Maren Meinhardt on an urban tree

From the TLS, June 2nd:

Outside my window, there is a tree. Even without it, the view is not at all unpleasant: a row of Victorian houses, cars, a skew-whiff estate agent’s sign, a lamp post. But it is the tree that transforms the scene into something more than just an accumulation of things. The movement, the colour, the presence of something living – together, they create harmony, and beauty. The occasional bird flies from the tree’s branches, leaves move gently in the wind, and the eye is naturally drawn to it. The scene calls to mind, for me, the way Humboldt talks about plants. There is “dead, motionless rock”, and then “the animate plant cover, which puts, as it were, gentle flesh on the skeleton”.

I am writing all this because the tree is scheduled for removal. “Removal” has a calming, sensible ring to it – prompting an image of a tree being gently lifted from its plot and, perhaps, reinserted somewhere else. The reality, of course, is quite different: it will involve tree surgeons – who, not entirely pursuing the vision of the medical practitioners implied in their name – will spend the best part of a day sitting in the tree with chainsaws, cutting it down branch by branch.

I know this, and can picture the result, as this is exactly what has taken place in the street next to mine. I don’t know what the reasons were for cutting down the tree in that case, but I think it’s safe to say that the effect is not desirable, or pleasing.

In the case of the tree on my road, a sign tied around its trunk with council tape informs residents that the tree has been “implicated in damage to an adjacent property”. It seems a rather vague, and at the same time damning, accusation. “Works”, therefore, the sign goes on, will “commence shortly”.


And seen like this, trees, particularly mature ones, probably are quite an irresponsible proposition: there they stand, making houses harder to insure, causing cost by needing to be pruned, and dropping sticky leaves on to people’s cars. But it’s hard not to feel that to view them like that is to miss the point. Not only because, in a world of climate change and air pollution in our cities, it would be absurd to say that a tree causes greater damage than, say, a car. But also because we must ask ourselves where all this is going, and how we want to live.  Do we want the bits of nature that surround us subdued and manageable, in the form of those little “architect trees”, the ones Ian Jack wrote about so eloquently in the Guardian last month, pointing out that they “represent the new orthodoxy in planting: small trees for the short term, easily replaced”?

More info on the tree (and the campaign to save it!) here

‘Storms call in question the assumption that the ‘normal’ state of a tree is upright.’ – from ‘Woodlands’, Oliver Rackham


Twenty years ago people thought hurricanes occurred in other continents and killed trees. Learned writers treated ‘storm mortality’ as subtracting old trees from wildwood. Few remembered the ‘Great Storm’ of 26 November 1703 that sank the Fleet and destroyed the Eddystone lighthouse. Fewer remembered 15 January 1362, when (as Piers Plowman puts it), ‘pere-trees and plum-trees were poffed to þe erthe … beches and brode okes were blowe to þe grounde.’


Reality intruded with the events of 16 October 1987 and with storms in 1990. 1999 (on the Continent) and 2002. The chief lessons learnt (or not learnt) were:

  • storm effects were greatest in the interior of woods and plantations, less on the edges; least among freestanding trees. Crowding predisposes to both breakage and uprooting
  • Uprooting was commoner in planted than wild trees
  • Both uprooting and breakage were commonest among big, young, fast-growing trees. Ancient trees were least affected.
  • ‘Unsound’, rotten and hollow trees were no more affected – sometimes less – than ‘healthy’ trees. Narrow forks predisposed to breakage. A tree that broke one limb often broke others, suggesting a genetic predisposition.
  • There was no great difference among species, although certain exotics were … often more uprooted
  • Root systems where exposed, were unexpectedly shallow.
  • Trees nearly always survived breakage, except sometimes at the base
  • Most uprooted trees survived, especially where a swathe or area of trees toppled rather than single trees here and there. Fallen trees, responding to the change in the direction of gravity, sprouted at least from the base, and sometimes all along the trunk. If they died, this was usually due to the shade of neighbouring trees rather than drought. Thus lime (shade-tolerant) nearly always survived, whereas birch usually succumbed except in a swathe.

As in other countries, storms were an unmitigated benefit for wildlife. They broke up areas of monotonous shade and encouraged coppicing plants. They renewed the habitat of ground nesting birds and (in France) of deer. They call in question the assumption that the ‘normal’ state of a tree is upright.

