27 Oct 2009, 9:03pm
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the Hallway of Possibilities

my life is weird and beautiful. my blanket fort in the Hallway of Possibilities is getting too comfortable. i’m not allowed to paint the walls in the Hallway of Possibilities, but they take on different hues according to my mood or which door i’ve got open, so it’s ok. i open the doors one at a time and take a step or two inside that Possibility, but i keep my foot in the door so i can go back to my blanket fort when i get tired or cold. yup. yup.

this week i am working at one of the two french immersion schools in town. it’s actually a vacation week and all the regular teachers are gone, so they are having “camp” or “workshops” or something like that, and i am assisting a drama workshop. i got the gig because i sorta speak french and have theatre experience and a. is a full-time assistant teacher there. this week a. is on vacation too. he’s in new york city visiting friends and interviewing at grad schools and going to the met.

the kids in the workshop are three to five years old and they understand french probably almost as well as i do, or they’re good at faking it. this week will be good for my french, for sure. when i left this evening, i kept translating mentally the things i might say. ça va. i am appreciating a week away from my work computer in favor of active verbs like dessiner, decouper, courir, manger, regarder, jouer et tout ça… the kids are going to put on a little performance for their parents on friday–in the morning they do “acting class” and practice the little song they’re going to sing (about letting animals out of cages; it is pretty adorable) and in the afternoon they work on their animal costumes (so far: masks). it’s interesting to watch how kids learn, especially from each other. it’s sometimes lovely and sometimes not.

i feel really busy, and i also feel sometimes like i’m not doing the right things. the right things are through one of those doors in the Hallway, but i don’t know which one. the thing is, the Hallway is lined with books. a lot of the stuff i am busy with is learning (unschooling, maybe?). sometimes i think that if i hadn’t plowed through all sixteen years of school on intellectual autopilot–if i had had the courage to take the time off i talked about taking after high school, etc etc–i might have figured out earlier how to make my learning matter, or something… but that is a cynical thing, and the truth is that my intellectual understanding of art and literature and western history and all of that is the humus from which my current learning is growing. when i am sad i feel like i will never know enough about my body and the earth and plants and rocks and whatever else (and more to the point, i feel like i will never know what i want or need to do with my one wild and precious life), but mostly i am invigorated by how much i have to learn. the door i am eyeing these days is labeled permaculturist/farmer (or something like that. maybe–just maybe–environmental studies grad student!?), but it’s sort of far away down the Hallway from my blanket fort, and i am still working on that courage thing. so mostly, in between cracking open the theatre artist and well-it’s-a-job doors (and, i guess, the childcare door), i just read. i went to powell’s last night and spent over an hour not in the blue room (fiction) where i used to get lost and collect big stacks of books, but in the rose room (environmental studies! ethnobotany! regular botany!). i am thinking about taking some classes at psu next term if i can figure out how all of that works (geology? “anthropology of the environment”?) and if i can make it work with my job. and if i can stop taking theatre gigs, hah! (also, how much of what i write that i am “thinking about” doing do i actually do? just trying to observe my dreams, i guess.)

anyway, on my curriculum currently is a book called the spell of the sensuous by david abram. here are some things i’ve marked and dogeared from it (so far–i am less than halfway through), without a lot of context, just to maybe pique your interest:

* “Shamanism” has thus come to connote an alternative form of therapy; the emphasis, among these new practitioners of popular shamanism, is on personal insight and curing. These are noble aims, to be sure, yet they are secondary to, and derivative from, the primary role of the indigenous shaman, a role that cannot be fulfilled without long and sustained exposure to wild nature, to its patterns and vicissitudes. Mimicking the indigenous shaman’s curative methods without his intimate knowledge of the wider natural community cannot, if I am correct, do anything more than trade certain symptoms for others, or shift the locus of dis-ease from place to place within the human community. For the source of stress lies in the relation between the human community and the natural landscape.

* …the intertwining of my body with the things it perceives is effected only through the interweaving of my senses, and vice versa. The relative divergence of my bodily sense (eyes in the front of the head, ears toward the back, etc.) and their curious bifurcation (not one but two eyes, one on each side, and similarly two ears, two nostrils, etc.) indicates that the body is a form destined to the world; it ensures that my body is a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth.

