Spiral Learning

Spiral learning moves through complexity with partial understanding, allowing for later returns… What was once barely intelligible may be deeply meaningful a second time. And a third. (Bateson, 1994; p.31)

I’m currently reading Peripheral Visions by Mary Catherine Bateson (1994), enjoying how she weaves reflections on research, items and places. The quotes above are from a section on the non-linear nature of learning which appeals to me; what Bateson calls “spiral learning” in the example above. She talks about how rote learning can have a value in embedding information deeply within the minds of students, with the view that it can be returned to and puzzled out over a lifetime.

I have a fondness for poems from school and know many friends and colleagues who will recite word-perfect poems from their childhood. We often return to them in the way that Bateson speaks of, unpick and stitch them into our lives, our speech and our stories. But all too often, I think we memorize to forget; here I’m thinking of the large amount of cramming I have done for examinations only to see the “knowledge” drift away once the exam is completed. When I return to the same textbooks now, it is with a sense of rediscovery, of connecting the information with the life experiences I have had since, of reaching a deeper layer of understanding by revisiting with time to explore.

I am conscious of the packed curricula that students in most disciplines encounter, the resulting sense of panic at the volume of material that has to be absorbed, soon to be regurgitated for examination. Working on the PhD has given me a space to spiral back, though also a sense of that same panic, the awareness of the volume of material, and the desire to find my space and place in the discourse.

[In] the action of the needle, the embroidered line grows through the repeated looping back of the trailing thread-line between where the point meets the surface and where the thread meets the eye. Telling stories involves a similar looping back of present experience to connect with that of the past. (Ingold, 2011; p. 195)

Newgrange tomb entrance passage and stone with spirals
spudmurphy, Newgrange, Meath, CC BY-SA 2.0

The image is of the Newgrange passage tomb in Meath. I love this place, the silence and peace in the tomb, the steady temperature no matter the weather, the little lightbulb set up in the roofbox to simulate the return of the sun at midwinter. Thinking of spirals brought me spiraling back to the entrance stone, the guardian before entering the tomb. This is matched by the kerbstone on the rear of the tomb, discussed in the short YouTube video below. The spiral is not just a spiral, we are told, it is more complex than that. Following Ingold’s quote above, I loop my experience to my past and to the distant past, to others who traced the spirals before me.  There’s probably a metaphor for my PhD in this 🙂

 

Finally, you may be wondering why there is a snail in this post. I like snails, with their mathematical shells and way of spiraling across paths, writing in a silver code that I can’t decipher. I envy their ability to regenerate their nervous systems. And returning to Bateson, I find myself wondering what their “peripheral vision” is with their multimodal view of our shared habitat (Matsuo, 2017).

References

Bateson, M. C. (1994). Peripheral visions: Learning along the way. New York: HarperCollins. https://www.harpercollins.com/9780060926304/peripheral-visions

Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. London and New York: Taylor & Francis. https://www.routledge.com/Being-Alive-Essays-on-Movement-Knowledge-and-Description/Ingold/p/book/9780415576840

Matsuo, R. (2017). The Computation and Robustness of the Mini-Cognitive Centers of Terrestrial Mollusks: An Exquisite Outcome of Brain Evolution. In Brain Evolution by Design (pp. 101-122). Tokyo: Springer. https://www.springer.com/us/book/9784431564676

Ghosts on the windowsill

It is spring and I was watering and repotting houseplants the other day when I stopped to look at my leafy companions. Sitting side-by-side were three plants whose original owners have since died. That got me thinking – we write wills to distribute our bits and pieces at the end of our lives, but do we think about our plants?

A quick search on the interweb and I get plenty of suggestions about what to do if a plant is dying, but not what to do if you discover you are suddenly in charge of someone else’s plants because they hadn’t/couldn’t make prior arrangements before they die. That’s now on my to-do list; I’m seeking out a plant guardian who will take care of my plants if I’m no longer able to do so. It’s the least I can do for all the fine, clean air and calm, green, de-stressing companionship they have given to me.

