woensdag 29 februari 2012

The Post-Competitive, Comparative Game of a Free City

When the San Francisco Diggers (an anarchist group for who free meant free as in beer and free as in freedom) left Haight-Ashbury to found the Free Family in the summer of 1967 they started on a path that would establish a network of communes intending to share skills and resources on the basis of hospitality, total freedom and self-expression in such a way that all necessities of life were available for free. They were on their way to 'create the institutions of a new society in the shell of the old' (as David Graber wrote about OWS) on what appears to be a grand scale across the US. 

Next to the architectural fancies of Situationism and the shy, half-understood communal implications of Occupy perhaps 'The Post-Competitive, Comparative Game of a Free City' (source images) should be read as a leading text outlining a full set of problems that need to be solved before a community can step outside the confines of modern society. It is a fascinating text; both in living memory and strangely antiquated: for starters, its a vision of the future fully depended on cheap petrol.   

Of course, as Peter Coyote shows in his biography 'Sleeping Where I Fall': reality was more stubborn than the Free City vision anticipated. The 'four pearls of wisdom from the leader' he cites convey a picture of the daily realities at a rural, overcrowded hippie commune:
  •  If you let the baby shit on the floor and then eat it, you'll have a sick baby and a shitty floor.
  • Free food doesn't mean that I cook and you eat all the time, ass-hole.
  • It's fine if you want to take speed, just don't talk to me! I don't actually care that the insects are communicating with you.
  • I know the Indians used moss for tampons, but you're picking poison oak.  
Did you know that word 'hippie' was coined by Time Magazine as a derogatory term for baby hipster?

zondag 26 februari 2012

The great Neantherthal drug bust [updated]

The 60-70.000 year old Neanderthal flower burial known as Shanidar IV may be a case of mistaking two archaeological layers as one (the flowers unrelated to the Neanderthal remains), but what a joy to read Jan Lietav's 1991 article 'Medicinal plants in a Middle Paleolithic grave Shanidar IV?' in which the 'objective healing activity' of the six flowers found at the site are evaluated as substantial evidence that the flowers are not 'random'. Here are the six plants with some random bits from the article, from Wikipedia and from Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World:

"...already mentioned by Homer and Plinius as being useful for wounds and Anglo-Saxons used yarrow as a panacea." Yarrow connects Greek and Chinese myth (Achilles and the I Ching) with Anglo-Saxon medicine with a plant growing along every motorway in almost every part of the world.
Sturtevant: "Europe, Asia and America. In some parts of Sweden, yarrow is said to be employed as a substitute for hops in the preparation of beer, to which it is supposed to add an intoxicating effect."

Yellow Star Thistle (also: St. Barnaby's thistle).
"employed for centuries in folk medicine. Plinius mentioned that Cheiron, the centaur, had used it to cure himself." The Wikipedia-entry is US-centric and deal almost exclusively with its invasiveness. Botanical.com writes:  "in agriculture the Thistle is the recognized sign of untidiness and neglect, being found not so much in barren ground, as in good ground not properly cared for."
Sturtevant:"Europe, north Africa and temperate Asia. The young according to Forskal, are eaten raw in Egypt."

"The genus Senecio covers several hundred species. Historically, its earliest use has been evidenced in old Anglo-Saxon chronicles where its name was groundsels." It was used for gout, dressing wounds, and stomach sickness.
Sturtevant:"In Thibet, this plant serves and slightly acid liquor."

Muscari (also: grape hyacinth)
"We need more time to evaluate the objective value of this research properly." There are some online references to herbal uses of this plant but not very specific. Not the strongest case.
Sturtevant: "Mediterranean and Caucasian region. The bulbs are eaten in Crete, Zacynthus and Corcyra, as well as in Italy, according, to Sprengel."

