woensdag 29 augustus 2012

Post-Hippie communal life in the US

Oh! Those dreadful Hippies! I fully buy into the theory that things need to be out of date before they can become fresh and inspiring again and after reading 'The Alternative, Communal life in New America' (1970) I am again convinced that while some aspects of hippiedom are again relevant, the phenomena itself will need another 50 years for people to come to it without preconceived resentment and teeth grinding. 'The Alternative' documents a few of the reported 500+ autonomous communities that sprang up in the US from the mid sixties onwards. William Hedgepeth's language is a showcase of everything that is wrong with hippie speak: overexcited staccato, ridiculous arguments about cosmic conciousness and thought patterns that need fixing, over-abundant pseudo-psychedelic onomatopeeing, and in general a special kind of optimism that can only invoke cynicism today (we know hoe THEY ended up). But my continuing inability to see through the veneer of beards, paisley and headbands is perhaps in itself a sign that what these people were up to has not yet been fully absorbed and digested by society. The back to the land movement was an unrivalled experiment in discovery of new ways of sociability, outside the 'dollar economy' and within boundaries of ecological sustainability. So I find this book (it was suggested by a reader, thank you) completely annoying but in a stimulating, self-questioning kind of way. But is it a good book? Dennis Stock's pictures maybe stress the messianic look of the average homesteading hippie a bit too much.The writing is Time/Life more than the New York Times (say) and in the end what fails this book is that what appears to be a sympathetic inside portrayal is really a betrayal of the life style by packaging it in media clichés for a middle class book buying audience.

maandag 27 augustus 2012

John McPhee: Dostoyevsky in the age of Discovery Channel

Annals of the Former World (1989) brings together John McPhee's four previous book on US geology with a new closing essay and the sum surpasses its parts. Geology is a descriptive science and McPhee's book is above all a kind of dictionary fieldwork in the depths, shales and dispositions of a technical language. It's a Dostoyevskian book because you have to live with it for weeks. Not because it is that big (it's less than 700 pages of medium typeset, not the 1500 pages of fine print of The Brothers Karamazov) but because the abundant descriptions of rock and outcrops are the reading equivalent to a 7+ grade boulder climb. The second thing that is at the heart of McPhee's geological project is his sly but constant coupling of geological and human time frames. This book deals with geology but its subject, in the last analysis, is the human condition. Annals of the Former World is the great non-fiction competitor to all the great American novels. It's view of America in geological time is itself a critique on the basic assumptions of, say, the religious right and all other short sighted voices. And it has great maps to boot.

zaterdag 25 augustus 2012

High civilizations are bound for the North Pole

"Man, as an animal, is indeed, a tropical animal. But man, as distinguished from animals, is not at his best in the tropics or very near them. His fight upward in civilization has coincided in part at least with his march northward over the earth into a cooler, clearer, more bracing air." - Vilhjalmur Stefansson (The northward course of empire, 1922).

The book is an elaborate crack-pot argument celebrating the unappreciated richness of the Arctic rather than a geopolitical survey of empires, their temperatures and the inevitable polar thrust of society you would perhaps expect. It opens with the above graph and it's hard to not to smile. 

vrijdag 24 augustus 2012

Novel ecosystems [the science behind cryptoforestry]

16 names have signed 'Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order'. It's something of a manifesto arguing for a new approach within ecology to the newly emerging landscapes of the anthropocene. The image is from a 2009 article in Nature on novel ecosystems as Raggamuffin Earth.
Most of the world’s ecosystems are now impacted by humans to a greater or lesser extent, and humans thus play an important role in modifying or regulating the types and rates of ecosystem change. In addition, global trading has breached biogeographical boundaries and facilitated the spread of species into regions that they would probably never have reached under normal

