Saturday, October 25, 2008

Druids Building Stonehenge

Couldn't resist this.

Notes from Underground: learning from moles

On 30 acres in Dumfriesshire Charles Jencks created his Garden of Cosmic Speculation, an 18th C garden 'full of ideas', as he put it. The ideas in question are highly abstract, modeling 'the cosmic architecture of galaxies, black holes, and the Big Bang', and provoke (in me at least) something of a double response. On the one hand, like the perfectly laid out geometrical forms of the gardens of Versailles, outside Paris, it looks like the imposition of human order onto a nature that must at all costs be tamed. On the other, the geometry in question is not that of angles and straight lines, but mimics the (mathematically describable) organic curves found at many different levels in nature, both cosmic and micro-cosmic (like DNA). And from the pristine photographs it looks as if landscape maintenance is a major task chez Jencks, with an enforced regime of grass mono-culture, the better to accentuate the curves, a cross between a canvas and billiard table cushions. It was with both delight and relief that I read that the invasion of part of Jencks' garden, Snake Hill, by moles and voles, had occasioned some head-scratching. As befits a very 18th C project, Jencks had spoken of "using the landscape to investigate what your beliefs are. And the appearance of the moles took this process forward. ... [Some] said we must get back to normal, and get it right, the way it was, and I thought a long time and said no, no, no, we must work with nature. And this is a very good illustration of catastrophe theory in action ... it's a co-creation with nature... nature makes a move, we make a move, and we're in dialog."

This is a great model for Yellow Bird as a Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art]-in-process, in which, yes, there are ideas-put-into-action. But not only moles give you feedback. What is exciting about Jencks' moles is of course that moles are not just destroying, but creating whole underground earthworks, much more complex than the burial chambers of Egyptian pyramids, for example. An army of mini-James-Turrells. Half blind they may be, but they have, in a very positive sense, a highly developed 'tunnel vision'. (Cf. rats, famous for being better at solving maze puzzles than humans.)

Jencks' model of 'dialog' with nature is very productive. Returning from the sea, there is a peculiar reassurance in stepping on to 'terra firma'. Earthquakes understandably cause deep anxiety. 'Undermining' is almost always a negative term. Jencks' moles and voles caused part of the garden to 'fail'. Hegel and Marx played with the characterization of their own writing as 'molework', both in the sense of undermining and exploring, perhaps renewing what Kant had called the Groundwork of philosophy. /See ref. below/ For the most positive narrative, we might compare the vital role of worms in a fertile soil, aerating it at many layers, drawing down surface litter, digesting decaying organic matter into soluble nutrients, etc. Here, holes, tunnels, are communication pathways, transmission channels, part of the health of a living soil, rather than undermining a firm, dead, impervious solidity.

Walking around the lake last night, I found fresh mounds of soil on the grass.

"So, Yellow Bird is a Gesamtkunstwerk-in-process! Tell us more ..." [to be continued]

[See David Farrell Krell's article "The Mole: Philosophic Burrowings in Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche" in boundary 2, Vol. 9, No. 3, Why Nietzsche Now? A Boundary 2 Symposium (Spring-Autumn,1981), pp.169-185].

Shaping and mapping: sacred and symbolic

Native Americans are said to treat as sacred the point of convergence of two creeks. I looked at some land with this feature many years ago, and I tried to breathe-in the sense of the sacred rooted in that place. Last night Joe explains this by saying that such convergences are sound map references. ("I'll meet you just past the fork in the creek.") How tempting it would be to think of the sacred as at least emerging with the discernment of a kind of natural writing, in which rivers draw lines on the land, and lines intersect, as in many letters of the alphabet. In such ways, the land begins to map itself. And in this doubling, this natural/symbolic laminate, perhaps we can find something of the sacred. (But what word did/do native americans actually use?)

This morning I started up the new road again, expecting (like last night) to find more clusters of deer, with their white flash tails marking their darting flight. Instead I found myself tidying up the rocks on the side of the road, forming a ring around the new rock cairn/roadside sculpture. Suddenly, chaos is turned into order, through minor rearrangement. And yet every rock I moved was the shelter for worms, beetles, larvae, and channel and tunnel patterns that would now be destroyed.