 "...believed to have been used under the name ma-huang by the mythical Chinese emperor Shen-Nung in the third millenium B.C." Our deceased Neanderthal friend wouldn't have passed a drug test with all that Ephedra.
Sturtevant: "China and south Russia. The fruit is eaten by the Russian peasants and by the wandering hordes of Great Tartary. The fruit is eaten by the  Chinese and is mucilaginous, with a slightly acid or pungent flavor. The fruit is ovoid, succulent, sweet, pale or bright red when ripe. It is eaten in some places, as on the Sutlej." (The Ephedra found at Shanidar is probably another plant from the genus.)

"... a highly appreciated plant in both traditional and official medicine since Hippocrates’ times, and it has kept its position to this day. At present, Althea of’- cidis is noted in pharmacopoeias of 26 countries." The root has been used since Egyptian antiquity in a honey-sweetened confection useful in the treatment of sore throat.
Sturtevant: "The plant is found wild in Europe and Asia and is naturalized in places in America. It is cultivated extensively in Europe for medicinal purposes, acting as a demulcent. In 812, Charlemagne enjoined its culture in France. Johnson says its leaves may be eaten when boiled."

So: Yarrow and Ephedra have an extremely well-established, medicinal history of use; Muscari is a unconvincing example; Althea, Senecio and Yellow Star Thistle were used extensively in the past but less obvious so today. Personally I just like the idea that a weedy plant was already used by a Neanderthal 60.000 years ago, it adds history to common plants growing in every street and park. What is interesting is that Neanderthal studies have made a giant leap in recent years and the old brute is becoming ever more human which makes the idea of ceremonial burial by the Neanderthal more likely. We also now have a good idea what they were eating and cooking.    
(The Lietav article kindly provided from behind the behind the great academic firewall by a reader).  

(This post rambles what else do you expect? I was looking into this because I wanted to verify Wikipedia's claim that the hollyhock was also found in Shanidar, but from Wikipedia itself I learned that the some plants classed as Alcea (hollyhock) are now part of the Althea family.)

woensdag 22 februari 2012

Postman Pat Psychogeographix [blundering through town]

My recent re-assignment to Whiteladies (earlier) has made me discover a street that I can only describe as an idiosyncratic anomaly of great potential. I had seen the Griftse Quay before but now that I actually visit it twice-weekly (as said before "postal work makes geography explicit by walking into all streets and all its front doors") its has revealed itself as a place where discombobulated psychogeographic visions can be read with a fluency as if it was a cartographic street crystal designed by the great magus John Dee himself. Sure, to you it's an obscure, wayward street, shaded by large trees, hard to reach and easy to ignore, but then again you have not even reached the novice stage of your topophilic apprenticeship. The street is actually unusually spacious, like a boulevard with a minority complex or a plaza suffering from small city blues. There are 15 houses to the street, divided in two parallel blocks of 5 and 10 houses respectively, each house has 3 addresses (1, 1 bis, 1 bis a), for one address two of them are up a steep stair, my heart beats in my throat when I climb it too fast. There is a sense of bygone grandeur to the façades. 100 years ago these houses would have looked out over fields or swamps. And from the fields these houses, behind the water would have looked like apparitions of brownstone, the signposts of the city, in the distance, packed away behind the water. Did I mention the canal?

The canal is called Biltsche Grift and it names several other parts of Whieladies, the park most prominently. Wikipedia further informs us that the canal was established in the late 1600ties to create a shipping route between Utrecht and the neighbouring village of Zeist, 10 km to the east. 'Grift' is an old word for canal, and 'Biltsche' refers to the the village of De Bilt located roughly in the middle of Utrecht and Zeist. In some places the canal utilizes a dried-up arm of the river Vecht (F on the map). In the past the canal must have been a major factor in the landscape, and a considerable barrier for travellers to cross, but with the growth and development of the city it has lost its function, its visibility and its identity. The quay, running along the canal contains the only point where infrastructure highlights the canal instead of obliterating it. The steep wooden footbridge makes crossing the canal a noticeable effort. 

Looking at the canal from the quay I knew where the water had to come from but I had a hard time understanding where it went. I could not draw this segment as part of a bigger picture and as I figured this out by looking at maps, by following its trajectory on foot and by bicycle I rediscovered bits of the canal I knew and bits of it at places where I never before had bothered to register its existence ("how could I have missed that?). The canal snakes itself unseen through the margins of my daily surroundings and actually makes use of a few tricks to make it hard to comprehend it as one single waterway.