Elegy of Fortinbras, Zbigniew Herbert

Years ago, I read Zbigniew Herbert’s wonderful “Elegy of Fortinbras.” I studied “Hamlet” for the Leaving Cert. Brendan McWilliams somewhere wrote that he had a pet theory that the Shakespearean play one studied for the Leaving had a profound influence; one was immersed at a highly impressionable age in close study of one of the most psychologically and culturally influential dramas of all time.

I had always read “Elegy of Fortinbras” as an expression of fundamental kinship between Fortinbras and Hamlet, especially the closing line of the poem. For me, Fortinbras was the one who lived and now has to make a fist of the boringly pragmatic business of running Denmark. Hamlet was the idealist who has died in a suitably glamorous way, yet their positions could have been reversed.

I am linking to the text of the poem on the Crystal Notion blog. The blogger has her own analysis of the poem, one based on a much closer reading of the poem in many ways than mine. She also reflects on it in the context of her own political activism. It is an interesting analysis and one which makes me read the poem afresh. I have made some comments directly on her blog. Among other things, I reflect there on whether my reaction to the poem may have something to do with my own professional perspective

Sitting on the Fence

I’d like to share a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet who resisted both Nazi occupation and Soviet totalitarianism.  His poem Elegy of Fortinbras draws a contrast between the practical Fortinbras and the introspective Hamlet: the man of action and the man of inaction.

(TW: suicide)

Elegy of Fortinbras

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a…

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Leandro Herrero: “An enlightened top leadership is sometimes a fantastic alibi for a non-enlightened management to do whatever they want”

Auto reblogging is perhaps a little narcissistic but this is something that has relevance far beyond healthcare…. Dr Herrero’s blog is highly highly recommended.

A Medical Education

From Leandro Herrero’s  website, a “Daily Thought” which I am going to take the liberty of quoting in full:

Nothing is more rewarding than having a CEO who says world-changing things in the news, and who produces bold, enlightened and progressive quotes for all admirers to be. That organization is lucky to have one of these. The logic says that all those enlightened statements about trust, empowerment, humanity and purpose, will be percolated down the system, and will inform and shape behaviours in the milfeulle of management layers below.

I take a view, observed many times, that this is wishful thinking. In fact, quite the opposite, I have seen more than once how management below devolves all greatness to the top, happily, whilst ignoring it and playing games in very opposite directions. Having the very good and clever and enlightened people at the top is a relief for…

View original post 506 more words

Marie Thompson on noise, “the conservative politics of silence”, and soundscapes

Recently I posted a link to an interview with sound artist Lawrence English. Via Lawrence English’s twitter I came across this fascinating interview with Dr Marie Thompson, a Lecturer at the Lincoln School of Film and Media, University of Lincoln. She has recently published Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism.

Dr Thompson touches on a wide range of topics relating to noise and silence, as the interviewer writes, she references” a wide variety of ideas from Spinoza to Michel Serres’s cybernetic theory, acoustic ecology and the politics of silence to the transgressiveness of noise music, and many other concepts to show how we are affected by noise.”

Dr Thompson exhibits a sensitivity to the grandiosity and emotional reactions the topics of noise and silence evoke:

I felt compelled to write the book partly due to what I perceived as a gap between some of my ‘everyday’ experiences of noise and how noise was represented in discourse – particularly noise’s representation as an essentially negative phenomenon; or as a shocking, sublime, radical, overwhelming, transgressive force. Noise seems to be one of those topics that makes ordinarily quite progressive thinkers revert to quite uncritical and reactionary tropes – there’s something about it that ‘touches a nerve’. Consequently, much of the discourse around noise is underlined by an often-unacknowledged conservatism. I’ve always found the grandiose rhetoric of noise comparatively quite seductive but at the same time, more often than not, noise is quotidian and banal rather than overwhelming or sublime (which isn’t to say it can’t also be those things). Likewise, I felt like this grandiose rhetoric resulted in an amplification of certain sonic arts practices, while silencing others. I guess I was compelled by a desire to expand the (material and discursive) universe of noise while also trying to maintain some consistency in definition.

