gardening, theory and gregory bateson

Plants think as they grow. These two species of NZ jasmine, clematis paniculata and clematis forsterii , grown on an espalier structure in Titirangi, Auckland, demonstrate Gregory Bateson’s approach to ecology that viewed all the systems of the living natural world as having “minds”. In these two different species I observed the following; the new leaf forms at the edge of lateral shoots waved around looking for the wire structure like insect antennae, I also noticed that the main stem or stalk soon calculated the space between wires and sent out lateral branches at approximately the same intervals as the horizontal wires. In other words the plant mapped itself to the available structure. Interestingly one species clematis paniculata secreted a sticky substance at its tip to help it adhere to the frame once it located the wire. While the central shoots tended to move along the wire the lateral shoots wrapped themselves around the wire and secured the plant for the next stage of growth. I also noticed that the first leading leaf in the miniature species (forsterii) had a groove in the tip of the leaf, that it used to hold itself steady while the lateral shoots prepared to wrap around the wire. You can see that in the photos.

As Fritjof Capra says, “Every living organism involves thousands of interdependent chemical reactions. There is a ceaseless flux of matter; there is growth, development and evolution. The striking dynamic nature of living systems suggests process as a third criterion for a comprehensive description of the nature of life. The process of life is the activity involved in the continual embodiment of the system’s pattern of organization. Thus the process criterion is the link between pattern and structure.”

The image below from Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants also took a view of science that was counter to the mechanistic or discrete descriptions of biology which have been applied to ideas around technology since the beginning of computing. From Goethe’s perspective, all the components of a plant are a graduated metamorphosis of the leaf form, and his close observations caused him to see that even the leaf form was undergoing constant change through a process he describes as shooting, articulating, spreading and stemming. It was the process of stemming that set leaf forms apart from each other, lifting them out of each other’s light source.

But what do these ideas have to do with architecture and urbanism….? They are the ideas that underpin biomimesis and biomimicry but also they help us think at the urban scale also. As Fritjof Capra tells us, “Even the simplest living system, a bacterial cell, is a highly complex network involving literally thousands of interdependent chemical reactions.”

Complexity theory tells us that in living systems spontaneous emergence of new organisation occurs at critical points of instability. Cities are constantly responding to transitions and change and generating new emergent forms to negotiate transitions. Emergence is the dynamic of development, learning and evolution. This graduated idea of morphology is that there is design in self-organisation, and perhaps also that good design facilitates self-organisation. As Capra would put it “creativity is the generation of new form and life constantly reaches out into novelty”.

The idea of transurbanism, urbanism in the era of globalisation, is that cities do not evolve within discrete phases, but are constantly in change, and the changes that happen in cities like Bangkok and Shenzen today are also shaping the changes in the cities of the west like Toronto and Lille.
Notions such as post-industrial, post-modern, post-capitalist do not define a past, present or future condition, as they co-exist with all the complex emergent actions of a transurban world, they are the conditions for change on which new urbanisms are generated.


2 thoughts on “gardening, theory and gregory bateson

  1. Very lucid and optimistic description of the underlying creativity in complexity, the ways in which change evolves to create more change, and the limitless possibilities this entails. Love these ideas, thanks Shonagh

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