donderdag 28 juli 2011

The Forest Fire -> cryptoforest urbanism

Click to enlarge!
1-> Keith Thomas interprets the above painting, Piero di Cosimo's 'A Forest Fire' (1505?) as depicting "the classical myth of the forest conflagration which, by enabling man to discover fire, made it possible for humans to separate themselves from animals and subordinate the beasts to their rule." 

In an article about the painting Andrew Graham Dixon quotes the Roman architect Vitruvius as one possible source of this myth:
In the olden days men were born like wild beasts in woods and caves and groves, and kept alive by eating raw food. Somewhere, meanwhile, the close-grown trees, tossed by storms and winds, and rubbing their branches together, caught fire. Terrified by the flames, those who were near the spot fled. When the storm subsided, they drew near, and, since they noticed how pleasant to their bodies was the warmth of the fire, they laid on wood… When, in this meeting of men, sounds were breathed forth with differing intensity, they made customary by daily use these chance syllables. They began to speak because of this fortuitous event, and … a beginning of human association was made, and of union and intercourse… Then some in that society began to make roofs of leaves, others to dig out caves under hills; some, imitating the nests and constructions of swallows, made places, into which they might go, out of mud and twigs. Finding then other shelters and inventing new things by their power of thought, they built in time better dwellings. 
Or in other words, for civilization to emerge the forest has to disappear: deforestation as a fall into the graces of high culture and polite society. This ancient perception of civilization (city, agriculture; us) play-fighting a zero sum game with the forest (wild, inhuman, unproductive; nature) is still current today. At those places where the high forest still stand (South-America, South-East Asia, Central Africa, the Arctic taiga) economic development is always pitted against the untapped resources of the good-for-nothing forests (see earlier) and the wealth and opportunities they will bring once those egoistic native savages are removed. Deforestation continues at increasing rates despite our increasing awareness that the damage done is irreversible at both local and global scales. Biodiversity is eroded and the life systems of the entire planet are pushed out of their balance. The fact that development, from Arctic oil to Brazilian cattle, is almost always unsustainable and wasteful makes it all the more unwholesome against the larger picture of deplenished resources, a growing world population and an increasing state of global food insecurity. 

2-> Cryptoforestry argues that civilization and forest are not mutually exclusive and that the two can be re-conciliated within a human timespan. The pre-Columbian cities of the Amazon (earlier, earlier) are the prime example that sophisticated, large-scale, civilisations can thrive without doing permanent damage to their surroundings. The irony is that only because of deforestation the evidence for these lost cities can now be unearthed. The Gilgamesh complex that holds that civilization is environmentally destructive out of necessity must be set aside. The fairytale complex that says that only the monstrous and 'the other' can inhabit the forest must be replaced by the Viti-Viti complex.

The psychogeographic encounter with, and exploration of, hidden and misunderstood urban micro-forestry as it exists today is the first step towards seeing the potential of the city as a special kind of forest, and the reforested city as a suitable environment for urban life.  

3-> Interestingly enough De Cosimo himself appears from the writings of Vasari as a kind of renaissance Thoreau with a cryptoforester's instinct for do-nothingness: 
Cosimo would not let himself be seen at work, leading the life of a man who was less man than beast. He would never have his rooms swept, he would only eat when hunger came to him, and he would not let his garden be worked or his fruit trees pruned; nay, he allowed his vines to grow, and the shoots to trail over the ground, nor were his fig trees ever trimmed, or any other trees, for it pleased him to see everything wild, like his own nature; and he declared that Nature's own things should be left to her to look after, without lifting a hand to them. 

