Saprophagy, or growth from decay



The Mushroom at the End of the World –

On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, 2015


I believe that contexts create the possibility of products which fit them well. And that the recognition of that process, whether we understand it ecologically, evolutionarily, philosophically or aesthetically, is a lesson which is both hopeful, and at the same time, profoundly disenchanting.

This book both describes such a process and is I think itself part of a number of other such processes, which I’d like to feel part of. Discussing the possibility of life in the post-capitalist ruins feels an essential, if immodest, ambition.

I will not spend much time here on a book review. It has been well and favourable covered for example, here.  It s a study by an anthropologist , with interests in the history of science , feminism and economics , of the history and cultural formations of a trade in matsutake mushrooms , which are a delicacy in Japan ( think truffles, perhaps) , but increasingly need to be sourced internationally  ( China, Finland, Pacific Coast North America) and sped around the world in aircraft . The mushrooms have very demanding and specific growing conditions, which make them pop up in (ecologically ) marginal places and are harvested by (socially and economically) marginal people, and sold on for top dollar.


And in so many books I’ve eagerly read which consider the present as it informs the future, that would be it. A critique or a well-described idea.  And a suggestion that this could lead somewhere if only..

What impressed me deeply about this book is what more it does, its generosity of ideas. Tsing has collected, developed or coined at least a dozen ideas which would – like it says on the cover- help us to think usefully about where we are going – into the capitalist ruins. These include ideas that relate to methodology ( assemblage ), ecology(disturbance), economics( scalability, salvage accumulation), anthropology( boundary object, science as translation) and politics( precariousness, indeterminacy). They are worked out, applied to the study area of the matsutake assemblage, and referred to other contexts. Much of the work she reports is collaborative, cross cultural and innovative.

About her work she makes the aside

Radical curiosity beckons. Perhaps an anthropologist, trained in one of the few remaining sciences that value observation and description, might come in handy.

Amongst all this my favourite part of the book is her observation and description of how  different hunters ( different in culture, age, gender and purpose) forage for matsutake and  particularly her observation of the attunements they make to create some method to find ( and remember how they found) an  underground sporing body growing in the vast unmarked regrowth woodlands of the pacific north west.

It is a form of forest knowledge and appreciation without the completeness of classification – instead searching brings us to the liveliness of beings experienced as subjects rather than objects



Matsutake in Finland

However for blog purposes and brevity, what I want to look at is her idea of ‘latent commons’. Like many of Tsing’s ideas this operates simultaneously (and slightly ‘without the completeness of classification’). at many levels, and has the potential of being an engine for living differently.

She introduces it via an account of one of the many local heroes in this book, an educator and community organizer in rural Oregon named Beverly Brown who and encountered, translated and empowered via training and sponsoring conversations in the disparate linguistic groups around the nexus of matsutake harvest there.

Tsing says

Brown’s advocacy for political listening inspires me to think past a disturbance in our aspirations. Without progress, what is struggle?

Brown’s political listening addresses this. It suggests that any gathering contains many inchoate political futures and that political work consists of helping some of those come into being. Indeterminacy is not the end of history but rather that node in which many beginnings lie in wait. To listen politically is to detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas.


The word common is carefully chosen. it echoes the set asides that still lie puzzlingly fallow on maps around ancient European townships  (although they are frequently lively and contested places) – Clapham Common, Common Ridings, Common Good funds, and a long term eco-political concern , The ‘tragedy of the commons’, the appropriation and capitalist exploitation of the physical resources they have always implied ( see also, in a local example, Andy Wightman’s work ).


Common ground, Montrose

However there is a subtle distinction being made by Tsing – the richness of commons for her is the interaction of human and biological actors around a ‘common’ site, rather than the resource itself.


We need many kinds of alertness to spot potential allies. Worse yet the common agendas we detect are undeveloped , thin spotty and unstable. At best we are looking for a most ephemeral glimmer. But living with indeterminacy , such glimmers are the political.


In an ancient ritual, which may be somehow related to common riding, the Burry Man bemuses and underwhelms the people of South Queensferry every August


So ubiquitious , undeveloped , elusive yet effable and productive  – here are the further characteristics Tsing identifies of latent commons

  • Latent commons are not exclusively human enclaves
  •  Latent commons are not good for everyone
  •  Latent commons don’t institutionalize well
  •  Latent commons cannot redeem us.

I ve interpreted those a little for myself. For a common to form there needs to be a (common)  interest in an external . There will have to be interaction and compromise. This a way of articulating and reaching an assemblage of part identities.  The solutions she suggests mirror those researched by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom who found there were often contextual and pragmatic processes which had allowed commons to remain in use. Tsing s emphasis would be on the value of the new social formations created.

Tsing’s final point is emphasized  via a pamphlet she quotes in the text

the spectre that many try not to see is a simple realization – the world will not be ‘saved’. If we don’t believe in a global revolutionary future , we must live (as we in fact always had to) in  the present

Concentrates the mind wonderfully that..




I d like to end (as is traditional at this time of year) with some contenders for latent commons. The first one came to me via a blog called Wader Tales.  which addresses the catastrophic loss of numbers of wading bird populations in the UK, through the translation of applied scientific research which concerns these birds as they make their near constant  hemispheric journeys in search of food and breeding sites. This  particular piece is about observation of the ecology which will allows waders to continue to produce young in farmland in Iceland, but it is also exemplary of similar studies being done in the UK to encourage the diminishing population of curlew.  Note the ‘alertness to spot potential allies’.


The Mires of Funzie , Fetlar.  You ll find pics of the birds that live here on the Wader Tales site. They were busy the day I called ..