I found particularly interesting the sections on “the conservative politics of silence” and acoustic ecologist such as Murray Schafer:

To my mind, the conservative politics of silence informs a number of assumptions that are frequently made about what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sonic environments; it relates to a preference for the simple over the complex, sameness over difference, past over present, predictability over unpredictability, the ‘synthetic’ over the ‘natural’ (whatever that might mean) and, ultimately, quietude over noise. This ideological framework underlines much ‘common sense’ about auditory experience, however it frequently remains unacknowledged.

We might consider a liberal politics in opposition to this conservative politics of silence, which recognises responses to sonic environments as ‘personal’ and therefore refuses overarching moral judgements about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sound. However, I’m also wary of endorsing a politics that treats the individual, autonomous subject as the primary site of the political. Indeed, the conservative politics of silence that we see in the work of figures such as R. Murray Schafer is often indebted to a liberalism that prioritises control and the freedoms and rights of the individual – I’m thinking here of Schafer’s complaint that you can rid your private property of a physical intruder but not an aural one: “A property-owner is permitted by law to restrict entry to his private garden or bedroom. What rights does he have against a sonic intruder?” (1993, 214)

I do wonder if there has been an accidental transposition of “natural” and “synthetic” in the first of the above two paragraphs (this was an email interview so clearly it is not a transcription error) – I have tried to post a comment on the blog to clarify this but I am not sure is it getting posted. I would have thought that Schafer and writers such as Gordon Hempton “privilege” (to use the quotation marks in Thompson’s fashion) the natural over the synthetic. Much of their writing is about loss, and about the loss of natural soundscapes in the relentless advance of industrial development.

Thompson points out that this loss is a symptom, not a disease:

It strikes me that when Schafer and other acoustic ecologists talk about fighting noise, they’re fighting a symptom rather than a cause. In these discourses, there is much talk of noise and environmental destruction but very little on how these processes relate to capitalism and settler-colonialism. In that regard, while I don’t think fighting against noise in absolute terms is futile, I do maintain that there are still fights to be had against high levels of noise. While I am critical of liberal notions of privacy and control and the ‘right’ to silence, I do also recognise that noise can feel oppressive in some contexts. That said, more often than not high levels of noise is a symptom of bigger social and political problems – for example, of poor quality housing, and a lack of economic choice over where one lives.

Again, I wonder is the line “I don’t think fighting against noise in absolute terms is futile” meant to be “I do think fighting about noise in absolute terms is futile” (contextually it would make more sense.

I have read other academic critiques of Schafer, which focus on his conceptualisation of noise as problematic and preference for the “natural” (or natural) over the recorded, amplified and industrial.

I find these arguments convincing in that Schafer can seem an absolutist, and absolutists are always going to be wrong in subtle ways. I can understand why Thompson, and others, will put quotes around “natural” and “synthetic.” And yet, and yet…

Like many environmental writers of his time, Schafer was preaching a message that, while not exactly new (complaints about the noise of urbanity had a history of centuries), was contextually within the wider countercultural thought of the Sixties and Seventies. In this case, the culture it was counter to was the industrial world of the mid-Century. Thompson is right to point out that noise was a symptom, rather than a cause, but Schafer was making the point forcefully.

I would also argue that there is a qualitative difference between the sounds of the non-human natural world, and the sounds which a human or a collection of humans can create via the efforts of their own bodies (which includes very very loud sounds like drumming and bell ringing) and recorded, amplified sound. Schafer identifies recorded and mechanically reproduced sound as a threshold in human experience. I can understand that from the point of view of many critical theorists suspicious of rhetoric around “nature” and suspicious of what can seem and at times can be an elitist rhetoric of silence, there are many many holes to pick in Schafer’s writing. But there is also something lost. I was going to write “the heart of Schafer’s message” but noticed that my use of the word “heart” may also be a metaphorical usage ripe for academic unpicking. B

I also wonder about “the conservative politics of sound.” Thompson is laudably wary of setting this up in opposition to a “liberal politics of noise.” I would observe that this is very much small-c conservatism. Indeed, the interviewer discusses the psychic noise (and “general bullshit”) generated by Donald Trump, to which Thompson responds:

As a concept, noise seems evocative of much about our current political climate: be it the ‘noise’ of ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts’ (how does one determine ‘signal’ from ‘noise’, and who gets to determine that distinction); be it the ‘white noise’ of the Trump campaign administration (I recently saw a performance lecture with Barby Asante which effectively performed the ‘tuning out’ the noise of recently-bolstered white supremacy); or be it the collective noise of protest against the brutality of borders, white supremacy and police-state violence.

