• David Buckton

Learning to Use Spatial Flow in Forest Gardens with the Help of A Historian and An Urban Theorist

Updated: Apr 14, 2019

We will use the lens of the past to see the present (and future) of a shared forest garden design, where people, places and those that live there, interact in a dynamic and constructive way. This article will provide a contemporary view to add historical and cultural contexts to the Turaida forest garden project. Please refer to the earlier articles for more on the garden design and structure.

We begin with some historical insights. In the book The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook (2018), historian Niall Ferguson gives an old spin on the cutting edge study of network theory and analysis on how networks shape history and vice versa. We can see how his ideas integrate and influence our understanding of the role that systems and hierarchies played in history, using newer concepts to uncover patterns in the past. In a discussion that he presented at Stanford on October 4th, 2016 (Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research), prof Ferguson explains in detail his sense of understanding this connection in his new (at the time) book. He is an excellent, spontaneous and comical speaker with a wonderment for history that is inspiring. Click the link to view his talk at SIEPR October 4, 2016.

In an earlier lecture, prof. Niall Ferguson discusses how time is the fourth dimension when examining history. This idea is immensely helpful in understanding the evolving ecologies of structure and function in emerging forest gardens that move through natural succession.

While perhaps the time connection might seem clear to historians who spend most of their time looking back, while many of us grapple with recalling the events of the past and what historical events mean now (and what they meant back then). Such ideas bring to mind Michael J Fox, that starred in Back to the Future (1985); clearly the movie launched his career. This movie still haunts many, where some in the visions that inspired a movement in synthwave music (see link to a multimedia musical example) and other cultural symbols, of today's retro dance. Scenes from the movie still continue to chase the idealizations of "the America of the1980s". The grandiosity of these ideas comes from the charismatic figure that went back in time, took risks to save friends (ie. 'Doc') and family, and went on to rediscover a new future.

Indeed, the recalling of memories we experience of those times play a significant role in gaining what useful insights we can take from our history. While many of prof. Ferguson's books are sometimes long reads, the views are helpful and offer insights into the past. Sometimes the books are essentially what we have to go on to build our sense of earlier times and places. Space and time are recurring themes in our articles (click here to read an earlier article on the origins of the Turaida forest garden project). Regardless of what science fiction films tell us about who we are as a culture at a particular event, space and time hold forever.

Some of this kind of thinking seems relevant to the ecology of forest gardens. After all, the massive, well-established canopies of old growth forests resemble the permanence of longstanding historical hierarchies in the development of the great historical city centres, and the emerging new cities of the 21st Century. Underneath these towers (both as mature trees, and as cityscapes with buildings), they make the sheltered and contested spaces, upon which networks appear to depend on for sustenance. Perhaps the fibre optic cables that connect our delicate balances of information exchanges (personal, historical, financial, and political) can remind us of the root systems on which the life of our planet relies on within the delicate and precious soils. It is hard to understand how we may replace the whole soil floor with alternates, as perhaps the virtual space attempts to tease us with a false sense reality, with its illusive inability to replace the existing world.

The security, wealth and connected provisions of global cities provide the living spaces to those that live around them. Think of the similarities between Richard Florida's work (discussed in the Introduction article) of urban theory and how space matters so much for creative economies {see his book Who's Your City? How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life (Canadian Edition) 2009}.

While both authors appear to come at their respective subjects from different backgrounds and natural orientations, there are at times some remarkable parallels. Some of the concerns we hear about in Florida's earlier book Cities and the Creative Class (2005) get echoed in a more pronounced way in Ferguson's The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (2013). While we can think of the hindsight bias that psychologists tell us about, we can't forget the past theory to know how to move forward. For example, prof. Florida's explanation of post-Fordism of Japan in Cities and the Creative Class (2005) couldn't be conceptualized without the Fordist concept as he clearly explains (see p 13).

Both authors appear to lament a loss of our age in coming to grips with changes that we collectively simply have not been able to get an adequate handle around. This kind of thinking appears endemic to the visionary mindset, regardless of one's personal views regarding what we're looking at (ie. the problems of history, social theory or economic policy), or the political mindset of the authors under discussion. Sometimes, it seems as though the differences shouldn't matter, despite their presence.