My second one is a film I watched this month by Agnes Varda entitled the Gleaners and I.  Its almost historic now ( released in 2000), but what I think is notable for the idea of latent commons is what happens in the making of the film which apply the metaphor of gleaning and indeterminacy to documentary making , and how that takes us all to wholly  unexpected places.  There is a new, collaborative Agnes Varda film out this year  Faces and Places, where she enters the France of the yellow vests and returns with a very different sense of community – one which has a message which speaks to the challenges of indeterminacy and latent commons.


A final and more speculative one concerns the renegotiation of the use of the upland areas of Scotland. Although at some level this can be seen as a history of legislation , at a practical level it is worked out , by the progressive understanding of these areas as a latent common described by the word ‘ours’, and an increasingly engaged group of people reestablishing their presence in the landscape and noticing the struggles of animals and plants to remain there. Thus every footfall and encounter which takes place int previously privatised, enclosured and de-accessed uplands has the possibility of reanimating it. The suggestion of legislation and commissions are producing thought about what kinds of commons can exist in the uplands.

I’ll quickly name check the magnificent Raptor Persecution blog spot, the campaign to overturn SNHs licensing of a raven cull in Perthshire, and of course the community land buyouts which have begun to allow local people to consider that they might have a say in how the environment around them is used.

I m not utopian in this – I can see losses and setbacks , dangers of ‘blood and soil’ nationalism rooting in  our own bit hill and glen , and my beloved upland waders being chased off their nests by the right-to-roaming labrador herds, but I will end this post with a memory of an event on a cold Saturday morning in December when thirty disparate souls climbed onto Calton Hill to hack back gorse bushes and open up basking sites for grayling butterfly which are  recolonizing the city. At the same time each of those people were building their own connection with that place, and potentially with each other.



* I got a fungi identification guide this year which proudly describes 2400 British species. These guys are somewhere between pp 476 and 518. But I m pretty sure they aren’t matsutake.



Thinking ecologically


I am sure Tim Morton has been called a charlatan before- he may even have done it himself.. He is not a philosopher who requests reasoned careful answers. He may not be a philosopher at all.

The appeal he makes is to be a new kind of thing. Or a different kind of thing. And the reason for this is Ecological Catastrophe. This is something I know a little bit about.

Ever since it was suggested as being a thing ‘Ecology’ has been a source of imperatives. The metaphor contained in the term is housekeeping, and periodically it had become a demand to Put Your House in Order. Haeckel, a utopian, Tansley, a cryptofascist, Ehrlich, a neo-liberal , Gorz, a neo -Marxian, Irigaray, a feminist, Lovelock, a scientismist and even prince Bloody Charles have all told us what we need to do to save the planet. Like Mary Douglas says  in Purity and Danger  , nature is one of the four arbiters of right behaviour.

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civic art detail. Sheffield station

Morton’s approach is rather different. For him an ecological ethic is postmodern and anti-authoritarian. Facts are not political, they are facts – climate change is evident, it is not an imperative. What is to be encouraged is to live well, which means living ecologically, or at least in awareness of what we are.

This does not mean doing lots of recycling,, but investing in practices that are more embodied, instinctive, creative and interactive.



.Walking nearby along a parallel path I discovered  the feminist thinker and historian of science Donna Haraway and her cohort. Haraway sees no need to contest history.. She creates a selective herstory of connection and complexity, which through neologism, cross reference and imaging suggests a futurology of kinship and symbiosis, which will be familiar to readers of Ursula Le Guin. Her metaphors are biological rather than philosophical – lichens, spiders, webs. She is big on detail , endlessly making kin, crediting connections and informants. It is a rich brew –  weaved in it is the work of others such as  Anna Tsing, Paul Gilbert, Vincianne Despret, which I hope to blog about soon

They seem surprisingly unable to meet. Morton is consciously slippery and anti-heroic, yet his practices are mainly singular and within the canon.  In her recent work Haraway’s claims of thinking anew ( ‘Think We Must’) hide orthodoxies within her practice which are not examined. Connections and tentacles are good because spiders make them – we are entering the Chthulucene era, and we need new metaphors. Reducing human population (‘Making Kin Not Babies’) is seen as a necessary moral imperative ( although not a prescriptive one) to conserve resources. As a slogan that seems unctious  to me and, yes, prescriptive  in its moralizing.


Lichen, Elphinstone. Popular as metaphorical fuel in the Chthulecene.

Both versions try to see us a part of nature. Morton wants us to see our nature as part of nature. Haraway (like Irigaray) sees feminine values and masculine ones as having different origins and developments. She sees the masculine ones as deeply connected with the Anthropocene ( as does Morton via his concept of agrilogistics) and the feminine ones as an appropriate response to ecocrisis – and an overlooked counterpoint running through the Anthropocene.


viaduct near Huddersfield

Maybe predictably, given my gender,  I  currently respond more strongly to the Morton version. I don’t know if all women would always want to be connecting and weaving and co-creating and entangling, but I feel that is only a partial response to a fragile world. All metaphors have unintended consequences – but i think we need to avoid getting drawn uncritically into overarching ones.

Ive just heard that the British Sunday papers , during the week the UN has stated that there is less than a decade before global warming reaches a point where life will be unsustainable, have managed to print  only one article about any of this. Although this is at one level horrifying, it is at another quite predictable. Morton has not only predicted this, but analysed it too in his book Being Ecological.

We probably can’t think usefully about the consequences of global warming ( or Mass Extinction in the term Morton prefers) (see here also the response of Rebecca Solnint).  The ecological thinking of Morton, Haraway,  and the Dark Mountain crowd are usefully suggesting that thinking differently is necessary and possibly inevitable.


