dinsdag 31 januari 2012

The forest has no climax, the cryptoforest is a meeting-place

Rotterdam cryptoforest hut spotted by Petr.

You and me have been taught at school that the forest is the stable and inevitable end result of biological succession. This turns out to be a now discarded approximation of an earlier age.  Biologists today speak about the high forest but not about pristine forests. The forest keeps changing after it has reached maturity. Here is how Andrew Revkin puts in The Burning Season (a book about Chico Mendez):
When a Tree Falls it can create in microcosm the same kind of disruption caused by a strong storm. Such tree falls may be a crucial element in shaping the mix of species in the forest. A tropical forestry scientist named Gary Hartshorn studied tree-fall rates around the tropics and found that in many areas, the time it takes for a section of forest to be completely replaced can be as little as eighty years. The overall effect is that the forest is perpetually off kilter, in a continual state of recovery but never quite returning to some inanimate state—a condition that opens up opportunities and lets no organism settle too comfortably into a static niche.
The climax state is really 'late successional'. Here is the byline: disturbance creates diversity, diversity happens when the Teutonic stranger gets a chance to shine. The cryptoforest reminds the city that it won't last forever.

zaterdag 28 januari 2012

The Amazon as a cryptoforest megapolis

The Amazonian Indian techniques of swiddening is not just a bit of slashing and a bit of burning. Swiddens have a long use and shifting use that are meant to change the landscape for a long time. From a 1986 article by Leslie Sponsel (PDF-link) comes this resume.
The major source of carbohydrates is cultivation of the variety called slash-and-burn, shifting, or swidden. Like other agroecosystems, swiddens are anthropogenic, created and maintained by humans through the manipulation of limiting factors and with the input of energy and nutrients. Also, swidden takes advantage of environmental conditions and processes in the early stage of succession. The slash opens section of forest to allow penetration of sunlight for photosynthesis of the new plant community. The burn returns nutrients to the soil, although substantial amounts are lost to the atmosphere as volatiles and particles as well as to leaching. As the crops grow and are harvested, nutrients are removed from the agroecosystem until productivity declines after two or three years. Another factor is competition as wild plants take root and compete for nutrients and light, part of the natural process of succession. Often tree crops are also planted which encourages succession and eventually the return of the forest.

Swiddens are not necessarily abandoned; instead, they often phase into another type of agroecosystem known as agroforestry. Tree crops mark the transition from swidden to forest, but this is not a sharp boundary in either space or time. While agroforestry is a new research frontier for Western science, it is an ancient practice among indigenes. The Bora exploit up to 135 plant species in their garden fallows. The Kayapos till harvest plants and hunt in their gardens after 40 years. They even plant species to attract game. Swiddens are adaptive for subsistence economy as long as the population density is relatively low, ample land is available for active and future gardens, and fallow area and time are sufficient for forest recovery. Geertz, among others, argued that swiddens are adaptive another sense--intercropping imitates the diversity and structure of the forest. However, swiddens do not always mimic the forest in the way Geertz suggested. In Amazonia they range from polycrops to monocrops (including polyvarieties) and are adaptive in other ways. Agroecosystems generally provide a morer eliable supply of foods than do wild plants and thereby allow greater size and sedentariness of the human population. Many anthropologists have linked this in turn with greater cultural complexity, although this position has many critics. Recently Moran argued that there is a tension between farming and foraging because the latter requires mobility which works against acquiring adequate ethnoagronomic knowledge of soils for efficient productivity of swiddens. However, the Kayapo practice a form nomadic agriculture in which on treks six to eight months long they visit old gardens and plant new ones and in other ways experiment with domestication and cultivation. Furthermore, Posey argues that there continuum from wild to semidomesticated to domesticated plants which developed over millenia of experimentation by mobile indigenes.
Did I read that right!? "The Bora exploit up to 135 plant species in their garden fallows." Can you even name that many species? Here is the PDF of the source for this (and the images used here). Also don't miss that little sentence that argues that to be a good nomadic forager you need qualities that you can only acquire by being a stay-home peasant.