I could lament this, or celebrate the ongoing shaping and reshaping of the world that is our common task. Each rock in the new circle will provide a new shelter for insects etc. And out their windows, they will have an up-market view - of the cairn. Elsewhere at YB there are walls (stone fences), some of which seem functional (marking boundaries) and others not - just lines in the woods. They may have been made by gangs of slaves after emancipation who wandered around looking for work. Farmers would (I believe) have them clear rocks off the land so it could be ploughed, and these walls began at least as just neat ways of stacking them! There is a civil war 'monument' at the top of my neigbour's ridge. Or is it just a big pile of rocks, cleared from the surrounding area. Now a landmark. How the symbolic is born from the practical.

P.S. And why do deer exhibit their flight so vividly with those white lines on their erect tails. Couldn't a predator track them more easily?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Today's financial crisis has given prominence to the dangers of 'leverage', in which a small amount of money is made to do too much work, with the attendant risk that the house of cards will at some point collapse. In this world, leverage is associated with empty promises, excessive risk etc. But in the real world, leverage is a vital principle and power.

Beside the new road connecting old and new YB, there are many rocks, haphazardly abandoned by the bulldozer when the dirt stopped moving. Returning from a short morning walk, inspecting the germination of the feed-wheat scattered for erosion control on the banks of the road, I came across a small family of 7-8 rocks that called out to be stacked as a cairn. The large ones were hernia fodder - too big to lift, but not too big that one might not THINK one could lift them. Pondering the situation, I flashed back to another early morning scene outside a monastery on Mt Athos, in Northern Greece, where four elderly monks were moving enormous stones using wooden staves as levers. I quickly found just such a tool, about 5 ft long, made of cedar. And with its help I was able to slide one stone onto the base stone, and then swivel it into position by turning it on a proud point on its surface. With leverage there was almost no effort, where before the whole body strained in the heaving.

When we think about the history of fundamental inventions, it is easy to run forward to the wheel, and to forget altogether about the lever, which, before donkeys and horses, already made it possible for humans to move things they otherwise could not, giving us what is called 'mechanical advantage'. And so I aligned myself with the builders of Stonehenge (who also rolled stones on logs), achieving what seemed impossible, with simple equipment, ingeniously deployed. And with the bird who uses twigs to poke insects out of dead trees.

Nearing the top of the cairn, I lifted rocks directly, using the ropes and hawsers and bone-levers of my own frame. Can we really be 97% water? Well, my tractor's front-end loader runs on hydraulic fluid. Working with and against gravity. These rocks now look as if they have been there forever. Moss is colonizing the North face.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Laminate time

It began with a dull morning sky and specks of wet in the air, an almost alien substance by now, triggering ancient memory. By mid-afternoon it was a soaking rain, rattling the tin roof in time-honored manner. The greying shoots of rye and wheat sown beside the new road to slow down erosion might yet recover. The local dustbowl created by the Haflingers' hooves will turn to mud. The cracks in the bare earth will begin to close and heal. The pendulum of nature will reaffirm itself.

The white rock sculpture exposed in the pond will start to be submerged again, simulating the erratic surfacing and drowning of Smithson's Spiral Jetty. The Aztecs are said to have cut the hearts from their victims, draining their blood down the temple steps to encourage the sun to rise again the next day - each red dawn gorged with sacrifice. And until the rain comes, pouring down the cracked throats of every parched shoot, every desperate tree, no-one can be sure it will return, that the cycle might not have been suspended. Already the fields have turned grey, a step or two closer to desert. When the dust turns to mud and the weeds sprout anew, some of these surface rocks will be sucked back into the pasture, and the history of this once limestone sea-bed will be hidden again from view.

We seem insulated from tectonic transformations by geological time. And yet the current financial meltdown looses on the world Foucault's spectre of the washing away of the human as the marks of birdsfeet on the beach are dissolved by the incoming tide.