He would sometimes stop to gaze at a wall against which sick people had been for a long time discharging their spittle, and from this he would picture to himself battles of horsemen, and the most fantastic cities and widest landscapes that were ever seen; and he did the same with the clouds in the sky.  

dinsdag 26 juli 2011

Animal spotting without animals

This book doesn't give the year of its publication but who cares. It's a Dutch translation of a German guidebook by Klaus Richarz and it helps you identify animals through their unique environmental footprint. Every second page is filled with amazing pictures, showing the wide range of traces that animals leave behind: footsteps in the snow, nests and burrows, food remains, vomit, droppings, and much more. This is not just a guidebook but a catalogue of the ingenuity of everyday European birds, mammals, spiders, ants and insects. This book is fun to browse through ever if you have never set foot outside your condominium. I am going to carry it with me on future cryptoforest crawls.

maandag 25 juli 2011

Sorrel and Yarrow

From Elliot Porter's photobook 'Nature's Chaos' (a real eye-opener when I found it in a bargain bin at least ten years ago) comes "Sorrel and yarrow" (1982). It is not the most spectacular image in the book but as I am looking more and more at wild herbal fields like this I am starting to see what Elliot is trying to capture in a picture like this, and also how well he does it. What I like about Porter is the way he steps aside from taking pictures of objects and tries to capture textures and processes instead, but I might undestand him wrongly:   
"It is the beauty of nature that I try to represent by photography. What this expression means to most people, I am quite sure, is such features as flowers of spring, autumn foliage, mountain landscapes, and many other similar aspects about aesthetic qualities of which no one would care to offer contradiction. That they are beautiful is indisputable, but they are not all that is beautiful about nature; in fact they are only the obvious and superficial aspects of nature - which anyone may observe with half and eye. They are the peaks and summits of nature's greatest displays. There is no doubt about their importance; they could not be dispensed with. Underlying and supporting these brillant displays are slow, quiet processes that pass almost unnoticed from season to season, unnoticed by those that think that beauty in natures is all its gaudy displays."
Sorrel and yarrow are incidentally both edible.

zondag 24 juli 2011

The Swampy Cryptoforest

Exploring the industrial area 'Lage Weide' by bike I came across a tree-covered patch 150 meters in length and at best 30 meters in depth shaped like a half oval. It's enclosed by a pond with no name on one side and a busy road on the other. There seems to be no good reason for people to visit it, it's relatively isolated and there are no people living within a kilometre's radius, but maybe workers go there in their afternoon break because there was a clear trail, though, curiously, no waste. The trail started at the only entrance and described a circle of which the back-end came as close to the reeds hiding the water from view as close as possible without getting your feet wet. There was a smaller and circular trail moving away from the main circle but considerably less well trodden.

From the outside it didn't look like much but despite it's small size there were four markedly different segments to it: the waterside had it's reeds, the trails led through a tree-covered terrain that felt very like a real forest, an undisturbed and hermetic segment covered with dense blackberry and a segment with tall but dead birches. The many fallen trees added considerably to the drama of this cryptoforest. A mysterious little place that was both open and friendly to human visitors but at the same time the hospitality of a good trail prevents you from seeing the places in it where you can't go. I saw rabbits (and they saw me) but no birds.


vrijdag 22 juli 2011

Hunting turtles with the Ka'apor:

The Ka'apor are an Amerindian people from the Brazilian pre-Amazon that are described by Francis Huxley (earlier) and the fabulous 'Footprints of the Forest' by William Balee (scandalously enough still uncovered here). They now have their own Youtube channel from which these shots and quotes are taken.    

The mushrooms: "Turtle's eat this, we call them turtle crackers."

"In the city food is waiting for you, you just have to order what you want."

"Turtle is here," he shouts while making a loud clapping sound by hitting the shell with his machete.

"The turtle is one of the most common foods for us," 

While carrying the turtle as an ad-hoc backpack: "We do not need to carry food because there is already food for us in the forest. That's why we don't carry food with us like you guys do, bringing food with you from the city to the forest. We don't do that because we are used to eating this way, and that's good because we like to walk in the woods and we like to eat the food we find there. That's what makes us happy."

dinsdag 19 juli 2011

The urban stealth weed

The hollyhock (stokroos) is the prime weed in a large part of Utrecht. You will not find it everywhere, and my provisional hypothesis is that it has to do with soil, but where it is present it doesn't hide itself. At the local plant market you can purchase 3 saplings for a tenner and yes the Hollyhock is a decorative flower, loved by gardeners and nobody seems to mind them: they are a weed not regarded as weed. Light yellow and link pink are the prevalent colours but I have seen purple, red and almost black ones as well. They need very little space to grow: just a few centimetres between a wall and pavement is enough, and they will take over the mini-gardens (the size of the paving tile that was there first) many people without a proper garden have. But the hollyhock does grow a bit too high for its own good: to get out of the shade they grow askew but in doing so they start to take up space reserved for the heads of pedestrians: at at certain point I could not properly walk out of my own door because of them and therefore I needed to chop off a few of its tentacles. Another thing about them is that they can snap when the wind is strong enough.