Novel ecosystems (also termed ‘emerging ecosystems’) have species compositions and relative abundances that have not occurred previously within a given biome. The key characteristics are  (1) novelty: new species combinations, with the potential for changes in ecosystem functioning; and  (2) human agency: ecosystems that are the result of deliberate or inadvertent human action, but do not depend on continued human intervention for their maintenance. Such ecosystems result from biotic response to human-induced abiotic conditions and/or novel biotic elements (e.g. land degradation, enrichment of soil fertility, introduction of invasive species). This includes the cessation of management of systems that have been managed or created by humans (e.g. agroforestry systems, pastoral land). New species combinations arise frequently in today’s world in conditions of strong direct or indirect human impact. In particular, there are three main reasons for their existence.
1 - Human impact has resulted in local extinction of most of the original animal, plant and microbial populations and/or the introduction of a suite of species not previously present in that biogeographical region.
2 - Predominating urban, cultivated or degraded landscapes around target ecosystems create dispersal barriers for many animal, plant and microbial species.
3 - Direct (e.g. removal of natural soil, dam construction, harvesting, pollution) and indirect (e.g. erosion due to lack of vegetation or overgrazing) human impact has resulted either in major changes in the abiotic environment or a decrease in the original propagule species pool, both of which can prevent the re-establishment of pre-existing species assemblages.
These types of ecosystem can be thought of as occupying a zone somewhere in the middle of the gradient between ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ ecosystems, on one hand, and intensively managed systems on the other hand.

maandag 20 augustus 2012

Botany exercises the memory without improving the mind

To The Honourable Daines Barrington

Selborne, June 2, 1778.

Dear Sir,

The standing objection to botany has always been, that it is a pursuit that amuses the fancy and exercises the memory, without improving the mind or advancing any real knowledge: and where the science is carried no farther than a mere systematic classification, the charge is but too true. But the botanist that is desirous of wiping off this aspersion should be by no means content with a list of names; he should study plants philosophically, should investigate the laws of vegetation, should examine the powers and virtues of efficacious herbs, should promote their cultivation; and graft the gardener, the planter, and the husbandman, on the phytologist. Not that system is by any means to be thrown aside; without system the field of nature would be a pathless wilderness: but system should be subservient to, not the main object of, pursuit.

Vegetation is highly worthy of our attention; and in itself is of the utmost consequence to mankind, and productive of many of the greatest comforts and elegancies of life. To plants we owe timber, bread, beer, honey, wine, oil, linen, cotton, etc., what not only strengthens our hearts, and exhilarates our spirits, but what secures from inclemencies of weather and adorns our persons. Man, in his true state of nature, seems to be subsisted by spontaneous vegetation: in middle climes, where grasses prevail, he mixes some animal food with the produce of the field and garden: and it is towards the polar extremes only that, like his kindred bears and wolves, he gorges himself with flesh alone, and is driven, to what hunger has never been known to compel the very beasts, to prey on his own species.* (* See the late Voyages to the South-seas.)

The productions of vegetation have had a vast influence on the commerce of nations, and have been the great promoters of navigation, as may be seen in the articles of sugar, tea, tobacco, opium, ginseng, betel, paper, etc. As every climate has its peculiar produce, our natural wants bring on a mutual intercourse; so that by means of trade each distant part is supplied with the growth of every latitude. But, without the knowledge of plants and their culture, we must have been content with our hips and haws, without enjoying the delicate fruits of India and the salutiferous drugs of Peru.

Instead of examining the minute distinctions of every various species of each obscure genus, the botanist should endeavour to make himself acquainted with those that are useful. You shall see a man readily ascertain every herb of the field, yet hardly know wheat from barley, or at least one sort of wheat or barley from another.

But of all sorts of vegetation the grasses seem to be most neglected; neither the farmer nor the grazier seem to distinguish the annual from the perennial, the hardy from the tender, nor the succulent and nutritive from the dry and juiceless.

The study of grasses would be of great consequence to a northerly and grazing kingdom. The botanist that could improve the sward of the district where he lived would be an useful member of society; to raise a thick turf on a naked soil would be worth volumes of systematic knowledge; and he would be the best commonwealth's man that could occasion the growth of 'two blades of grass where one alone was seen before.'

I am, etc.
An untypical letter from Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne (1789). Richard Mabey's biography paints White as an amiable country dumpling, a landlord with little land, a prospected vicar who never managed to become one, a man who arranged his financial security with a few miserly tricks: the portrait of a minor caricature in a Jane Austen novel. White travelled throughout Britain but in the end preferred to stay home, tend his garden and study the plants and birds around Selborne the village where he was born and where he died. The special contribution of his History is that he is the first one to dwell on the simple, mundane things in nature without apology and with complete relish. His book, he wrote only one, is reminding us that we do not see anything out of the ordinary, we already see so much. To use the phrase of Robert Walser.

