Monday, February 27, 2012

How to use distant landmarks

How to use distant landmarks
Every walker has noticed distant landmarks. Anything can be used as a distant landmark: church towers are classic triangulation and orientation points but modern wind turbines, windmills, office blocks, microwave relay towers, transmission line towers and even trees can be used as landmarks. The landmarks need not be permanent - even a column of smoke is useful and welcome.
But does every walker know how to use a landmark correctly? How to use it for more than orientation? How to use it for psychogeography?

Horizon - A landmark can be used to mark your horizon. You can see the landmark from afar. You may see it many times during your walks. You may get to know it intimately. But still - you can never see all your landmarks up close.
Some landmarks - even most of them - will stay forever out of reach. You can look at them longingly from the distance but you will never touch them. This could make you sad - but it can also make you happy.
Be happy that at least you could see the landmark from the distance - you might not have seen and known it at all. Be thankful for the horizon and the discoveries it promises - and be thankful for the discoveries it hides.

The other side - Often you see the landmark from one side only. Your daily commute leads you past a prominent landmark but you never have time to explore it. Does it really have another side? Could other people see the other side? What is behind the landmark? What does it hide?
Make a decision now - explore or speculate? Destroy the mystery or leave it intact?
If the landmark is on your horizon you will have to walk far to see the other side. Walking far is good - but there will always be other sides that you wil never get to see. This could make you sad - but it can also make you happy.
Be happy that there are still some mysteries in this modern scientific world. Be thankful for the small revelations and mythologies - be thankful for the monsters in the white spots of your personal map.
Changes - Observe how the landmark changes as you move through space and time. Or how it does not change. Usually you travel faster than the landmark. Usually you change much faster than the landmark. This could make you sad - but it can also make you happy.
Be happy with the islands of stability in this unstable world. Be happy if the landmark will survive you - you share in its eternity. (Church towers are especially useful for this purpose.)
Background - Notice how the landmark stands out from the background. Look, think, analyze. What makes the landmark different from the background? Then notice yourself. Look, think, analyze. Probably you don't stand out against your background - at least not as much as the landmark. This could make you sad - but it can also make you happy.
Be happy with the role of observer - as part of the background you go unnoticed, you can see things that other people overlook. Be thankful that you can save your energy - being a landmark is a tiresome business.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Elements of the Dutch landscape - 1

My wife and I are halfway through the "Green heart of Holland" walking book. The walks are 10 - 15 km in length and at our snails pace each takes 3 hours of more. My wife hates it when I take photographs because she wants to walk, not to stand still. But I cannot resist.

Hitland - Capelle aan den IJssel - Towards the river
Gradually patterns emerge and beg to be recorded, documented  and shared. They are not spectacular and the reader may ask: "so what?". But for me there is a big difference between knowing something unconsciously and really becoming aware of it. What was background suddenly becomes foreground.
I'm playing a psychogeographic game of "go fish" with myself. I'm making a collection of "elements of the Dutch landscape". Each time I get a set of five I publish it. This means that the most obvious patterns will be published first. This is intentional because the most obvious patterns are sometimes the most invisible patterns (see E.A. Poe: The purloined letter).

The flatness
Somehow the flatness seeps into your pores and drains energy from you. The flatness is beautiful and is covered  by vast protestant skies. But it reveals everything at a glance and has no hidden corners and no subconscious. An inhuman Cartesian geometry of pure thought. There are no mysteries here - everything is like it is written, all content must be taken literally, no hidden meanings, "sola scriptura". The huge eye of God sees everything. No country for magicians and occultists.
Hitland - Capelle aan den IJssel - Towards Rotterdam
The landscape is unbounded and the eye finds no rest because lines of sight run to infinity. In hilly country I can breathe more easily. I don't need mountains, small hills are enough for me. But you have to travel far to find any. In the Dutch flatlands there is no visible history - the landscape is medieval but hides its age. Hilly country reveals its age more easily.

The classic poem
The most obvious elements of the Dutch landscape have already been listed by Hendrik Marsman (1899-1940) in his famous poem about the Low Countries - in a beautiful translation by Paul Vincent:
Memory of Holland

Thinking of Holland
I see wide-flowing rivers
slowly traversing
infinite plains,
rarefied poplars
like lofty plumes
on the skyline in lanes;
and submerged in the vastness
of unbounded spaces
the farmhouses
strewn over the land,
tree clumps, villages,
truncated towers,
churches and elm trees -
all wondrously planned.
The sky hangs low
and slowly the sun by
mists of all colours
is stifled and greyed
and in all the regions
the voice of the water
with its endless disasters
is feared and obeyed.
I've made a list of landscape elements that I have noticed independent of this beautiful poem and that I will write about.  It's interesting to speculate why I missed the others, because they are very true also:
  • Noticed : wide-flowing rivers, infinite plains, poplars in lanes, skyline, submerged farmhouses, vastness of unbounded space, truncated towers, churches.
  • Missed : tree clumps, villages, elm trees, low sky, sun stifled by vapors.
And I don't really have a good idea why the landscape is so flat. Is it because it's an alluvial plain? Or is the flatness artificially enhanced by centuries of water management and peat burning? I will have to research that.

