Two photos, one of a new chair in Hong Kong yet to have been sat upon and one from China which has been well worn. The owner of the old armchair, a factory owner in Dongguan, described her efforts at repair, with pride, as ‘her artwork.’ The other, yet to be sat upon looked nervous about the work it had ahead of it. Both chairs tell a complex story of the 21st making of ‘stuff’, one of repair and reuse and the other of manufacture in 2012. What chemicals are in the foam? How much energy went into the making of the chair and can it be recycled or reused? How many air miles will it travel or will it end up as a centre piece in a tiny flat in Hong Kong or in a hotel bedroom, bar or lobby? Does anyone care? How will Far East companies (and all ‘makers of things’) adapt to demands to make their products more sustainably in materials, processes, use of energy etc. if at all?  The other part of the story is that it was made by a small company in a side street of many small companies. It’s great to see manufacturing & making still thriving somewhere–but for how long I am not sure.

Perhaps if we remake our objects as art they will avoid landfill?! A few years ago, I went to an exhibition at the Tate with Suzy and the kids. There was an artwork made of all the things you would find on a rubbish tip, plastic bottles, tins, bits of old car etc. One of the children asked Suzy why there was a load of rubbish in the gallery and Suzy made two art-studenty blokes laugh loudly when she explained, ‘once it was rubbish and now it is Art.’

Also if we put more ‘art’ into the making of objects, perhaps people will value their furniture, lampshades, and sofas beyond just their function– a combination of both being the ideal.

(On the subject of sofas, Le Corbusier said that ‘chairs are architecture but sofas are bourgeois’!)

I am going to make large prints of these and make it ‘my artwork’


Several Freitags over the last few weeks have involved excursions into the London art-world including visits to see paintings by Jonathan Lasker,Bustamente and Sean Scully, a mixed exhibition by Christie’s at the Royal Academy but in the old Museum of Mankind site around the corner from the R.A in Burlington Place, and Tacita Dean’s ‘Film’ at the Tate.

The superb writer, Geoff Dyer was interviewed last week in the Tate Modern and enthused about Dean’s piece. His new book has just been published, ‘Zona’ a genre-defying frame-by-frame discussion of Tarkovsky’s film, ‘Stalker.’

Dyer chose to be interviewed in the Turbine Hall deliberately, as he and Dean both see something transformative in the old technique and art of filmmaking.

“It transforms the room into a cathedral,” he says, “highlighting film’s capacity for portraying visionary experiences.”

Dyer explains that cinema film going was a community experience akin to going to church to worship, only a secular version but a ritual nevertheless that had the power to provide a mystical or spiritual experience.

On my visit, I could clearly see what he meant about Dean’s film looking like a vast stained-glass window. I was also struck by the way kids–and some adults–were drawn to cast contorted shadows or pull shapes in front of the screen. It seemed to make the piece a little more intimate and less precious–as do many of the images that are often amusing and reference (tongue in cheekily) former pieces in the hall.

Dean says that initially she didn’t have the sprocket holes (edges!) on the film but decided to add it in –with great technical difficulty– as it drew attention to the way she had made the film: using 35mm analogue techniques rather than digital. I was reminded of Jean Luc-Godard and others who liked to draw the viewers attention to that fact that they were watching a film, not reality, by deliberately leaving in cameras, and equipment or making films about film making, leaving space for a questioning, critical reading of the film by the audience. Incidentally, in ‘Zona’ Dyer describes Godard as ‘a twat’-which may have been my reason for mentioning him at all.

In a review of ‘Zona’ in the Irish Times, Dyer takes some minor criticism for this sort of bloke-ishness.’

“At such moments you wonder if Dyer is afraid of his own seriousness, maybe even afraid of his profoundest ambitions as a writer and critic.’

(Perhaps a worry for all British bloke writers?)

