I suppose there is a certain amount of cheek to me writing this on a leap day, a day that shouldn’t even exist except in service of an inaccurate calendrical system. Today exists, but then again it doesn’t, or rather it exists under the guise of a convenient idea. But what of materiality? The lost pom-poms I keep finding all over the streets of New York seem real enough, despite having been separated from their originally intended assemblages.
Things come and things go, but do we really understand this? At what point does matter coalesce into being and what are we left with when it disappears. Is nothing really nothing? A void? Emptiness? Or is nothing just something that hasn’t yet happened? What is the size and shape of this nothingness?
In The Turin Horse, The Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr envisions a world, inhabited by an elderly horse cart driver and his daughter, that is slowly diminishing over a series of days, as if the universe were a giant iris stopping itself down, until finally all we are left with is an overwhelming absence. But is this the absolute end? The filmmaker never answers this question. Perhaps the darkness he leaves us with is akin to the primordial dark matter, a kind of pre-generative firmament from which the rest of the universe will once again exude itself like so much quivering fruit.
The ongoing search for fundamental particles might indeed one day corroborate that there is, to quote Kurt Vonnegut – a “universal will to become” or ‘UWTB,’ as he puts it. Paradoxically, we appear to be only able to discern this by smashing things into smaller and smaller pieces using such pieces of über-technology as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), through which it is hoped, the Higgs boson might one day emerge. The appearance of this much anticipated entity would be the closest thing yet to witnessing the actual origin of mass, erupting into existence when the Higgs field – the theoretical field that fills all of space – is excited above its ground state. The hitch is that the Higgs boson has been a little hard to find, though of late we seem to be getting tantalizingly close.
An appreciation for the tangled relationship between ‘nothingness’ and ‘somethingness’ is certainly not new, and the notion of ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form,’ goes back to ancient times among Buddhists or as it is sometimes translated in the Heart Sutra: ‘Matter is empty, emptiness is matter.’
In her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett calls for a new, vital materialism and a an acknowledgement of matter’s innate agency. Matter it would seem, should have rights and is worthy of our kindness and respect because at least on some level, it wills itself into being, forming its own aggregations and assemblages from, well, emptiness. Never truly inert, matter, by its very nature evokes a response and is thereby generative. In Japan, ceremonies are held at shrines for broken dolls or lost pins…
This generative nature is beautifully portrayed by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz in his (1934) short story – Tailor’s Dummies in which the narrator’s lucidly batty, geriatric father holds forth on the nature of matter in oracular torrents at the family dinner table:
“Matter (says the father) has been given infinite fertility, inexhaustible vitality and, at the same time, a seductive power of temptation, which invites us to create as well. In the depths of matter, indistinct smiles are shaped, tensions built up, attempts at form appear – the whole of matter pulsates with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is endlessly in motion. It entices us with a thousand sweet, round shapes, which it blindly dreams up within itself.”
The son goes on to describe the spontaneous generation of pseudo life forms his has father dreamed up:
“a generato aequivoca, a species of beings only half organic, a kind of pseudofauna and pseudoflora, the result of fantastic fermentation of matter… These creatures – mobile, sensitive to stimuli and yet outside the pale of real life, cold be brought into being by suspending certain complex colloids in solutions of kitchen salt.”
Schulz goes on to imagine other generative phenomena such the floral wallpaper in abandoned rooms growing out into rampant, pseudo-botanical festoonery, then receding as soon as it is directly observed.
The pseudo-biological quality of inorganic matter is not just the domain of Eastern European fiction but is entirely observable. At the New York Institute for the Humanities’ recent Survival of the Beautiful event, British science writer Phillip Ball gave a fascinating account of how autocatalytic feedback and oscillating chemical reactions have been recently theorized to account for many natural patterns such as a zebra’s stripes or an angelfish’s swirls, the latter of which beautifully zip and unzip from each other as the fish grows with an aesthetic exuberance owing less to Darwinian natural selection than to the vibrant, self-assembling agency of matter itself. Called Belousov-Zhabotinsky reactions, these processes create biological looking patterns, quite independently of biology, which also appear in such inert substances as sand and mud.
angelfish and its ever-changing stripes
The New Scientist recently featured a rather Schulzian sounding research project at University of Glasgow that is creating pseudo-life forms out of large metal molecules, called polyoxometalates, which when dissolved in certain salt solutions start to self-assemble into cell-like spheres, complete with pseudo membranes that have the ability to control the flow of chemicals to and from the ‘cell.’ Instead of using DNA, these polyoxometalate cells use each other as templates to self-replicate, but replicate they do and perhaps they will even evolve, though the experiment hasn’t been run long enough yet to bear that out.