So far we haven’t been too good at unpicking the grand metaphors in ‘Natural History’ . And while I am not keen on the creation of more of these ( like agrilogistics, for example)  I can see the attraction of radical change. What I like about Being Ecological is the  section entitled ‘A Brief History of Ecological Thought’. This starts with an extended discussion of Homer Simpson’s teenage music choices, defies the notion of ‘history’ , deconstructs the styles of ecological thought as responses to not knowing, and ends thusly

You area fully embodied being who has never been separated from other biological beings both inside and outside your body, not for one second. You are sensitively attuned to everything happening in your world which is why you end up blocking some of it, because you are afraid of the stimulation might be too intense. You have an idea that there is an inside and an outside of yourself , and perhaps this is  the deepest way in which you start to think that being ecological involves some massive change.


Which might be a good place to start. After I ve rewatched Homerpalooza.



An Inside and an Outside of Yourself

Morton suggests that we use a greatly restricted portion of our consciousness in thinking about the world ( rather than experiencing it). He believes the thinkers of experience and consciousness ( principally Kant and Heidegger) have artificially excluded the possibilities of Being for things( which might include animals, but also art, and possibly tables) So in answer to the ‘What would it be like to be a Bat?’ question, his answer would be ‘Dunno,lets try and imagine that as best we can (which is probably phenomenologically)’.

He suggests  this type of thought , and about this type of  stuff is an exclusion at the heart of anthropocene thought – although clearly not in the Romantic l.iterature he began his work with (and I can  also find these questions interestingly asked , albeit in a human context, by Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Deleuze and Irigaray).

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A fish, Glasgow Cathedral

I wonder whether we need to grant other things or beings consciousness if we accept they have intentionality- that they are part of our consciousness and we ( at least in a cultural sense) are part of theirs. That consciousness is never an abstract concept (and neither really is thinking) but only possible as being about something, and that thing as vorhandenheit, affects the type of responses we have about it. ( is this a kind of conservatism).


Hannaline Visnes, Egyptian Cat

What might that look like? Morton s big example is the Rothko Chapel, but I might suggest Gaston Bachelard‘s meditations on home, the playful attempts to be like an animal of  Charles Foster , or the deconstruction/wilding of the white cube space of the Talbot Rice Gallery by Lucy Skaer and Fiona Connor, which I saw recently. I like these examples because they are embodied , phenomenological responses, which allow  that there might be more than one response , and avoid the kind of ecorighteousness which creeps along under the Black Forest mysticism of Heidegger, and the witchdoctory prescriptions of shamanism.  In terms that i hope Tim Morton might like, we can muck about a bit.


La Chasse, Lucy Skaer at Talbot Rice. During the exhibition the positions of the pieces gradually change position.

It might reasonably be asked in response – what is not phenomenologically engaged practice? There is a bit of a clue in the question – passive, pseudo-rational formulations, and work in the style of agrilogistics (Morton).  This is undoubtedly complicated by the realization that works become vorhanden , and are completed only by the response of the receiver, so that even the most insensitive architectural blueprint or fashion statement might be reclaimed – say via the Oxfam store, wanderings of psychogeographers, or a community buyout of the local football club. A good example would be the history of the  brutal, reactionary , functionally useless and now hauntingly vacant and ruined Cardross Seminary.


Which makes me consider my own cultural practice – these blog posts.  They came from my insides. These do seem to have a life of their own , if largely dormant – that is they are now, outside. They are occasionally read  by algorithms, and even actual people – who may entangle bits of them in their own practice. WordPress every so often encourage me to get better at marketing in the hope they will be able to charge me for using their platform, but I assume only if I become wildly popular , which I am skilled at not doing. Every so often I’ll tidy them up a bit and wonder why I wrote them – and go back inside. Usually I ll recognise an impulse or a moment they are responding to. Somewhere back on the site you can find a mission statement – I d claim it all as my best response to precariousness.

Morton also wants to ask

What if charisma was actual?

(He is talking here about the charisma of an art object , rather than that of a trickster or charlatan, but i think we need to consider both)


I am not saying that the Drain Surgeon is a charlatan- I like his style,but I d still check his references.

I distrust charisma massively, as I have learnt from the tradition of skepticism. I would spend a long time analysing exactly what makes us love, or awed, or hate. I can accept in most rational senses this would be futile. But the quest would be about deconstructing and defusing power. It is to try to undermine the impact of the demagogue.

What would it be like to put that aside? Would I then believe We Are Taking Our Country Back, or that Things Go Better with Coke?

Morton says

‘Critique mode is the pleasure of non-pleasure, the sadistic purity of washing your hands of the crime of being seduced, as if detuning were about exiting attunement space rather than what really happens, which is only retuning’

Well ok.

I have a visceral emotional reaction to what I think of as bad art.  I think , to nick his terms this is about being dragged into attunement against my will. This involves the nausea of a betrayed gut feeling.  So he’s sort of right. I remember identifying it (at length during Four Weddings and A Funeral ( I m not going to link to that, the bastards are rich enough already), during the (numerous) sections which manufactures a technical scenario purely to draw out an emotional response which should be, in my view, entirely personal and voluntary. I am not proud of having paid to watch it, in an actual cinema, but I will add that it was cold outside and there were few alternatives.

We’d like to believe  real artists (the ones we like) is so caught up in their internal struggle with creativity that they’d never do this, so Rothko draws a pure response from us. Maybe, but what about Damian Hurst, or Banksy, or Picasso( and some people really, really like the updated romanticism of  4WAF)? Or the manufactured tension of lets say, the Bourne Conspiracy (which I might secretly be seduced by).  My point in these type of arguments is we will never be able to define what art is, and that’s whats good about it.