The implication of all this is that the Amazonian rainforest is not a pristine natural landscape but one gigantic man-made fallow. The argument continues by stating that the pure hunting-garthering lifestyle in the Amazon is only possible because of the presence of (often ancient) fallows. One good overview for all this is Laura Rival's 'Domestication as a Historical and Symbolic Process: Wild Gardens and Cultivated Forests in the Ecuadorian Amazon' (PDF-link). The following paragraph discusses the Huaoroni view and use of the forest (also see) and the way they try to see everything in its historic context.
Lévi-Strauss noted, more than forty years ago, that in South America “there are many intermediate stages between the utilization of plants in their wild state and their true cultivation,” and that “farming always accompanies, and is never a substitute for, the exploitation of wild resources.” This remark applies particularly well to the Huaorani context, where numerous plant species are encouraged to grow outside of cultivated areas as people engage in numerous daily actions (planting, selecting, transplanting, protecting, using, and discarding) that have a direct or indirect effect on the distribution of species, be they fully domesticated or not. Huaorani people daily consume a great number of cultigens that are not planted in gardens. They see in their forested land the historical record of the activities of past generations. They are quite explicit about the inseparability of people and the forest, which they describe as a succession of fallows. Most of the western part of Huaorani land is said to be ahuene—that is, secondary forest. Only in the Yasuni, they tell me, are there pristine forests, omere, with really high and old trees. Secondary forests are further divided into huiyencore (four-to-ten-year-old clearings characterized by the frequency of balsa trees), huyenco (ten-to-twenty-year-old clearings), huiñeme (twenty-to-forty-year-old clearings characterized by the high incidence of adult palms), and durani ahuè (forty-to-a-hundred-year-old clearings, remarkable for their big trees). Before the arrival of missions, huiñeme forests were the preferred sites to establish main residences. However, all types of forest were—and still are—continuously visited and lived in for longer or shorter stays. Cultivars are found—discovered—throughout the forest. This further indicates an evident strategy of resource dispersion within specific regions. Fish-poison vines are found along the creeks where people fish, semiwild fruit trees near hunting camps, and numerous useful palms (such as Astrocaryum chambira; in Huaorani, oönempa) along trails. The regional groups (huaomoni) are constantly moving through their vast and relatively stable territories. Hilltop longhouses are regularly left for hunting and foraging trips, during which forest-management activities take place. Wherever a Huaorani finds herself in the forest, she chances upon needed plants. Informants are vague as to whether these strategic and handy resources were planted by someone, or just happened to grow there. What matters to them is that their occurrence can be related either to individuals known for using a particular area regularly or to a house-group who lived in the area, sometime in the past. For instance, when young Huaorani unexpectedly discover useful plants in a part of the forest they are not familiar with, they often attribute them, with noticeable pleasure, to the activities of past people. If they decide that these cultigens were left by dead forebears—usually great-grandparents—they may see the plants as an invitation to move permanently and legitimately into this part of the forest, and to create a new longhouse. When no certain link with past or present human activity is established, the wide occurrence of cultigens is linked to animal activity. For example, semiwild manioc is said to “belong” to the tapir.

Earlier links include:

Written on the land (geoglyphs & others)

vrijdag 27 januari 2012

'Nature' does not exist for everyone

Achuar map of their territory.

In an interview with Phillipe Descola (earlier, earlier, earlier), published in the Tipiti journal, comes the following quote that is good to have on record as it explains how Descola came to see during his fieldwork with the Achuar that nature does not exist:
...what really made me marvel was the realization that, although the Achuar certainly recognized certain discontinuities between humans and non-humans, these discontinuities were radically different from our own. And this was a bit surprising in an expected way, but also in an unexpected one. I was expecting this because I’d read, of course, not only the South American ethnography, but also Tylor, Frazer, Durkheim and a few others pioneers of our discipline whose work was entirely devoted to resolve this bizarre scandal, that some people appear not to make distinctions between humans and non-humans. So, I was prepared to find that. I was prepared to find it at the level of, as we would say at the time, ‘representations’ at the level of ways of thinking about life. But I had no way of understanding how people would actually live with this idea and put it into practice, or really experience the world in this fashion. And this is the discovery. No? It’s not only what people say; their whole way of life revolved around the fact that they didn’t make a distinction between nature and society.

woensdag 25 januari 2012

How the invaded recorded the invaders

The earlier post of the Inuit carving of a Viking reminded my of Julia Blackburn's 1979 book 'The White Men, the first response of aboriginal peoples to the white men'. It's a collection of drawings, artefact and stories that remind us that just as 'they' entered our history, we entered theirs. The book begins with an excellent foreword by Canadian anthropologist Edmund Carpenter and continues with a zillion documents from Africa, North America, Oceania and Indonesia illustrated with artworks. The texts are a bit much for me but the images are stunningly fascinating as you can see for yourself in the small sample below. 

West African legend says that the white men came from a hole in the ground, a mud sculpture from Nigeria.

Fully rigged ship on a New Caledonian bamboo pole (1850ties).

Portrait of a missionary from the Western Congo. (1930-40ties)

Mask of a sailor from the West Coast of Africa around 1900.

Nicobar Island scare-devil in the form of a policeman.