I remember in my first year at college, being bored & confused one afternoon in a over=heated, airless lecture hall converted for film-going (most definitely not a church-like space), falling in love with Anna Karina & watching Jean-Paul Belmondo wearing great jackets but painting his face blue and blowing himself up in ‘Pierrot Le Fou.’ I am sure I must have missed something. But Dean’s use of film is more direct–helped by rather obtuse explanatory blurb at the entrance to the piece.

Dean feels something has been lost by the digital process. Whereas film is all about capturing the moment (or ‘ongoing moment’ as Dyer describes it) with all its mistakes and happy accidents, digital can be corrected and, for Dean, made more anodyne, cleaned up, by the post-production techniques available. Dean has used digital film and thinks it can be effective for certain projects, but she thinks the world, and artists, would lose access to a uniquely expressive artistic medium if the analogue option is ignored to extinction: hence the message of this piece of work.

Next I am off to watch ‘Stalker’ and read ‘Zona’& then have a couple of pints with Geoff if he’s up for it.


Last Friday, by chance, I found this application, Outlet’s Shelf, a virtual bookshelf. You have to link it to the Amazon store but most of the books I have wanted to show so far have been available (although the software didn’t like the English edition of Sebald’s ‘Rings of Saturn,’ but was happy to post the German edition?)


I thought it would useful to post some of the books I have read during my one day a week sabbatical. Hopefully, the books will provide me with staging posts of the project and a visual citation of any sources for my writing. I have noticed how much wanting to read & write on ‘Frietags’ is dominating any of my other projects. It’s interesting (to me only perhaps) how my reading is unplanned, one book leads to another through a reference to a topic or a direct comparison by a reviewer, or something I have heard on the radio, or read in magazines. It’s like a paper trail. What I notice often is the coincidences: the number of times I have picked up a book at random only to find it contains something related to ‘edges’ or any number of the other themes, artists or writers I have been thinking about. Of course, it’s no coincidence, but it allows you a sense that something magical, mystical & outside your control is happening!

In the Guardian, the artist Zarina Bhimji said that she had been, ” in the British Library, researching documents like birth and marriage certificates mean, and reading the poetry of TS Eliot and the American poet and activist Marge Piercy. I work very loosely: an artist’s research is different to that of an academic.” Well, I am not entirely sure how differently an academic would approach their reading but I feel temperamentally in tune with the idea of ‘loose reading.’ That seems to be for me, where the pleasure is: in the making of connections, the sudden linking of one story with another, one theory with a hypotheses, pdf’s from Network Rail and permaculture pamphlets.


The pleasure in writing is a different thing. It seems to start with joy of just writing something down, anything, which is then replaced by mental toil and a more unfathomable pleasure. There seems to be a difference in reading for reading sake–for me never enough–and reading with a view to write or create something, and then being compelled to make something out of what you have read. That seems to be the hard bit. What do you do with what you have read, and what about experience to, when you mix that in, what comes out & what gets made?

Sometimes when I am reading, the connections and insights flash through a synapse and are gone. I will scribble them down but I don’t quite know how to say what I want to say: I feel it but don’t know how to express it and express it simply for everyone. This may be a lack of ability, of course, but what do you do with that when the compulsion remains? For example, I have been trying and failing to write something about Jack Kerouac for a year now. I am not sure why I want to write about him at all–he isn’t a Sebald or Primo Levi or Salinger. I don’t understand his Buddhism and his poems at the back of Big Sur are unreadable for me, as is his personal favourite novel, Dr. Sax. I hate his going on about his cute cat & his mummy. But ‘Big Sur’ is a painful and truthful record of addiction & loneliness. And ‘Lonesome Traveller’, is a new kind of travel literature perhaps, a closer reading of U.S than ‘On the Road’–particularly ‘The Railroad Earth’? Kerouac doesn’t appear to be a poet of nature like Snyder but he does have his ecological moments! And if you have ever heard his jazz recording with Steve Allen they are great. He had a decent singing voice, a little like Chet Baker, and a great speaking voice too. (Although sometimes he sounds like Hermann Munster reciting on some tracks)

