Blog: entries tagged with "nature"

Nature, cities and brains

Table and chair on Ward's Island. Photo: Sean HowardMy copy of Christopher Alexander’s The Phenomenon of Life arrived in the mail today (I’ve written here previously about his book A Pattern Language). It’s the first of his four-part opus The Nature of Order, an attempt at a grand theory of architecture and aesthetics.

You might have read Jonah Lehrer’s Boston Globe column about the impact of urban versus “natural” environments on cognition. In a University of Michigan study, participants spent an hour walking through the streets of Ann Arbor, or through U-M’s botanical gardens, before undergoing tests to gauge the effect on their memory and attention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who walked through the gardens did better.

Chalk one up for nature, then—or at least for superficial science writing. I’d like to see a lot more exploration and research, to give us a more detailed idea of the effect of different types of urban environments (bustling or empty, immaculate or run-down, a hip, bohemian neighbourhood versus a Fifth Avenue, the financial district, the suburbs) and more natural ones (a park, a formal European or Japanese style garden, a vegetable patch, a swamp, a farm, a mountain, an old-growth forest, a riverside)? How about some brain imaging?

Alexander’s research has been an attempt to build such a picture—to draw out the elements that give one place or thing more life than another. Much of his study boils down to simply presenting a subject with two objects or photos, and asking: which of these makes you feel more alive? Which makes you feel more whole? Which more closely reflects your own inner being? He concludes that there are actual, universal principles that underlie our affinity for places, things and other beings. Erich Fromm (and later E.O. Wilson) called this affinity biophilia; Alexander offers a possible structure for understanding it.

The Phenomenon of Life describes 15 essential qualities that contribute to the integrity and life of a system or structure, largely concerned with how the parts of such a system interrelate and support one another: interlock and ambiguity, strong boundaries, local symmetries—essentially extending and generalizing his work in A Pattern Language.

I’m looking forward to examining the world through this new set of lenses, and applying it to other fields (interestingly, while many architects have understandably been cool to his ideas, a number of enthusiastic computer programmers have found ways to apply them to their practice). Alexander only discusses physical objects, so relating his principles to music, for example, is going to be a fun exercise (for instance, “interlock” has strong parallels with counterpoint, and “levels of scale” applies very naturally to rhythms) and one that may finally inspire me to get back to composing.

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Running in the family

Willow Park Ecology Centre mapLots of funny little coincidences today.

I’ve been working at Evergreen for a few months now. Not long after joining, I stumbled across my father’s name on one of our pages, listed as a contact for the Field Botanists of Ontario. And today, in the big list of projects we’ve helped fund over the years, I found my mother’s name, in an image credit for a hand drawn map of Willow Park Ecology Centre in Norval, near where I grew up. (There’s a better, non-coloured version on the WPEC site.)

Evergreen Brick Works bus route mapThat also means both of us have done maps on our site (I did a bus route map a few weeks ago, partly as a change of pace from staring at HTML all day). A neat reminder of where I got a good deal of grounding in visual communication, not to mention my appreciation for the natural world. Thanks, Mum and Dad.

Happy birthday to me.

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Ruins

As cities go, Detroit is pretty much the ultimate American example of what can go wrong. From its height during the heyday of the auto industry, the Motor City fell hard, strangled by freeways, unbalanced by “white flight”, and battered by the decline of US automakers. Attempts at jump-starting the ailing downtown were mostly miserable failures, in particular the fortress-like Renaissance Center.

It took until the 1990s to see any serious signs of recovery, including major investment in renovation and new construction. Today, downtown Detroit is still full of abandoned buildings - shacks and mansions, skyscrapers and factories. (Visit DetroitYES and Forgotten Detroit for a photo tour of some of the most remarkable of these. And perhaps most poignant of all, see the photos from Sweet Juniper of the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, still full of rotting books and educational materials - “a warehouse full of abandoned hope.”)

Naturally, all this has made the city a magnet for urban explorers in search of “lost” places to discover, and others drawn by the peculiar romance of urban decay. Writing in Metropolis magazine, Camilo José Vergara put forth a fanciful but entirely serious notion:

Cloud Gardens Parkette

“I propose that as a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis. We could transform the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national historic park of play and wonder, an urban Monument Valley.”

Not surprisingly, preservationists and downtown boosters were aghast. “If you allow nature to win back man-made objects you are being anti-urban,” one argued. “It’s an insult to America, to what America stands for,” another told the New York Times.