A canal can be buried; there is a play ground I often take the kids to and the canal flows next to it but I had never realized it because the ground makes a drop of a couple of meters below the surface. This also makes it easy to polish it out of the urban fabric because a bridge across it doesn't need height.

A canal can disappear out of sight: for a 500 meter stretch it hides between two back- fronting blocks of housing, D on the map.

A canal can vanish from the map: segments C and D of the canal are missing from google-maps. The canal there doesn't show very well on the satellite image and I guess that the program turning the picture in a map failed to spot it. Google also doesn't know the name of canal, you can't search for it. Open Street View does much better, it knows the name and has the full canal. See image.

Hey Larry, hey Sergey where is my canal?
A canal can change shape: and it can do so dramatically. The canal turns from riverine to canal to riverine and back every time a street crosses it overhead. The Whiteladies part of the canal is a large bend (a to d on the map) of which the arch only becomes apparent once you look on the map but there is a small piece of it (b on the map, and I needed to rack my brain to remember that this section had been covered before here) that is a recent construction and more obviously manmade. The visual appearance of this segment is very different and it is easy to imagine that the cursory looking city dweller never makes the connection.

A canal can make a sharp bend: a bit further up after it went missing between the blocks of houses it suddenly opens up onto the street, and then it flows immediately underneath it and makes a sharp bend. This is happening close to the busy Biltstraat, and because it flows below street level you can't really see it without twisting your neck into an unpleasant position some charlatans will sell to you as yoga. As it makes the bend it flows into another tunnel but some water spills out into a dead-end mote dividing the garden of a posh mansion from the street. You could easily assume the mote to be the end of the stream.

A canal can be picturesque if you are willing to die for it: the way the canal flows away from street view between the two blocks and the way it opens up the view line of the Biltstraat are in themselves pleasant views, but the best place to admire them is out on the street where the cars and the city buses race through. The canal looks best under the eleven bus.

Later the canal makes another sharp bend and then it hides behind the motorway, runs between the motorway and the backside of the Catholic Graveyard. I sometimes visit the graveyard, which is beautiful and meditatively tranquil, but never spotted the canal. Then it makes another sharp bend, underneath the motorway, and drains into park Bloeyendaal. Behind the motorway the stream also forks into another stream, the Minstroom which flows west, back onto the city canal. The Minstroom has a long history connected with urban plant cultivation but that is another story.

A canal can be hidden by human arrogance and/or utter stupidity: because Wikipedia said the Biltsche Grift runs from Utrecht to Zeist, because trade once went from Utrecht to Zeist, because Utrecht is a town and Zeist a village, because I am a modern guy who knows about Blogger vs Tumblr, I never bothered to check which way the water runs and of course the canal actually flows from Zeist to Utrecht while I have been tracing it here as if it was flowing away from it....

It might be internet-cool to search for the lost rivers of London but I challenge you to see the visible river in your own backyard first. When I have the time I plan to walk the entire length of the canal but for now I just want to say to you that locating the Whiteladies watershed makes me a really happy man...

dinsdag 21 februari 2012

Urban forage psychogeography

Oliver Rowe's attempt to open a restaurant feeding its clients with London produce only made for a vaguely amusing BBC series. My favourite bit is when Rowe teams up with Fergus the Forager and finds himself unable to keep up with the foragers antics of moving silently through the underbrush. As said before: foraging = psychogeography.

...after a long wait, the forager finally arrives: in a battered old Volvo!

One of North London's many woods...

"I think I lost Fergus..."

"Fergus... Fergus!" 

"Oh, is that a squirrel or is that Fergus? No that's a dog"

vrijdag 10 februari 2012

Two books with three-word titles, both containing the words 'food' and 'history'

Recently I have read two books on the History of Food.

