vrijdag 29 juni 2012

Eskimo Psychogeography IV

Tom Lowenstein, anthropologist and poet, writes about the "Inupiaq grasp of encircling space" in his wonderful book "Ancient Land: Sacred Whale" (1993). The map is not all too good in the original source but click to enlarge and you can make out more of the detail. In combination with the quote below you will understand why this makes addition four to the Eskimo Psychogeography series.  
In 1892, a year after he arrived in Tikigaq, the missionary John Driggs made an influenntial convert. This was the shaman Anaqulutuq, a shaman, a great dancer and, that rare thing for Inuit, completely bald. Anaqulutuq was also a draughtsman, and for Dr Driggs, he drew the outline map shown here. Like all Tikigaq men the shaman was a hunter. To hunt is to travel; and to travel is to measure distance and calculate trajectories of motion over moving surfaces. Travel in the Arctic, where the ice, light and wind conditions are in constant change, depends on a super-sharp awareness of surrounding space and comprehension of the interplay of force and angle. Thus the faculty that could calculate the direction of harpoon strike from shifting ice at a seal moving against the current in twilight in a cross-wind could, with little mental hardship, construct for itself mental maps of varied and complex geographic features.  

dinsdag 26 juni 2012

Gary Snyder, "A Bit Much"

There is an early photo of Gary from his student days in Berkeley in which he is sitting, Japanese style, wearing a simple Japanese kimono. He is cradling a bowl of tea and staring at the camera in a reprimanding manner, as if disturbed by the photographer.... When I first encountered this photo in a book about the beats, and before we had even met, I was impressed that he had allowed himself to be photographed at home while drinking tea from a small bowl, dressed in robes, with no evident suggestion whatsoever of being prepared for the photographer. Today, it might appear "a bit much" to wear Japanese clothing and live on a tatami-mat floor while pursuing Asian studies at a university, but at the time, I perceived his apparent total immersion in his subject as a form of exemplary commitment.
The quote is from Peter Coyote, taken from Dimensions of a Life, the excellent distributed biography on Gary Snyder. The photo (Berkeley 1956) is from Ann Charters biography of Jack Kerouac, easily the best biography on any of the beats ever published.

maandag 25 juni 2012

Two forage walks in two days in two parks with two guides


Saturday the 23th of June was the national day of architecture and the theme for 2012 was food and the city. The Utrecht Architecture Centre Aorta assembled an extensive program but I only joined the forage walk led by Edwin Flores. He is a well known wild food expert and educator who, amongst other things, supplies some of the finest restaurants in the country. Flores is well groomed guy in Bear Grylls chic and what you can only describe as a real character. His outgoing style, an incident with a participant that caused a sudden change in atmosphere, a run in with a group of drunks combined with a bad traffic decision that nearly had us all killed made for an expedition that was also action theatre.

From the meeting point we cycled to the nearby Julianapark where we spent one and a half hour looking at about 15 to 20 plants. Flores had never visited the park previously but this was no barrier to finding an abundant variety of plants to eat and this in itself illustrated the general point of the food and the city theme. Flores is obviously extremely knowledgeable and he delivered a high-density hands-on crash-course that introduced us to the richness of city nature. He told more than you could ever hope to remember, but I was also surprised by the number of participants who, with their writing pads out, turned out to be seasoned foragers already endowed with a repertoire of things to do with the blossom of a large-leaved linden.

Only afterwards did I notice how effective his educational style had been. While the list of uses for individual plants never fully registered  in my memory I did pick up a good number of things to keep in mind about what, where and how to forage, from the need to avoid duck shit to hints on plant biology. Bits of information unobtrusively presented but together very helpful in setting you in the right direction to approach the challenges of wild foods. This may reflect my own concerns more than anything else as my own interest in foraging has less to do with recipes and more with foraging a way of knowing place and as a rationale of exploration. There was a lot of touching trees, feeling leaves, harvesting cress, tasting stalks and looking at the ground; an important part of the expedition was to get people over any non-touch inhibitions in regard to plant life.

The GPS-trail below (click to enlarge) is informative of the forager's tendency to forsake the shortcut that makes us see less in order to arrive somewhere faster in favour of a 'longcut' that takes an extra effort to see something different. See us consistently strolling outside the path, making frequent stops with the odd little turbulent sideways move if some plant or tree presented itself away from the footpath.