Personally, I love the idea (though I can understand why Detroiters, ever-sensitive about their city’s reputation, would be especially touchy about it). Ruins serve as a sort of memento mori on a grand scale, reminding us of our mortality. They’re not tidy or comfortable. They nudge us toward thinking about time and life, on a scale that’s bigger than our own lives.

And when ruins become overrun by the wild again, they can also be reminders of the endless abundance of nature, that power of rebirth I wrote about a while back. And, as Vergara argues, “Such buildings need to be preserved as symbols of the aspirations they represented when built.”

Gardiner Expressway pillar during demolition (City of Toronto Archives)Thinking along the same lines, artist John McKinnon headed a project here in Toronto to preserve the concrete pillars from the eastern leg of the Gardiner Expressway. The kilometer-long elevated spur, a vestige of a plan to extend the expressway all the way through Scarborough, was torn down in 2001, but the pillars remain as a peculiar tribute to the spirit of “Big Daddy” Gardiner’s Toronto (I’m sure he would have been livid). Stripped of the dangling bits of rusted rebar, tidied up and refinished (how very Toronto), the pillars are slowly being overgrown with ivy.

Another “deliberate ruin” here in town is the Cloud Garden Parkette near Bay and Adelaide (pictured above). Architects Baird and Sampson, together with artist Margaret Priest, took inspiration from Giovanni Piranesi, whose etchings of Roman ruins had captured the imagination of 18th-century Europe. They set out to design and construct a Modernist ruin, with beams and rough bits of wall peeking through here and there. It’s a bit contrived, but the park itself is delightful, somehow creating all kinds of intimate, contemplative spaces all packed onto a relatively tiny lot - dense without feeling crowded. All that and a greenhouse with a little rainforest conservatory too. But I digress.

The Bay-Adelaide Centre, circa 2002The parkette was built as a concession by the developers of the Bay-Adelaide Centre. However, before the office tower was completed, the 1980s office-building boom in Toronto staggered to a halt, and for years a vast concrete stump loomed over the Cloud Garden - a real ruin next to a fake one. (The story is told in more detail in Robert Fulford’s book Accidental City.)

Now, at last, a tower is being built on the site. It fills in a significant gap, but I’ll miss the Bay-Adelaide Stump. Okay, as a memento, it was more a reminder of financial folly than of impending doom, but it was like our own tiny, tidy version of Vergara’s historic ruins park.

Even ruins aren’t forever.

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2007 wrap-up

The dust’s settled on 2007 at last, and does it ever feel like a new year now. Here’s a few highlights, including some stuff I didn’t write about the first time round:

Props from the shootJanuary: Spinglobe moves into a brand new office in a neat building in the east end. One of the first projects is a music video for the Mahones. It’s a takeoff on that Fellini scene where la Saraghina dances the rhumba on a Mediterranean beach - except it’s January, on Ashbridge’s Bay, and the warm spell of the previous week is most definitely over. We should have called the production Minus 8½. We freeze our collective asses off, but the video ends up looking pretty darn fine.

February: Played in the band for a musical revue put on as a fundraiser by some friends - my first time playing Broadway style is a fun challenge; I stress way about it more than I have to. Reconceived long-running audio drama idea as a podcast; later in the year would reconceive it again as a comic. Expect it to morph into a novel, a musical extravaganza and finally a series of haiku in 2008.

March: In the studio with Ellen Carol to record bass tracks for her new CD, produced by Don Kerr. Restarted work on Flickershow CD; we get some solid demos done and some cool results on a trip-hoppy new song called “Hold Up Donny”. It doesn’t last, however; I end up firing myself as producer later in the year. If all goes well we’ll be recording with Don in 2008.

May: Played with Flickershow at the Sammy Sugar Day Festival, the kickoff for Ellen’s fundraising bike tour of Eastern Canada. Finally launched a site for Presonance, a collaboration with Rezo Largul.

June: Attended OpenCities, an “unconference” about the convergence of civic engagement and the open source movement. Among the topics are the waterfront revitalization, public space, DIY electronics and public art, dancing in the streets. Coincidentally, the next day, Flickershow played at Pedestrian Sundays, a monthly car-free event in Kensington Market (other events occur in Mirvish Village and on Baldwin Street); our first outing with keyboard player Rich.

Trees downLater in the month, Sean’s mom comes up from Pennsylvania for a visit. Tuesday we’re at work while she takes it easy; she’s out having a smoke on the front porch when lightning strikes a tree two doors down, and a gale-force gust of wind tears off branches for several blocks. We return home to find our street a maze of police tape, tree limbs and downed power lines. Neighbouring streets are almost unaffected. “I didn’t do it,” she pleads.