Earlier posts on Richard Mabey include posts on his forage guide, and his journeys through wasteland ecology.

zondag 19 augustus 2012

Postman Pat Psychogeographix: Postal Route Calculation on the Fly

Click to enlarge, the red trail is for the three rounds combined as described below, the orange trail is a normal round shown for comparison. Grey lines mark individual postal code/rounds.

A London cabbie has the Knowledge, the postal worker has the Map.    

The post, as I collect it from the depot, is sorted in such a way that it creates a rational, time-economic path that ends where it began and wastes as little time as possible on being between destinations. At the same time each round is identical to the first letter of the postal code. That is pretty nicely organized.

As it happens, for reasons of austerity, several smaller depots in Whiteladies have been brought together into one mega-depot. This means that to cut costs we are now forced to spend more unnecessary time travelling back and forth between depot and streets. My old depot is in the same street as the new one but two blocks further to the end of the street. One of my rounds includes the street the depot is on. The post itself however is still sorted according to the old situation, and this means that you either have to walk a few (hundred) meters extra to reach the starting point of your round or it means that you rearrange your post yourself to accommodate the post to the new situation. The experienced postal worker builds up unique mental maps of the streets s/he works in and to me one of the pleasures of the job is to use this map to recalculate my rounds to make them efficient again. My Garden Village rounds are adjacent and when there is not that much post there is a neat way to combine them into one coagulated route. A mash-up route for which I feel a certain pride. Even though I have been doing this round for ages I can still spent the entire shift going over the route, rearranging it inside my mind to see how they can be recombined into an even more graceful and optimal route. To my great wonder however I have noticed that my colleagues don't share my zest for autonomous route recalculation and will without hesitation walk the same street twice and cross enormous distances to make up for the distorted arrangement between sorting and territory. Bewildering and incongruently they miss out on what makes this job great. 

When I was asked to add an extra round to my Garden Village routine it provided me with an excellent travelling salesman problem on postal scale: how to connect this extra route and how to do it efficiently. The volume of mail for these three rounds combined was such that I could never take it all with me in one go. The extra round could only be connected at one position to my other routes. I could have combined the extra round with the middle round (see pic) and walk the remaining one as normal. A solution that lacks all art and balance. Instead I evened out the three rounds by dividing them up in two new routes to ensure minimal dead-end walking. The result was a breeze with two new rounds of even length. All this on the first tropical day of the year, 8.6km in total. I don't think a land surveyor with a Harvard degree and all the sat nav software in the world could have done better.

dinsdag 14 augustus 2012


Like the original Diggers of the 15th century the San Francisco Diggers began their existence in 1966 with the offering of free food. The original leaflet passed around in Haight-Ashbury by the two original Diggers Emmett Grogan and Billy Murcott stated:

    4 PM  4 PM  4PM  4PM
                                            the diggers.

It was the ultimate affront to the hip merchants of the burgeoning hippie scene. It made the Diggers famous and while there are several famous SF Diggers the Free Food service was a continues daily struggle that took most of the day and the labour involved came almost exclusively from women whose names are never remembered, or so Grogan tell us in his autobiography. The food itself was mostly stolen and often wilted or otherwise unwanted. Hence stews. Meat was considered an essential ingredient. Like with the original Diggers the simplicity of the Free Food program transferred an obscure group of disenfranchised lay intellectuals into a media phenomena everybody could relate to. Pictures from Charles Perry's 'The Haight Ashbury'. 

maandag 13 augustus 2012

Drop City: A Total Living Environment

Drop City: A Total Living Environment (1967)

By Albin Wagner

It is impossible to define drop city. It fell out of a window in Kansas three years ago and landed in a goat pasture near Trinidad, Colorado. At first droppers lived in tents and tarpaper shacks. And then other began to see the same vision and began making things.Geodesic domes. Now there are sixteen to twenty Droppers living in ten domes and as many different ideas of what Drop City is as there are droppers.

We have attempted to create in Drop City a total living environment, outside the structure of society, where the artist can remain in touch with himself, with other creative human beings.