Such self-amplifying processes bring to mind the presence of ‘morphic fields’ Rupert Sheldrake postulates might influence the way matter, both living and non-living, aggregates. Morphic fields, if indeed they exist, would act as a kind of organizing consciousness, increasing the likelihood that things assemble will themselves in certain ways – especially if a given configuration has already happened. The morphic field in some way ‘remembers’ arrangements it has encountered as a resonance – not unlike the excitation of the Higgs Field I described earlier – which in turn acts as a template for subsequent iterations.
So where does this leave us? Is anything every really empty or is what we perceive as emptiness just a transitional state between oscillations of form?
If what we think of as ‘agency’ turns out to be the pervasive action of fields, is there any point in making a distinction between what we have come to think of as ‘living’ and that which is not? It’s hard not to feel a little celebratory about all of this. Even if we can’t find any more so-called ‘life’ out there in the rest of the universe, the fact that we all are part of its vibrant assembly of matter should make us feel a little less lonely!
Vancouver Island style old growth forest liquidation
detail of a Japanese demon scroll from the Metropolitan Museum
I’m in New York again and have been here for a while. Right now, it’s about 3 pm, outside Washington Square Park, on the first day of 2012. A man wearing an expensive overcoat is projectile vomiting against a tree – a linden, I believe it is. An eager pug strains at its leash to lap up the mess, but the firm hand of his mistress snaps him back at the last instant.
New Year’s eve—the East Village was full of young women in spangly short skirts and tottery high heels, throwing up in the street and crying, while their boyfriends bellowed primal indignation at the indifferent, night air. Overhead, police helicopters rumbled and sirens caterwauled from all directions as Zuccotti Park, one of the city’s parsimoniously conceived ‘privately-owned public spaces’ got temporarily re-occupied by the anti-Wall Street protesters, before the riot-garbed might of New York’s finest wrested it back from the dangerous band of raw food enthusiasts and bicycle couriers (who posed such a clear and present threat to the security of this, the most powerful nation on earth), while each round of pepper spray and arm twist got live streamed into the ether by a hovering coterie of electro-pundits. All in all, it was a hell of an evening.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so much purging. It is said that Tibetan soothsayers and the Oracle of Delphi vomited after making their prognostications. The future made them sick, but then the past isn’t always so great either, and in 2011, the world seemed thoroughly to have gotten sick of itself. Though Occupy and the Arab Spring reminded us that entrenched, globalized systems of neo-Liberal economics and authoritarian government have (to quote Zizek) “lost their automatic legitimacy,” the outlook for the global environment has never, in the history of humanity, been so grim.
While some still pine for the evaporating American Dream, the opportunity to avert catastrophic climate change and forestall the extinction of countless fascinating species is slipping through our fingers like so many Styrofoam peanuts. Of course, at least subconsciously, we can all sense it, and to cope with the ubiquitous sensation of doom we sedate ourselves with apocalyptic pop culture, never more prevalent, as a casual perusal of Wikipedia’s listing on apocalyptically-themed video games will attest. These digital dystopias of burned out cities and smouldering, post-ecological terrains have infiltrated our optical-subconscious to the degree that we now feel increasingly at home in them, making the vestiges of the real, biological environment seem aberrant and atavistic.
You’re wondering now,
What to do,
Now you know,
This is the end.
Not to be outdone, I recently arranged my own ‘Apocalypse-athon’ watching Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, more or less back-to-back, and I have to say the experience left me feeling strangely numb, as if someone had thoughtfully smeared Novocain on the insides of my wrists before handing me the X-acto knife to do myself in.
Let’s face it — contemplating the end of the world can give us a kind of frisson by stoking our anthropocentric egos, because after all, on some level, we would like to think the world will end with us. But that’s not likely to happen. There are plenty of tougher organisms out there who’d be happy to feed on our heaped, irradiated carcasses, while they watch us fade into geological history. Perhaps the rats and kudzu vines or whatever else moves in to take our place as the planet’s most visible organisms can work out a more sustainable contract with the planet than we did. One can only hope.
Barring all-out nuclear war or withering pandemic, our world, as we know it, will continue to diminish in increments —a forest here, a coral reef there, a watershed in some distant part of the world or maybe a bit closer to home.
A sad and perhaps typical small example of such ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ is taking place right now on Cortes Island— a mostly overlooked, densely forested blob of rock, off the inner coast of Vancouver Island, where I live part time. With its abundance of wild mushrooms, smurf-like New Age seniors and flaxen-haired hippie children, it can sometimes feel like living in the label of a Celestial Seasonings tea box, yet through good fortune and its reputation for a fierce culture of environmentalism, Cortes has been left with a few tracts of magnificent, old Coastal Douglas fir forest, a type of habitat largely extirpated from its former eastern Vancouver Island range. This enchanting ecosystem, where individual trees can tower to 200 feet, is the habitat of mountain lions, a unique maritime race of timber wolf, the endangered Queen Charlotte goshawk, rare bats, and an amazing diversity of fungi —some of them, such as the medicinally potent Agarikon, exclusively dependent on this age class and variety of tree.
