Landscape perceptions and experiences

The aims of this blog is
1) to gather material which helps us to view 'Landscape' from many different perspectives (Science, Phenomenology, Aesthetics, Ethics etc)
2) and secondly to record 'Landscape experiences' from our workshops (Reports) and my own experiences (Diary).
For our workshops see our website

Thursday, December 16, 2010


With this post I would like to give an introduction to the Troubadour Culture with the help of a short article and two clips of music.
The Occitan society during the time of the Troubadours
A description from the the book 'The world of the Troubadours" by Linda Paterson.

At the time of the troubadours, Occitan society is remarkable for its diversity as much as for its distinctive traits. At all levels it manifests a multiplicity of social groups, in variety of regions and geographical environments. But at the risk of over-simplifying, it is perhaps possible to identify certain salient features. One is a relative openness to exchange with foreigners and those of other cultures and faiths. A second is a relative absence of personal subjection. This applies to relations not only between aristocrats, but also between lords and ordinary knights who seem more likely to be waged than bound by vassalic obligations; even for peasants, burdened by taxes but rarely labour services, subjection may seem less immediate than elsewhere. An expanding mercantile economy touches social relations at all levels, producing opportunities for social mobility, and creating new oligarchies and economic casualties, though relatively few violent upheavals. Emphasis lies on practical rather than theoretical concern, whether in warfare, law or medicine. Woman, as elsewhere face misogyny, exclusion and coercion; but in Occitania they have some power and influence, a voice, albeit problematic, and social freedoms less accepted in other parts of Europe. In this courtly rather than chivalrous society, despite some signs of hostility to parvenus, knights show little sign of forming closed socio-juridical class. Taken together with a tolerance of dissident religious opinion, this suggests that Occitan society, rather than being "fractured' , was not subject to serious tensions that provoke the creation of social scapegoats. The most difficult fault line, the crack between clergy and laity, seems to have resulted from the inept authoritarian intrusion of the Gregorian 'Reform'. Occitonia was not Utopia, nor was it free from Original Sin.
But is was the first spectacular causality of the 'formation of a persecuting society', the victim of a desire on the part of outsiders to dominate and control.
I came to know the 'Troubadours Art Ensemble' fairly soon after we arrived in France.
I had heard about the Troubadours when I was young, so now was the opportunity to become more acquainted with it. So I bought several CD's and one was from a local group under the name of Gerard Zuchetto. The other CD's were beautiful, but with Gerard Zuchetto I came to difficulties. I had to stop whatever I was doing and had to concentrate and listen several times to the same song before I could discover the many dimensions of the song. As with other songs, it repeats melodies, but with Gerard Zuchetto they did sound different, because he did not want to sing just a nice song, but to express the meaning of the song. Each word was very clearly sung, sometimes half spoken. The instrumental music was not for accompaniment, but to help to bring over the whole meaning of the song. It was as if the troubadour was standing in my room.
I have now been to several performances and also Sandra-Hurtado-Ros has the ability to give all her energy in bringing over that special element of the Troubadour music, but then in her own individual way.
The first clip is an introduction,the second a concert.

The Troubadours Art Ensemble performs Occitan troubadour lyric of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a lyric known as the foundation of European vernacular poetry. They visited Stanford in early March 2010 and the video clips are from there.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Between the struts

This is the view I can have from our balcony and as I often sit there looking at the landscape, and not at the struts, I came to a very strange experience, because I don't see it as shown on the photo, unless I close my left eye and if I close my right eye I see it more or less as follows (see below)
Spot the difference!
So what happens if I open both eyes and try to focus on the whole landscape behind the struts?

The horizontal lines have 'breakages', somehow there are two images which don't coincide or fit together and not only between the struts but also behind the struts. Please note; the struts are larger then drawn( = seen) as one can see behind them. The breakages can be most clearly seen at boundaries e.g. between the large grey field and the forest behind it, or when one looks at cars driving along the road, they jump up and down, including the road.
Again, this is not only between the struts, but also behind the struts.
You can imagine that this puzzled me and I questioned myself what is going on.

I will first show you how I made a photo of what I see, more or less, between two struts and then we can go through step by step what is happening.
I took a photo what I see with my left eye, which is on the photo underneath on the right (!) and took another photo what I see with my right eye (which is on the left in the photo) and then put them together (with photoshop!). And this is more or less what I see if look fairly relaxed at the scene.
The tree in the middle (second large one fro the left)  I could see with both eyes, but they do not totally overlap, but this is difficult to see. The discrepancy is much easier to see with horizontal boundaries e.g road and the two horizontal lines at the bottom of the photo.