July: Played Newmarket and Brampton - our only out-of-town gig prior to this was our TVO appearance taped in Parry Sound. First steps toward developing an analog-to-MIDI interface using that splendid new toy, the Arduino.

August: Cottage outing with co-workers. Lots of laughs, plenty of good food and drink, and some cool photographic exploration of natural forms and painting with light.

October: A week from hell. Two or three clients go through reorganizations, and a number of key projects go on indefinite hold. Contractors removing a cellular tower break a sprinkler pipe and flood part of our office. None of this registers, however, because our co-worker’s 21-year-old brother has just died in his sleep. Things are very quiet for several days.

IMAGENovember: Two good friends of ours invited us to play a song at their crazy cabaret-style lesbian wedding. The only question was what to wear. (As MC for the evening, Sean had no such dilemma, since they’d put him in a rather lovely kilt and feather boa.)

At the end of the month, a beautiful, awe-inspiring, mad trip to Marrakech with Sean, his mom and stepdad, and a new friend, the irrepressible and energizing Katie. We stayed in the heart of the medina, a maze of winding alleyways full of people, tiny shops, mopeds and stray cats. A handful of local kids kept asking for money; Sean juggled for them instead (years ago he did it for a living in Dallas) and became an instant hit. Later, we drove through the Atlas Mountains to ride camels into the desert and sleep in a tent. Beautiful country, lots of wonderful people. And occasional strange family moments.

December: The partners make the tough decision to sell the company to a bigger firm. Some of us move over, the video business splits off (taking on the name Robotnik Films), and I start looking for work. I’ll miss the place, and I’ll miss working with the Spinglobe crew. But it’s a huge opportunity, both to find work in a field that’s important to me and to have some actual free time again. Here’s to the new year!

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Dorkbot

One of Stan Krzyzanowski's pine conesDorkbot Toronto, the local chapter of the network of “people doing strange things with electricity”, has a new slate of presentations, and last night was the first.

Patricia Rodriguez presented some of her video work using all sorts of cameras - film, video, digital - and taking advantage of each one’s unique features and most interesting ways of failing.

Cary Peppermint and Christine Nadir’s work is about breaking down the perceived borders between nature and the human-made world, using electronic media installations in unexpected places. Wild Information Network, a solar-powered streaming audio server installed deep in the woods of the Catskills, plays sound pieces submitted by various artists, all with the notion of humans broadcasting to the broader environment, or vice versa. It and other pieces are catalogued on their site: EcoArtTech.net.

Stan Krzyzanowski showed his time-lapse work, ranging from handheld still camera shots, to mesmerizing animations created from successive sections of wood and other materials (notably vegetables and marbled cheese), to his recent projects involving cones from various sorts of tree. Pine cones, see, open up as they dry and fold closed again if you get them wet. And when sped up, the waving of a big pine cone’s scales takes on an eerie, almost animal aspect.

It’s beautiful stuff. Interval is a rather huge archive of all his experiments - click some of the “special sets” on the lower right. Most of the best stuff is on the “Favorites” page.

The sessions are held at InterAccess, a gallery at Queen and Ossington devoted to electronic media art. They offer a very cool series of workshops on topics like microcontroller programming, introductory electronics, pinhole photography, and hacking your bike to turn it into a mobile piece of sound art. I’m hoping to attend the ones on Pure Data and creating “resilient outdoor works”.

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Tobermory

Lichens near Tobermory, OntarioI’m lucky enough to work at a small company full of cool people. All friends, all the sort of people you can have a good conversation with about aesthetics or theatre or philosophy, and hang out comfortably with for a week. So this past week we all packed up and headed to a cottage near the tip of the Bruce Peninsula.

There was some shop talk, like how to get more “good” clients - the kind of organizations that are trying to make the world better - and plotting strategy for our video department. We did a bit of improv and other creative exercises, too, and there was a lot of good food, light reading, ping-pong and beach-going, as well as some hiking along the northernmost part of the Bruce Trail, which runs all the way down the Escarpment to Niagara Falls.

I did a lot of poking around in the woods and along the lake. Funny thing - while everyone else is admiring the grand, sweeping vistas, I’m usually crouched with a magnifier studying the tiniest things I can find. So I spent a lot of time this trip puttering around with our camera, exploring the possibilities of macro photography.