Yet precisely because of their rarity, these large old trees are now valuable on the international timber market and have of late been under the acquisitive scrutiny of the corporate Eye of Sauron.
The Eye of Sauron
In a twist of globalized connectivity, Brookfield Asset Management, the company behind the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protestors from New York’s Zuccotti Park (which they own) recently bought up much of Cortes Island’s standing inventory of mature forest, which also contains most of island’s remaining old growth, particularly of Douglas fir.
One of the best sources of large Douglas fir, hemlock and cedar in North America for a broad customer base primarily located in Asia and North America…
Brookfield’s business model is perfectly clear: buy up the last commercially available pockets of ancient forest and liquidate them for maximum profit. This is eco-cide, pure and simple, but there may be little the good people of Cortes can do about it, save for physically blockading the logging equipment as it arrives in, to delay what perhaps is inevitable. In British Columbia’s privately owned forest lands, property rights trump all other environmental and social concerns, a status quo the forest industry lobbied hard to achieve, with substantial contributions to the governing Liberal party, who rewarded them by gutting regulation and oversight in a revised Private Managed Forest Land Act.
As outlined in their prospectus:
Brookfield focuses on investments in the region with a strongly embedded concept of private property rights generally supported by effective legal and land title systems.
By effective, they of course mean ‘industry friendly’ and the legal system in British Columbia is definitely that. Yet 2011 was the year people the world over stopped seeing the property rights of corporations as ‘self-evident’ and ‘automatically legitimate,’ when such rights override the well-being of communities and the environment. That is what the OWS movement was all about. What Cortes needs right now, is a massive ‘Forest Occupy’ response from those committed to maintaining the integrity of the vanishing ancient Coastal Douglas fir ecosystem in the face of a determined corporate assault. But will the islanders be able to muster the hundreds of occupiers it will take to pull this off? We’ll have to wait and see. Island Timberland plans to start its operations later this January.
What we will lose
But what if Brookfield/IT prevails and logs off the venerable trees from its Cortes lands? To be sure, investors in its Timberlands private funds will get a little richer as the ships full of ancient logs ply their way across the Pacific and get fed into the maw of the Chinese construction industry. There is a painful symmetry in the fact that the profit squeezed from liquidating some of the last 1% of the original, ancient Douglas firs left on British Columbia’s coast will further line the pockets of society’s wealthiest 1%.
They probably won’t even notice. Environmentalists and bird-watchers will likely get a little more depressed as the sitings of Queen Charlotte goshawks and rare bats decline with the elimination of their prime breeding grounds, but even these people will start to focus on other things as the giant stumps sink slowly into the shrubby verdure of second growth. The timber company might even replant the ravaged land with industrially reared seedlings, each one secure under its own deer-resistant plastic cap. Gradually, what Jared Diamond calls ‘landscape amnesia’ will settle in and the degraded, industrially abused landscape will simply become ‘the new normal.’ And that to my mind is the greatest tragedy of all. We’ll lose something once basic to the human experience— the sense that a truly wild and ancient landscape can exist solely on its own terms, for everyone to appreciate, and not be sold out for the financial betterment of a wealthy few.
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper…
I’ve just spent the better part of a week in Portland Oregon, hanging out amidst a living experiment that might just point the way to the future of the North American city. The Planet Repair Institute headquarters, once a typical West Coast style home on a typical West Coast street, has been modified by owner, architect Mark Lakeman and an ever-changing crew of cob builders, natural plasterers and urban permaculturalists into an earthy badger mound of mmm-mmm, organic goodness. Lakeman and his many collaborators espouse a kind of participatory architecture in which everyday people learn how to use common natural materials such as straw and clay to make architectural interventions that help humanize urban neighborhoods. The result is a kind of re-organic-ization of the built environment, a softening of the predominantly rectangular aesthetic with blobby, communal pizza ovens, loaf-like street corner benches and hobbit-worthy backyard pavilions. These cheerful earthen structures, encrusted with whimsical mosaics and botanically themed bas reliefs, may have the form and texture of supersized Christmas cookies, but I believe they also suggest something much more profound. Here is a handmade, participatory architecture that seeks to re-design the city from the bottom up, in marked opposition to the traditional top-down impositions of architects and urban planners. The handmade nature of the building technique invites participation, and the constructions take on the character of those who work on them, a truly open source methodology that, with minimal instruction, even young children can learn by molding clods of mud into the cob material that can be then patted into almost any shape imaginable. As an added bonus, the clay used is in abundant supply at local cemeteries and can be had for the asking. It is an inevitable byproduct of the many holes that tend to be dug in that business. The sand and straw constituting the rest of the mix are likewise easily sourced and are of course inherently natural and biodegradable.