I think there is a distinction to make between artefact ( which includes art) and phenomena( which might include art experience). There is absolutely a need to explore sceptically artefacts ( lest we forget Goebels and Saatchi and Saatchi), and absolutely the right to experience the charisma , aura or vorhanden-ness of phenomena. It seems unproblematic from this perspective to say that phenomenological experience linking the inside ( emotions and thoughts) to the outside ( stuff) via our sense data connects us to a world experience which will make us engage with it, and reciprocally makes us ourselves. This would be close to Morton’s idea of ecological consciousness.


Meadow, Uyeasound, Unst

My own ethic is that it is a uncomfortable (if sometimes exciting) space that involves reordering the environment. The odd stone tower is not going to destroy a beach, but does the dog need to be redesigned, and do the Scottish Highlands need to be reforested?


These discussions need scepticism, and maybe to avoid becoming lodged forever in conservatism, they also need charisma – by which I mean the power of actual specifics to work on us.

Many of these are completely random – while I searched for an example of environmentally conscious practice, my  commute took me past the local chiropodist who have chosen to name their business TOE-FU *.

There is, at no level, anything about the manipulative power of  this advertising which would draw anyone to go and get their feet done, but since there has to be some indication that it’s there, then making random bus passengers laugh is a fine enough example of Bataillean excess, Mortonian charisma,or the skilled use of lumpen Scots to be worth reproducing.

I might have picked a more sublime example , or one which feels more well , environmental.  But I didn’t – you can if you want. Ecology is the study of the organism in its environment, ecological  consciousness  must be about engaging with what you do, and feeling a physical response to it.  So pardon the pun.


*Just in  case I ever have an international readership ( apart from the algorithm from Singapore)  the – fu suffix in Scots vernacular  is equivalent to -ful (e.g handful,  although not, strangely, useful, or beautiful , which we don’t use in Scots).  The local pronounciation here puts the stress on the first syllable and shortens the final vowel sound , so it does sound a lot like bean curd.




Still life


John Bratby, Jean and Table Top ( girl in ayellow jumper),  Graves Gallery , Sheffield

My riff on the idea of belonging caught up on the double meaning of belongings , the kind of multiple way we feel part of something, and the stuff that we acknowledge as ours.

Earlier in the week I found a discarded blue tit nest woven out of sheep’s wool , moss and badger hair, to what looked like a fairly exacting standard, and then abandoned in a wood. This indicated a different way of being , of presence , providing no more than a holder for a bird, some eggs , those fledglings , and then gone.

The process by which it came back to my home is a little murky now, but I remember wishing others might discover it, and then not finding the right place. So it stuck. In my hand, and then my saddlebag and travelled a long way to become an object of meditation.IMG_20180807_194819580

What I noticed, meditatingly, is that it was, despite its craft, exactly functional, and of no interest to its maker, beyond that. It was in effect, a holder, much like ,  in my life, a bivvy bag – a thing to sleep in whilst you remain part of your surroundings.


I thought about my house/home which I inhabit. What in practice does this mean? That I follow trails around it, well marked and quite predictable, some more used than others, which make up a kind of territory, and around the trails are discarded objects of use – some positioned carefully, others at random, and their orderings , or disorderings, responses to patterns of movement, which will have been, once, subjectively purposeful, but in time ( as purpose recedes or is forgotten), have become, more or less, stochastically chaotic. Thus the instructions for a voltmeter, put aside in January, lie next to scrap of mini cucumber, left previous night to feed the pets,  phone charger cable , last week, and scrap of paper torn form a notebook , date unknown.


The lack of order, or maybe lack of control , creates  a sense of shame in me which is hard to explain. Maybe the best I can do is that things should have their place. At these points the house/home feels a place for their ordering , and me, a failing custodian , nervous about the prospect of visitors.

I wondered if I could invert this sense in some way by framing. I remembered looking at still lifes in a gallery.


This is on a table in the Ingleby Gallery. It might be an accident but i dont think so..

On one level I am always amused by the posing of objects to have their picture took. How stiff the apple looks , how carefully the geometry is imposed on chaos. Yet in other ways the things are relational to each other, and perhaps to the life that has mysteriously just stepped out of shot, off down the river of things.


So I took some photos of the things around the house, as they have fallen, and thought about the images I liked and why.


I realised also that I was approaching another sense of belonging – that of being a part of something, rather than apart from it. In one way, by putting myself behind the camera I was separating myself again. On the other hand, I was using the things, or at least their juxtapositions for my own purposes, and letting them influence me. And by creating something with the prospect of an audience, I am describing myself as citizen of a world who might care about such things , and in a particular way.

IMG_20180722_145534030I did not think about what my neighbours might think about me wandering around the house taking pictures of unmade beds and cluttered kitchen units. As I do now it is almost a wilful act of difference ( although I don’t actually know whether my neighbours a) care, or b) don’t do similar things).


I liked a lot of the photos. They made me like my life more – so it felt more like a place of busyness, of things in process, as opposed to abandoned ( although in fairness they could be read like that too). The individual objects seem ready to move – to spring, or topple, to be picked up , or smoothed. They have potential. The clothes seem to have retained the energy of a body in their rumpledness ( perhaps not the socks).


Clothes peg, pen and alarm clock may make up my coat of arms,which I have unsteadily sketched out in my notes and will soon register with the Lord Lyon, King at Arms (Parted bend sinister, clothespeg rampant on field of washed beech , alarm clock passant superior. Crossed pencils accosted.)