We live in geodesic domes and domes of other crystalline forms because the dome shape is easier to construct. We live on a subsistence level and almost entirely scrounge the materials for our buildings. All materials are used. Car tops, cement, wood,plastic. The cheapest and least structural of building material are structurally sound when used in a true tension system.

We can buy car-tops in Albuquerque, N.M. for 20c each. We jump on top of a car with an ax and chop them out, stomp out the back glass, strip off the mirrors, and pull out the insulation. All of it can be used to cover a large dome for the small cost of about $30.

We have discovered a new art form: creative scrounging. We dismantle abandoned bridges by moonlight. We are sort of advanced junkmen taking advantage of advanced obsolescence. Drop city was begun without money, built on practically nothing. None of us is employed or has a steady income. Somehow we have not gone hungry, or done without materials. Things come to us.

America, the most affluent waste society. There is enough waste here to feed and house thousand works of art. To the townspeople in Trinidad, five miles away, we are scroungers, bums, garbage pickers. They are right. Perhaps the most beautiful creation in all Drop City is our junk pile. The garbage of the garbage pickers.

Drop City is a tribal unit. It has no formal structure, no written laws, yet the intuitive structure is amazingly complex and functional. Not a single schedule has been made, and less than three things have come to vote. Even though Droppers rarely, if ever, agree on anything, everything works itself out with the help of cosmic forces. We are conscious of ourselves and others as human beings.

Each dropper is free. Each does what he wants. No rules, no duties, no obligations. Anarchy. But as anarchistic as the growth of an organism which has its own internal needs and fulfils them in a natural, simple way, without compulsion.

Droppers are not asked to do anything. They work out of the need to work. Out of guilt or emptiness the desire to work, hopefully, arises. If it is no longer work, but pleasure. Doing nothing is real work. We play at working, It is as gratifying as eating or loving. We are based on the pleasure principle. Our main concern is to be alive.

Droppers come in all sizes, shapes, colors: painters, writers, architects, panhandlers, film-makers, unclassifiables. Each has its own individual endeavours and achievements. These perhaps tell what we are doing more than anything else. But they cannot be enumerated. They have to be seen, read, touched, heard. They speak for themselves. But we do all have this in common - whatever art we produce is not separated from our lives.

Droppers have painted the Ultimate Painting. A rotating infinite sphere, a circular geodesic structure loaded with spatial paradox, complete with strobatac. A painting to walk up the stairs into and lose your mind by. The Ultimate Painting was done by five Droppers, to make it five times better. The Ultimate Painting is for sale for $60.000.

The Droppers have printed a comic book called The Being Bag. We welcome the feds and postal inspectors who come to harangue us about its content. Our poet looks forward to the inspectors and their reading of his work.

Droppers make movies, black-and-white wind poems, flickering TV beauties with the subliminal delights of pulsating Coke ads, the crystal-molecular good sense of a dome going into time-lapse, and the grunting goodness of sex. We have two movies on Drop City for distribution. 

The second week in June we held a Joy Festival. The First Annual Drop City Festival and Bacchanal Post Walpurgis and Pre-Equinox overflow and dropping. Over 300 people attended. It was a freakout in all media, 96 hours of continues mind-blow. 

We want to use everything, new, junk, good, bad, we want to be able to make limitless things. We want videotape recorders and cameras. WE want computers and miles of color film and elaborate cine cameras and tape decks and amps and echo-chambers and everywhere. We want millionaire patrons. We need the most up-to-date equipment in the world to make our things. We want an atomic reactor.

Drop City the first attempt to use domes for housing a community. Buckminster Fuller gave us his 1966 Award for "poetically economic structural achievements." We hope to buy more land, build more Drop Cities all over the world, the universe. Free and open way stations for every and anyone. Living space and heat can be made available to all at a fraction of the present cost through application of advanced building techniques such as solar heated domes. Already Drop City is firmly established near Albuquerque, N.M.

Drop city is Home. It is a strange place. An incredible webbing of circumstance and chance, planning and accidents, smashed thumbs and car-tops. We are not responsible for what and where we are, we have only taken our place in space and light and time. We are only people who want love, food, warmth. We have no integrity. We borrow, copy,steal and and all ideas and things. We use everything. We take things, we make things, we give things.

