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Ipomea platensis, (ten years old)

I’ve been trying to tidy up and organize my chaotic workspace and have found it hard to reduce the amount of *clutter*, much of it of a botanical nature, that perpetually surrounds me.
An inveterate anomophile, I’ve always been attracted to a certain qualities of freakishness and monstrosity in nature (and in people). These phenomena ellicit in my a kind of frisson that is hard to describe. It’s a kind of deep, biological excitement that tweaks me on an autonomic level. I just have to be around it.
To help feed this predilection, I maintain a small collection of caudiciform succulents, (most of them originating from the drier areas of Madagascar, South Africa and South America), which spend the cooler months of the year in my office. Caudiciforms have bloated and swollen stems which store moisture so that they can survive through many months of drought. These stems vary from almost spherical, to bottle shaped, to anthropomorphically lumpish forms reminiscent of some kind of botanical incarnation of the work of Henry Moore.
Mostly slow growing, caudiciforms usually remain in dormancy for the greater part of the year, occasionally deigning to put forth a leaf or sometimes even a flower, when atmospheric conditions (or deep genetic clock signals), trigger them to do so. Growing these plants is mostly about waiting, and contemplating long time cycles, punctuted (occasionally) by sudden excitement, when they actually *do* something. What they lack in rampancy, they make up for in longevity.
In fact the oldest potted plant in the world is a caudiciform, a veteran Fockea crispa which has been residing in a glass house at the botanical garden in Schonbrun near Vienna since 1794. Gordon Rowley in his inimitable book “Caudiciform and Pachycaul Succulents” (1987) details the amazing history of this plant in a prose style that is truly beautiful:

” One of the most celebrated collections of exotic plants among many in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century was that at Schonbrunn, two miles southwest of Vienna. The palace and superbly landscaped grounds are still an attraction to tourists today. In 1753, the year that Linnaeus introduced binomial names for all plants and animals, the Empress Maria Theresa commissioned a Dutchman, Adriaan Stekhoven, to construct a menagerie, botanical garden and range of glasshouses on the imperial estate.

Schonbrunn managed well until 1780, when one freezing night in November, disaster struck. The boilers were out and by the time this was discovered and put right, many of the tender exotics had frozen. However the new Emporer Joseph II was determined to make good the losses and summoned two young Austrians, Franz Boos and Georg Scholl, to explore Mauritius and the Western Cape in search of new plants. This they did with conspicuous success.

Among the many novelties dug up by Scholl was a lumpish, turnip-like caudex about 30cm long, covered in buff-colored bark and erratically disposed pimples. Potted up at Schonbrunn, it grew slender twiggy shoots with opposite, elliptical leaves of glossy dark green with a distinctive crisped margin.

Fockea commemorates Gustav Waldemar Focke, an obscure doctor and plant physiologist of Bremen, not the more deserving systematist and authority on hybrids- Wilheml Olbers Focke of a later generation.

Efforts were made to propagate it. It was a messy plant to handle, exuding copious white latex wherever bruised, and the cuttings failed to root. Neither would a single plant set seed, without a mate of the opposite sex: it turned out to be dioecious.

So it remained for decades the only known specimen, and legends grew up that it was the last survivor of an ancient species. Surviving the Napoleonic Wars and later two World Wars, it was still thriving when I photographed it in 1963: the oldest caudiciform in captivity and indeed the oldest potted plant in the world. A recent report by Zechner (1984) states that it is still thriving and that its flowers, produced annually in October, smell sweetly and attract hoverflies, although I have not heard any reports of seed setting.”

(I wish I could write like that. Rowley is truly one of the great botanical anomophiles)
But then again, plant evolution is an *emergent* system which evolves complexity through iterative cycles of feedback and adaptation. Steven Johnson in his book, Emergence describes software that follows this organic model, literally designing itself to solve complex problems. The programmer, (supercomputing legend Danny Hillis) says, there is “no simple explanation of how the programs work than the instuction sequences themselves. It may be that the programs are not understandable.” These “bottom-up” programs function “less like engineering a machine, “than baking a cake or growing a garden.” They are essentially, “Gardens of Code.”
Well everything old is new again, which is quite reassuring. I’m sure that the ancient Fockea of Schonnbrun is smiling beatifically in her pot.