The vacuum cleaner crouches like a prehistoric beast frozen, waiting to spring or flee.


The downlit  bathroom objects suggest some surgical procedure taking place, the stuff that is increasingly the lot of ageing bodies being trimmed and contained, which we must approach sanguinely, and with a necessary sense of humility.


The photos end in the garden, seen from the inside looking out, across the last layers of  space junk spiralling out through the asteroid belt towards the unknown.

Ive never owned a garden before and am not sure how much I actually do – there is a document with a map on it which I was sent by the estate agent that says it belongs to the Earl of Linlithgowshire who can take it back if I keep any poultry. I therefore look on myself as a watchman..

If I feel that the still lifes in my house say something about the state of my unconscious, the garden says more about the play between my idea of what I present to the world , and the sense of home I want to present to myself when I return.


I spent a lot of time this summer painting my back fence ( the towering green twin canisters in the last pic speak of the incompleteness of the project. Still it’s the same with the Forth Bridge).  At the time it seemed no more than an inexacting task, and a form of exercise a little more practical and located than running in circles . Looking back , I wonder if I was saying something about my boundary. I was aware it was a readily noticeable activity ( although the fence also creates a little pond of privacy behind it), and I wanted  it to look like some other fences, but unlike the collapsing and chaotic fence attached to the garden of domestic rubbish next door.

That accomplished I don’t know what I am supposed to do with my enclosure. I wander round the village looking at the gardens – I  think  I can identify  three sorts. The first is simply an extension of the domestic life within –  – the photos of my garden looking out have that air. Then there is another type which presents a front to the world – of particular arrangements of space; a display . Regularly placed  sunflowers, matching coloured ornaments, interesting floral combinations or a regulation boot brown fence.  The third type may merge with the second, but the primary source of pleasure is for the resident.


My neighbour has lived in her house for fifty years , her garden has layers like  dendrochronology.  It has a model railway lapping round it, made by her recently deceased husband, and a actual tree at its centre. She rarely leaves its confines but is convinced that some one is breaking in to steal her fuscias. She has spotlights linked to movement sensors trained around the garden. They go off when I use my kitchen sink.

I find myself weeding  – pulling out the plants I know the names of and leaving the ones I don’t recognise that don’t grow so well .

Belonging might be about time passing, or activity, or an inner space of relaxation. But I think its probably about not thinking of an alternative. As in the phrases , ‘AH belong ORMISTON’, or ‘We ve aye been In Ormiston’, which are equivalents, with the main equivalence being the stress placed on the actionword, the emphasis implying that this an active state of being.

A river is ..

Even on the border of the most frequented paths are many things travellers have passed by unheeded or unexamined. (from Natural History of Deeside and Braemar)

I find William MacGillivray’s grave by accident in New Calton graveyard. Exploring.  It is a little out of place. A lump of red granite with faded gold lettering, an orra lump, amongst the grey neo-classicism of the Victorian Northern Athenic elite. It is illegible.


As he often was.

And of course redolent of Aberdeen, where he was born, and ultimately lived and died. And where the previous summer I had noticed a plaque marking his home there.  I recognised his name from his dominating presence in Raptor, by James McDonald Lockhart. He says he had also discovered him by accident, but hangs his book around MacGillivray’s sophomore journey from Aberdeen , via Fort William and Carlisle , to the ornithological collection of the British Museum. On foot. 800 miles or more of continuous, self absorbed quest.

I can see why . There is something Dostoyevskian about this lumbering intent figure. During much of the journey  he shuns company , and is refused lodgings due to his appearance. Over one agonising period after he crosses the Border , he is without food and shelter, as he repeatedly has the English banknote he has collected in Carlisle refused,  allegedly due to fear of forgery.

Rise with or before the sun

Walk at least five miles

Give at least half a dozen putts to a heavy stone

Make six leaps

Drink milk twice a day

Wash face, ears and feet

Preserve seven specimens of natural history ( whether in propria persona or by drawing)

Read the Chapter on Anatomy in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica

Read the Book of Job

Abstain from cursing and swearing

Above all procrastination is to be shunned

(from Journey to London, edited by R. Ralph)

I wonder about MacGillivray’s wilful eccentricity – is it mere stubbornness. He lives by a set of strict imperatives,and battles a Biblical sense of shame.

This man grew up on Harris, and maybe that explains a lot. He was raised by a grandparent , having been effectively abandoned by his father in Aberdeen, following the death of his mother. He went back to University there aged twelve, walking back and forward to the Long Island for the holiday period each year. Science, linking him to his God, was a given and a kind of extended worship. A calling.

MacGillivray was a success . He was a professor, with a large family, who introduced the idea of fieldwork to university curricula, had bird North American bird species named after him by James Audubon in gratitude for his assistance with his work and was credited as the discoverer of the hooded crow..


‘What ?!’

MacGillivray was a failure. His exquisite illustrations to his enormous and exhaustive history of British Birds were too expensive for him to afford to include, and his star fell behind other popularisers of Victorian natural history. He was not able to gain academic credit in Edinburgh, and periodically shucked off his responsibilities to go wandering back into the hills.

MacGillivray’s grave was originally illustrated by the engraving of a golden eagle – one of the most famous of his illustrations, which were collected in the Natural History Museum after his death. The metal plate has now been stolen – presumably for its value as scrap- leaving only a vague impression in the limey foundation behind it, looking something like an eviscerated pigeon.

We make stories though. McGillvray made a few of his own. In his massive bird books , he decided to insert diversions, mock dialogues and such to break up the (fairly unrelenting) flow of anatomical and habitat details of the species. He and Audubon wander through the Pentlands, puffing up each others reputations, and blasting the hell out of anything unfamiliar with feathers..


