novel ecosystems embedded within used lands are almost twice as common as wildlands that remain primarily in Earth's coldest and driest regions.
The Richard K. Nelson quote shows that the supposed duality between wild & unused lands versus used & domesticated lands, as the conceptualized by the anthropogenic biome project is soaked in culturally defined notions of how landscapes are supposed to be used and classified. 

Apart from Antarctica no place on the planet is wild or unused, every place is home to some fellow human beings. 

Traumatic ecological disturbance is not a fact of human life, the Anthropocene isn't a geological epoch, it is a cultural artefact. As stated by Willian Ruddiman the producing culture is the culture of farming: 
"A wide array of archeological, cultural, historical and geologic evidence points to viable explanations tied to anthropogenic changes resulting from early agriculture in Eurasia, including the start of forest clearance by 8000 years ago and of rice irrigation by 5000 years ago."  
The Holocene will do as John Hawks wrote back in 2008.

Another quote from Nelson is at place. Here he voices a sentiment that will be almost impossible to grasp for the peasant mind.
And we might also give thought to the legacy that they have created, by which the people continue to live today. What is this legacy? We often remember ancient or traditional cultures for the monuments they have left behind, the megaliths of Stonehenge, the temples of Bangkok, the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the great ruins of Machu Picchu. People like the Koyukon have created no such monuments, but they left something that may be unique - greater and more significant as a human achievement. This legacy is the vast land itself, enduring and essentially unchanged despite having supported human life for countless centuries. 

As an aside: it is worth to quote the first use of the word 'anthropocene', from Vladimir I. Vernadsky's 'The Biosphere and the Noösphere' for its H.G. Wellian feel: 

A.P. Pavlov (1854-1929) in the last years of his life used to speak of the anthropogenic era in which we now life. ... Mankind became a single totality in the life of the earth. There is no spot on earth where man can not live if he so desires. Our people's sojourn on the floating ice of the North Pole in 1937-1938 has proved this clearly. At the same time, owing to the mighty techniques and successes of scientific thought, radio and television, man is able to speak instantly to anyone he wishes at any point on our planet. Transportation by air has reached a speed of several hundred kilometers per hour, and has not reached its maximum. All this is the result of "cephalization," the growth of man's brain and the work directed by his brain.  in which we now live... he rightfully emphasized that man, under our very eyes, is becoming a mighty and ever-growing geological force. This geological force was formed quite imperceptibly over a long period of time. A change in man's position on our planet (his material position first of all) coincided with it. In the twentieth century, man, for the first time in the history of the earth, knew and embraced the whole biosphere, completed the geographic map of the planet Earth, and colonized its whole surface.

dinsdag 15 maart 2011

Porcupines are great wanderers

The Koyukons are a non-Eskimo people from the Alaskan Arctic who live from hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering. Richard K.Nelson's 'Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest' is filled, chapter after chapter, with stuff about animals, species after species. Most of it is practical (say: is it eaten yes or no?), but Nelson has a brilliant way of giving asides that slowly accumulate into a throught-the-keyhole vision on what the landscape means to Koyukon. The following aside about the porcupine is a good example of this. Image source
Porcupines are great wanderers despite their labored gait, as anyone knows who has followed their tracks winding almost endlessly through the forest. They are given a special power to know the landscape, I was told that this is the Koyukon reason why people should never set traps for them (no further explanation was given). Beyond this, their familiarity with the geography of the terrain is really just a metaphor representing much greater.
Porcupines know all the country. Even though they're low to the ground they really know the land. They're powerful animals. My old man said, "The whole of Alaska is something like the palm of a porcupine's hand."
For the Koyukon, no animal is just that and nothing more. Even the least imposing of creatures, those that seem insignificant from the lofty perspective of humanity, have dimensions of being that extend for beyond the realm and power of the senses. It is not a world where humans may become too proud, for nothing that lives is truly humble, regardless of how it may appear.

vrijdag 11 maart 2011

The MKWeeds festival begins Now.

 You can find the earlier announcement here but I am happy to tell you that blogging and planning for the 'Middle Kingdom of Weeds Festival of psychogeograpy and foraging' has now begun. 

The first announcements are up and there are a reasonable number of events in the pipeline. The festival only really starts in April so there is still time for YOU to organize your own event or do a personal project or become part of the blogging team: Get in touch via the website.  

The jungle jetset [updated]

The above picture is an enigmatic evocation of the joys of jungle life. You would almost suspect that FARC leaked it as propaganda: join the FARC and you will always have a gun in one hand and a beautiful girl in the other. Whet else could any any modern day Robin Hood hope for? But it is not propaganda, it's found footage.

Tanja Nijmeijer is almost as old as I am, she shares a squatting background and we may well have been at the same places at the same time. In comparison, do I live a shitty, uneventful life? Or am I better off: enjoying my central heating, tea with milk and biscuits, a good book on the Tukano Indians on my side, and the occasional single malt to top it? Dutch Wikipedia describes her as a dogmatic, manipulative person who makes enemies quickly. It's only Wikipedia but it builds a picture and though I have never met her but I do know her in some inexact, by-proxy, way. Crossed destinies...

What I would like to know is: what do they eat? Are they fully supplied from outside or do they hunt and forage. Can a Dutch woman learn to survive in the Amazonian forest from the forest and become a 'native'?

Secondly: the theme of this blog is that the forest is a psychological state: can anything be said about the influence of the forest on the narco-Maoist ideology of FARC?     

dinsdag 8 maart 2011

Eskimo Psychogeography

The first is a a map of the Cumberland Sound-Frobisher Bay region drawn from memory by an Eskimo named Sunapignanq, The second map is a modern cartographic map.

The above image and the quote below are excerpted from Barry Lopez fabulous 'Arctic Dreams, imagination and desire in a Northern landscape'. I opened it at random the other day and the following fragment about the definition of 'space', 'place' and how the transition from one to the other is brought about through narrative and long term contact seems to be in perfect alignment with forage psychogeography. It is a wonderfully compact quote, a large segment of the book is concerned with Eskimo (ethno)psychogeography but Lopez here manages to find universal facets. Italics are mine.
 The American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan distinguishes in his writing between concepts of space and a sense of place. Human beings, he says, set out from places, where they feel a sense of attachment,of shelter, of comprehension, and journey into amorphous spaces, characterized by a feeling of freedom or adventure, and the unknown. "In open space," writes Tuan, "one can become intensely aware of [a remembered] place; and in the solitude of a sheltered place, the vastness of space acquires a haunting presence." We turn these exhilarating and sometimes terrifying new places into geography by extending the boundaries of our old places in an effort to include them. We pursue a desire for equilibrium and harmony between our familiar places and unknown spaces. We do this to make the foreign comprehensible, or simply more acceptable.

Tuan's thoughts are valid whether one is thinking about entering an unknown room in a large house or of a sojourn in the Arctic.  What stands out in the latter instance, and seems always part of travel in a wild landscape, is the long struggle of the mind for concordance with the mystery entity, the earth.

One more thought from Tuan: a culture's most cherished places are not necessarily visible to the eye - spots on the land one can point to. They are made visible in drama - in narrative, song, and performance. It is precisely what is invisible in the land, however, that makes what is merely empty space to one person a place to another. The feeling that a particular place is suffused with memories, the specific focus of sacred and profane stories, and that the whole landscape is a congeries of such places, is what is meant by a local sense of the land. The observation that it is merely space which requires definition before it has meaning - political demarcation, an assignment of its ownership, or industrial development - betrays a colonial sensibility.   

Fabulous eye candy: Greenland Inuit shoreline maps.