Aside from the biomorphic look and the participatory building process, I think it important to point out that Planet Repair’s architectural methodology is often used to ‘re-skin’ existing structures, making them more ecologically sustainable by adding substantial insulation and thermal mass to both the insides and the outsides of buildings, as well as conferring a pleasant, natural aesthetic. The inside walls of the front room at Lakeman’s southeast Portland home have been retrofitted in an extra layer of stuffed straw soaked in a slip of clay, considerably upping the building’s ‘R’ value and giving it a lovely grassy ambiance. Out the back, his office in the former garage has been ‘frosted’ on its outside walls like a yummy birthday cake with layers of earth-toned cob replete with arboreal design motifs. This is architecture as palimpsest, a refreshing contrast to the tear-down mentality of many urban designers who in the past have been all too eager to raze the embedded history of locality in the service of their personal vision. The re-use and re-skinning of existing structures has an environmental benefit as well, keeping demolition debris out of the waste stream and reducing the need for newly manufactured materials. Given the the global ecological and economic crises, this approach makes more and more sense.
Re-skinning with Cob
Straw Insulated Interior Wall
The other Portlandia trend to watch is the increasing fashionability of unplugging from the power and sewage grids. Photovoltaic panels and homemade solar hot water heating systems festoon these nouveau urban pioneer villages, and there are numerous composting toilet and ‘humanure’ initiatives, where, at least in the one I toured, human waste was being re-processed into plant food in a surprisingly odorless, backyard set-up. As civic infrastructure continues to erode under government disinvestment and bureaucratic neglect, these do-it-yourself, autonomous methodologies will become a valuable part of the city’s ‘immune-system,’ and, if replicated and scaled up, might begin to stand in for the centralized systems we once relied on, as they collapse around us. Even in the short time I was there, Lakeman was given the heads-up by a municipal employee who warned him that leaf collection in Portland would soon be under the cut-back axe, and the city was examining the feasibility of downloading these duties to neighborhood volunteers. Lakeman’s response was to promptly organize a block wide, leaf-raking blitz, during which, in about an hour, a large group of us managed to rake up almost all the available biomass on the block’s sidewalks and streets to add to compost heaps and use as mulch on communal garden plots.
Public Tea Kiosk at Intersection Repair
The strategies of ‘block-repair’ and ‘intersection repair’ are key components of Lakeman’s architectural activism. In addition to installing cob structures and edible plantings around Portland intersections, he has overseen the painting of the asphalt surfaces of the intersections themselves with colorful, circular, crowd-sourced murals that calm the traffic and turn previously generic crossroads into pedestrian-friendly neighborhood meeting places. People like hanging out there and drivers tend to slow down. The intersection becomes a place to be rather than to simply pass through. This sort of conscious place-making revivifies the local and re-connects Portlanders to each other in shared urban experiences, alternative to the dominant commercial systems of exchange. Though the aesthetic tends a bit toward the Tolkienesque, the intersection repair projects are an unqualified success, and Lakeman is trying to export the idea to other cities such as Vancouver that have expressed interest. Lakeman’s ‘repair’ paradigm serves to realign the power relationship between the urban planning profession and the people and places that are traditionally subjected to it. By making planning and building participatory, democratic and fun, Lakeman’s techniques empower neighborhoods to re-invent themselves and implement their own site-specific solutions for how they want to be. In this light, perhaps, the failing civic infrastructure of North American cities could open up many new possibilities. But will the besieged municipal governments be willing to relinquish enough control? We probably won’t have to wait too long to find out.
I suppose you could say I am a patient man. I am fond of things that grow slowly like tortoises and ancient rainforest trees.
For the past couple of decades I have been absorbed in the hobby of growing various extremely slow growing plants from seed. These ones are from the driest parts of Southern Africa, an extreme environment in which they’ve evolved curious structural adaptations to survive during long periods of drought. Euphorbia obesa has done away with all manner of leaves or even spines and bides its time hunkering between the pebbles of its native Karoo region trying not to get noticed. Just in case, it protects itself with a toxic milky sap should anything want to give it an exploratory nibble. Once a year, toward the end of summer, a tiny cluster of flowers forms, male and female on different plants, and they await the visitation of some specially adapted insect to pollinate them. As these particular insects don’t inhabit the environs of my office, I hand pollinate the female flowers be means of a tiny sable paint brush which I carefully dust with pollen from the male one. Timing is everything and I have to be lucky enough to have a male and a female flowering simultaneously in my little collection. The result, over the past fifteen years, has been a number of bulbous progeny, and I feel proud to be propagating this strange little plant that is critically endangered in the wild and doing it right here on my Canadian windowsill.