L’esprit du terrorisme

check out Baudrillard’s
L’esprit du terrorisme [The Spirit of Terrorism]
for a reality check on 9/11.

near Ground Zero

impromptu shrine, Lower East Side

The ‘R’ complex

It’s the end of summer and I am sitting in my car, waiting for a ferry and looking at a limpid, grey sea. Big black vultures are spiraling lazily above me, riding the thermals, wafting up from the tarmac, on their ragged wings. They are seeking death with the quiet urgency of those who know its inevitability, traversing through the vast columns of moving air that define their universe, with nonchalant ease. It will come, and they will feed.

vulture diorama at American Museum of Natural History

I’m re-reading Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship and am once again struggling with the great nagging questions of “Are we fucked?” and “How do I get myself organized now that summer is over?”

Bax’s book posits a hospital ship in some period in some parallel reality that is plying the seven seas, in the middle of a vast pandemic of violence. People are slaughtering each other everywhere (literally crucifying each other), and piling up the casualties on the quays. Nobody really knows what’s going on and the news coming in by radio to the ship is disjointed and contradictory. The reports are all transcribed on paper and pinned to a wall but sadly:

There seemed to be a chronic shortage of pins to fix up the reports, so that in consequence they blew away and anyone in the stern of the ship could reach out a hand and collect bulletins from the air as they drifted by in an endless paper-chase over the stern of the boat and on into the sea

I see in this passage an uncomfortable parallel to my own struggle with personal organization. – Incoming bulletins frequently fly off of the metaphorical boat and on into the sea, and I start to lose track of the big picture. I manage to snatch a few bulletins from the air as they careen by, and this becomes the basis for my blog, but mostly they wind up floating on the grey waves, gone forever. What I am managing to piece together, doesn’t look too good. Like the world described in ‘The Hospital Ship’, I’m beginning to think we are fucked.

Sometimes the information that was thus collected seemed to suggest that business was much as usual all over the world, while at other times the suggestion was that total collapse had already occurred.

Bax nailed it, and many of us increasingly feel it. The constant lump in our throats, the shortness of breath and the deep sadness. The constant attempts to pin down some transient bits of reality before they evaporate into nothing. At least we have our blogs . . . Perhaps total collapse HAS already occurred. Some ecologists place the point of no return somewhere in the 1980’s. It has to do with the collapse of Antarctic iceshelves of an order of magnitude never seen before in human history. Maybe we should feel somehow strangely liberated. At least we have certainty. . .

But how do I organize my handbasket, as I careen in it towards hell? I think about this all the time. . .

My friend Laura has given me new hope in that direction. She has shown me the brilliant work she is doing using Plone and Zope– prodigious open source content management systems that seem to hold great promise. The websites that she creates with these tools cool the fevered brow of my organizationally challenged mind with reassuring rows of tabs and elegant, transparent, immediately comprehensible architecture. I must learn how to use these tools soon, before I descend into deep entropy. It is so easy just to drift . . .


As a result, I can’t help feeling a bit twitchy. Perhaps its my ‘R’ complex. ‘R’ for reptile, the lizard mind that straddles just above the core of my neural chassis. Lizards appear to experience things more or less directly, without the burdensome freight of intellect. They process their perceptions, predominantly with their ‘R’ complex. This pre-lingistic pattern-recognizing mode can get deeply fried by the constant flux of bulletins pouring in from the cerebellum. The world’s highest paid executive coach , told me (how this happened is a long story, best saved for another posting) that I “think too much”, and maybe he is right. Maybe my sense of ‘self’, is getting in the way of happiness. But somewhere in there beats the heart of a lizard. And lizards have lived through a few mass extinctions . . .

Recently, after feeling a little overwhelmed, I took off all my clothes and jumped into the ocean, hoping it would help me ‘re-boot’. This in itself is not as radical as it sounds, in the cultural Galapagos which I call home. Clothing is optional at the beach. In fact, there are some people around here whom I don’t recognize with their clothes *on*. The water was cold and I soon emerged to bask, naked on a rock ledge. Somewhat zoned, I let my gaze fall vacantly on the crinulations and tessellations in the rock and was startled to come upon a tiny eye winking at me from the darkness of a nearby crack. Was it my disembodied lizard mind?

It was a Northern Alligator Lizard, engaged in the same thermotropic behaviour as me. Basking. A lizard at the northern extreme of its range. At this latitude they have adapted to the cold by becoming live bearing, ensuring the survival of their heat-loving young by sitting for hours in the weak northern sun.

So we had a moment of poikilothermic bonding, and I tried to cast my mind back to what I might have been thinking during the Triassic. I moved my head and the lizard skittered away.

I guess it panicked . . . .

Northern alligator lizard, Vancouver Island, British Columbia
(not a limp dick)