Drop City pivots on a sublime paradox, opposing forces exist side by side in joy and harmony. A psychedelic community? Chemically, no. We consider drugs unnecessary. But etymologically, perhaps. We are alive. We dance the Joy-dance. We listen to the eternal rhythm. Our feet move to unity, a balanced step of beauty and strength. Creation is joy. Joy is love. Life, love, joy, energy are one. We are all one. Can you hear the music? Come dance with us.  

Drop City is one of the more famous of the numerous back-to-the-land free communities that emerged from the middle 1960ties onwards throughout the US. I found it in "Notes from the New Underground", a 1968 anthology collecting several important texts and writers from that period. This text catches the feel of the time well I think, it also catches the childish inconsistency that is the first thing I normally associate with hippies. Simon Sadler has a good account (PDF-link).

woensdag 8 augustus 2012

Native ecological knowledge applied to a satellite map

Naidoo and Hill's 'Emergence of Indigenous Vegetation Classifications Through Integration of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Remote Sensing Analyses' (2006) discusses the accuracy of native Paraguayan Ache landscape categories applied to Landsat imagery. I am not entirely sure how to interpret the results, 'traditional ecological knowledge' recorded "low end" accuracy but was still "reasonable". See for yourself; what I find fascinating is the exact way the Ache know and classify the forest. Also see this.
Forests, especially remote tropical forests, are often highly inaccessible over large scales to ecologists and other scientists who wish to study ecological patterns and processes in the field. A more typical form of study involves the establishment of a research station on a relatively small parcel of land, followed by intensive ecological investigation within a tight radius of the station along a trail and/or river network. In contrast, nomadic or seminomadic native groups that have lived for generations within the forest will likely have a broader familiarity with the forest at much larger scales, although their level of detailed understanding will likely be limited to those aspects of the forest that are relevant to their own subsistence needs. The potential for Western scientific methods and TEK to complement one another in this situation is quite clear. (Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) has been defined as ‘‘a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment’’.TEK is often associated with indigenous groups that retain traditional resource use practices and/or cultural beliefs.)

Prior to contact with Western civilizations, the Ache were nomadic hunter-gatherers who permanently inhabited the forest and used a wide variety of forest resources for subsistence and cultural purposes. All groups of Ache have now been settled onto permanent reservations outside the Mbaracayu Forest Reserve (the last uncontacted group was resettled in 1978), but several groups continue to forage in the Reserve in a manner similar to their traditional use of the forest. Because of their dependence on the forest, the Ache have evolved into unparalleled trackers of wild game, and have also developed a detailed system of vegetation classification to describe the types of forest present within their hunting ranges. The Ache vegetation classification system revolves around a practical designation of various forest cover types into units that reflect characteristics such as ease of travel, game abundance, and distance from water. Because of their long and intimate association with the forest environment, vegetation classes are highly nuanced, spatially explicit categorizations that can change within a matter of meters. The Ache recognize 69 different classes of vegetation, based primarily on vegetation structure, dominant species, proximity to other habitat types or geographical features (e.g., rivers, meadows), topography, and moisture. Of these, 16 appear to be more appropriately described as geographical classes, rather than vegetation classes, because they are defined primarily, if not exclusively, by geographic location (e.g., ‘‘ykmambu’’: on hillside going up from water). 
In preliminary analyses, we attempted to classify all 53 vegetation classes that the Ache recognize, but it proved impossible to accurately classify this many categories. However, because many of the Ache vegetation classes appear similar, even to the Ache themselves, Hill and others lumped vegetation classes into seven broader categories: meadows, swamps, bamboo understory forests, thick undergrowth vine forests, low forests, high forests, and big bamboo forest.