Cave Painting in Arnhem Land showing the recent surge of European visitors. (1940ties)

A 1850ties Eskimo seal skin showing whales, ships and people. A map? 

A Dutch couple depicted by a South African bushman in the mid 1850ties.

Papua New Guinean Christ after WWII

Brass bracelet made by the Dogon in Mali.

zaterdag 21 januari 2012

Postman Pat Psychogeographix [Back at Whiteladies]

After four months of hard graft in the bleak enormity of Garden Village (earlier) this week I was transferred back to Whiteladies, the grubby gnomeville where I live and were my adventures in the postman trade began (earlier). Every postal worker is a cartographer too (earlier) and what I mean by that is that postal work makes geography explicit by walking into all streets and all its front doors. The job unpacks streets and neighbourhoods and as exposure lasts its geography becomes internalized. And you want the geography to be internalized because only once it is in your head you can start planning short cuts and optimal routes. You don't want this mental map perfected to save time, though that is one aspect of it, but because it creates flow.

This week I worked four different rounds, two I did twice, two I did once and I had the pleasure of delivering to my own house. One half of the terrain was deeply familiar, the other half offered a few surprises, I discovered four streets I never knew existed, I observed grubbier houses, architectural diversity and I learned a little about connections between areas I didn't know existed. A mental map has the tendency to make crooked streets straight and to ignore all slight curves and bends. But a few tiny bends can add up to a 90 degree turn, with all sorts of effects on daily navigation as you find things in the streets that you expect somewhere else. A postal route cuts through that, they are a fascinating combination of randomness and rationality. They are drawn up to start and end as near to the depot as possible and they all need to take the same time to complete. The end result is a collection of walks following a counter-intuitive set of streets that have no ulterior point to make: they go from A to B without reaching a conclusion. 

The map above shows the rounds in different colours, other streets are in grey. The green route has two parts. What is funny is that the round on the top comes across as a uneven bundle of small remaindering streets, a mongrel walk connecting streets that somehow would have unbalanced any other of the walks. 

vrijdag 20 januari 2012

Gathering portrayed in Paleolithic art

Near Valencia can be found the Cuevas de la Araña, a cave-system that contains 8000 year old images of hunting-gathering scenes: goat hunting and honey gathering. 
Even though Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's History of Food (800 pages small-print, first edition 1987) begins with 'gathering' she has remarkably little to say about it and what she does say usually is only about the things that would become the first staple crops of agriculture. She begins the segment on gathering with the gathering of honey and that is an odd choice because honey, in an otherwise sugar free diet, is the ultimate prestige food of hunter-gatherers. For instance, here is what Napoleon Chagnon writes about the Yanomami of Venezuela in 1968:
"Wild honey is one of the most highly prized foods of all, and the Yanomamo will go to great extremes to get it. Should someone spot a bee's nest, all other plans are dropped and honey becomes the priority of the day. One can usually assume that when someone returns to the village later than expected, he has been detained because he ran into a cache of honey."  
You can't really extrapolate but why would someone make the effort to paint a honey collecting scene if it wasn't important to him or her?

It is typical though that a modern-day historian can give a festive food a key position while food stuffs of far greater importance are completely ignored. If you are willing to take up the comparison with hunter-gatherers as they are living on in our own times Toussaint-Samat is essentially wiping out thousands of years of woman's labour in exchange for a few good moments.

dinsdag 17 januari 2012

How the Skraeling saw the Norse

This figurine was made between 1250 and 1300 and records the meeting of the Skraeling coming from the west and the Norse coming from the east in a short period of a warmer climate. It was found on Baffin Island, it 's 5,3cm high, carved from driftwood (though my books says walrus ivory), in typical Inuit style but showing western clothing with a cross incised at the chest. 

zondag 15 januari 2012

Weeds, heresy and the great foraging revival

The greater plantain, but the Algonquin called it the White Man's Foot or the Englishman's foot because it appeared everywhere the Europeans went.
Alfred W.Crosby's 'Ecological Imperialism, the biological expansion of Europe, 900-1900 ' (Cambridge University Press, 1986) reads as if Jared Diamond's uncle Fester is on a roll. 

Crosby explains how weeds from the old world prepared the ground of the new world for European colonisers and were critical to the success of European expansion. 
"Weeds" is not a scientific word. It refers not to plants of any specific species or genus or any category recognized by scientific taxonomy, but to whatever plants spring up where humans do not want them. More often than not they are plants that evolved originally to fill the minor role of colonizing bare ground after fires, landslides, floods, and such and that found themselves wonderfully preadapted to spread across the expanses stripped clean by the Neolithic farmer's plow or sickle. Already tolerant of direct sunlight and disturbed soil, they added tolerance of sandal, boot, and hoof. Always ready to spring up fast in the wake of disasters, they easily evolved to survive and sprout again in the wake of the tug, tear, and chomp of grazing livestock. The farmer calls them the bane of his life, and they are, but they also provide livestock with feed and help combat erosion.