The opening chapters of ‘Desolation Angels’ are an enthralling ‘dark few months of the soul’ particularly when you consider it’s mostly one man on the top of a mountain doing very little but thinking. Poor Kerouac easily parodied with his ‘whooping woo woo and big sad night sadness silly neologisms etc.’ and having his novels dismissed (painfully for Jack) by Capote as ‘not writing but just typing’; his characters caught between the joys of the birth of the post-war consumer society & looking for enlightenment–see Amy Hungerford’s OU lecture about ‘On the Road’. She talks about how his character, Sal revels uncritically in the consumer society, eating apple pie fresh from the fridge in neon-lit diners, tinned food, enjoying the freedom cars, roads and oil brought the Wild West— and in ‘Desolation Angels’ listing brands he likes.

More Kerouac (& embarrassment) later! The picture is Kerouac’s handwriting, an answer to a schoolboy’s question. Maria Popova explains in her blog.

In 1963 — long before Twitter, email, and even the Internet itself as we know it — a 16-year-old high school student by the name of Bruce McAllister set out to settle a dispute with his English teacher over whether symbolism existed as a conscious device authors employed in writing. So he devised a four-question mimeographed survey to probe the issue and mailed it to 150 of the era’s most notable writers–including Kerouac.


NOW here is a strange, meaningless connection, Maria Popova recommends reading ‘The Gift’ in yesterday’s blog, the book I finished a week ago. Spooky… or not?


After much googling, dusting off second hand paperbacks and worrying about how many ‘used’  books I can justify buying from Amazon and Foyles, I have found very little literature on the subject of railway ecology–particularly with reference to the UK. There’s a paper from 1980 by Dr. Caroline Sargent which is an excellent source but appears to be little read or followed up on.Network Rail have some literature which I have mentioned earlier. A few other writers mention it in passing, Richard Mabey in his 1973/environmental bestseller, ‘The Unofficial Countryside,’–more on that later. However, I did find an (ironic )reference to railways as unwitting conservators in the US (*see footnote), in Aldo Leopold’s seminal and beautifully written series of ecological essays first published in 1948, ‘A Sand County Almanac.’

Leopold was one of the pioneers of the environmental movement in the US. And pioneer is perhaps doubly appropriate as he bought to his work and writing a sort of no-nonsense, woodsman-hunter sensibility. His joy in nature; the birds, clouds,trees and plants seems very grounded & his  essay style,is essentially straight-talking but with moments of poetic-rhapsody,and makes me think of Hemingway, or Twain meets Thoreau,Whitman or one of the Beat poets.

‘A Sand County Almanac,’ has become a classic of ecological literature, for the insights in the later chapters on ‘Land Ethics,’ that calls for an ecological worldview as an ethical imperative.

‘ALL ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community,but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate….The Land Ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils,waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” (Aldo Leopold p.204)

Earlier in the ‘Almanac’ Leopold sets the scene for this ultimate essay, drawing upon observations taken from a lifetime in the field as a scientist, a hunter and a writer.Leopold positions man as part of a ‘biotic’ community rather than superior to it: Nature isn’t simply here for man dominate without thought, to be destructive and ultimately self-destructive.

Leopold has influenced ecological thinking in another way too because of the way he arrived at his particular insight into the interconnectedness of living and the the land. Leopold tells the story of his conversion from gun-toting hunter to environmental activist-a kind of conversion or epiphany.

Working for the Madison-Wisconsin forestry commission,part of Leopold’s job as a Land Manager was to exterminate wolves following a countrywide government strategy-that he had helped devise– as they were seen as a threat to other wildlife and by appearing to be a threat to the deer, thereby affecting the sport of the hunters and other recreational visitors, campers, fishermen and walkers etc.And not just to kill ‘some’ wolves; the plan was to eradicate the wolf from the whole of the US.

His epiphany happened one day when he was out hunting with some colleagues and saw a pack of wolf cubs on open ground play-fighting. Like a regular gun-slinging cowboy, he writes, ’in a second we were pumping lead into them.’