Mecistura longicaudata

The Long Tailed Mufflin

Bottle Tom. Bottle Tit. Long Tailed Mag.

Huck-Muck. Poke Pudding. Mum-Rufflin
( species heading from A History of British Birds, Indigenous and Migratory)

I am more interested whether in his journals he had a posterity in mind. Two survive ,  a Hebridean one, has  him as rather cool young doctor, waiting to find his direction, while he dallies with an number of young women, and knocks off the fauna of the Hebrides, and stuffs a bear. A few, perhaps chastening years later, he manically walks to London.

And of course he has been reinterpreted, as great. or lost , or a bit Aspy. My own wonder was if he could be  reclaimed as a founder of psychogeography. He has a particular eye sometimes . For instance in this quote

A river is nothing but a continuous series of continually renewed drops of water following each other in a groove. (from Natural History of Deeside and Braemar)

It has I think a crystal clarity ( see what I did there!) -seeing beyond the obvious to what is really there. MacGillivray would not have liked to think that rambling was his purpose, although I think it was his therapy. There is a transcendent effort to his attempts to describe his birds that I recognise. See them- see what I see, see me.

A flight of sandpipers is a beautiful sight; there they wheel around the distant point, and advance over the margin of the water; swiftly and silently they glide along now, all inclining their bodies to one side, present to view their undersurface, glistening in the sunshine; again, bending to the other side; they have changed their colour to dusky grey; a shot is fired, and they plung with an abrupt turn, curve aside, ascend with a gliding flight, and all, uttering shrill cries, fly over the stream to settle on the shore that settles out towards Barnbogle ruins. (from A History of British Birds, Indigenous and Migratory)


We might see MacGillivray as an outsider . Hurrying away from society. Split into pieces by his journeys and the different things he was at the ends of them – orphan, Calvinist, Gael, lad of Pairts, proto-scientist, Establishment figure, family man.  Occasionally needing to run to the hills with his demons (failings).


But we can also see him as making the journeys of many lower middle class Scotsmen, on foot towards improving prospects and methods of transportation, with a discomfort about the pace of change and a nostalgia for the space in which they lived, and their animal companion. And perhaps authoring himself, in a way which now invites our post-modern counter-readings.

What do we know though?

I found some of MacGillivray’s illustrations on the NHM website. The reminded me of a story about Richard Richardson a later ornithological  artist, attempting to ‘penetrate beyond the inscrutable eye’ of the nesting black-tailed godwit. Richardson’s legend is that he could somehow ‘think bird’. which means really he could predict what it might be about to do next (so they believed)*.

MacGillivray might also have aspired to this, yet most of his illustrations give back a blank stare. He lived in a world before binocs, so perhaps there is a prosaic explanation, but I like the metaphor. MacGillivray gives us back his own blank stare. We don’t know his essence , he merely reflects the light.

Or is it a reflection – if we were close enough and looking from the right direction it would be. What might we want from this character?  There is a fashion for the unsociable outcast, the oddball , the fool on the hill, which it would be easy to fit him into. But looked at closely almost any self made Victorian scientist would look gauche and autistic. I have biographies of Smith and Gould and said Hugh Miller,which talk to their uncomfortable translation from humble, determined (nay obsessive) repetition (and origin) to the sacred methods of science. Usually the transformations of activity were easier that the crossing of the class divide and the coupling of faith and truth. MacGillivray seems both intractable and prolific. His exhortations to himself are the apogee of self-discipline (or self-punishment , as we might see it now) . But it  worked – he was either a genius or a driven man. Probably both.

MacGillivray appears to have been of an irritable , highly sensitised temperament, fired with enthusiasm and ambition, yet contending, for some time at least, with poverty; ill health and a perhaps not well-founded , though not the less acutely felt, sense of neglect.. thus ceaselessly moved to accomplish yet as continually haunted by the dread of failure… This author was undoubtedly unwise in his frankness, but dipomacy is a stranger to such characters. He never hesitated to differ sharply with anyone, or to express his own views pointedly – if he scarcely disguised his contempt for triflers, blockheads, pedants, compilers and theorizers he was nevertheless a lover of nature , an original thinker, a hard student , and finally an ornithologist of large practical experience, who wrote down what he knew or believed to be true with great regard for accuracy if statement and in a very agreeable manner ( Elliot Coues)

I spent an afternoon with his pictures, or the reproductions of them in Robert Ralph‘s popularisation.  He is not an artist to omit detail , and so things are not naturalistic. He paints one of the great auks (from a skin he was given) dwarfing a rock shelf ( with a limpet for scale), but about to be breached under a wave of shaving foam type fluff , which runs unconvincingly off towards what looks like Toe Head on the west coast of Harris ( where McG grew up). Another outsize and awkward great auk bobs in the distance. (I thought we’ll never know how it moved..)

For painting I have a natural genius and in as far as I have tried this art I have succeeded well. Flower drawing however is the only branch of it in which I have made considerable progress

(from Hebridean Journal)

He is good at plants , and careful to set his specimens in naturalistic scenes – birds breach from a sycamore supporting two cushats, lichens smother the rocks below a slightly off balance looking ptarmigan. It looks like its modelling.


Some birds I think he has studied in life – wrens, linnets, pigeons- feel that ,despite the anatomical verisimilitude, they have been seen. They look like they are about to move (albeit often from unlikely starting points).

Unfortunately the golden eagle picked for his memorial would only move if it had a battery. it sits weightless on an unconcerned rabbit, string vacuously into the middle distance.