The Neolithic farmer simplified his ecosystem to produce quantities of plants that would grow rapidly on bare ground and would survive grazing animals, and he got exactly what he tried for, but some of them he cursed: tufted vetch, ryegrass, cleavers, thistles, coriander, and others.

Those plants with a talent for finding and settling on disturbed grounds rose to the challenge when agriculture first emerged. Evolving with agriculture these plants found better and better ways to use the opportunities provided by agriculture's annual cycle of soil disturbance (the decimation following the plough and the harvest). When seafaring began these plants had become especially well adapted to conquer other lands, easily outcompeting local plants that lacked previous experience with agricultures impact on the land.
In other words: agriculture not just created the possibility to think of a plant as a weed, it also created conditions for plants to acquire the persistent characteristics of weeds. Crosby goes on to cite from the Proverbs in the Old Testament:
I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding;
And, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and weeds had covered its face, and its stone wall was broken down.
Then I saw, and considered it well: I looked upon it, and received instruction.
Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep:
So shall your poverty come like a robber; and your want like an armed man.
There you got the agricultural obsession with strive, purity and ecocide in the language of King James: the damnation of weed as a moral wrong.

vrijdag 13 januari 2012

The gloom and grump of the Soft City

The city ... breaks down many of the conventional distinctions between dream life and real life; the city in the head can be transformed, with the aid of the technology of style, into the city on the streets. To a very large degree, people can create their cosmologies at will, liberating themselves from the deterministic schemes which ought to have led them into a wholly different style of life.

[Jonathan Raban in the Soft City (1974) offers no redemption: in the city everything is fake, the people are actors, surface is everything. ] 

There can be no doubt that the unreality of the city, its prolixity and illegibility, its capacity to exceed all the imaginative shapes we try to impose upon it, enables its citizens to treat it with terrifying arbitrariness. 

[Raban is all gloom and grumpiness but as the book enfolds I find offers enough originality to momentarily forget about his Calvinist all-is-rotten-in-the-city mood.]  
The city dweller is constantly coming up against the absolute mysteriousness of other people's reasons... I feel about the road much as a primitive tribesman might feel about a dangerous ravine with a killer river given to unpredictable floods. I personify and apostrophise it, I attribute mysterious and malign volitions to its traffic, and it frequently disturbs my dreams. 

[Refuting the rationalism of the city as a designed culture cherished by urban planning.] 

For most of their inhabitants, cities like New York and London are nature, and are as unpredictable, threatening, intermittently beautiful and benign, as a tropical rainforest. That they are in fact constructs is a might and eluding irrelevance.  

[Up against the wall motherfucker, this is a stick-up.]

As surely as any mountain face, the city throws us back on ourselves; it isolates us, both as people and as tribal groups. Just as it constrains the expression of individuality, threatens us with absorption into total anonymity, so it makes self-assertion and projection into overwhelming necessities.

[Hey! Was raw nature not supposed to turn us into savages, making us act on our basest desires only (the Heart of Darkness), rather than turn us into schizophrenic actors acting a different role in every different social situation?]    

Raymond Van Over, the editor of the most widely available edition of the I-Ching, says in his introduction: 'form is a mere illusory manifestation of underlying causes'. It is the same consoling message that the Situationists and the Hare Krishna people preach: believe it and the city, with all its paradoxes, puzzles and violent inequities, will float away before your eyes, a chimera to delude only the hopelessy, cynically earthbound. 

[Surely this is strangest thing ever written about the Situationists, the least you can say about them is that they at least were never proselytizing.] 

We live in cities badly; we have built them up in culpable innocence and now fret hopelessly in a synthethic wilderness of our own construction. We need - more urgently than architectural utopias, ingenious traffic disposal systems, or ecological programmes - to comprehend the nature of citizenship to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom.