The next day I joined a forage expedition led by Elma Roelvink of the foraging app Plukdestad. It's hard not to write about this walk in comparison to the first. Roelvink gave us less the feeling of being shot at with surplus information and accordingly there was less distance between guide and us nitwits. This walk was more informal, conversational and interactive, which is perhaps the best way to learn. As we progressed Roelvink told us about her recent experiments in using the various plants we encountered and I liked the fact that we could share some of that excitement.
Again we explored a park, this time the Griftpark in my very own Whiteladies. For me this certainly added to the usefulness of this walk. Even though I visit this park at least a number of times a week and have done so for the last 10 years I never walked it as slow and deliberate like this. We found several plants that I knew by name but never had consciously seen and I learned the name of two or three plants that had so far remained nameless. Alongside Roelvink another guide tagged along, I unfortunatly didn't get her name, who specializes in the history of the park. I only knew this in broad lines (there is toxic stuff underneath the park but all authorities state that these are deep below the park and don't enter into the ecosystem/your ground elder nibbles) and I enjoyed this unexpected bonus of local history that also explained a lot about the way the park looks and functions in the wider landscape, visibly and invisibly.

The Griftpark opened in 2002 which makes it 99 years younger than the Julianapark and I think the GPS-track show it. The design of the Griftpark has the birds-eye computer perspective written all over it. As we walked there was very little reason to diverge away from the paths that were sided by well manicured lawns. Most of the trees and plants we looked at were planted and the rest grew in the cover of hedgerows and corners where the mowing machines fail to reach. Despite this our walk took longer than scheduled and could easily have gone on for a few hours more. We kept finding other plants as we progressed, each corner opening up a new line (literately) of enquiry. Foraging and deep exploration go hand in hand; not that I needed to be reminded. 

Many uses and recipes were suggested to me during these two walks and I could not help to observe that foraging can provide green stuff as vegetable but that in most cases the foraged ingredient is a novelty item, an exotic taste-maker to be drowned in as much butter, bread, pasta, melted cheese or creamy sauce as you possible can. I am exaggerating, a little. 

These two walks certainly showed that there is food in the city but it also showed that it won't feed the city. If anything it made me saviour the hard graft of the peasant that gives me my beloved calories. 

vrijdag 22 juni 2012

Serious botany means serious exploration

With the long & loud hurray from a second hand cheapskate I welcomed the arrival of the 1984 book 'Wild plants of Utrecht'. It's old and the data it uses is as much as five years older but it suits my needs perfectly. Not only does it give good descriptions and drawings of 119 common wild plants in the Province (the City of Utrecht names the much larger province of Utrecht) it also has an extensive section on the geological past of the province with explanations on how this effects plant communities. #psychogeophysics 

The above four images show how the plant data was collected. The 1st image shows a grid section of one square kilometre. The 2nd and 3rd image show the route and the location of plants and vegetation. The 4th image shows the presence of one plant per grid section for the entire province. It's a good reminder how things were done before locative media, virtual augmentation reality avant la lettre. A section took two and a half days to map and you can imagine how this works very well to get a deep sense of the place. #psychogeography     

The guerrilla ghetto gardener knows nothing of the spring afternoon

 Into the Ghetto Garden

dinsdag 19 juni 2012

Utrecht is the nature reserve of the Netherlands

All major newspapers featured the headline "Amsterdam is becoming a nature reserve". The original source on the story goes even further and states that "Amsterdam is becoming the nature reserve of the Netherlands" (Sargasso, source of image). The article tells us about new data on the number of species on the red list (species threatened with extinction) for every municipality in the country. The general trend is clear: urban areas do a lot better than agricultural areas. The focus on Amsterdam however is misleading for two reasons. Amsterdam is not doing that well in comparison to the other big cities, and the big cities themselves are not the big scorers. Of the four biggest cities Amsterdam has the least red list species, if you would factor in size and population it does even worse. 
Cities by population and species on the Red List
  1. Amsterdam: 139
  2. Rotterdam: 155
  3. The Hague: 144
  4. Utrecht: 140
Bergen does best with 325 species. Other big scorers: Apeldoorn 226, Ede 266, Enschede 206. Almere, in the race of becoming the fourth Dutch city, only has 48 red list species within its borders.