Horizon illusion
Woerden - On Google maps
Strangely enough these oppressive "infinite plains" and "vast unbounded spaces" look larger than they are. In the picture above the village of Kamerik is barely visible at the horizon. This is only 4 km distant. But still it looks infinite and unbounded. Not only in a photograph, in real life it also feels endless.
Hazerswoude - On Google maps
The same illusion occurs in Hazerswoude. Here the windmill of Rietveld is visible on the horizon, and possibly the poplars of the Spookverlaat and Galgweg ("Ghost-lock" and "Gallows-road" - I only noticed these names while searching Google maps - there must be some history behind this). The windmill is 1 km away and the poplars 4 km. Again closer than they appear. The same happens when we're walking: we reach distant-looking landmarks earlier than we expect.

Many different translations of the Marsman poem
Detailed explanation of one translation of the Marsman poem
E.A. Poe - The Purloined Letter
Explanation of the Ghost-lock name
Map of the area from 1773

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Landscape memory and tabby patterns

The fresh snow reveals memory patterns in the landscape. I never knew that cars making a U-turn make these interesting double triangles readable as the letter "M" or "W" or whatever you want to make of it. 

Meaning is inscribed on the landscape but most of the time the traces remain invisible. Are they still there when we don't see them? If they remain - even as very thin ghostly traces - then imagine how thick the accumulated layers of past events must be. Can we feel them? Are they recorded on the stone tape of the landscape?

And what to make of the similarity between the unexpected markings and the patterns of tabby cats? Is the landscape looking at us intently with the curious and menacing eyes of the predator? Or is it sleeping and dreaming of short-lived humans passing through in a flash?

Sheba - by BlueRidgeKitties @ Flickr
Luna - by fwooper @ Flickr

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Bird concentrations, species and sex

Bird concentrations and species counts
When the ponds and canals freeze the birds concentrate in the last open spots. These bird concentrations invite basic analysis. Just simple observation and counting during two weekends:
In the open country - furthest from the suburbs:
11 swans (4 juveniles) - 5 ducks (3 male, 2 female) - 5 coots
In the open country - nearer to the suburbs:
47 coot - 1 crested grebe - 1 black headed gull

Inside the suburbs:
15 coot - 7 common moorhen - 131 ducks (83 male, 48 female) - 4 black headed gulls
Inside the suburbs:
Morning: 1 blue heron - 4 common coot
Afternoon: 2 common coot - 16 black headed gulls
Inside the suburbs:  97 black headed gulls - winter plumage
There are a few bigger-looking birds but I'm not sure they are different species - they might be herring gulls but I don't think they are really there
Inside the suburbs:
Morning: 5 ducks (male) - 4 ducks (female) - 5 jackdaws - 28 black headed gulls - 18 common moorhen - 10 common coot - 1 swan - 8 geese
Afternoon: 27 ducks (male) - 13 ducks (female) - 2 common coot - 2 swans - 5 geese
Inside the suburbs:
14 ducks (male) -10 ducks (female) - 1 common moorhen - 2 common coot - 6 egyptian geese

Analysis - did we learn anything?
The number of water bird species in (and around) the suburbs is very low. We counted only 9 species.
  • Ducks and seagulls are the most numerous birds.
  • There is no striking difference between open country bird populations and suburban bird populations. Only the crested grebe has not yet invaded the suburbs, it is seen only in non-urban areas.
  • The difference in numbers of male and female ducks is striking: 2 males for 1 female.
  • The population of a water hole varies significantly during one day.
And did we get any new questions for further research? Not many:
  • Do birds congregate in preexisting open water holes? Or do they keep the water hole open by swimming there?
  • How does the bird population vary during the day? Which birds come and go? Where do they go?
  • What causes the difference in duck sex numbers? Births? Deaths?
  • Do these birds stay in the suburbs in the spring? Or do they leave for the open country?
  • Why are some birds in the water (doing nothing much) and other birds on land (doing nothing much)?  Why do gulls just sit on the ice doing nothing? Why don't they all swim in the water?
Ducks and sex
Obviously ducks are the dominant birds of the suburbs. The difference in numbers of males and females is surprising! But it is correct - I counted very carefully. And I've seen it in smaller ice ponds in the suburbs too: (7 male, 5 female), (2 male, 1 female).