Looking back at forest gardens, we can try to understand how complex theories help to shape our own sense of where the forest garden space is coming and what directions we want it to take shape. In the forest setting, the tree and shrub canopies extend over walkways can serve as shade barriers in the summer sun. The light and shade patterns across the landscape mark the kind of access to that most precious energy source and mark a strong influence in the kinds of activities living things get up to within them.

In a forest garden, the delicate balance underneath the soil remains a reality, whether we see it, or feel it. The light traffic from walking and wheelbarrow use prevents compaction of narrow gravel walkways, reducing the stress on underlying roots. Under the living systems model, these kinds of connections that infrastructure can play has an important role in how we can understand the development from below the surface of the soil to the limit of the canopy ceiling.

Therefore, the design will depend on the nature of the root system for the particular plant, the degree of mounding of the tree, and the distance between the crown and the pathways. We should try to find a happy medium between these distances and heights; spatial flow is a balancing act. Life experience is surprisingly similar, mediated by flow and frustrated by stagnation (see the book Flow (1990) by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi for more on this subject). Think of how this might resemble the balance in city neighbourhoods, the spaces allocated for social gatherings such as parks or commercial spaces for loading.

Another important consideration ought to be given to the slope and topography. This can have an important impact on the access given to certain species that live or visit the system. As discussed in earlier articles, we need to think in several dimensions, are since we are working in a three-dimensional space. Here, the artist (in this case my wife) attempts to reveal three dimensions with light, what can be shown here in two dimensions (Irises with daisies, glass mosaic Michelle White).

Time is the other variable that should never be forgotten (despite our perpetually fleeting memories that recede as we do into time). It is here that the power of written documents shines to light. The beauty of the staying power of books as historical and symbolic magic was eloquently expressed in the childhood movie The Dark Crystal (1982). In a telling scene, the orphan character Jen explains to the illiterate Kira gazing upon a written text, when she asks him bluntly "What's writing?" and he replies "Words that stay. My masters told me". It is with this lasting sense of the written word that we remember the role of history and the chroniclers in our own lives. Without a text to communicate, or speak with, how could we understand anything, or provide much of a sense of context to our own identities? As we discuss in an earlier article, we need the previous experience that books share, so that we have a past to build a future off.

This theme we briefly shall explore here in with a glimpse into the past, through the Back to the Future (1985) movie. When the family photo that Marty looks at begins to show the disappearance of his future self, he saves himself (advocates on his own behalf) by intervening to save his parents future marriage. By playing lead guitar at the initial dance that initiates their romance, he saves his future birth. We explore this theme through mulitmedia art in the image of a scene at a dance video clip in multimedia art, (part of a tribute to Avicii following his death that month). This clip was included in a playlist back last year (April 2018). The song and art were together part of a symbolic attempt to find a way to move forward following his passing. We remember his memory this month as the new playlist evolves.

Returning to forest gardens, the goal is to optimize the flow of air, light, heat, genes, wind, space and nutrients that allow for living futures to be built upon. The cycling on knowledge in historical texts resembles the decoding of genetic texts in the lived material world. Their expression into living from the codes of life are as sacred as the most valuable texts we cherish. Interconnections between root systems can allow for dynamic exchanges of living and decaying matter as the previous seasonal growth is incorporated into the new growth once it is integrated into the soil structure. As the life cycle turns over, a new cycle begins. Together, these elements work in conjunction with one another in a way that is difficult to conceptualize using diagrams and words. While we can think of both horizontal span and vertical elevation, the crosswise flow is essential when considering drainage and root systems. After all, root, trunk, limb, branch and leaf growth all happen in three dimensions over time.

For instance, if we have too much of an elevation difference, the walkways can become flooded, especially in areas where there are narrow gaps between mounds, similar to river beds. If we have too little of a difference in elevations, there may not be sufficient drainage to improve drainage where that is desirable. Too small of a slope can also limit surface area and heat transfer between the air and the ground.

We can experiment with tree and shrub shape to improve the spatial flow for fruit and nut production. While fan training is a straightforward concept, it's helpful to consider experimenting with forms to allow for compromises that fit the space in which the plants are growing. There are only so many spaces that are linear-shaped in a non-linear forest garden space. Similar to games that involve different shapes, we can consider using modified forms which open up the forest gardening design. For instance, S, T, D, M, U, X, Y, L, and Z-configurations are but a handful of the letter-shaped forms that could be options. Tall, short, thin or wide are other considerations that change air flow, light penetration, ease of access for picking and pruning. We can add layers of meaning to the forms if such a design is desirable.