In their surprise and excitement at finding the off-guard wolves, Leopold and his colleagues mostly miss their target, except for shooting a cub in the leg that sloped off presumably to die, and fatally wounding  an older female wolf.

‘We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green light fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain…I thought that because fewer wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.But after seeing the green fire die,I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.’

Aldo Leopold p.130.

The moment Leopold sees the ‘green fire die’ and the phrase ‘thinking like a mountain’ have become well known and many people see his experience as a mystical one, in which he suddenly ‘gets it’ and his whole life is changed and turned around.

Thinking like a mountain ? Leopold’s mountain would think, if it could, that now the wolves have gone there is nothing to prevent the deer eating everything edible into there is nothing to sustain them, and they will not only suffer but the soil will dry to dust or run-off in mud-slicks, until its a no longer a place of beauty but its slopes are barren and dead. The wolves, the soil, the deer and the rain all have their place.We can go beyond that to include the rocks themselves.

So does he undergo a kind of conversion? Stephan Harding describes Leopold’s epiphany below.

He experienced the ecosystem as a great being, dignified and valuable in itself. It must have been a moment of tremendous liberation and expansion of consciousness, of joy and energy – a truly spiritual or religious experience. His narrow, manipulative wildlife manager’s mind fell away. The mind which saw nature as a dead machine, there for human use, vanished. In its place was the pristine recognition of the vast being of living nature

And Berthold makes an interesting point following from this:

To “think like a mountain,” however mystical, however extra- ordinary its demands upon our perception, has highly practi- cal ecological consequences: to think like a mountain is to think ecologically, from the perspective of the welfare and flourishing of what is normally “outside” and “other” to us, the environment itself.


As a scientist,a skilled,painstaking observer of the natural world , he may have come to his realisation following what Stephen Johnson calls the ‘slow hunch’.The opposite of a ‘eureka moment’ ,a slow hunch is an idea or half an idea, that evolves over time, sometimes years or even decades before becoming something recognisable and useful.It may be the combination of our idea and someone else’s.

So mystical experience moment or not, I don’t know, the destination/conclusion is the same: ‘to think ecologically.’

And perhaps the culmination of his thinking was in the telling of the tale later–’recalled in tranquility’–and the epiphany was equally in the metaphors of the green fire & mountain-thinking. What Leopold achieved was a way of describing a realisation through clear writing and metaphor that is easily shared by his readers and which they can act upon.


To return to our subject, a little earlier in the book, Leopold makes a comment on the role of the US railroad as conservationist.

‘The ouststanding conservator of the prairie flora, ironically enough, knows little and cares less about such frivolities : it is the railroad with its fenced right of way.

Many of these fences had been erected before the the prairie had been plowed.Within these linear reservations,oblivious of cinders,soot and annual clean-up fires, the prairie flora still splashes its calendar of colours,from pink shooting-star in May to blue aster in October.’ p48 A Sand County Almanac.

Leopold mentions that only the plants,branches and scrub closest to the track are cleared,–unfortunately then as now using chemical sprays—but for reasons of cost, leaving  the flora beyond this small area to grow wild.

So here we see something similar happening to the trackside outside my commuters window, a wild environment accidently preserved.


There is an old cliché that says, “there are no straight-lines in nature”—& like most clichés it’s probably mostly true but with exceptions that prove the rule. And though it might have become cliche, I think it actually comes from Galileo & observed by scientists ever since.  However, when it comes to rail trackside, or line sides, Nature is not afraid to make use of a straight line. Nature sees an opportunity. It doesn’t wait around deliberating but quickly adapts to its apparently linear ecological niche. Nature as entrepreneur.

Architect Michael Palwyn mentions this in his recent book, ‘Bio-mimicry & Architecture’

‘In a biological cases there are millions of contributors to the system, no unemployment and numerous opportunities for nature’s equivalent of entrepreneurship –species that evolve into a wide variety of ecological niches.’