* As we have already seen, the process of learning to read and to write with the alphabet engenders a new, profoundly reflexive, sense of self. The capacity to view and even to dialogue with one’s own words after writing them down, or even in the process of writing them down, enables a new sense of autonomy and independence from others, and even from the sensuous surroundings that had earlier been one’s constant interlocutor. The fact that one’s scripted words can be returned to and pondered at any time that one chooses, regardless of when, or in what situation, they were first recorded, grants a timeless quality to this new reflexive self, a sense of the relative independence of one’s verbal, speaking self from the breathing body with its shifting needs. The literate self cannot help but feel its own transcendence and timelessness relative to the fleeting world of corporeal experience.
(i.e., our mind/body dichotomy stems from our literacy)

* (oral) Stories, like rhymed poems or songs, readily incorporate themselves into our felt experience; the shifts of action echo and resonate our own encounters–in hearing or telling the story we vicariously live it, and the travails of its characters embed themselves into our own flesh. The senuous, breathing body is, as we have seen, a dynamic, ever-unfolding form, more a process than a fixed or unchanging object. As such, it cannot readily appropriate inert “facts” or “data” (static nuggets of “information” abstracted from the lived situations in which they arise). Yet the living body can easily assimilate other dynamic or eventful processes, like the unfolding of a story, appropriating each episode or events as a variation of its own unfolding.
    And the more lively the story–the more vital or stirring the encounters within it–the more readily it will be in-corporated.
(this reminded me of joseph campbell and his assertion that there is not yet a myth for our time. what information do we need to communicate that cannot possibly be communicated in “static nuggets”? and how do we communicate it?)

11 Oct 2009, 3:52pm

more permaculture notes

weeks later, here’re my notes from day two.

we started with a “best of yesterday” review, where we popcorned words and phrases from the day before that we remembered. i wrote down some of them, each of which could probably be a post in and of itself:
edges – sky gods & earth spirits – a million years – transition – cross-pollination – connection – mollison’s book as scripture (toby had told us that he sometimes picked up bill mollison’s permaculture design manual and, as if it were the bible, opened it to a random page and read a bit to ponder…) – horticulture – succession – regeneration – surplus – “doomstead” (hah!) – creative descent – “bend the grid” – “permavangelism” (haha!) – “permacult” – feedback loop – ethics – fractals – abundance

we started class by continuing and finishing our discussion of the permaculture principles.

we discussed a phrase from #7 (”use small scale, intensive systems”): “grow by chunking”–repeat successes, don’t bite off more than you can chew. you can create “nuclei” in your design which will eventually expand to join other nuclei in creating a whole, or spread from one beginning point. we also briefly discussed “embedded energy,” which is the amount of energy involved in creating and delivering any technology that might be used in your design, etc.

principle #6: make the least change for the greatest effort–has to do with knowing the system. what its vulnerabilities are, the species involved, etc. obviously related to observation (#1)–don’t introduce something that will cause more problems, don’t act too early or too late, don’t intervene when it’s not required, etc. also related to #5 (each function is supported by multiple elements)–most problems have lots of solutions. some examples: graft apple branches onto a mature crabapple tree, so as to get apples a lot faster than if you’d planted a new apple tree; let your plants get eaten long enough that beneficial species will show up to eat the eaters!

the principles are a nested set.

principle #13: the biggest limit to abundance is creativity–mollison’s original was, “there is no theoretical limit to a system.” you’ll almost always run up against the limits of your imagination before you run up against the physical limitations of a system. we tend to take something from a source, use it, and then it’s sunk/done/”away.” nature, on the other hand, puts the products of various sources through a whole bunch of transitions–it’s used for x, the waste product is y which is used for z, which fertilizes n, etc. often there is no “sink” at the end of this process–evaporation or decomposition or something else turns it back into a source. so, how many of these transitions can you put into a system?

then, toby gave another presentation, titled “patterning: natural form as a designer’s manual.” it was awesome, and went roughly as follows.
(pictures found with google image search; click them for links to their sources.)

we humans are hardwired to recognize patterns, especially face patterns. we impose patterns even when they are not necessarily there. patterns scale smoothly–images of drops of milk in glycerin looks a lot like images of huge stellar objects many light years away. there are non-spatial patterns in behavior, ritual, and time.

nature uses patterns to solve design problems. for example, the interior of a vulture’s wing bone–i wish i could find a picture online, but you’ll just have to trust me that it looks pretty much exactly like this:

we use this pattern (trusses) often when we need to make something light and strong!

nature uses patterns, rather than more material, when it needs to add strength–material is expensive!