Edible plants of the wild west

Muriel Sweet's 'Common Edible Plants of the West' was first published in 1962 and deals with plants found in the west of the US. My version is an undated zine reprint, your version could be a PDF from Archive.org. The book covers 116 plants, with a clear line drawing for each plant. I have not yet been able to find more about the author but given the publication date, the accessible format and the many reprints I guess this was once a common book in hippie backpacks. The blurb at the back presents Sweet's book as a kind of subsistence re-enactment guide, showing you what plants were used for food and medicine by native Americans and early settlers. This makes it an aid to acquire the knowledge needed to ground yourself in a new locale by studying the people who came before you, as advised by Gary Snyder
It is my hope that this small volume may prove to be of use to many who are interested in a short history, in non-technical language, of some western plants, and of their uses by the Indians and others as food as well as medicine. To describe all the useful and edible plants of the west would take a volume many times this size, but described here are those I consider most important or interesting and certainly these would be those, in most cases, most often encountered. 
For me, in the old world, the practical value of this book is limited but not entirely so. There are a number of plants that mentioned that are species introduced from Europe. In a few cases (watercress, curly dock) Sweet mentions it, but in others (cow parsley, white clover, shepherd's purse) she doesn't. It's one way of showing the invisible face of biological imperialism to use Alfred Crosby's term once more. But what is more interesting is by what process the various Indian nations found out the medical uses of plants that were new to them. And in fact, as far as I can make out from this book, the invasive species were mostly used in the obvious ways, as food and not for their herbal properties. Sweet doesn't entirely stay true to the mission of presenting the plant life as it may have be known to the Indians, she does occasionally cite ancient Greek and Roman sources to. Where it wants to instruct you on local traditions, the books end by being confusing you with a wikipedia hodgepodge of information. Back to the Land Postmodernism.  

zaterdag 16 juni 2012

The weeds in my street [2012] [38 plants]

"Know the flowers" - Gary Snyder

'Weed' - a plant that is self-propagating and 'wild', not a plant that is necessarily unwanted or harmful.  

'My street' - The street where I live in Whiteladies, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

My botanical skills remain poor but I would love to become one of these forage dandies who without blinking an eye can smugly recognize a plant from a single leaf from 100 meters away as if it is the commonest thing in the world. Mind you, when there of two of those types together arguments over correct identification are bound to follow and the certainties of one individual turn out to be another person's bluff. Since the previous edition of weeds-in-my-street in 2011 I have learned a few new names and the confusion of plants is slowly becoming less of a confusion. Hopefully this will help in seeing all plants. The Weeds in my Street is a working document (last update mid June) and I will add pictures as the year progresses.

As far as I can remember there never used to be that many wild plants in the city. But somewhere along the line, only a few years ago, local authorities decided to stay away from weed killers and manage weeds with ecological means. In Utrecht the city council introduced these four-wheeled street blow-dryers to burn the crap out of wild plants. This form of weeding, I see these cars maybe 3 or 4 times a year, is beneficial to plant diversity. It creates an environment that is welcome to many different plants, provided they are fast growing and not to picky. It will also lock out some other plants that need more time to reproduce (the biannual yellow primrose say?). By weeding with heat no plant gets a chance to dominate and diversity is the result. It's only my theory (based on work on biodiversity covered earlier) and I would love to hear what an expert would say.

The ultimate aim of this project? To be able to name all weedy plants in my street, to know where they originate from, to know a little about edibility, pharmaceutical properties and the lore associated with them. In the end I want to give a number to plant diversity in my own backyard, I want to get a sense of plant communities in street conditions in comparison to other local but different environments. 

For some plants I have added notes from 'Sturtevant's edible plants of the world' but this turned out to be a tedious task without real benefit.

Several readers have helped me identify plants here and their help has been much appreciated!
These red valerians were identified with your help (earlier) and they are now preparing for summer on top of the unweeded ones of last year. Sturtevant tells us that "Red Valerian is said to be eaten as a salad in southern Italy."

The hollyhock is the empire weed of summer around here and I can't stand them, I do find it endearing that their leaves are concave and can collect rain or, in this case, dust. Sturtevant: "This species grows wild in China and in the south of Europe. Forskal says it is cultivated at Cairo for the sake of its leaves, which are esculent and are used in Egyptian cookery. It possesses similar properties to the marshmallow and is used for similar purposes in Greece."

This plant has been fascinating me for a while; the shape of its leaves, its symmetry, even its pleasant colour have made me take a fancy to it. Only when I finally learned about its yellow four-petal flower did I learn its name: greater celandine and its not just any other plant. It is part of the family of the poppy and a greater celandine poisoning should be treated as a morphine overdose. So it's a storehouse of chemicals and widely used in herbalogy and pharmacy. In my street this plant is not yet flowering but a few blocks from here it is; is that what they mean with urban micro-climates? Sturtevant: "The leaves were eaten as a food in China in the fourteenth century." It's part of the Papaveraceae or poppy family and native to Eurasia.