dinsdag 7 augustus 2012

Everything you need to know about the Diggers

On Sunday 1 April 1469 a group of poor men (described as labourers in a legal action three months later) collected on St George's Hill and began to dig the waste land there [To dig up Georges Hill and the waste Ground thereabouts, and to Sow Corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows]. It was a symbolic assumption of ownership of the common lands. It was a further symbolic rejection of conventional pieties that the digging began on a Sunday. [In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts,Birds,Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another.] The numbers of the Diggers soon rose to twenty or thirty. 'They invite us all to come in and help them,' an observer noted, 'and promise them meat, drink and clothes. they give out, they will be four or five thousand within ten days. It is feared they have some design in hand'. It was a brief episode in English history, involving perhaps a few score men and their families: we know the names of seventy-three of them. Historians are becoming aware that it was not quite so isolated in occurrence as used to be thought. We should see the Digger colony on St. George's Hill as merely one particularly well-documented example of a trend which was repeated in many other places. [Not only this Common, or Heath should be taken in and Manured by the People, but all the Commons and waste Ground in England and in the whole World, shall be taken in by the People in righteousness, not owning any Propriety; but taking the Earth to be a Common Treasury, as it was first made for all.] Other Digger colonies appeared at Wellingborough in Northhamptonshire, Cox Hall in Kent, Iver in Buckinghamshire, Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in Middlesex, Dunstable in Bedfordshire, Bosworth in Leicestershire, and at unknown places in Glouscestershire and Nottinghamshire. Winstanley and twenty-one other Diggers went backwards and forwards visiting colonies and groups of sympathizers. 

The relevant segments from Cristopher Hill's 'The world turned upside down' (1972) combined with quotes from the True Levellers Standard Advance (1649) in brackets bring together everything you need to know about the Diggers.


maandag 6 augustus 2012

Jane Austen, Thomas De Quincey, George Mackay Brown [Postman Pat in Ye Olde Days]

Portrait of Postman Joseph Rolin (1888) by Vincent van Gogh

"Pat feels he's a really happy man" but his happiness will have to overcome some heavy blows when the British Mail will be forced to drastically reorganize itself as the volume of post keeps diminishing.  Here in NL, where the postal service has been privatized as far back as 1989, the service has been competing against companies who could choose to deliver bulk mail only while the postal service was bounded by law to maintain a full 6-day per week delivery service. Unfair competition in combination with dropping volumes (from 5562 billion in 2001 to 4359 billion in 2009, source) and hedge fund pressure to break up the company into two separate companies for post and parcel handling in 2011 conspired against it. The more profitable parcel division was sold to UPS in March 2012, as was the plan all along (source) and the mail division needed to respond with radical new policy to survive and it did so with rigour. 4500 Postal workers are being made redundant and their work is taken over by part timers working for half the wage (source). People like me. Their has been a lot of uproar about this and the trade unions have rightly tried to save as many jobs as possible but in this case I understand that the company needs to survive a dire situation. Alternative to austerity do perhaps exist. The Belgian counterpart Bpost, also privatized, with their current trial is trying to save the traditional service by taking on the secondary job of delivering meals to the elderly (source). But in NL this was deemed financially impossible. In the end the company is merely following prevailing economic logic, and it is, I think, the inevitable outcome of the political decision to liberalize the market. It is just another example of proper jobs being turned into MacJobs, it is just another example of a process in which (unskilled) labourers are marginalized, stripped from their social securities and a chance to make a decent living. This will have long-term consequences to society. Now, having said that, let's look at three historic sources that show to what degree the postal system has lost its importance to society. Quoted are Jane Austen, Thomas de Quincey and George Mackay Brown.   