another example:


so, here are some different kinds of patterns…

all forces pushing outwards are matched by forces pushing inwards. for any given volume, a sphere has the least possible surface area, and therefore requires the least material. when people tried to use this pattern in the real world (for liquid storage tanks, etc), however, they found that gravity means this shape requires lots of bracing (extra material). in nature, spheres (for example, water droplets on a surface) sort of flatten. the resulting shape is a great design that’s often used for liquid storage tanks. you have to design for the REAL, rather than for the IDEAL.

in a beehive, as little wax as possible is used to create separate chambers. the result is that packed would-be spheres become hexagons–with 120-degree angles between sides.

these 120-degree angles also tend to show up when things dry out and stress:

and in columnar basalt (geology rocks! also, clicking on this photo is worth it. there are some more hexagons in this link, too):

and in soap bubbles:

and tortoise shells.

we use this pattern in design of things like fishing nets and networks.

minimal surfaces:

surface is expensive–nature will minimize it. another example: wire shapes dipped in bubble soap–see this instructable. (i keep meaning to mention how awesome instructables.com is! you should check it out.)

diatom patterns–ok, so diatoms are tiny unicellular phytoplankton. if i’ve got this right, there are tiny holes in them, very even and regular. they create these holes by blowing out a layer of bubbles and spitting out silica around the bubbles. the bubbles are popped, et voilà. human designers have used a similar process to build things like semiconductors. the alternative: precise laser drills are expensive, and the material that’s drilled away is wasted.

(before we get off the topic of diatoms, check out what i found when i googled “diatom patterns”–this guy makes patterns on microscope slides, including MANDALAS out of diatoms. click here and especially here. do it!)

frei otto, architect, used soap bubbles to figure out how to make roofs with the least possible surface area:

also used for yurts, tarps, etc.

working with EDGE:

edges are often where habitat is–the edge of the forest, the edge of the water, etc. so, for example, maximizing the edge of a pond is a good idea. for the same area, a many-lobed shape has more surface area than a square has more surface area than a circle.

also in garden design–planting in rows means as much area is path as is planted. planting in raised beds means more of it can be planted because it being raised means it’s easier to reach and there doesn’t have to be as much path. planting in keyhole beds is even better–because you can reach in so many directions from the same path, planting area is maximized. a couple weeks ago i shared a picture of a mandala garden, made of keyhole beds arranged in a circle.

more keyholes: office cubicles, u-shaped kitchens (everything within easy reach), subdivision cul-de-sacs (so everyone’s neighbors are as far away as possible), those crazy developments sticking out from dubai that maximize waterfront property.

offer increased edge (and, often, turbulence) for transfer across surfaces.

for an example of turbulence: coral is filter-feeding… it needs lots of current to drift across it with bits of food. its mound shape makes current spiral around it, then its lobes cause more turbulence and all of the coral gets to feed (rather than one bit of it getting all the food because the current hits it first).

lobes are also found in our intestines and lungs and in microfilter systems. and all that stuff above about edges and keyholes applies.

for collection and distribution.

tree branches collect sunlight, make sap/sugar, distribute it back to the branches. river deltas collect and distribute sediments. lungs, veins and arteries collect and distribute oxygen.

there are several drainage patterns that occur in nature: dendritic, rectangular, parallel, trellised, and deranged (no single process)–all with different geological causes (i sorta want to take a geology class!).

in a tree leaf, the path (vein) that brings nourishment to the rest of the plant is a part of the leaf that is not gathering sunlight/growing food, i.e., needs to be adequate but can’t be too much. so let’s mimic it in the garden! so we have enough path to gather enough food!

explosions are a subgroup of branching–for when energy use is not a concern, just want to distribute as much as possible as quickly as possible–distributing seeds, for example.

examples of branching: dichotomous keys, rotaries, subdivisions/suburbs (excellent for collecting and distributing cars…).

repetition of a simple pattern at smaller and smaller or larger and larger scales. occurs in nature–for example, the way a tree grows.

it’s a way of using the same instruction (genetic or whatever) over and over again to create something much more complex than the original instruction. toby’s example was a village in cameroon–the village is horseshoe-shaped. within that village, several house compounds are horseshoe-shaped. within those compounds, the houses themselves are horseshoe-shaped.

are patterns of growth and flow, from quarks to galaxies!

a common pattern in nature: the double spiral–with spirals in both directions (clockwise and counter-clockwise). for example: pineapples, sunflowers, pinecones. often, as in pinecones, there are eight clockwise spirals and 13 counter-clockwise spirals. 8:13 is a common ratio.