Last year I asked about this plant and it was suggested by several people that it is a creeping buttercup, however, I have now learned, the cr. buttercup has bright yellow flowers while this common weedy plant has white flowers. Readers Felix and Bobby independently suggested wild geranium and indeed we are dealing here with a plant that is native to North America and escaped from ornamental gardens. Its qualities as a carpet-growing ultra-competitive plant are without doubt: they can make the most of sunlight from whatever angle it is coming.

The red dead nettle can be found in all my wild food guides and it certainly is a pleasant plant to behold. Sturtevants disappoints: "Europe, northern Asia and naturalized as a weed in some places in the United States. The red dead-nettle, or archangel, is eaten in Sweden as greens in spring."   

The dandelion! It is so common that you tend to forget about them but they are the true superweeds, the plant on which the sun never sets as Alfred Crosby had it. And when looking at a Dutch dandelion, where it is perfectly in place I try to think about all those places where it was not in place originally and is now and my mind boggles. I was on my bike the other day and I saw them growing in the fields along the busiest road here and they were perfectly inconspicuous, growing here and there, pleasant not weedy. It's edibility is well known and Sturtevant's entry is long and extremely dated, a fragment:
The dandelion is highly spoken of as a spring green by various authors and has been used as a food plant in many regions but it has only recently come under cultivation. When a swarm of locusts destroyed vegetation in the Island of Minorca, the inhabitants subsisted on this plant, and, in Gottingen, the dried root has been used as a substitute for coffee. In 1749, Kalm speaks of the French in New York preparing and eating the roots as a common salad but not usually employing the leaves. The plant is now eaten raw or cooked by the Digger Indians of Colorado and the Apaches of Arizona. In 1828, Fessenden says the wild plant is used by our people but is never cultivated. In 1853, Mclntosh, an English author, had never heard of dandelions being cultivated. They are now extensively cultivated in France, and, in 1879, five varieties appeared in the French catalogs.
Street conditions aren't optimal for the stinging nettle but this specimen growing between the paving and the curb gives a fine example of its acumen for survival. It's cultural legacy is large and varied. Sturtevant's entry on the nettle is a muddle: "Naturalized in America from Europe. The nettle, according to Sir Walter Scott, was at one time cultivated in Scotland as a potherb. Nettle tops, in the spring, says Lightfoot, are often boiled and eaten by the common people of Scotland as greens, and the young leaves are often boiled in soup in the outer Hebrides and form a very palatable article of food, it is said. The tender tops are much more commonly eaten in Germany, Belgium and other parts of Europe than in England and are also used in northern Persia. "

The common groundsel  is a loner. There is only one of them in my street and I have seen them only sporadically in the neighbourhood. This is again a persistent plant that grows everywhere and doesn't care about frost. It has a long herbal history, it was used as defence against witches and placed in cribs to protect babies from evil. At least it is well-willing.

The hairy bittercress (but am waiting to see the flowers to be 100% sure) is part of the mustard family and a well loved urban foraging green. The first picture is a spectacular case of making the most of a rotten situation, the second shows it in better form. Sturtevant: "Ross calls this the scurvy grass of Tierra del Fuego; it is edible. Lightfoot says the young leaves, in Scotland, make a good salad, and Johns says the leaves and flowers form an agreeable salad. In the United States, Elliott and Dewey both say the common bitter cress is used as a salad."
Reader Ed in the comments believes that is something else and he could be right, who helps us out.
The picture is a bit dodgy but here is the common chickweed. In a few weeks it will show its flowers:lovely shaped white petals. It thrives on disturbances and has a long history of use. Sturtevant: "This plant is found in every garden as a weed. It forms when boiled, says Johnson, an excellent green vegetable, much resembling spinach in flavor and is very wholesome." 

Thale cress is one of many fragile-looking white-flowering plants that are not fragile at all.

Shepard's purse is another fragile white-flowering plant, but one with many uses and a more pronounced cultural history.

The prickly poppy, from Africa and Eurasia.I can't remember it from last year but it needs very little space and is very dominant in some places.
The creeping woodsorrel (between a prickly poppy and a dandelion) has a tangy lemony taste but if you eat to much of it can inhibit calcium intake, or so Wikipedia tells us. 

The plantain/plantago comes in 200 species, we have seen it as the Englishman's foot and I am glad it's in my street too.

The only ground elder in Whiteladies that I know about, but it grows in shadowy places and this might well be the shadiest place in my street. I am told it is great in pesto. It's just so weedy. 
Never before did I hear of the yellow corydalis but like the greater celandine above it's part of the papaver family. It originates from the alps and it's a plant that easily escapes from gardens. The drooping flowers I find slightly distasteful.

 This is perhaps the strangest find: I associate white clover (also Dutch clover) with grass not with pavement, and I have yet to find it elsewhere here. It's a plant of the old world that is now common elsewhere.