MacGillivray became a voracious cataloguer  – fish, molluscs, shells, cattle (but for some reason, perhaps a financial one, not plants). One of the linnets which were about to take off in the last paragraph hangs limply from the mouth of an ermine – the stoatie s eye glints with excitement.

Ralph’s selection of plates ends with a horseshoe bat. One bat hangs unobtrusively on a by now familiar, foraminiferous rock outcrop. Another soars off into the space of the white page, tiny toenails expanded – as near weightless as  can be.


Its a good place to end.

Mr Mcleod accompanied us as far as the mouth of the rivulet, on which we fished yesterday.At parting he gave us a true highland clasp, which spoke to my sentient faculty of a heart warm with tenderness. Excepting the grasp of Jessy Simpson, last year, I never felt a more endearing one. As to his character I dare not meddle with it… Fare-thee-well, my dear friend. May the blast of Misfortune fall lightly on thy frame ! (from Hebridean Journal)

* this is from here





Walter Benjamin and the pizza box in the wood

I found an abandoned pizza box in a sun-speckled wood as I was completing my post about the dialectical image. It spoke to me.  I have taken it’ s picture and wonder if I can use it to illustrate my understanding.


Ive noticed before in discussions about philosophical and other imagined concepts, agreement (or understanding) can usually feel enabled/achieved , but it is only tested when you have to use it.

The pizzabox reposes on the spoil heaps which mark the remains of Tynemount Colliery and Coal Washing Plant.They have been lightly sprinkled by a silver birch wood, and undersown by an active  and unofficial motorbike scrambling course. There is a shrine to a dead teenage daredevil nearby, and it is only advisable to visit the wood during school hours or when it is raining buckets.


The maw of spoil with adjacent birches

The pizzabox features a photo of the Duomo in Venice ,outlined in cool blue ,and has  faded into its back ground of dark grey and  black bodyradiant ash.

It felt  as natural to find it there as the other things I had  been looking at – cowslips, whitethroats, speckled wood butterflies. These things come together in an ecological community we know as the Edgeland , an area for discarding, unofficial use and surprisingly fecund wildlife living on the margins of the vermin controlled, pesticide and insecticide laden agri-desert which forms most of the official countryside.

The pizza must have made a journey of five miles to the wood , from either Tranent or Pathhead, possibly partly by home delivery, more likely by full throttle scrambler, with passenger hanging onto the box, in the spirit of local sidecar legend Jock Taylor. There is also a historical journey of around a century from the arrival of small groups of Italian immigrants in Scottish communities to the centring of pizza as a street food of choice for the non-metropolitan Scottish working class, which creates a marketing nexus between an image of classicism in the post-Renaissance duomo, and an expectation of reliably authentic ‘Italian’ ( but really Scottish) taste.

And then there is the inevitable disposal of the box. No rebel without a cause takes their  litter home with them. And the box does nothing to ask you to retain it. I didn’t open it – it may be full of feasting ants, and it will  eventually decompose . In time, once the ink runs away. But more slowly than the packaging would have done a decade before.

What is my claim about this as a dialectical image?

Benjamin recognises the danger that an object decentred from its original use, will become a poignant and sentimental locus. It will encourage us to look back at the past with nostalgia, or attempt to ascribe value to its rarity and uniqueness as a survival, while denying it any use value. I give you the Antiques Roadshow..

His concept is that the ‘surprise’ of the image, creates a counter thought which asks us to consider our current situation from an external perspective, which is both real and yet usually unthought and directs us to a critique of our everyday situation, which is only resolvable by changing it.

The surprise for me was the dappled light, which made no distinction between pizza box and understory, and the relative bareness of the latter ( due to the toxic washout which cuts away potential colonising flora, as  just as effectively do the wheels of the scramblers). So the box is both crisply defined and has a patina of weathering.


Here are my counter thoughts ( the dialectic)

Why do my tracks and those of dissolute teens keep crossing, despite the fact we are both seeking space? Social margins have always required a pioneer phase where their colonisers have self-identified as outlaws and interactions are unpredictable. These spaces have shrunk.  Housing shortages driven by profiteering on land prices are keeping teenagers in overcrowded family homes, while social mores and gender modelling stress risk, independence and reaching a point of control over danger. The open space of the countryside is being colonized- physically, by agriculture, housing development and planning, imaginatively, by the bastard children of Robert McFarlane. The risk of a speeding two-stroke petrol engine is the best deterrent to a New Nature Writer, and, for an itinerant blogger, reduces the danger of finding that once again someone has already written that piece.


The former pavilion in Ormiston demolished last year in municipal improvements to park and sporting facilities

More generally what does the exponential growth of writing about previously overlooked nature say about our current society?  Actually, I am sure several people have already written that piece, so lets move on.

Does the concept of litter have a place in the Edgelands ? I would have removed the pizza box from my garden , but I recorded it there, as I would a wildlife siting. In a place of  contested purpose, who decides what is litter?

What historical connections exist between the artefact and its surroundings?The original impetus for the immigration from Italy was industrialization of the agricultural processes. These were the same processes that in the eighteenth century led to the creation of Ormiston as a model village , with ‘craft industries’ , such as linen bleaching to support the subsequently disinherited farm labour force, creating capital , which further opened up industrial development and making large scale investments such as collieries and railways possible , transforming the area into an industrial landscape – where teenagers left school to work in the washing plant on this site, and then as the market moved abroad,  leaving it without any local employment and a dodgy internet connection and transport links . Although it is not hard to buy drugs.Or pizza.


Kayleigh is queen for a day! 17 of her classmates never will be..