Except that even in the thin strips of land Nature still avoids the linear structurally. It’s winter time, and from my train window I can clearly see the way the vegetation in areas is layered; an upper story formed by the threadbare leaf canopy of birch and ash trees, below this various layers of scrub and bushes. The brown-rust remains of rosebay-willow herb stalks & of smaller weeds & plants form a lower stratum. Lime green mosses, lichens and hidden fungi cover fallen logs and tree stumps. And of course, below this layer, is the soil itself and the invisible system of roots, fungi, bacteria and stones and rocks. Every layer relates to those all layers above and below it: circulating nutrients, breaking things down, providing cover for animals; trees capturing carbon & producing oxygen, fixing nitrogen in the soil, and distributing water. A circular process where as we have seen before waste equals food & food becomes waste in an endless loop. The source of energy for all this unceasing activity is of course the sun rather than finite oil and coal resource upon which we depend.

However, a part of nature that does design in straight lines is well, you and me–that is if we think of a designed ‘straight line’ as a process rather than a railway track, a Doric column or a table leg.

In our linear approach to design (and living), we make products that cannot be recycled, that end up in landfill. The energy that has gone into their creation goes unnoticed: the finite reserves coal and oil used in their production. Chemicals used in the process of manufacture leach into the soil when ‘stuff’ is dumped in landfill site, and gases from production and disposal poison the air, and CO2 (not a poison, of course but the vital element in the regulation of earths temperature and the existence of Life) builds up in the atmosphere.

What William McDonough and Michael Braungart call designing from ‘cradle to grave.’

Nature, conversely they describe as a ‘cradle to cradle’ process.

“Nature operates according to a system of nutrients and metabolisms in which there is no such thing as waste.”

p. 92 cradle to cradle

McDonough and Braungart argue for a design approach that considers a products end of use: how it can be recycle, or re-used. Reduction and regulation make up the 4th ‘R’in their design approach. By reduction they mean, reducing the toxins produced in product manufacture, and legal regulation of carbon emissions or scarce or poisonous material for example. However, reduction can equally refers to a reduction in consumption of things you don’t need or in the use of energy–turn down the thermostat Sir! They also argue, as other designer have, that ‘things’ be replaced by services.

Alastair Fuad-Luke in ‘The Eco Design Handbook’ refers to this as: Dematerialisation, the process of converting products into services. Examples he gives are car pools. There is a famous example of a carpet company that rents out its carpets rather than sells them.

But it’s not only ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ can be designed with reference to the way that living systems work but many designers including Terry Irwin, Enzio Manzini, BoBo Design & Jonathan Chapman (sustainable designers? eco-designer? what do they like to be called? perhaps eco-literate design?) are looking at ways to design processes within business, institutions and governments. The Appliance of Holistic Science!

In the field of Biomimicry (see Palwyn above), scientist-designers such a Janine Benyus, study how nature ‘designs’ things– for example what we can learn from the way an egg is made or has evolved, or a the way an animals eye refracts light, or how a pine cone is optimally designed to disseminate its seeds etc. And from close observation of how nature works, use these insights and apply them to how products, buildings and business strategies can be made more sustainable, more eco-literate.

(more on this later!)

I have come a long way from the rail tracks–again, just as I had intended!


On a lighter note, during a discussion about my blog with Ben, Art Director at Museums and Galleries,we came up with the idea of Edge Funds–the flip-side of a short-term, unsustainable Hedge Fund. An Edge Fund would be a project to promote & encourage the creation and preservation of ‘edges’, whether in gardens, along track sides, or more metaphorically,in the workplace or within businesses & institutions, creating spaces for creativity & ideas. Steven Johnson uses the example of ideas & innovation coming out of places where people with different and diverse backgrounds can get together and talk, for example European coffee houses in the 17th Century or coming more up to date, the internet & Facebook.