With my zombie camera skill the Wall lettuce proved unable to capture with anything near the finesse of a garden magazine but this is a fine plant with bright five petals flowers that are actually 5 different rayflowers. It's part of the Composite family (actually: Aster) and native to Europe.

With help from reader Claude I learned that this plant is the alkanet (the dutch name is fascinating). It's an escaped garden plant native to south-western Europe in the family forget-me-not

I tasted this plant and I thought it was some sort of rucola, but it's a bog yellowcress, part of the mustard family native to Europe, Asia, North Africa, and North America. Nice plant, not terrible abundant but growing here and there with a mild persistence.
You just know that this must be an escaped garden plant, it's the Servian Bellflower, as the name says it originates from the Dinaric Alps in the Balkan and it's in the bellflower family. This one grows between the Red Valerian above, which makes for a good colour combination. 

This one I can see when I am in front of my front door, it's between the the curb and paving on a parking spot. This is a kind of Galinsoga, the flowers are very distinct. It's in the Aster family and first arrived in Europe from South America in the late 18th century. It looks a vaguely like nightshade and one of it's nicknames is potato weed. There is a whole range of herbal uses for this plant. 

The common sowthistle belongs to the Aster, the English Wikipedia deals entirely for its edible and medicinal properties. It's native to Eurasia.

The hedge mustard is a common plant here and it is of the mustard family . It has unobtrusive little yellow flowers and the stalks look coiled. Wikipedia tells us that at places it is cultivated. It's native to Europe and North Africa.

In Dutch this plant is the 'American Herbcress' but it is better known as Virginia pepperweed or peppergras. The young seedpods can be used as a substiture for black pepper, hence the name. It's an introduced specie from America that arrived here in silence, packed with grain and grass seeds. It does well in cities only. It's in the Mustard family.

Unmistakably pigweed or common knotgrass. A plants that likes to be walked on and is so in abundance. It's in the knotweed family and common throughout the world.

Canadian horse weed is a common throughout the country and in my street. The plants was first reported in France in 1665 and spread from there throughout Europe. It is amazing to see how fast these things grow, elsewhere they have started to bloom but due to shade my street always lags behind. It's in the Aster Family.    

If I am not mistaken ferns are usually a sign of undisturbed ground and, so far as I can tell, this tiny male fern is the only specimen of its kind in my street. 

 Another fern, the wall rue, it likes wet cement.

This one grows behind a metal fence, the size of the flowers make me suspect this is an escaped ornamental plant rather than a traditional wild plant; two readers suggested the Nettled leaved bell flower. It's primarily a wood plant. 

 A tiny redshank, it's a common species, according to Dutch Wikipedia the seed is collected by bird-lovers. Of the knotweed family, native to Eurasia.

Tansy grows everywhere but in my street it has found a home in only one ornamental flowerbed. Glad it's here. It's of the Aster family and native to Eurasia.

With it's strong stem and thorny leafs this plant stands out, the day after the picture was taken its identity revealed itself: a tiny bit of yellow flower had popped out and the thistles seemed a bit more thistly. It is a sowthistle but not an ordinary one like above but a swine thistle

There are 2 black nightshades in my street, both in the same flowerbed. One looks poorly and the other is doing OK. My street would improve with a bit of black magic and this is a great find. It's native to Eurasia.

This is the purple top. It's growing here in a untended flowerbed but the plant itself can be seen all over in those parts of the neighbourhood where people have flowers. So is it wild? It may be,they are wild nearby. The picture on the wikipedia page looks the same as this one, the picture on the Dutch wikipedia (ijzerhard) makes me think that the above plant is a cultivated South-American variant. I am including it here, but will not count it.      

This plant is growing at selected street sides in the neighbourhood and they were taller than this paltry specimen. Readers suggested common chirocy an there is a resemblance but I am not sure. Are you?  

Found in a flowerpot next to someone's front door: a daisy hiding itself between a bunch of bell flowering cultivated freaks. I have started taking notice of what family plants belong to and such a common plants has to be a composite. 

A plant with an archetypical flower (as children draw them). A reader identified it as a Bacopa, or to be more precise the Sutera.  A garden website points us to the 'Sutera cordata Snowflake'. So this is yet another escaped garden plant. 

A diminutive plant that can be found at three or four places in my street. Two reader helped identify it as a Epilobium or Willowherb which a is gigantic family. It probably is a square stemmed willowherb but put that between brackets for now.

+++++ One plants lacking a name, can you help?? ++++

 Sole representative of an unknown species. An escaped garden plant? Do you know it?