You can eat them: "Hollyhock (Alcea rosea) flowers are edible (so are the leaves, root and stem) - Very bland, slightly sweet flavour, somewhat slimy."

The above picture is a good example of the hollyhocks potential and acumen. The tree has a little personal space where the mover can't come and this where the hollyhock takes root. In an afternoon I could easily find 100 other examples like this of the limited needs of the hollyhock.

I don't like them: they are hiding something, a dark secret that will kill us all. 

maandag 18 juli 2011

Fluxus and the forest

After the urban cryptoforest revolt of 2020 forestry will become art and art will be on the dump heap of history, until then we need to do with the mediocre. Bengt Af Klinktberg's (born 1938) Fluxus pieces from the 1960/70ties used:
"The forest as a marionette theatre. I read in my encyclopaedia: a theatre with jointed puppets which by means of threads can be made to imitate the movements of human beings. The marionette is generally around 50 centimetres tall and appears in a theatre reduced to the same scale. Why not, for once, a really large and airy stage? Perched in two treetops my brother-in-law Olle and I pull and release ropes. Between us is the forest diver, performing a slow dance with grave and waving movements, like a huge, reluctant jumping-jack, insulted by our proceedings but still not quite negative... "
As quoted from 'The Forest Diver' included in a 1974 issue of Alcheringa while the Fluxus Performance Workbook  (PDF-link) includes Seven Forest Events from his hand. 
Seven Forest Events (1966)

Forest Event Number One [Winter]
Walk out into a forest when it is winter and decorate all the spruces with burning candles, flags, apples, glass balls, tinsel strings.

Forest Event Number Two
Walk out into a forest and wrap some drab trees, or yourself, in tinsel.

Forest Event Number Three
Climb up a treetop with a saw. Saw through the tree-trunk from the top right down to the root.

Forest Event Number Four [Danger Music for Henning Christiansen]
Climb up into a tree. Saw off the branch you sit upon.

Forest Event Number Five [The Lumberjack' and Piker's Union]
Charlotte Moorman exchanged the sand-paper for a saw, but using that sawing technique she would have been sacked Lumberjack' and Piker's Union.

Forest Event Number Six
Walk out of your house. Walk to the forest. Walk into the forest.

Forest Event Number Seven
When you walk into a forest, don't forget to knock.

dinsdag 12 juli 2011

WORK COMSUME DIE [Will Self: PsychoGeographer]

Will Self writes a column named 'psychogeography' for The Independent and there is a book out with the same title

It does not appear that Self is taken very seriously by the overlords of the UK psychogeographic book guild. Stewart Home has long ridiculed Self's writing as the 'self-indulgent dribblings of a sad Oxford junkie' and Iain Sinclair has repeatedly made unfriendly remarks about Self, calling his use of the world psychogeography a devaluation of the practise into a form of tourism. Though Sinclair might in reality be more friendly than that.

What surprised me about this mp3 with a 2007 interview with Self at the LA Public Library, is that Self is a lot more explicitly and politically outspoken than Sinclair (who remains polite, unobtrusive and distant) or Stewart Home (who is far less political in his writing than he appears as a public persona). Self is more punk, quoting a 'Work - Consume - Die" graffiti as the best expression of what cities are nowadays about. The idea of walking from his home in London to a Hotel in Manhattan with a transatlantic flight in the middle is brilliant. Self explained the walk in political terms: as a way to free yourself from work-comsume routines without losing the sense of where you are, in the process discovering all sorts of assumptions about humans and travel: it is not possible to leave Kennedy airport on foot! Self's case for psychogeography (or any other non-consuming mode of urban use) as a tactic against society is made much franker than I have heard the two Iain's (Sinclair and Borden) do it.