A very rough visual/Idea for illustrating Kauffman’s concept of the ‘Adjacent Possible’ as described by Johnson below.

In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility.*1

And Johnson’s metaphor by way of explanation:

You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.*2


Someone asked me what Kauffman meant by ‘an autonomous agent’ in my last post so here is his definition:

An autonomous agent is something that can act on its own behalf in an environment.*3


My definition is that an autonomous agent is something that can both reproduce itself and do at least one thermodynamic work cycle. It turns out that this is true of all free-living cells, excepting weird special cases. They all do work cycles, just like the bacterium spinning its flagellum as it swims up the glucose gradient. The cells in your body are busy doing work cycles all the time.*4

I must admit I am curious to know what the weird special gases are !

For Kauffman,his investigations have left him with a sense of awe, awesome in its original sense rather than in its contemporary sense of “I have just eaten a cupcake and it was awesome” type of awesome-ness.All this life activity at bacterial level happening without a sense of purpose but happening as though it did leaves him with a sense of wonder & a new way of thinking about…. well, God.

…so awesome and stunning that it is God enough for me and I hope much of humankind.

Thus, beyond the new science that glimmers a new world view, we have a new view of God, not as transcendent, not as an agent, but as the very creativity of the universe itself. This God brings with it a sense of oneness, unity, with all of life, and our planet — it expands our consciousness and naturally seems to lead to an enhanced potential global ethic of wonder, awe, responsibility within the bounded limits of our capacity, for all of life and its home, the Earth, and beyond as we explore the Solar System.*5

Hang on, God !? How did I get to here? How did a commute between High Wycombe and Marylebone via a trip to an ecological college in Devon lead me here? Perhaps its an example of the ‘adjacent possible’ and emergence, the unpredictable. So back on track, with no pun intended.

1. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703989304575503730101860838.html

2. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703989304575503730101860838.html

3. http://edge.org/conversation/the-adjacent-possible

4. http://edge.org/conversation/the-adjacent-possible

5. http://edge.org/conversation/beyond-reductionism-reinventing-the-sacred


‘The edge of chaos’then:so the name of the Schumacher College bar and the feeling in the air at Marylebone Station when trains are delayed or cancelled and WE HAVE NO IDEA WHY.’ The bar is a reference (I think ) to the work of iconoclastic evolutionary-biologist & chaos theorist, Stuart Kaufmann. He has created incredibly complex mathematical models for his take on evolutionary mechanisms. So I am not going to go anywhere near the maths, and have now read enough Kaufmann to know that I need incredible amounts of help to understand his work at all. However, I think I get his ideas on edges in a metaphorical way. Central to his thinking is that ‘living systems exist in that boundary region near the ‘edge of chaos’ (*1)

To survive, autonomous agents have had to evolve toward this higher complexity. However, there is an “edge” of complexity where life is sustainable. Below and above this point, life becomes untenable.(*2)

For Kaufmann, natural selection favours the systems at ‘the edge of chaos’.

Capra explains that Kauffman describes living systems as ‘exhibiting three broad regimes of behaviour: (1) an ordered regime with frozen components (2) a chaotic regime with no frozen components (3) and a boundary region between order and chaos where frozen elements just begin to ‘melt’. (Capra p.198)

It is in the boundary region where everything happens. Life in all its complexity adapts and evolves to meet to outside changes and disturbances.

If we imagine, the announcement board at Marylebone, displaying what is expected; the timetable, trains all on time etc, people leaving as their train is called we have something stable and ordered. Nothing new is going happen: you are not going to wander off to the pub and meet someone new and with whom you strike up a friendship. You’re going to stay in your commuting mindset-of mild mind-numbness. You are in a ‘frozen’* ordered non-creative state. And if the board goes haywire, flashing on and off improbable times,destinations and you rush off to get a train that doesn’t exist,and you have to go back & then dash off again on another panic-wild goose train ride, then this is chaos &it’s not going to get you anywhere fast & very likely crushed to death.