As for the memories of plant-owners past, Freeman et al. (2012) discuss plant memories, or plants-as-memories, in the gardens of New Zealand homeowners. As in my case, there are histories associated with the plants, how old they are, why they were planted, the memories associated with who gifted, planted, played with and shared space with them. Freeman et al. emphasise the importance of the role the plants play in the mental wellbeing and emotional support of their human co-habitants, highlighting that there is little research focus on this value to date, though awareness of these benefits is increasing.

In the spirit of sharing the ghosts on my windowsill, what follows are three brief introductions to the plants who brought this to my attention: Aunt Ella’s busy lizzie, Auntie Brede’s tiger’s eye and Margaret’s jade tree.

Aunt Ella’s busy lizzie

Busy Lizzie plant in pot

The original plant lived on the turn of the stairs in Aunt Ella’s house in Tuphall Road. Aunt Ella was my husband’s aunt and she was kind enough to adopt me too. She caught me eyeing up the plant, as it was a glorious flowering mass. In good form, she snapped off a bit and gave it to me. Following good family practice, I wrapped it in a bit of damp tissue and brought it home to plant up. It has grown very well, sitting in a pot I inherited from my paternal grandparents. Like its parent plant, it flowers gloriously and needs a bit of a trim to defy its triffid qualities every now and again. There is a very nice spider that lives in the middle, who wanders out to complain when I water her too much. Aunt Ella moved into sheltered housing about five years ago and passed away in 2017. I have no idea what happened to the original plant. Part of it though, is growing happily with me.

Auntie Brede’s tiger’s eye

Photo of tiger's eye begonia with busy lizzie in the background

Auntie Brede was my maternal grandmother’s cousin, so in good Irish respectful terms, she was Auntie to all the assorted small people. She was renowned for being able to feed hordes without the slightest effort and won my brother’s heart by cheerfully letting him climb her wall shelves and rummage in her cupboards for biscuits. She passed away over twenty years ago, but her memories, and her plant, are still here. The tiger’s eye begonia (the name I’ve always known it by) that lives with me came from a cutting of a cutting that Auntie Brede gave my mum when I was small. My mum no longer has the original plant, so I’m growing a cutting to give back to her.

Margaret’s jade tree

Jade plant Margaret was our neighbour when I moved in with Gavin to a flat on Gilmerton Road in 2004. She had a jade plant that expired when she was away on holiday, so I gifted her with a new one. I maintained a range of plants on the windowsills in the common stairwell and one day, Margaret came out of her apartment to ask me if the jade tree could come back into my care. I was happy to look after it, so it moved to the windowsill outside her door so she could see it as she went in and out. Shortly afterwards, she passed away and the jade plant moved with me when we went to Haddington. That jade plant now has many siblings across the Lothians, as I harvest cuttings now and again for our student “grab a plant” wellbeing sessions at the vet school.

My partner in plant “crime” is Louise and we both share cuttings from our plants and from plants around the school sitting on colleagues’ windowsills. We have joked that no one ever really buys a spider plant anymore, that they are offshoots (pun intended) from family plants of long ago. My windowsill ghosts also include a red peace lily gifted to me when I left Stevenson College over 10 years ago and a Christmas cactus I adopted when I found it abandoned in an office at the vet school. There are memories in the garden too, with plants that have traveled in damp tissue carried by friends and family members to take root and keep us company.

The very least I can do is ensure someone cares for them when I go. I’m off to make a list!

Reference

Freeman, C., Dickinson, K. J., Porter, S., & van Heezik, Y. (2012). “My garden is an expression of me”: Exploring householders’ relationships with their gardens. Journal of Environmental Psychology32(2), 135-143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.01.005 [#paywall]

Digging into digital compost

I have a confession to make – I’m rubbish at writing catchy titles for things. I know a great title when I see it, but the Title Muse has passed me by. This causes problems when writing articles or conference abstracts; you want something that sounds interesting, but can end up causing confusion.

My recent abstract to the Networked Learning 2018 conference is a case in point. I knew what I meant when I added “Digital Compost” into my title, but completely failed to explain to my readers. The very kind reviewers pointed out that I should either explain or remove, hinting that I should seriously think if it was necessary to include.

And that’s the key point – is it essential? I knew it was, but I hadn’t explained why. I included an outline in my revised paper and am now sharing my thoughts with a little more depth. So on we go – let’s dig in to digital compost!