plants often grow their leaves in a spiral pattern for optimum light. 2 twists for every 3 leaves, or 3 twists for every 5, or 5 for 8…

this is the FIBONACCI SEQUENCE! (1,1,2,3,5,8,13, and so forth)
1/1 = 1
1/2 = .5
2/3 = .667
3/5 = .625
etc, approaching .618034… i.e. THE GOLDEN MEAN.

you all know this, the golden rectangle and all that, but just in case, this is it:

it’s been used in architecture and aesthetics and such since the greeks (maybe). even fits the proportions of the human body (or maybe that’s one place we’re imposing pattern where pattern isn’t. it’s still pretty cool).

the spiral is a logarithmic spiral–like a nautilus shell.

the classic permaculture garden example is the herb spiral–a spiral in a mound (so a helix/corkscrew) creates microclimates–a hot south-facing slope, a cool north-facing slope, etc. so you can give each plant an appropriate spot.

spirals form in fluids and flowing things: eddies! form leeward of objects. this scales: you can see it in the ocean, on the lee side of islands, and in stellar objects. von karman vortex streets:

vortexes–spirals stretched into three dimensions–pax scientific uses vortexes to create incredibly efficient pumps and propellers.

patterns of CONTROL: THE GRID–
as opposed to natural human settlements, which do not look like a grid. toby had photos of indigenous villages and stuff, with lots of curves and clusters, but just take a look at the oldest parts of the big european cities:

(this is barcelona. it’s easy to tell what part is oldest–what grew naturally vs what was planned when it became clear that the city would be much bigger.)

toby says: the patterns that you choose will allow certain things to happen and not allow other things to happen. in natural settlements, intersections and places where paths converge become natural gathering places.

the evolution of the grid:
the first places that the grid as used were military camps–a grid makes it easier to give directions to barracks, etc.
grids also make it easy to divide land up and make it a commodity–real estate.
america’s manifest destiny: jefferson’s land ordinance in 1785 that divided the entire continent into a grid.

circles are egalitarian–it’s hard to tell who’s in charge when everyone’s sitting in a circle. rectangles enforce power structures (for example, in a church, the parishioners can all see the priest, who is in front and elevated, and the priest can see them, but they can’t see each other). the grid enforces power structures.

the first thing a colonizing force does is impose a grid. this eliminates gathering places–plus, a sentry on a corner can see all the way down several roads. and sentries can see each other and communicate easily.

that was the end of the presentation. next (after talking a little about the design projects we’ll be working on throughout the course), we began discussing permaculture’s design methods. number 1 is (drumroll please) observation. the others are as follows: mimicking nature; options and decisions; data overlay; flow diagrams; traditional/indigenous cultures (i.e. what have people been doing on this land and how has it worked out?); random assembly; analysis of elements; zone and sector analysis.

as an example of “options and decisions,” toby asked us–
what can you do with kitchen scraps? we came up with a big list of possibilities: compost, give ‘em to chickens (and/or dogs, pigs, etc), give ‘em to worms, bury them, send them “away”/to a landfill, put them in the garbage disposal, use them to grow flies (hah), use them as mushroom feed stock, make vinegar, make alcohol, make dyes, make soup stock, make paper, sort the seeds out and use them to grow more food, root them.

so, sort through these options and use them in a certain order to get the most use and return out of what a moment ago was a waste product! see also the discussion at the beginning of this post about principle #13 (permaculture is itself a redundant system, hah.)

as an example of “analysis of elements,” which involves “listing and connecting the needs and yields of the design components,” we talked about chickens. some needs: food, shelter, protection from predators, to scratch, other chickens, shade, a place to roost, heat and cool, etc. some yields: eggs, fertilizer, pest control, entertainment, meat, feathers, noise, etc. a good designer will find other things within the system that will yield these needs or need these yields, and so forth. unmet needs in a system = work for someone (going out to get chicken feed or whatever). it’s better if needs can be met naturally by your design (chickens eat humans’ food scraps).

we also did some “random assembly,” by writing random design elements on notecards, and prepositional phrases on other notecards. we put them together randomly in small groups and practiced figuring out a way to make sense of what we ended up with (grape vines next to toolshed, raised bed above orchard, whatever). it’s a brainstorming method and a way of stepping out of thought patterns and such.

then we all taped chose one of our design element notecards and wrote some needs and yields of that element on the card. we taped our cards to our shirts, got up, and tried to arrange ourselves in groups such that we were all getting our needs met and our yields were being used. fun and silly. and that was that. until next weekend!