The English Mail-Coach (1849) by Thomas de Quincey is of course the greatest elegy on the early 19th century postal service, it's also the best illustration to the demise of the postal service as a thing that sparks the imagination. What was "a spiritualized and glorified object to an impassioned heart" is now snail mail.   
These mail-coaches, as organized by Mr. Palmer, are entitled to a circumstantial notice from myself–having had so large a share in developing the anarchies of my subsequent dreams, an agency which they accomplished, first, through velocity, at that time unprecedented; they first revealed the glory of motion: suggesting, at the same time, an under-sense, not unpleasurable, of possible though indefinite danger; secondly, through grand effects for the eye between lamp-light and the darkness upon solitary roads; thirdly, through animal beauty and power so often displayed in the class of horses selected for this mail service; fourthly, through the conscious presence of a central intellect, that, in the midst of vast distances, of storms, of darkness, of night, overruled all obstacles into one steady co√∂peration in a national result. To my own feeling, this post-office service recalled some mighty orchestra, where a thousand instruments, all disregarding each other, and so far in danger of discord, yet all obedient as slaves to the supreme baton of some great leader, terminate in a perfection of harmony like that of heart, veins, and arteries, in a healthy animal organization. But, finally, that particular element in this whole combination which most impressed myself, and through which it is that to this hour Mr. Palmer’s mail-coach system tyrannizes by terror and terrific beauty over my dreams, lay in the awful political mission which at that time it fulfilled. The mail-coaches it was that distributed over the face of the land, like the opening of apocalyptic vials, the heart-shaking news of Trafalgar, of Salamanca, of Vittoria, of Waterloo.
Today most post is sorted by machines, and they do make mistakes. Indeed: while the postal system has modernized the complaints about it have always remained consistently vocal and derogative. But Postman Pat knows that Jane Austen is a fan of his work, as she assures us in Emma (1815):
"The post-office is a wonderful establishment!" said she.—"The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!"
"It is certainly very well regulated."
"So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears! So seldom that a letter, among the thousands that are constantly passing about the kingdom, is even carried wrong—and not one in a million, I suppose, actually lost! And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder."
George Mackay Brown with his father (c 1926) in his work clothes. GMB's own cloths were made of old postman suits.
The poet and writer George Mackay Brown is best known for his 'Orkney Tapestry' one of my favourite evocations of place. As it happens his father was a postman, in Orkney, and in the following poem first published somewhere in the 1950ties he commemorates him. To the topic of Postman Pat Psychogeographix this is a welcome addition as Mackay Brown here shows how the postal round can be used as a narrative device by making use of the unique, fleeting insights the job gives onto the social fabric of the city. The poem follows his father on his rounds through Stromness and, as he slowly progresses through the streets, the poem keeps incorporating stories and sights into a amalgam of images, a psychogeography. 
My father passed with his penny letters
Through closes opening and shutting like legends
      When barbarous with gulls
      Hamnavoe's morning broke

On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
     Of cold horizons, leaned
     Down the gull-gaunt tide

And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.
A stallion at the sweet fountain
     Dredged water, and touched
     Fire from steel-kissed cobbles.

Hard on noon four bearded merchants
Past the pipe-spitting pier-head strolled,
    Holy with greed, chanting
    Their slow grave jargon.

A tinker keen like a tartan gull
At cuithe-hung doors. A crofter lass
    Trudged through the lavish dung
    In a dream of corn-stalks and milk.

In the Arctic Whaler three blue elbows fell,
Regular as waves, from beards spumy with porter,
    Till the amber day ebbed out
    To its black dregs.

The boats drove furrows homeward, like ploughmen
In blizzards of gulls. Gaelic fisher-girls
     Flashed knife and dirge
     Over drifts of herring.

And boys with penny wands lured gleams
From tangled veins of the flood. Houses went blind
     Up one steep close, for a
     Grief by the shrouded nets.

The kirk, in a gale of psalms, went heaving through
A tumult of roofs, freighted for heaven. And lovers
     Unblessed by steeples lay under
     The buttered bannock of the moon.

He quenched his lantern, leaving the last door.
Because of his gay poverty that kept
     my seapink innocence
     From the worm and black wind;

And because, under equality's sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling,
     In the fire of images
     Gladly I put my hand
     To save that day for him.

vrijdag 3 augustus 2012

Quotes from Aldo Leopold

"The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods; the farmer may see in his cow-pasture what may not be vouchsafed to the scientist adventuring in the South Seas." - Aldo Leopold.

Finally I read that classic of US nature writing: A Sand County Almanac (1949) by Aldo Leopold. It's a wonderful book that mixes slightly insane hyperbole, dreamy-yet-factual descriptions of place, remarkable ecological observations that are still urgent today. Invading species, the history of landscapes, the husbandry of wild species, the need to think like a mountain (that is seeing ecosystems rather than species), the place of top predators in nature, the dangers of tourism, the moral need for wildness. The concerns of Leopold are modern, his language is that of an antiquated American gentleman, formal but pleasant. Leopold is voice from a bygone age, his book I will reread.  

"Just as there is honor among thieves, so there is solidarity and cooperation among plant and animal pests. Where one pest is stopped by natural barriers, another arrives to breach the same wall by a new approach. In the end every region and every resource gets their quota of uninvited ecological guests."