These forms play with many variables, not just shape, but can improve yields by their influence of light, air, heat, access, and maximize the use of space. Any form of pruning will do this, but patterns can be played with until something useful comes about, depending on the location and the kind of plant we're pruning. It also depends on the amount and size of the fruit we desire. For example, some of the earliest competitions for gooseberries back in England at the time of the gooseberry heyday of cultivar development often had very few fruits on them to optimize size, color and flavors to win the awards at their local competitions.

Connecting the vertical and horizontal levels, to goal is to create functionally living, carefully designed, pruned treed structures that resemble pergolas. These arched structures allow underlying protected areas that limit the need for filling concrete post holes with wooden structures that will inevitably need replacing. Long lived structures are stronger, since their natural desire for survival can often provide a sustaining resilience that resembles great strides for survival in our human condition.

In many ways, forest garden systems allow for benefits across the growing season. Before the leaves emerge, and after the leaves drop, sunlight naturally provides for underlying plants in the vegetative layer. The absence of the leaf cover prevents wind damage and resistance during strong gusts that could otherwise topple or slant posts and other human-made structures. Lighting is such an essential component. The absence of added light is equally valuable when the heat gets too intense in the summer. It is in their perennial nature that forest gardens shine the brightest. Including long lived species such as the valuable shagbark hickory that we can include keystone species that serve critical steps towards attaining long term ecological succession and resilience.

In other fruit growing regions of the world, trees are combined with vines to optimize yields and stagger fruit production; shelter not only helps to protect us while using the space, but plants and the edges of walkways are lightly shaded, avoiding sun scald at the same time. If we think about arched shapes of trees, the canopies can be partially closed or nearly closed, in a way that joins two trees along a walkway to form an incomplete arch. If desired, it is possible to stagger the arches and create gaps between the limbs that avoids closing the arcs to allow a semi-permeable flow of air, light, heat and space that is often desirable to living systems that benefits from these balances.

The negative space that made above where an arm extends from a trunk a void, resembling the armpit of human anatomy. We can think of these spaces as necessary breathing spaces to allow needed airflow. Similar to armpits, there can be moisture and disease on the bark of the trees, leaves, and fruit if they are not well ventilated. We need to be cognizant of these underlying problems so we can avoid the irritating annoyances that come with poor forest garden hygiene.

To review, we need a sense of balance in the garden space that resembles the even flow of functioning, living cities, where people want to work, live and play. This article intended to show several perspectives on how history, (whether as written text, existing memory, lived space, or gene codes) can prove a valuable building blocks to our shared futures. It was an attempt to remind us that space and time together serve as the corner block of our lives. They exist for those who lived before we came, and also for those that will live after us.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly

1990. Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial. New York.

Ferguson, Niall.

2013. The Great Degeneration. How Institutions Decay and Economies Die. Penguin Press. New York.

Ferguson, Niall.

2018. The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook. Penguin Press.

Ferguson, Niall.

2016, October 4. Stanford University, SIEPR. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-7dtA7kqyg&feature=youtu.be&list=PLs-p47TpkzbekBYhbfxyB0DukMsTqE_dH

Florida, Richard.

2005. Cities and the Creative Class. Routledge. New York.

Florida, Richard.

2009. Who's Your City? Vintage Canada.

Henson, Jim and Oz, Frank (dirs).

1982. The Dark Crystal. Screenplay Jim Odell, Story Jim Henson. Starring Jim Henson, Kathryn Mullen, Frank Oz. 93 mins.

The Midnight (band).

2014, July 15th (release). We Move Forward (song). Tausi New VHS Technologist. p & c. www.themidnightofficial.com. From youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYOZL6UMjIo&list=PLEVh3DTDHzB_UekoCac7q5eIWC7RwrJnN&index=20

Zeg, Legna

2018, Jan 29th. Back to the Future Synthwave. From youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWtewJafsaA

Zemeckis, Robert (dir)

1985. Back to the Future. NBC Universal. Starring Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd. Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale (writer).116 mins.


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