The first was 'Food in History' by Reay Tannahill. It was first published in 1973 but my Penguin is a revised edition of 1988. It's an easy read that deals with the origin of our food-sources, the history of national cuisines and the complexities and political issues civilizations from the Romans to the present have needed to overcome to feed itself. The first part deals with pre-agricultural food and seems very low on information content and maybe a bit outdated, the last part deals with food security in the language of the 1970ties. It's a good book to get a general picture of things (the history of Chinese cuisine in 3 pages, a few medieval recipes, the birth of modern cookbooks, the assimilation of corn in the European diet, etc etc) but it doesn't really nourish in the long run. 

The second book I read was 'History of Food' by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat. It was first published in French in 1974 and translated to English in 1992. It's a 700 page tome of small print that comes with endorsements by Raymond Blanc and H.G. Ballard. It solely deals with the history and cultural facets of individual food sources, it neglects non-European cuisines and is Franco-centric to a fault. I haven't actually read it because its is unreadable. This book is like a collection of Wikipedia pages on speed or like one of those Chinese encyclopaedias Borges wrote about. The matter is made worse by the fact that chapter-headings only provide a meagre indication of what the chapter will actually be about. This history of food is unsystematic to the point of randomness, but not in a good way. What I find especially annoying is that Toussaint-Samat makes grand claims about all sorts of things (the origin of language included) without any reference or source. This book is a waste of space.

The dictum is: never read one book. In this case it is followed with: two is not enough either and readers of this blog are encouraged to submit better books on the subject if they know any. Thank you!

maandag 6 februari 2012

The primitive savage as a class-A naturalist

Columbian Desana constructing a trap.
The following quote is taken from 'Cosmology as Ecological Analysis' (PDF-link) by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff (earlier, earlier). It reiterates a point that has been made before and before and before: to be successful as a hunter-gatherer you need to be a keen naturalist. Reichel-Dolmatoff's unique contribution is in the how he shows that the stories and superstitions of 'primitive' people make-up a well-argued and consciously operated ecological strategy. 
Among the Indians there is usually little interest in new knowledge that might be used for exploiting the environment more effectively and there is little concern for maximising short-term gains for obtaining more food or raw materials than are actually needed. But there is always a great deal of interest in accumulating more factual knowledge about biological reality and, above all, about what the physical world requires from man. This knowledge, the Indians believe, is essential for survival because man must bring himself into conformity with nature if he wants to exist as part of nature's unity, and must fit his demands to nature's availabilities.

Animal behaviour is of the greatest interest to the Indians because it often constitutes a model for what is possible in terms of successful adaptation. On the one hand the Indians have a detailed knowledge of such aspects as seasonal variation and micro-distributions of the animal and plant species of their habitat. They have a good understanding of ecological communities, of the behaviour of social insects, bird flocks the organisation of fish schools, the patterns of fish runs, and other forms of collective behaviour. Such phenomena as parasitism, symbiosis, commensalis, and other relationships between co-occurring species have been well observed by them and are pointed out as possible models of adaptation. On the other hand, myths and tales abound with accounts of visits to the animal world, of people turning into animals in order to learn more about their habits, or of animals teaching men how to make use of certain resources.

zondag 5 februari 2012

The proper business of a human economy is to make one whole thing of ourselves and this world

You can always rely on Wendell Berry (earlier) to deliver the harshest condemnations of society in the clearest and politest language. And he does so in a way that has you nodding in agreement and shivering with doubt in turns. Mr. Berry is certainly never boring though sometimes for the non-American of little interest. Over at Metafilter his essay 'In distrust of movements', at least 12 years old, has been dug up as worthwhile material to read in the light of Occupy and it's easy to see why. Below are my favourite fragments. The pictures are from last November and show the Utrecht occupy camp after being trashed the night before. I was thinking the culprits were vandals but now it may appear they may well be targeted by Wendell Berry inspired radicals.
The Captains of Industry have always counselled the rest of us to be “realistic”. Let us, therefore, be realistic. Is it realistic to assume that the present economy would be just fine if only it would stop poisoning the air and water, or if only it would stop soil erosion, or if only it would stop degrading watersheds and forest ecosystems, or if only it would stop seducing children, or if only it would quit buying politicians, or if only it would give women and favoured minorities an equitable share of the loot? Realism, I think, is a very limited programme, but it informs us at least that we should not look for bird eggs in a cuckoo clock.

Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink, clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind reveals itself also to be as superstitious a mind as ever has existed in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?

The proper business of a human economy is to make one whole thing of ourselves and this world. To make ourselves into a practical wholeness with the land under our feet is maybe not altogether possible — how would we know? — but, as a goal, it at least carries us beyond hubris, beyond the utterly groundless assumption that we can subdivide our present great failure into a thousand separate problems that can be fixed by a thousand task forces of academic and bureaucratic specialists. That programme has been given more than a fair chance to prove itself, and we ought to know by now that it won’t work.

We need to find cheap solutions, solutions within the reach of everybody, and the availability of a lot of money prevents the discovery of cheap solutions.

vrijdag 3 februari 2012

The urban forage website for/from Utrecht

The article above appeared yesterday in some rag that is pushed through my letterbox every week. It reminded me of the existence of plukdestad.nl (harvest - the - city), an urban forage website along the lines of the Boskoi app that has been mentioned before here several times. They provide the same service: showing you where to find edible greens and giving you the opportunity to add your own finds. Plukdestad has recipes and a splash more colour, it's in Dutch, maybe a little easier to understand for forage novices. It's focus is on Utrecht only. Boskoi is an app first, functional in design, lacking recipes and probably more useful to more experienced foragers. The vast amount of locations in Boskoi are from Amsterdam but it is open for submissions worldwide. 

woensdag 1 februari 2012

The folly at Le square des Missions-Etrangères, Paris [updated]

In January 1955 Michelle Bernstein pointed the readers of Potlatch to the above structure on Le square des Missions-Etrangères (see here for a 2010 winter view). She described it as "a kiosk of great dignity which looks for all the world like a station platform and has a medieval appearance". She ends with the notice that it "may be used for receiving visitors, for being stormed by night and for other psychogeographical purposes".

Simon Sadler's The Situationist city argues that for Bernstein psychogeographic architecture is created by placing out-of-place objects at unexpected places. Sadler adds that for Bernstein the structure was a modern day folly, "meant to move the viewer to salutary states". He also states that "Bernstein's admiration of the structure typified the situationist acceptance of ugliness." But where does Bernstein actually says she finds it ugly?

Notbored (where else?) offers Bernstein's complete text which is really the 1950ties equivalent of a blogpost. (with thanks to Tina Richardson for reminding me)

Square des Missions Etrangeres

On the border between the 6th and 7th Arrondissements, this small garden, squeezed in between the nearby rue de Babylone and boulevard Raspail, is not easily reached and is normally deserted. It is fairly extensive, as Parisian public gardens go. There is almost no vegetation. From inside, its forked shape becomes apparent.
Its shorter leg is enclosed between blackened walls over ten metres high and the backs of some large buildings. On this side, a private courtyard makes it difficult to make out the garden's edge.

The other leg is overhung on one side by the same stone walls and bordered on the other side by the attractive facade of rue Commaille, a very quiet street. The end of this leg abuts on rue Bac, a street with a great deal more activity.
Square des Missions Etrangeres, however, is separated from this street by a strange, empty plot of ground, with a very dense hedge between it and the garden itself. In this totally enclosed empty garden, whose only prupose seems to be to keep a distance between the garden and the passers-by on rue Bac, there is a bust of Chateaubriand, two metres above the ground, in the form of the god Terminus, commanding a cinder covered surface.

The only access to the garden is through a gate situated at the point of the fork, giving onto rue Commaille.

The only monument in the neighbourhood serves to block the view even more and to prevent access to the empty garden. It is an exceptionally dignified kiosk, highly reminiscent of station platforms or medieval regalia.
Square des Missions Etrangeres may be used for receiving visitors, for being stormed by night and for other psychogeographical purposes.

(Written by Michele Bernstein and published in Potlatch #16, 26 January 1955. Translated from the French by Gerardo Denis.)