Image as seen with both eyes

Image as seen above railing (but with one eye!)

However there can take changes place in the image;
  • If I bend my head either towards the right or left then the two horizontal lines can meet and form one line again.
  • The interpenetration of the images (left and right) is stronger the further the objects are away from me.
  • The interpenetration of the images (left and right) also changes if I put my face nearer the struts.

Let us do a very simple example to get acquainted with the relation between images of far and near objects. This is from the book 'Optik der Bilder' by Georg Maier.
When you focus on background.           When you focus on nearby

The first picture shows what you see when you focus on the cup;
You experience the cup as a physical object which coincides with the image from the left and the right eye. The hands are just images which don't coincide with the actual object and you can more or less look through them.
In the second picture it is the other way around. You focus on the stick and suddenly there are two cups.

Now the problem with the struts is that the gap between the struts is smaller then the distance between our two eyes
Let's make a sketch when you look between two struts.

Focusing on background between two stiles
Here it becomes clear that for the right eye the tree in the distance is on the right side of its visual field (red) whereas for the left eye the tree is on the left side of its visual field (blue).
However with my left eye I can see what is for the right eye behind the stick on the right and with my right eye I can see what is for the left eye behind the left stick. So I look behind/through two sticks and my visual field widens.
Here it becomes clear that the two images partly overlap and in how far, depends on the distance of the object one is focusing upon.
Also notice that in actual fact we put  two images together but they are crossed over. So the image on the right is from my left eye and the image on the left is from my right eye. This is not how we usually look at things. When we look at an object, we look with the right eye at the 'right' side of the object and with the left eye at the 'left' side of the object and through this process an object gets the character of a tangible object which occupies space as when we at the stick or at the cup in the above mentioned experiment.

Now imagine a bird from the tree is flying towards you, then the nearer it comes, the nearer the bird comes to the centre of both visual fields, that is for left and the right eye. That is why the image of the object nearer to you becomes more clear and more tangible.

Now the question why the horizontal lines have breakages;
You can do a simple experiment. Have a horizontal stick about a meter or more in front of you and then look between two flat hands at a section of the stick. Your hands should be about 10 cm apart.
Tilled your head a bit so the stick shows breakages.  If you tilt your head to left, that is left eye down and right eye up, the image on the right=(left eye image) goes up and left image (=right eye image) goes down.

But taken altogether one can see that we can squeeze in between the railings and see more then the width between the struts.

Now what do experience when we try to focus on the space behind the strut?
Here we can see respectively with our left eye and the right eye the tree, what is for our nose behind the strut. But here it will depend on the width of the strut in how far the images overlap. In this drawing the image of the tree can be seen with both eyes, but if our head is tilted e.g left eye is lower or higher then the right eye, then the image can be above each other. However in this instance the strut more or less disappears, it becomes transparent.

Altogether it becomes clear that what I viewed through the struts is not an illusion. This does not mean that the borders/ horizontal lines are not in line or that cars are bobbing up and down, but once we work out what is happening we understand how it comes into being.
However the experience that cars are bobbing up and down and the road is cut into pieces etc is a real experience. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Owen Barfield, Michael Polanyi and Marjorie Grene

The main subject is; Who does the  thinking and what does our brain do.

How I came to today's subject was reading an article by Richard A. Hocks, called The “Other” Postmodern Theorist: Owen Barfield’s Concept of the Evolution of Consciousness
wherein he compares Polanyi's thoughts and Barfield's and finds many correspondences.

As it also mentions that Owen Barfield knew Marjory Grene and Michael Polanyi and spoke highly of them I became very interested. I knew already some of her works (The Understanding of Nature, Essays in the Philosophy of Nature) and had heard about her working together with Polanyi on his book 'Personal Knowledge' which led me look in to have a look at Polanyi's book and the comments and there I found an interesting discussion although it is partly 'old hat' for me.