In relation to travel writing Self considers most books as either 'travel porn' or as 'deeply bogus', promising a flimsy possibility of belonging somewhere where you will actually forever remain a stranger. Self aims to reveal the deep disorientation that hides beneath the superficial disorientation of first contact with a new place. Which is exactly what you expect from good anthropological writing.
Self also spoke about an observation he had been having when doing long distance walks, on how as the kilometres pass underneath the built landscape vanishes from view and the geological landscape, the patterns of hills and watersheds start to take command.Good man.

donderdag 7 juli 2011

Forage for Survival

What I would love to know more about is the history of, and predecessors to, the Great Forage Revival that we are now witnessing. Now you can read and learn from Rebecca in the United Snakes of AmeriKKKa, from Patrick in the People's Republic of Abba and countless of others but before that where did you learn the stuff you need to know to be a successful un-poisoned forager? My working hypothesis is that every country had its own tradition and its own specific history with distinct differences in motivation and focus. In 2006 Richard Mabey wrote an article for the Guardian about his foraging antecedents and the broad picture he creates is of modern foraging as a hippie discovery of WWII Governmental publications promoting hedgerow harvests to make ends meet. The American forage tradition, by contrast, seems to be guided more by long Native American traditions. But this is guesswork. 

The book that Mabey misses in his piece but which is undoubtedly the foraging guide with the highest print run in the entire world is John Wiseman's 'The SAS Survival Handbook'. It's easy to understand why the foragers I think about would fail to acknowledge a military  curiosity like that: it's typical for instance that the SAS Handbook dwells extensively on poisonous plants and trees while Mabey's 'Food For Free' barely mentions them. To a soldier foraging is a struggle for survival in a dangerous and cruel world while the hippie forager sees foraging as a rediscovery of nature's gifts. The pics here are screenshots from a copied edition of the SAS guide downloaded from the Pirate Bay. Another Army survival guide with plenty of foraging material can be found here.

zondag 3 juli 2011

In the news.....

If I would have to choose I would prefer playing scrabble with Ratko Mladic to speaking with a journalist but for obscure reasons (vanity? senility? weakness?) I walked through the heart of Amsterdam and the cryptoforests of Utrecht with journalist Annemiek Leclaire. The resulting article on current day psychogeographic activity is now available in newsstands throughout the country. I'm not absolutely sure what to think of it but the walks themselves were pleasant enough. Three peculiarities of the article stand out: 

1) Despite my advancing years and long receded hairline I find myself described as a 'boy'.
2) My last name is deemed too long or too offensive and is abbreviated all but once to H. an honour usually reserved for criminals.
3) In the sidebar to the story you can read my beginners guide to the drift that was published earlier in English on this blog.

Will let you know if the article appears online.

The Peasant of Paris

Louis Aragon's 'Paris Peasant' (1926) is a pioneering effort in urban travel writing that without the historic pedigree of the author as co-founder of the Surrealist Movement would have been long out of print as a curious timepiece by a talented author too young to keep his adolescent vanity in check. The first part is a deep topography of the last days of an arcade before its demolition of the new Paris, the second part is a contrived elegy on nature and gardening and place that combines originality with rapturous unreadability. In spirit the things it comes closest to in my mind is Sinclair's Light out for the Territory.
The whole fauna of human fantasies, their marine vegetation, drifts and luxuriates in the dimly lit zones of human activity, as though plaiting thick tresses of darkness. Here, too, appear the lighthouses of the mind, with their outward resemblance to less pure symbols. The gateway to mystery swings open at the touch of human weakness and we have entered the realms of darkness. One false step, one slurred syllable together reveal a man's thoughts. The disquieting atmospheres of places contains similar locks which cannot be bolted fast against infinity. Wherever the living pursue particularly ambiguous activities, the inanimate may sometimes assume the reflection of their most secret motives: and thus our cities are people with unrecognized sphinxes which will never stop the passing dreamer and ask him mortal questions unless he first projects his meditations, his absence of mind, towards them.