(for all my notes from my permaculture course, click here.)

11 Oct 2009, 2:48pm
1 comment

in the woods

yesterday a. and i went for one last sunny-day hike before the rain starts, at eagle creek in the columbia gorge. it was pretty, but crowded.

(see a. in the upper left corner?)

more photos here, should you be interested.

3 Oct 2009, 12:38pm
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muddling along

working full-time is getting me down, sorta. i feel energized from my bike ride into work and then i sit down in front of my computer at work and i feel sort of like jello. i will wiggle for awhile if poked, and then settle into lethargic, unfocused stillness. (i do get my work done, mom.) i get home and i write “lazy” or “fatigued” in my planner and i sit on the couch and pet my cat instead of doing the dishes or making myself something reasonable for dinner.

i am trying this thing where i write down my mood every day, ’cause i want to see how it changes with my cycle. i’m only on day four of this, though, so maybe the “lazy” thing isn’t chronic. but dang. the opera is almost over–the last show is tomorrow night. the kids are good kids. a lot of them have been drawing mandalas. i love it! much cooler than watching them play with their ubiquitous hannah-montana-themed handheld gaming devices, even if it is funny to see them doing so while wearing fin-de-siècle outfits.

a. and i rented a dvd of la bohème a few nights ago ’cause i’d only read a plot synopsis, and from backstage i really have no idea what’s going on, so i wanted to see it. the music really is beautiful, but a. and i both commented that it’s pretty telling, maybe, that what’s considered pretty much the highest art form of our culture features characters with the approximate emotional maturity of sixteen-year-olds. i mean, really. bell hooks is right that too many of us do not know how to love. love is a practice… just like meditation, yoga, writing, theatre… practice practice practice. (and permaculture? probably.)

anyway, who was i kidding when i said a couple months ago that i was taking a break from theatre? i just agreed to a gig (non-paying even!) as a board op for a show in november. it’s for a company i have heard nothing but awesome things about, and the stage manager is a cool guy i worked with a couple years ago during the jaw festival. i am illogically surprised that my theatre career didn’t just slip away when i stopped “making an effort”–i guess it is more like a forest than a garden. i have done the initial sowing. i am delighted with the hardiness of the connections i have made.

i also might be teaching a week-long theatre workshop for tiny french-speaking children at the school a. teaches at… maybe?? i am not sure this will pan out. i am excited and terrified about it. uh, tiny children. uh, teaching!! i have no idea where i would begin.

um, in conclusion–i am thinking about reducing my hours at work. ’cause i miss my friends. i want to nurture those relationships more. one of my best friends from high school moved to portland last month (!) and i have seen her, like, twice since she got here. for example.

life just feels funny lately. there is the world we are living in, which is falling apart. it is the house of cards; we are the liquored breath. i am just full of ridiculous metaphors today. i mean, there is this world full of problems i am desperate to tackle, somehow, but i feel like (here comes another one) st. george against the dragon, with, instead of an actual sword, a painting by magritte of a sword. oh, and no god, either. not that one, anyway. and also i am not as brave as st. george.

and then there is the world in which i don’t want to reduce my hours because then i would have less money to spend on things like, i don’t know, pretty dresses? and going out to dance to 80s music with my friends? girls just wanna have fun, ok. i like pretty dresses, ok. if i can’t dance, i don’t want to be part of your apocalypse. hah, hah. i am struggling a little bit with all of everything, that’s all. it’s huge, that’s all.

as part of the permaculture course i’m taking, we all have to do a group permaculture design project outside of class. part of our homework for this month is to propose ideas for projects. we’re encouraged to lean away from choosing just physical sites/places and towards choosing “practices” (omg, word of the year huh?). they will not actually be implemented as part of the course, but in the past they often have been and they do have to be implementable, with a “client” and everything. during our last class, when toby was talking about the projects that people have done in the past, and projects that we might do, he said something like “a lot of you are theatre and performance art people, i think it would be really cool if someone did a theatre project.” now, i’m not even sure what that would mean or look like–a performance of some sort? a business plan for a theatre company?–but i was thinking about how i’ve been avoiding thinking about it, and i realized i don’t want to do it ’cause if i did it i would have to do it. and no way, i can’t commit to that! and then i realized, i am having some problems with commitment. to anything. which means i feel like i’m muddling along sort of ok with how things are going and sort of… not.

well, self, be here now, trust that you will work things out. that you are where you need to be. ok. and think about that permaculture theatre thing. ’cause that could be really cool.