One of the most damning criticisms of Benjamin and his followers in the Frankfurt School is that they adapted Marxism to interpret the world and not to change it,which is proving much harder , and instead lived ( with the exception of Benjamin, who committed suicide  while trying to escape, fairly incompetently, from Nazi occupied Europe) comfortable lives in what Lukacs describes as the Grand Hotel Abyss * ( eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine).

I probably should do something more energised with my time than take pictures of pizza boxes.  Engage with the youth group in the next town which does brilliant work with teenagers getting them to repair motorbikes?  Buy a two-stroke and rev it up the sharp end of Bellyford Bing?  Of course , that is  how the dialectic works – thesis, antithesis- can there be a synthesis . or only a further thesis?  (so,  probably another blog post)


Ormiston Maltings in winter (distance)

*Also the title of a recent readable account of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries. The Shirley McLaine reference is , however,gratuitious.

Walter Benjamin’s ghost


This isnt a picture of Walter Benjamin. Those are on the internet. This is Longwood open air  theatre in Kirklees. Other images come from Bo’ness, Humbie Churchyard and the Necropolis, Glasgow

The true creative overturning of religious illumination does not reside in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination.

My intent when I decided to triangulate my blog was to seek behind the quotes I had lovingly copied.  I knew more about Walter Benjamin than the others, so I thought it would be easy to find the context of profane illuminations.

Of course dear reader that is not what happened.  We are now , I think, four years on , and many inter-library loans, ad hoc visits to the National Library , clandestine google searches, seances, and invocations of flaneurism in the streets of my town, have not produced the body.


I don’t know where the quote comes from, I don’t know where i found it, and I don’t even know if it totally, utterly, is from Walter.

I suspect it is though. He wandered around 1930s continental Europe dropping aphorisms out of his pockets in a way which was both generous, and careless.  And he spent a fair bit of time in Marseilles getting stoned. This is where I looked first.

Disappointingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly , Benjamin is not very interesting on drugs (in either sense). The writing in Hashish in Marseilles, is, like ‘Did you ever think how far away the sky is..’ or , how I spent an hour  trying to change channels on the tv via the keypad on someones mobile  phone. For example,’ under hashish we are enraptured prose beings in the highest power’.


While stoned, Benjamin , like many others has seen things in a different way. Unlike others , he has usefully realised that there isn’t much further to go in that direction.




Benjamin’s overturnings are attempts to recover the human endeavour that is reified in the form of the Thing . In this case – illumination seen as a transformatory viewing of the world, but not through the historic form of organised religion, so therefore , profane.

Profane is an antonym of sacred. It has also acquired the useful synonyms of unholy and irreverent. So Benjamin has set up an oxymoron. Possibly . Or something that is hard to think of- a kind of eternal dialectic.  But, yet,  not hard to feel – music , for example is an obvious possibility of profane illumination ( unless we accept its origin as sacred and everything following being a debasement of that. But to do so is also to accept that the religious experience is at the centre of being human, and all other experience is somehow lacking – which I,of course, don’t).


We can experience Things as illuminations – as storied, overdetermined artefacts of lost dreams and buried labour as Benjamin’s collections and catalogues are.  But there are surely too many of them to deal with. Benjamin produced aphorisms , short essays, and never finished The Arcades Project. It got swept away in the river of things.

The context in which a profane illumination can occur, must also be in contrast to a sublime one. It must be unexpected, personal, possibly ( hopefully ) shared.  The experience that led to my story The Faces is one for me. That happened thirty years ago now, and told me something about the world and who I was within it.


I  began looking for profane illuminations in nature . There are some pictures of them on the blog. My idea vaguely was that confrontation with the overlooked, ephemeral and indifferent environment around us might supply a focus for reorientation. But I realise that they will not be illuminations to anyone else.  They are actually about  my experiences, and  about the wish and struggle to share these.


The mythogeographer ,  Phil Smith, uses the phrase To See Whats Really There in his work . This comprises various disorientation or immersion techniques to reimagine the mundane .  These can be profane illuminations.

Recently, psychogeographing, I’ve looked at the epitaph on a bench in the Royal Mile, artificial plants on cafe tables, the dark straight track down Lovers Lane, and felt changed. It has been possible to share these moments with others. Not necessarily in the ‘Look, look at that!’ moment, but in the sense of the Being There as part of the scene, like the guys on the bench.


Benjamin is loved for something affective in his writing, which seems to link the past and the future, via a provisional present which may be there , but we can’t quite see. He has this notion of the dialectical image, which at one level is contradictory , at another is phantasmagorical , yet somehow suggestive of an unstable and provisional arrangement which acts as a nexus for a number of conversation

Benjamin sees language as the natural expression of dialectical images*. His language – full of aphorism and oxymoron. I think they can in turn act as  harbingers ( another favourite Benjamin word) of profane illuminations. And that is what we are about here.


* the new dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world, a world in which that dream which we name the past, refers to in truth (Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p339)



The beast inside..

IMG_20180302_142202058It seems the Beast has given us the chance to see something familiar anew.

I spent yesterday looking for falling icicle risk. There was  a sign about it outside the bike shop, with some cordoning off tape like something had ACTUALLY HAPPENED.


I was hanging around for a bit whilst someone came to talk to me about panniers. Everyone looked up nervously , and there were (I checked) some actual fang-like icicles, distant, three storeys above us.


I wandered the streets that afternoon looking up. At the surprising height of the tenements, and the intricacies of the roof architecture, until a couple of hours later the ice risk had dissolved.


I like Walter Benjamin s phrase about ‘profane illuminations’, largely because I dont think I can really ever define what it means.

IMG_20180304_144152917But clearly sometimes they happen.