Of the places we visited, I think my favorite was along the rocky shore at the end of the road. The ancient, glacier-carved sedimentary rock is like a garden of miniatures - every few inches you’ll find a little crevasse or a tiny pothole that’s become home to an even tinier plant or two, comprising a startling variety of species. And of course, there were lichens and mosses and ferns, whose primitive forms hold a strange fascination for me.

IMAGEIn the evenings we watched Rome on DVD (ah, what a horrible, lecherous, bloodthirsty lot) and played with the camera some more. After a few light-painting experiments using exposures of several seconds, we hitched the camera to Sean’s laptop, using a piece of software called iStopMotion to create our own animations, in the style of Pika Pika.

Sean’s gone and created a Flickr set of our experiments, and uploaded a video (click the “Read more” link). A few of my photos are up on Flickr as well.

In all, a wonderful week.

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Cooking with beats

This here video rocks on so many levels. (There’s a better quality version on The Fame Game site, but I’ve embedded the YouTube version here because it politely waits for you to click on it before starting to download the whole damn thing.)

Without further ado, star beatboxer Beardyman shows you how to prepare the Electro Funk Daddy Superstar break:

(Thanks to my SO at Craphammer for pointing this one out to me.)

Why is this kind of thing so damn satisfying? My guess is that it takes electronic music - virtual and abstracted, but the product of a long process of stylistic and technological evolution in its own right - and adds another layer of depth by grounding it back in the physical world again, using honest-to-goodness real-time physical virtuosity. And to top it off, it’s funny and spontaneous. In a word, it’s masterful.

Really, it’s the human equivalent of the song of the Australian lyrebird (as introduced here by Sir David Attenborough):

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RIP

Dan Gibson, nature sound recordist. He actually died over a month ago, but I hadn’t heard until now. When I was a kid, we had the very first Solitudes LP, back before his son talked him into adding music (a smart commercial move, I’ll grant you, but no thanks - I’d rather have just the sounds).

Jane Jacobs, author and champion of neighbourhoods and cities as vital entities. Her book The Death and Life Of Great American Cities spurred me to study urban planning (I discovered it, in turn, through Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn). (via Spacing Wire)

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Cottage life

Sean and I just got back this evening from spending a weekend with our officemates - the five of us trekked up to a cottage about three hours north of town, and hung out, ate lots, strolled around, had a bonfire, and talked big crazy talk about the company. They’re a cool bunch (two partners plus three freelancers, the latter including me), and I’m really glad we’re all working together.

I’m such a city kid now. I hadn’t been looking forward to the trip at all. But in all, it was a lovely time.

SketchesOn a little hike through the woods, it struck me that I’m especially fascinated with fungi, ferns, lichens, mosses… non-plants, proto-plants, primitive things. Things that can survive on bare rock. Beautiful things that grow out of dead trees. Things that might have around when the dinosaurs ruled. I was filled with glee when I found a boulder maybe the size of a chest freezer, which was covered in several sorts of moss and lichen, and a unique species of fern. Everywhere else, a more complex-looking fern had out-competed it, but this one had found a niche in the thin soil atop this rock.

And the fall leaves were quite gorgeous, too. As the years go by, I’m slowly starting to appreciate autumn.

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Rivers and rebirth

Read in the Star the other day: there’s a hidden river flowing through a good stretch of southern Ontario, way below the surface. Not too long ago, they found out where it comes out, somewhere under High Park (very roughly, our equivalent of Central Park). I love stories like that - the idea that there’s all sorts of stuff we still don’t know about, like buried rivers and tiny 500-year-old cedar trees and squid the size of houses.

I’ve noticed that in any animated film, one sure way to get me crying is to show a bleak landscape suddenly suffused by some elemental Power and come bursting to life: happens in Yellow Submarine, Princess Mononoke, the Firebird piece from Fantasia 2000, even that silly Lemonjelly video. There’s something about that symbolism that really nails me deep down: the idea of rebirth, of the world healing itself, of the power of Nature to regenerate.

I’ve seen pictures of the bleak, rocky landscape where I grew up (near the mining town of Sudbury, where according to Canadian urban legend the Apollo astronauts trained because of its similarity to the moon) turning into pine forest again, and it brought a smile to my face. So did word that parts of the Ukraine and Belarus, uninhabited by humans since the Chernobyl accident, have become refuges for wildlife. And I’m realizing that principle - that life keeps coming back, if only we quit messing with it and let it happen - is essentially how I conceive of God or the divine. It was that force that some in Hiroshima and Nagasaki feared was dead after the atom bombs fell. It says - even if we screw up utterly, there is hope; something new and wonderful will arise in time.

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