Somewhere, on the boundary between the two, lies ‘the edge of chaos’, where the board gives you information you need but the announcer suggests as you have a delay of 20 minutes,that you go to a cafe or pub and chat to someone, buy a paper/magazine you have never read before .The commuter can adapt to is new circumstances,new possibilities and the station can co-ordinate a travelling and learning experience.

So Kauffman’s study of life at a molecular level also serves as a metaphor for how life might work in Marylebone Station. Stephen Johnson is draws upon Kauffmans work in his recent book, ‘Where Good Ideas Come From.’ He describes Kaufmann’s exciting theory of the ‘Adjacent Possible,’and applies it to the history of innovation, and human creativity.

Here Kaufmann beguiles us with a poetic description of his idea:

“The Adjacent Possible is a kind of shadow future,hovering on the edges of the present state of things,a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

And in Johnson’s words, the adjacent possible “captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.” (*4)

Stevens explains that in early life of the planet,the primordial seas of 3.5 billion years ago,there were molecular reactions that were possible or ‘directly achievable’ but ‘sunflower and mosquitoes and brains exist outside the circle of possibility.’You couldn’t create a sunflower from the available proteins, sugars and acids; that required millions of years of innovation & improvement,the evolution of photosynthesis, chloroplasts,multi-cellular life and a host of other evolutionary changes. However, at the boundaries of things are possibilities that lead to the creation of something new and other possibilities . Johnson gives the example:

Basic fatty acids will naturally self-organize into spheres lined with a dual layer of molecules, very similar to the membranes that define the boundaries of modern cells. Once the fatty acids combine to form those bounded spheres, a new wing of the adjacent possible opens up, because those molecules implicitly create a fundamental division between the inside and outside of the sphere. This division is the very essence of a cell. Once you have an “inside,” you can put things there: food, organelles, genetic code.(*5)

Boundaries/edges are natures way of creating something new, a ‘kind of shadow future,’ Johnson applies this thinking to human creativity, starting by looking at what is around you and building on to make something new,but possible.

I think ‘The Shadow Future’ sounds like a title for a great existential-sci-fantasy film starring Tom Cruise.Or a Doctor Who episode full of faux-gravitas and Matt Smith madcap-mayhem.

More ‘edge mayhem next !’

1. http://www.theoryofmind.org/pieces/AAAPT.html

2. Fritjof Capra/Web of Life p. 196

3. Capra/Web of life /p.198

4. Steven Johnson in Wall Street Journal : http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703989304575503730101860838.html?mod=WSJ_hp_mostpop_read

5. Steven Johnson/ Where Good Ideas Come From.


Looking at David Hockney’s fabulous new paintings, coming soon to the Royal Academy,I noticed how many were of ‘edges’: the hedgerow bordering a meadow,a path through a green-purple forest,the place where a wood ends and a cornfield begins–even the sea and rocky shoreline. No doubt, the roads, path and fences provide a compositional focal point for his observation of nature, but perhaps Hockney recognises their fecundity,not just for art but for nature and life. As it is my current subject, I was looking for a painting of the trackside or ‘lineside’,but couldn’t find one: no matter.The trackside has all the fertility of an edge, a corridor for wildlife & rich in biodiversity.In their conservation policy, Network Rail– who own the line,Chiltern Rail is a franchise, describe the trackside or ‘lineside’ as a green corridor*1, a place for animals,birds and insects to travel along in search for food,safety and mates. A space of biodiversity,relatively/comparatively undisturbed by man, or sheep–although there is also a worrying reference to use of ‘herbicides’.

The green corridor concept shapes our sustainable lineside project which aims to reduce the impact of things like slope instability, weather, and burrowing animals on the operational railway, whilst providing habitat for a more diverse range of species to live in the green corridor.*2

Aside from a comparative protection from the depredations of man, what is it that makes an ‘edge’ such as this a more bio-diverse ecosystem?