[We still live in cities in badly but without the innocence.]

dinsdag 10 januari 2012

Every Postman Pat is a cartographer too

Yesterday I worked a little extra, delivering the scarce Monday post for a number of postcodes areas that on a normal day would be divided up in 4 or 5 individual rounds. I'd never walked any of these rounds before, but I know all the streets well and some of them were right next to the street that I live in. But as the post covered quite a large part of the neighbourhood the more experienced colleague at the depot drew me a map from memory to explain the route. I don't know if it's clear if you don't know the place but this is a wonderful example of how deep knowledge of a terrain is part of the job. The mental cartographic skills involved are extraordinary: it plots the most efficient route (the product of years of experience), frames the area using the railway and the roundabout,  points out landmarks and key addresses, shows the street grid with rare accuracy and completely ignores all the bits of information that I didn't need. The street in the middle almost crosses the street left of it at a 180 degree angle, but you wouldn't see it here. The dozen streets in between are missing too. Conceptually this map has the clarity of the London Tube map. Big up to Pat!

donderdag 5 januari 2012

Another book on Wild Foods

The things you buy on Ebay for 99p.

When I ordered Avril Rodway's book 'Wild Foods' I didn't know what to expect. Rodway has written several books but none seems to have ever been reviewed, Rodway herself has no website, on-line profile or wikipedia page. For that money I was expecting a shabby paperback with dirt all over it. What I got was a large hardback that looks unread even though it was published back in 1988. 

'Wild Food' markets the pleasures of foraging to country people as a way to feel a little more connected to the surrounding. To Rodway wild plants are an educational Tory hobby not a way of life or a political activity, nor is she driven by the survival motive. If she runs out of bread she will eat cake. The fifty plants she covers are all usual suspects and this makes this an escape to the country beginners book. However: the illustrations by Zane Carey are all beautiful and Rodways introductions are a pleasure to read. For almost each plant she gives (cultural) references from the past, from Shakespeare to Herbals, and the youngest source pre-dates the First World War. In her zeal to remind us that eating plants from a hedgerow is not some weird atavistic deer instinct but a rediscovery of a plant use that has a long history she also, undercover and unwittingly (?), writes about industrialization and urbanization. Even hundred years ago many people still had an active, working relationship with the common wild plants around them. Now we don't live with plants but alongside them. A rich tradition of practical folk knowledge of plants use and lore has been lost and the forager is rediscovering it through consulting old books and experimentation.

There are many recipes.

woensdag 4 januari 2012

Gary Snyder's motto for the children

stay together
learn the flowers
go light
There are italicised recommendations Gary Snyder makes at the end of his poem For the Children. Scot Slovic in The Etiquette of Freedom explains them as such:
Stay Together: "Pay attention to the importance of community. Work with each other. Even if you have opposing perspectives, even if you come from different cultural traditions, find a way to work together to stay together."

Learn the Flowers: "Notice you surroundings and learn about them. To me 'learn' implies actively studying something -  not just learning what it looks like on a superficial level, but actually engaging in an energetic and deliberate effort of study."

Go Light: "Pay attention to you actual lifestyle, to the practical aspects of life. Try to have a light impact on the planet and on the cultural communities that you are intersecting with.'Go Light' means ' live carefully'".

maandag 2 januari 2012

Free talk is the currency of revolution [Occupy take note]

Occupation of the Sorbonne
In his fine biography of the year 1968 (online as pdf here) Mark Kurlansky explains that to the people involved in the events that almost brought down France in May '68 the violence, captured by the enigmatic famous pictures easily found through a online image search, was not so significant. The thing that created a sense of the new freedom to be had was the sudden eruption of all sorts of people talking to all other sorts of people. 
Eleanor Bakhtadze, who had been a student at Nanterre in 1968, said, "Paris was wonderful then. Everyone was talking." Ask anyone in Paris with fond memories of the spring of 1968, and that is what they will say: People talked. They talked at the barricades, they talked in the metro; when they occupied the Odeon theater it became the site of a round-the-clock orgy of French verbiage. Someone would stand up and start discussing the true nature of revolution or the merits of Bakuninism and how anarchism applied to Che Guevara. Others would refute the thesis at length. Students on the street found themselves in conversation with teachers and professors for the first time. Workers and students talked to one another. For the first time in this rigid, formal, nineteenth-century society, everyone was talking to everyone. "Talk to your neighbor" were words written on the walls. Radith Geismar, then the wife of Alain, said, "The real sense of '68 was a tremendous sense of liberation, of freedom, of people talking, talking on the street, in the universities, in theaters. It was much more than throwing stones. That was just a moment. A whole system of order and authority and tradition was swept aside. Much of the freedom of today began in '68."
To draw the connection with the first proper global protest movement since that time: it is often mentioned that a part of the excitement of Occupy is that it gets people talking: people living at camps discuss the day (and the night away), amongst themselves, and with the public. And this is nothing something you can say about the anti-globalism of the 1990ties which was largely a depressing come-together by people who distrusted each other and whose show was always stolen by the ominous black block of grimly hooded silence.