I am unsure if “conservative” in the sense of conserving or preserving has much meaning in the political sphere anymore. The signal-to-noise issue Thompson identifies is increasingly dominating political discourse – indeed is  political discourse.

From “The Long, Long Life of Trees”, Fiona Stafford


In spring, you can feel life stirring in the barest twigs and the silhouetted catkins look as if a diminutive duck has run across the sky. One day the twigs are just beginning to thicken and brighten and bulge; by the next they are covered in pincer-paired leaves and pale, lime-white or pink-tinged blossoms. There is nothing tentative about these vernal explosions. When the days are longer, it is all sap and fresh smells, and the liquid calls of birds hidden in the drifts of thicker foliage. The bark has been through it all before, but the craggy faces of cherry tress seems less pinched in the bright light. By early November, when it is all dank and dark, the woods have a different taste, which does not quite match the ember-fall, sugar-brown shaken leaves.

Review of “Love in Vain”, Lewis Shiner, SF Site 2010

Another Ticonderoga Publications review, following the review of “Ghost Seas” by Steven Utley of the prior post, here is a review of Lewis Shiner’s Love in Vain. Lewis Shiner  is an interesting writer – I will post my review of his “Dark Tangos” here also at some point. As you can see, a slight tendency to tendentious and unsubtle “allegory” marred one story, but that is pretty reasonable odds.

love in vain l s


Ticonderoga Publications have produced a beautiful limited edition paperback of Lewis Shiner’s 1997 collection. These are great stories, ranging over genres and locations with admirable disdain for the artificial boundaries that disfigure literature. To use one of the great clichés, there is something for everyone. More accurately, there are multiple stories to suit multiple tastes.

There are some wonderful fragments (or, if you prefer, “short shorts”) such as “Oz,” in which the lives of two villains, a pantomime pop culture villain and a real one (or, possibly, history’s greatest patsy), intersect. Similarly, “Mystery Train” takes an icon of rock and roll and puts a strangely horrific slipstream spin on him. For my money, the worst problem that writing about popular music faces is taking itself too seriously, putting a portentous spin on every aspect of itself, and forgetting the excitement, menace and atmosphere of the best popular music. Shiner’s prose — in a mysterious, ineffable way — captures the sinuous shimmering strangeness of rock at its most expressive and evocative. Reading these stories, I couldn’t get a remix of the Swiss band Young Gods’ song “Child in the Tree” out of my mind.

The “straight” stories are as well-observed, and as thought-provoking as anything else here. For instance, “Dirty Work,” the story of a down-on-his-luck man who is forced to take a job for a former high school classmate which involves tailing a rape victim, is a searing and sad account of male brutality and a decent man who tries, ineptly, to make amends. “Castles in The Sand” is a sweet snapshot of a mismatched couple at the beach — if it was a song, it would be The Mamas And Papas juddering version of “Dream a Little Dream.” There are also two pictures of father-son relationships — the intergenerational rivalry of “Match” and the casually poignant “Flagstaff.”

Then there are the historical stories, some of which are overtly science fiction, such as the portrayal of Nicola Tesla as Promethean magus in “White City,” and some of which are less so, such as the proto-Marxism of the pirate Jean Laffite in “Gold.” The most haunting stories are “Dirty Work,” again a straight story in which a down-on-his-luck family man takes a job from a former high school friend, now a successful-seeming lawyer, tailing a rape victim. The lawyer is defending the alleged rapist, and the narrator — a decent man trying to make a living — is immersed in a world of moral dilemmas. “Love In Vain,” a precursor of the Hannibal Lector/Dexter meme of a serial killer who “helps” the authorities, except this time the killer tells the police where to find the remains of victims he couldn’t possibly have killed — because the cases are entirely made up.

Shiner is able to create an atmosphere and to evoke a tone of voice that suits each of the disparate settings of his stories. This is a masterful collection, with hardly a bum note (Ok, I’ll admit it, there was one story that left me cold — the parable “The Tale of Mark the Bunny” which by my reckoning is trite and facile, but there you go) and one which I highly recommend.