At Schumacher College I was introduced to the concept of Permaculture,very much a part of the Transition Town* concept that began in Totnes and has been extended, throughout the country and in many parts of Europe. Permaculture is land design based on how nature does things,first developed by Bill Mollison and Bob Holmgren in the 1970′s.Rob Hopkins,founder of the transition movement, says: “I have spent the last 10 years teaching permaculture,and its ethics and principles very much underpin my thinking” *3

Holmgren says:

“In natural systems/environments productivity increases at the edges and between different ecosystems”

“The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place.” *4

Margins,edges and boundaries are more productive than individual systems. Edges are a place of creativity and opportunity;in clearings and at the edge of a forest a plant can take advantage of light not available deeper in; the butterfly may take note of this plant when it flowers, and the bird may nest nearby. A hedge may provide a habitat for grasses and plants next a field that only grows a single crop. An hedge may provide shelter from wind, different temperatures or levels of humidity or all of the above.

Permaculture suggest designing-in ‘edges’ at all levels, from to gardens to the management of woodlands and other ecosystems.’The edge effect’ * might not just be confined to natural systems but there might be a place for ‘edge thinking’ in business, arts and life. The illustrator Greg Becker, commenting on my rambling about edges suggested ‘edgy’ art, artist operating on the margins with freedom to make something new and exciting that breaks new ground. We talked about other boundaries: the creative moment when you first wake up and ideas flow, the half-asleep moment of inspiration. I had just read Geoff Dyer on the writer Sebald: I thought it would be an idea to re-read some Sebald, looking for any (probably) melancholic reflections on rail sidings, and found this observation from Geoff Dyer:

“What Arthur Penn said of film—that it trembles constantly on the brink of being boring—also holds true for the work of W. G. Sebald….It is the trembling, the perpetual uncertainty, the hovering on the edge of infinitely tedious regress (a yawning chasm, so to speak), that generate the peculiar suspense—the sense, more exactly, of suspended narration—that makes Sebald’s writing so compelling.”*5

Here the edge of boredom is responsible,to Dyer at least,for the success of Sebald’s work– and defines it.There was no boredom to be found in the bar at Schumacher College, a fecund environment where people of all ages,  from all over the world, and with different favourite tipples, meet to exchange ideas and laugh a lot–at least we did. I mention the bar because it is called’The Edge of Chaos’. Voirey who was working the bar told me it was a reference to Chaos Theory, and the work of the theoretical biologist and complexity theorist, Stewart Kauffman and others.

Whilst I think I get Sebald, I can’t pretend to understand in any depth, the work of Kauffmann apart from the idea that the ‘edge effect’ works at a molecular level too, where edges are not just zones of fertility but absolutely essential life & for creativity.(More on this in a later post.)

*1) http://www.networkrail.co.uk/aspx/7700.aspx

*2) http://www.networkrail.co.uk/aspx/7700.aspx

*3) The Transition Handbook p.137.

*4) http://permacultureprinciples.com/principle_11.php

*5) http://www.threepennyreview.com/samples/sebaldsympos_sp02.html


Today I have been working on my essay, ‘Beside the Rails’. The plan is to start from everyday observation of the particular: the ecology of the ‘wild’ areas you find along side a rail track,specifically my main commute route into London, High Wycombe to Marylebone, and to link it,via extensive footnotes, to the general: bio-diversity,the importance ‘edges’ in Nature, the Gaia Theory of Lovelock & Margulis, the role fungi plays in the eco-system,some thoughts on the development of evolutionary thinking e.g evolution through bio-diversity,gene transfer,symbiosis  etc. Also, the carbon cycle as described by Stephan in his book,’Animate Earth’ gets mentioned a lot. My aim is to see if I can illustrate the above ideas to make them more approachable and to ground them in everyday experience: what we see from a train window.

But hopefully, with fun and interesting facts throughout.

As a compare & contrast exercise, here are some photos from the window of the “Gweilo Express” from Hong Kong to Guangzhou (Canton). Not easy to do as it expressed along without stopping.