Hailing from the same general area is the Haworthia truncata, whose contractile roots pull it down into its gravel habitat when things get a bit too hot. In order to absorb enough light for photosynthesis in its partially subterranean situation,H. truncata has evolved translucent windows at the end of its truncated leaves, which funnel light deep down into the plant.
Though it may take a long time, I find growing these odd plants to be intensely rewarding. They ground me in time and I love the thought of them sitting there stolidly in their pots adding a scant millimeter of growth each year, or maybe putting out a brief little inflorescence, while the world of humanity whirls frantically around them. They must experience time quite differently from you and I. Some of I’ve had for over 20 years, germinated from seeds ordered from long-vanished seed merchants. Yet even in the relative safety of my home, the existence of my botanical companions still hangs in the balance. Knocked to the floor by a rambunctious cat or infected with rot by some malevolent spore, each potentially ancient life could be snuffed out in a precipitous instant. This makes me love them all the more and I hope to be able to tend them for many years to come.
Much has been made of the damage caused to ecosystems by so called ‘exotic’ species but things can get pretty complicated when you look at them more closely, particularly in urban environments, where the built landscape so obscures the preexisting ecological underpinnings that all kinds of strangeness can result.
During the early days of Cottonwood Gardens, we had a hard time growing such common natives as Oregon grape (Mahonia) and Salal (Gaultheria) because growing conditions were too hot and dry and the degraded urban soil too alkaline for the comfort of these native woodland plants. Even the ubiquitous Red alder (Alnus rubra) hadn’t yet managed to move in, though it flourishes in the Grandview Cut, just a mile or two away. Instead what had established itself was a so-called ‘ragamuffin’ ecology dominated by exotics such as Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor), tansy (Tanacetum) and Scotch broom. Black cottonwoood (Populus) was the only native growing widely on the site, though I did find one stressed-out looking clump of sword fern and a straggly Nootka rose hidden among the dense thickets of blackberries.
In the intervening 20 or so years, conditions at Cottonwood Gardens gradually changed enough to allow the establishment of native species, due largely to the increased humidity under the maturing canopy of trees and the soil becoming more acid with the accumulated inputs of leaves and compost. Yet is this natural? Of course not. It was a completely man-made intervention, albeit one that might well provide ecological benefits such as furnishing habitat for native butterflies and other pollinators. I would argue that Cottonwood’s combination of native and exotic species is a ‘hyperecology,’ potentially more ecologically diverse than the native ecology that long ago preceded it. On my several visits to Cottonwood this year I was once again delighted to see bald eagles, icons of British Columbia’s wilderness, soaring over the exotic groves of Chinese chestnut, Paulownia and bamboo. It is important though to note that the native keystone species, Black cottonwood, is still part of the system and indeed a necessary one because it provides the lofty nest sites required by eagles and other native raptors.
Yet exotic species often do become invasive and a threat to biodiversity. But why? Take English Ivy (Hedera helix) for example, widely reviled for its invasive tendencies in the Pacific Northwest. It is most troublesome in areas where the ungulates, such as the native black-tailed deer no longer no longer are allowed free reign. In such places ivy can soon overwhelm even the tallest trees, sometimes literally pulling them down with its sheer rampant mass. English Ivy is much less a problem where deer are still abundant and the native ground covers such as salal have already filled any available niches. On Cortes Island where I live, in second growth, coastal rainforest, any English Ivy that grows beyond my garden fence gets immediately eaten by hungry black-tails. As a result, it manages to establish itself in the wild only occasionally, in places that deer have trouble reaching and where some other disturbance has taken place. In that light, English Ivy should be considered invasive only when the host ecosystem is already compromised through other factors such as fragmentation and the removal of key herbivores.
Instead of expending a lot of money and effort pulling out ivy, why not bring ungulates back to such out-of-whack ecosystems? In places like Vancouver’s Stanley Park, where the re-introduction of native deer might not be practical, why not bring in goat herders to take advantage of the ivy’s vegetative bounty? According to the old song: “A kid’ll eat ivy too. Wouldn’t you?” Well I wouldn’t but I’d certainly eat some delicious chèvre prepared perhaps by a cadre of anarchist urban goat herders, who might one day tend their flocks in the dappled groves beneath the din of the Lion’s Gate Bridge. Though this has yet to happen in Vancouver, Los Angeles has already instituted a trial program to use goats for weed control, a strategy particularly effective on highway hillsides where mechanized mowing can be hazardous. A few crusty kids with mountain bikes and herding dogs is all it would take to start a goat-based ivy control program in Vancouver. Maybe they should be allowed to live in Stanley Park too, in picturesque goat sheds of their own construction, lovingly fashioned out of cob and wattle. Are there any takers out there? The tourists would love it!