Yellow Bird - with its Zygoptera (damsel fly) wingbeats at 60 per second, and its ordovician coral fossils some 450 million years old (sorry Palin), with its Civil War era pile of rocks on the ridge, its root cellar filled with domestic refuse, and its shadows of lost fields, is a vast theatre of laminated time, of pulsing rhythm and irresistible shifts, a medley of dances from the feverish and frenetic to a slow swirl welcoming death, inviting rebirth. Over millennia this same rain has scoured the limestone into living shapes that from time to time wake from their larval slumbers and crawl to the surface. Where we wait to meet them.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Yellow Bird Horse Rescue Mission?

Today Jay and Melissa brought new recruits, Henry and Gracey, 17 and 20 yrs old respectively, two ‘white’ or ‘flea-bitten grey’ horses, destined to be shot behind the house by their impecunious owner. Both were ridden until a few months ago, but the kids involved have moved away, lost interest etc. and the cost of keeping them over the winter would have been too high. I didn’t know it was legal just to shoot a horse you couldn’t afford to keep. It would be so easy to require that anyone in that position first advertise the horse for adoption. ‘Flea-bitten grey’ is not meant literally, it’s rather a white coat with grey/black flecks. These two were not in bad shape, but needed, as it was said, more ‘groceries’. They had been living on a steep bare half-acre slope. Would they fall over on level ground? Their manes are badly tangled and knotted with neglect. It is easy to see how people can get into the business of rescuing horses. In the current economic climate, many people will ask whether they can afford to keep their horses.

I need to look more closely for wings, in case one might turn out to be Pegasus, the winged horse of legend. From a distance, it is decidedly possible. Even without wings, with gold bridles and a little coiffing, they could nudge the mythological.

Perhaps it was their arrival (and temporary quarantining while they are wormed), but that prompted enthusiasm on the part of their neigh-bors, the Heflingers, but not long after these three stooges managed to open the gate to their field and trot off down the drive. I gave chase with my 4x4, and captured and led Kaysee back into their field. Whereupon the other two returned and somehow persuaded Kaysee that he could jump the fence, and off they all went again. Angie, on the phone, suggested bribing them with food, and eventually I got them all back by shaking the bucket of sweet horse grain. It does look good – I might try it for breakfast.

So now, all seven horses are inside their respective fences, and all is right with the world. But I confess I am not quite sure about the whole fence thing. They say good fences make good neighbors. And yet it surely matters who decides where to put the fence, what is being excluded, under what conditions etc. We all want to be safe, but not in jail. Are these horses in jail? Must we not constantly, or at least regularly, justify every such fence, making it a playground rather than a jail – both the fences we make for others, those we submit to, and those we make for ourselves.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Building Dwelling Thinking Costing

K tells me the writer’s cabin will cost about 100K to build. This is prohibitive, however reasonable. I persist in thinking it can be done for half that. But most of the work is done cheaply because it’s done frictionlessly in my head, or by elves. I come up with schemes for reducing construction to the simplest procedures involving 8x4 sheets of this and that, like Japanese tatami mats. Going down this path takes the routinizing use of right angles in building a step further, an approach which led Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophists to say that devil lives in the right angle. Enter Antoni Gaudi! But is originality impeded by fixed units, or does it simply require us to focus on how they are arranged? How different is that from using existing words to make new sentences rather than insisting on making new words? Traditional Japanese houses are proportioned by tatami mat units, but they do, it’s true, judiciously add the odd wooden branch.

My plan was to make (I had hoped) two or three such cabins, so that people could come and stay for a weekend or a month to finish that essay, or write that book, in an attractive peaceful setting. The style would be simple without being primitive. I am reminded of the Hotel de Filosophes in Amsterdam, in which each room was dedicated to a particular philosopher, had a select quote inscribed around the top of the wall, and a bookshelf of their books. I stayed in the Simone de Beauvoir room. It is an idea worth imitating, though perhaps one could ring the changes from month to month. Perhaps these cabins could be very much smaller than the 900 sq ft I was thinking of (on two floors). How much room does one need to live in? Is it easier to concentrate in a tiny space? With a deck! How about a well appointed tree-house?