The asymmetry in duck sexes has been noticed by other observers. Amsterdam park administrators say that you should not feed ducks. If you do feed ducks the males have nothing to do and they keep stalking and bothering the females. Many female ducks are drowned that way. On some websites this theme is spun into Victorian prudishness:
Feeding ducks during mating season is very ill-advised. Ducks get bored. And where can you find the best entertainment as a sex crazed duck? By playing your most beloved game: seduction, mating, and stirring up trouble. The females play the males off against each other, which results in frequent and heavy fighting. Not every duck survives the fight intact.
An ironic observation on the sex life of ducks and the morality of men was written by Theo Jansen in his book "The great phantasist":

In my rough translation that does the original no credit:
In the seventies some women I knew started to agitate against endemic rape in duck communities. Not that they tried to prevent it. They understood that succesful measures were unrealistic. To navigate the waters in a vessel and to force the male ducks to practice sound foreplay - by use of sticks or oars - that went too far. Instead of acting they started to discuss the plight of female ducks at birthday parties - at least that was something constructive. They could not do more.

I have to admit that the mating of ducks is not a tender ritual. Each spring there is a lot of noise in the water near my house. Sometimes a female is mounted by two males at the same time. Harmony in nature goes hand in hand with injustice.
De grote fantast - Theo Jansen

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Temperature discovery

During the first psychogeophysical summit in London I performed two temperature walks:
It was a good first try and I should have perfected my techniques since then. But somehow I got sidetracked and I've neglected temperature and measurement.  Then we got a spell of cold winter weather. The cold reawakened my interest in temperature - as a phenomenon to be investigated by psychogeophysical and psychogeographical methods. 

In recent weeks I've been playing with the four thermometers that are in my possession and they are all very different. They have very different characters and I don't understand them yet:

  • The "garden variety" thermometer (the long one) is the easiest to grasp. It measures air temperature. Marcel Minnaert says that you have to swing it through the air "carefully but vigorously" to get a good reading. It is not very accurate but it is quite fast.
  • The digital thermometer (white) is quite accurate but very slow. And when I hold it in my hand I never know if I'm measuring the air temperature or my body temperature. Or a mix of both.
  • The infrared thermometer (pistol shape) is very accurate and extremely quick, but I'm not sure what I'm measuring exactly. Do I measure real temperature (black body radiation) or just the radiation properties of the object? Or a mix of both?
  • The thermocouple that came with my voltmeter (red). Sometimes it gives the same results as the other thermometers and sometimes not. I don't know why.

I have taken my thermometers for walks, but I don't have an intimate relationship with them yet and I cannot write about them as lovingly as Luke Howard does in his "Climate of London" - using scientific but florid Victorian prose:
A Thermometer should be mounted at about five feet from the ground and screwed on a fixed support; not hung up free and liable to swing and strike with violent gusts of wind.
The Thermometer may be set facing that part of the general North exposure, where, from the disposition of the surrounding objects, the heat may have the freest radiation to the open sky; a point which late discoveries show to be important.
To the above mounting, it will in some situations be proper to add a small shelter above the instrument, which shall suffice to keep off direct showers at least — and, at a suitable distance on the West side, a shade moveable on hinges, to be interposed, in the heat of summer, between the instrument and the rays of the afternoon sun.
There will be more about temperature in future posts. This was just a "warm up" exercise. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The fractals of winter

Winter creates many unique patterns. I have to catch them now because they will disappear soon.
Some patterns are easy to explain, but others raise questions.

1) Mandelbrot set - salt
2) Mandelbrot set - ice - this is my attempt at an explanation
3) Koch curve - salt
4) Diffusion-limited aggregation (DLA) - salt - this is a well researched process
5) Fractal landscape - ice floes on the river

6) Fractal landscape - snow - I wonder - this looks so very much like a real archipelago landscape - maybe the erosion processes are similar in a real landscape and in snow on the sidewalk - is the water erosion process similar to the process caused by walking feet?


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Suddenly the landscape has a memory

We went for a walk in the February snow and suddenly the landscape was full of traces. Suddenly it remembered more than on snow-less days.

Or did we notice more? 

Of course the traces are more visible now. But on snow-less days the  traces are there too. But they are very, very faint. The receiver must be sensitive and tuned to ethereal frequencies.

Or we need more practice. And we must learn to be hunters and gatherers again.