Licorice fern in artificial cliff habitat with pigeon
Glaucous-winged gull on rooftop
Though it it might not be obvious, the coastal rainforest is always angling for a foothold even in Vancouver’s most built-up environs. I have posted previously on how black cottonwood and big-leafed maple form emergent forests on disused parking lots and vacant industrial lands. Lately, I’ve been encouraged to find licorice fern, usually found growing on drippy forest cliffs or festooning ancient trees, happily attaching itself to concrete warehouse roofs and (horror of horrors!) the crotches of much loathed Chinese Elm. It is just a matter of time before more rainforest species make the jump to live among us in the West Coast’s cities. We certainly could design buildings to be more amenable to such natural re-colonization, perhaps creating buildings that more overtly emulate sea cliffs and nurse logs. Certain sea birds such as glaucous-winged gulls have already made themselves at home in our built environment’s plethora of niches. Why not start attracting others through the deliberate inclusion of nesting shelves in buildings? The guano could be harvested to amend plantings in city parks and community gardens and the bird watching opportunities might be mind-blowing! One thing is for certain though: as native species return, exotic species will always be part of the mix, resulting in more examples of hyperecologies where they gradually learn to adapt to each other. To keep things in balance, the occasional, mindful intervention such as bringing in a few goat herders might be just the thing. But mostly we should just sit back and watch. Nature in the city will always surprise us.
It’s been a great year for biomorphic assemblages. From riots to slime molds, I’ve seen them erupt into all kinds of new territory. Yet non-living materials can have a kind of agency too, as is argued eloquently by Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter. Buildings and streets have strong influences on the people who use them, a design reality which we ignore at our peril.
Latour wrote of the ‘pasteurization’ of France and I’ve been inspired to take his idea further. The process of pasteurization reduces biological heterogenicity, killing bacteria with heat, with the aim of making the food we eat safer. Yet over-pasteurization and the ubiquity of antibiotics in the environment have reduced the ability of our bodies to deal with the background level of heterogenicity to the point where we are seeing an epidemic of autoimmune disorders, especially in the more affluent countries of the West. Denied the stimulation of heterogeneous agents, our systems will attack themselves. The current popularity of raw milk cheeses, probiotic yogurts and home-made sauerkraut is a response to this alimentary over-sterilization but what of the world beyond the stomach, in the man-made environments in which we all live?
The commercial architecture of many cities reflects an essentially ‘pasteurized’ aesthetic in which the visual field is dominated by sanitized, globalized, corporate brands that make it difficult to experience heterogeneous exchanges which are not somehow already commodified. These spaces convey the message that if you’re aren’t engaged in consuming (say) a Starbucks or a MacDonalds, you don’t belong – a highly pasteurized experience both literally and figuratively. Following the logic of the auto-immune disease, these placeless, sterilized zones with their deficit of heterogeneous authenticity will eventually attack themselves, which I would argue is one way of understand what happened during this summer’s Vancouver hockey riot.
The identity of the rioters is itself inconsequential. As a biological or ‘machinic’ assemblage, the riot could simply be construed as Vancouver attacking the linings of its own intestine, like Crohn’s disease or the way the normally commensal bacterium, Clostridium difficile becomes lethal after antibiotics wipe out competing organisms. The conditions leading up to the riot were essentially ecological and it is a waste of time to look for other culprits. Be it burning police cars or copious rectal bleeding, the remedy for such sudden attacks against the self is to foster heterogenicity. City cores needs texture and autonomous, self-organizing zones that exist outside the imprint of brutalist urban planning; places that are organic, interactive and humanizing.
Take for example Toronto’s Kensington Market. When I lived near there a quarter century ago, I would go out of my way to ply its narrow streets, among the crates of fish, occasionally putrefying fruits and animal carcasses swinging from hooks beneath the awnings. Yes it was dirty, crowded and chaotic. But it would have been impossible to conceive of a riot there. Kensington’s very heterogenicity – its ad hoc, polyglot assemblages of owner-run shops, with their wares and haggling customers spilling out onto the sidewalks and streets, would have dissipated any such monolithic energy before it even got started. Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot presents us with a valuable object lesson in how not to design cities. Let’s hope that city planners and civic officials pay some attention. The current spate of condo development along the southern flank of False Creek is boring, classist and inorganic. The city deserves better.
a strange bleeding fungus I encountered..