My brief explanation in my paper is as follows:

Inspired by her partner, Haraway (2016) proposed the term “compost” as an alternative to posthuman, as human and more-than-human alike become compost. I see the data gathered and shared through [my proposed research] networked stories as forming “digital compost”, acknowledging that the networked relationships include human-to-human, human-to-more-than-human, human-to-things, and human-to-place.

I like this term, I like “becoming compost”, as I personally find “posthuman” a bit anti-human. Moving from being anthropocentric to ecocentric does not make me any less human. Instead, it encourages me to be aware of all my relations, to connect as best I can with the Others that I share my life with. As Haraway states, it is about “making kin”.

Compost, that rich living humus cake, is wonderful stuff. I am at my happiest when up to my elbows in soil and take great delight in making more, making-with my soil-production kin of microbes, earthworms, fungi, et al. Refer to “soil”, “fungus” and “posthuman” in the same paragraph and I’m off on a rhizomatic tangent with Deleuze and Guattari (1987). Better yet, Ingold’s (2011) moving mycelial meshwork of relational, participative engagement in the world. I talk about “living compost”; compost is decay-in-action, decomposition of the dead to nourish the becoming of the living. By choosing this term, Haraway reminds us of the process of living and dying in kinship with each Other. I am aware I’m comfortable with this process, but it is not so for everyone.

So much for compost, what about the “digital”? Our “digital footprint” could as easily be termed our “digital compost”, the data we can be reduced or decomposed to, the traces we leave online. Part of my work includes using various forms of digital data to gather more detailed information on a location to share with others. In some cases, people actively wish to “capture” something from their local place; the use of digital and analogue media means that the element in question is left in situ, yet “taken home” by the person. “Digital” may facilitate an Ingoldian entangling of the person and place data, a composting of the physical and the virtual. The goal is to create a rich substrate to nourish stories from our places around the world, to celebrate our relations.

I’ll keep you posted on how that progresses!

References

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing. https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/thousand-plateaus-9780826476944/

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, London: Duke University Press. https://www.dukeupress.edu/staying-with-the-trouble

Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. Taylor & Francis. https://www.routledge.com/Being-Alive-Essays-on-Movement-Knowledge-and-Description/Ingold/p/book/9780415576840

Bees in lime trees

As today is World Honey Bee Day, it seemed appropriate to finish a post I started in July! What can I say, I’m a slow blogger 🙂

Bumblebee on lime blossom in Haddington, East Lothian
Bumblebee on lime blossom in Haddington, East Lothian

Our travels this summer took us to Svalbard. The most notable difference for us between Svalbard and our home in Scotland were the bees.

Bees, our Longyearbyen guide told us, are not seen in Svalbard. Coulson et al. (2014) reported that any honey bees found in Svalbard are classed as “accidental migrants”, with the bumblebee completely absent from the archipelago.

The contrast was most strongly demonstrated the day after we returned home. As we walked under the lime trees beside the River Tyne in Haddington, each tree hummed with a variety of pollinators, including honey and bumblebees [55.954270, -2.772102 to 55.951603, -2.773239].

Below is the recording I made as I walked by the river. Note that I started giggling as the bagpipes started up, further proof, if proof was needed, that I was recording in Scotland!

I found out more about solitary bees in this thought-provoking video from Team Candiru, tweeted by the London Beekeepers (@LondonBeeKeeper) on August 12th 2016.

The Solitary Bees from Team Candiru on Vimeo.

As a further celebration of all things East Lothian-bee related, we treated ourselves to a jar of local Cockenzie spring honey from Jacobite Apiaries, via our local food assembly.

Three cheers for East Lothian bees, and it is lovely to be home!

 

Reference:

Coulson, S.J., Convey, P., Aakra, K., Aarvik, L., Ávila-Jiménez, M.L., Babenko, A., Biersma, E.M., Boström, S., Brittain, J.E., Carlsson, A.M. and Christoffersen, K. (2014). The terrestrial and freshwater invertebrate biodiversity of the archipelagoes of the Barents Sea; Svalbard, Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 68, pp.440-470.