On another tack, I was intrigued by the riot’s patterns of flow and counterflow, with crowds forming at the leading edge of points of rupture such as burning cars or smashed store fronts before being subsumed into an ever-reassembling periphery. These formations closely resemble the patterns formed by slime molds as individual amoebae that make up the collectivity (called a plasmodium), stream toward, or away from, stimulus. Like the slime mold, the riot is essentially a super-organism. The individual becomes subsumed.
That riots and slime molds share this basic biological pattern is perhaps not surprising and the resonance between these seemingly disparate phenomena further negates for me the initial knee-jerk response of the authorities, who tried to pin the riot on a few out-of-control individuals or an anarchist conspiracy. The events of last June were a biological inevitability. Under the right conditions, riots indeed are us.
Revered as ‘the flesh of god’ and ‘the furry thing’ since ancient times, Lophophora cacti are amazing for a whole lot of reasons, not the least of which is that they are powerfully psychoactive. I always keep a few around as ‘pets,’ though they are sadly too slow growing for me to be able to harvest more than once every quarter century. One of their appeals is that the flowers have thigmotactic anthers, which curl over onto the pistil when touched, depositing pollen. This allows Lophophora to self pollinate so they can set seed even if there aren’t others of their own kind growing nearby. Please enjoy my little video of this rather intimate botanical moment.
On another note, sound collage artists Negativland are all over things thigmotactic and have even released an album of the same name. As an added ‘Show So Far’ bonus, you’ll find that knowing the word ‘thigmotactic’ should enable you to kick some ass in your next Scrabble game.
As post-hockey riot Vancouver sweeps the last shards of glass from its sidewalks and processes a myriad insurance claims, the hand-wringing and finger pointing are proceeding apace in the mad rush to save the reputation of the so-called ‘most livable city on earth.’
But my question is – why were we so surprised?
To make sense of the images of water-polo playing sons of surgeons setting fire to police cars and private school toffs rampaging through the ruins of bank lobbies, we might learn more from the words of a dead science fiction writer than from any of the outraged utterances of the mayor and the chief of police.
J.G. Ballard would have loved this riot. In fact he consistently imagined situations like this (and worse) in his dystopian novels and short fiction. In his novella Running Wild, the children in a gated community of middle class professionals band together and slaughter their parents within the tasteful grounds and interiors of their designer homes. In High Rise, the residents of a luxury apartment tower wage tribal warfare against rival floors in an effort to alleviate the boredom of their cosseted and privileged lives.
My copy of 'Running Wild'
“Unable to express their own emotions or respond to those of people around them, suffocated under a mantle of praise and encouragement, they were trapped forever in a perfect universe. In such a society, madness is the only freedom.”
J.G. Ballard: Running Wild (1988.)
In many ways Vancouver’s hockey riot was likewise an expression of raging bourgeoise ferality; essentially, a riot about nothing – a ‘Seinfeld’ of riots to which it is a mistake to ascribe any political motive. In the wake of the play-off defeat, with the Canucks scoring ‘zero,’ something had to take the place of that nothing even if that something was pointless violence. At least that could be remembered, tweeted and socially networked. To read any more into this is to be mistaken, yet for me, the underlying message is clear:
Beware of the middle class.
Especially its young men. For they exist increasingly in a state that could be described as a deficit of the real, which is dangerous and unstable place, full of unfocused outrage and an overdeveloped sense of personal entitlement that constantly simmers just below the surface. The riot wasn’t a conspiracy of any kind but rather the lack of one – a set of preconditions where a massive charge of nothingness had accumulated to which the riot was an almost electrical response; the closing of a circuit to the unmet expectations of an ontologically bereft, predominantly suburban, mob. With the loss of the game, the value of the Canuck brand (temporarily) evaporated for them, triggering a wave of buyer’s remorse through the hyped-up expectations of the crowd. In the brutal logic of the situation, the outpouring of rage had to be taken out on the city itself, the brand’s associative container. In that sense the ubiquitous slogan: ‘We are all Canucks,’ proved truer than it needed to be. The ensuing riot and looting were pure reification, a desperate desire to wrest meaning from the void, to be part of an authentically ‘real’ experience outside the purview of the corporate machine that had so spectacularly failed to deliver. No matter how one feels about it, the hockey riot unarguably ‘happened,’ the physicality of its burned-out automobiles and pillaged storefronts comprising an iconic collective experience that will be remembered for a long time to come, despite the almost immediate attempts by civic boosters to re-narrative-ize it by drawing media attention to isolated acts of heroism and the bonhomie of those engaged in the clean up effort.
Grand Theft Auto
sports fan ferality
The Stars of the Riot:
White Riot – I wanna riot
White Riot – A riot of my own
The Clash – White Riot 1977
But getting back to the situation of those young, suburban men…
What would prompt a privileged Maple Ridge kid like 17 year-old Olympic hopeful, Nathan Koytlak to be photographed in front of a cheering crowd, holding a lighter and stuffing a rag into the gas tank of a police cruiser?
he's 'caught up in the moment'
Not to pick on young Nathan, who like so many others has issued his legally-vetted and suitably contrite public apology. In keeping with his class privilege, Nathan’s ‘brand of one’ might someday be rebuilt, but such scenes were played out countless other times, the perpetrators more or less interchangeable, all of them egged-on by appreciative, live-blogging audiences recording each detail on a panopticon of socially networked devices. In a sense the individual stars of the riot, served as avatars for the feral aspirations of the many, a kind of crowd-sourced, ‘Vancouver’s Got Talent,’ reality TV show, where in order to distinguish themselves, participants vied against each other in contests of escalating ‘bad-assedness.’
There are parallels also with computer gaming, though it would be too simplistic to call it a cause. One wonders if the ubiquitous Grand Theft Auto trope of flames and pixelated blood spatter against the backdrop of a burned out city has so thoroughly colonized the optical subconscious that it now seems natural somehow, even reassuring, a kind of default habitat where young men in particular are used to operating. The post play-off anomie created the perfect psychological environment for the unleashing this pent-up, first-person-shooter energy against the bland, manufactured seamlessness of the theme-parked urban landscape, every broken window and burned-out car as unique as a snowflake and a marker of the perpetrator’s now extended personal space.
And what of the grand old game itself? Much ink has been spilled about the gratuitous violence in professional hockey. But it isn’t hockey per se. As in other sports, there is an obvious mimetic component that compels some spectators to re-enact the gladiatorial dynamic of the game outside the confines of the arena. This isn’t exactly new. Sports riots have been recorded from as far back as Roman times and have more to do with tribal rivalry than anything intrinsic to specific games. Soccer isn’t a particularly violent sport but English football hooligans are some of the most brutal fans on earth. That team sports serve as a kind of proxy combat onto which spectators project their own polemical aspirations is well known, and the environment around high stakes matches can provide ideal conditions for territorial violence by concentrating large numbers of adrenally stimulated and often intoxicated young males into confined spaces. The resultant eruptive behavior closely resembles a form of animal territorial display called ‘lekking,’ prevalent in such species as sage grouse and certain ungulates. It works (to paraphrase Wikipedia) like this:
In a lek, males of the same species meet at a preordained place (actually called an ‘arena’) and take up individual positions, each occupying and defending a small territory or ‘bubble’ where they intermittently or continuously spar with their neighbors or put on extravagant visual or aural displays. The higher the male’s status, the larger the size of the bubble he can occupy and the better and more central its location. Physical contests in these situations are frequent and females choose their mates in accordance with their dominance.
By funneling crowds containing a large proportion of young men into the so called ‘fan zone,’ the city of Vancouver unwittingly created the perfect conditions for an enormous, testosterone-charged lek. From the standpoint of biology, the mayhem that ensued was pretty much inevitable.
sage grouse lekking behavior
The only surprise to this whole sorry debacle was that police and civic officials were so woefully under-prepared. Though a similar situation had occurred back in 1994, the city was once again caught on the back foot. One can only speculate as to why. Against its spectacular backdrop of snow capped mountains and unspoiled forest verdure, the haze of magical thinking frequently occludes acknowledgement of some of Vancouver’s most pressing problems. This isn’t anyone’s fault in particular, but a kind of climatic reality – an endemic social viscosity and an overarching cultural attachment to the pursuit of personal bliss. The result, unfortunately is that some pretty big issues get swept up under the rug. The riot of 2011 affords this odd, little adolescent city an opportunity to take stock and finally begin to grow up. Let’s hope that happens soon.
Fuck you said the shrew. Fuck you for feeding the cat that plucked me from my grassy itinerary and left me to die on the ignominious vinyl of this nineteen-seventies kitchen floor. Fuck you said the shrew, for ending my life before I was ready and the lives of my unborn shrew-lets asleep in my belly, who now will never taste the sweetness of milk from my swollen teats. Fuck you for making me die so slowly and for making me twist my tapir-like proboscis at your human stink to try and make sense of it all. Fuck you too, to the ticks that still hold fast to my neck’s velvet nape, even as my life seeps away from me and my little swarm of fleas skitters toward the baseboards.
For all of my plant geek readers, here are a few shoots of some of the various bamboos I have growing in my yard… Needless to say I love the stuff but it’s kind of taking over the place. My house is surrounded by big thickets and pretty soon I won’t be able to find the door…..