 'A Customer' talks very positive about the work and he received some very positive reactions, so here follows his comment. 
Where Philosophy needs to go
I have read this book numerous times over the last ten years and I think it offers the only truly hopeful path for the current impasse that exists between philosophy/religion and the numerous popularizers of contemporary science. What Polanyi shows (himself a chemist turned philosopher) is the way that in reality scientific knowledge, like all knowledge, has an ineradicably personal element to it. That is, you learn to be a scientist not by studying test tubes but by being an apprentice to someone who already is a scientist, who teaches you, disciples you, so to speak, trains you in how to know things in a scientific way. The key element is personal trust, you must trust them, have faith in what they are teaching you, believe in them and the truth, the reality of what they're teaching. This trust aspect is the 'tacit dimension' to all scientific (and every kind of human)knowing. Not only is it interpersonal at the start, all of our knowledge also includes our involvement in a community of fellow knowers (not unlike a church!). They help to validate our knowledge, they correct us, they serve to adjudicate our discoveries. Polanyi's point is that this personal knowledge is the only kind of knowing there is, even though it is not the kind routinely set forth by scientists in their own accounts of what they're doing and what they know. The force of his description is to take away the false dichotomy between supposedly objective 'factual' knowledge and purportedly subjectively impure 'beliefs.' All knowing has a faith-based foundation to it and we're all on the same ground when it comes to arguing for coherent views of the world, of what is and what's not. It's a great book, far from easy, but as important as any book of the last century. Read it!

Then there is negative reaction from 'Magellan' entitled
  Okay for its time, but...
I don't think much of personological/subjective explanations of science, such as Kuhn's and Polanyi's, but I think their views should be heard and considered nevertheless. Western writers seem to have an odd fascination with this sort of approach, for reasons that are understandable historically but that I believe are still untenable, most of which is related to the west's obsession with the individual ego and individual consciousness and with the phenomenological and existential approaches to reality that grew out of that.
While I respect Polanyi as a scientist (he was a noted physical chemist), unfortunately I think he's pretty much gone off the deep end in terms of his subjectivistic interpretation of scientific method and of the work of the scientist, which amounts to a form of neo-Kantianism.
The first problem I have with this is that by making the human mind the final arbiter of all knowledge and sense data, a systematic ghost of an illusion pervades Polanyi's, and indeed, all Kantian theories, because there is no strong connection to external reality anymore. While I would agree with Polanyi in regard to Kant's basic thesis, that the mind is actively involved in organizing the data of the senses, and that ideas about the external world could not exist unless there were corresponding mental capabilities and constucts to match, this idea, although fine for its day, really doesn't buy you much anymore in my opinion. This is for two reasons, which is the problem of illusionism which I just mentioned, and the second is the approach that has now emerged from the last 75 years of work in neurobiology and the brain sciences, of which these writers seem blissfully unaware.
Although we still have a lot to learn, the picture that has emerged so far is both fascinating and impressive. For example, there are 60 trillion cells in a human brain organized into 14,000 major and minor brain centers, and they are all networked together. Each individual neuron has between 3,000 and 100,000 connections with other neurons, producing a neural web of unbelievable complexity.
Most sensory neurons are devoted to using feature-detecting algorithms that require advanced calculus to understand, as David Marr has shown. For example, to mention just a few of his important ideas, Marr's demonstrations that retinal receptive field geometry could be derived by Fourier transformation of spatial frequency sensitivity data, that edges and contours could be detected by finding zero crossings in the light gradient by taking the Laplacian or second directional derivative, that excitatory and inhibitory receptive fields could be constructed from "DOG" functions (the difference of two Gaussians), and that the visual system used a two-dimensional convolution integral with a Gaussian prefilter as an operator for bandwidth optimation on the retinal light distribution, showed that the level of mathematical sophistication as well as just brute computational power that is being devoted to sensory information processing is beyond anything we could have imagined.
Since Marr's time, there has been further progress in this area, such as the Bela Julesz's demonstrations that the visual system can extract and compute binocular disparity cues point-by-point for depth information from abstract, non-representational pictures such as random-dot stereograms. There is also the extension of Marr's ideas about monochromatic edge detection into color edge detection, the mathematical theories of nonlinear visual field distortions present in optical illusions, and many other areas.
Finally, consciousness itself may yield to research on the brain. In the last few years, consciousness has been shown to be composed of many different separate mechanisms in the brain that are being coordinated in time in order for consciousness to occur. It isn't a single process or central program that runs in the brain, nor is there a "master" brain center that one can point to where it can be said that consciousness resides, contrary to classical philosophical models which regarded it as unitary and indivisible.
Hence, there is very little reason anymore to insist on the fundamental subjectivity of perception in the Kantian sense. It is true that there are visual illusions at the higher levels of sensory perception, but those are now regarded as special cases, and they are being shown to be explainable in terms of mathematical visual field-distortion theories of these mechanisms that can be quantified just like the basic sensory processes, as I mentioned above.
Another reason neo-Kantian theories don't buy you much is to consider the work of cognitive psychologists and psychometricians like J.P. Guilford. Guilford has evidence for 120 different, discrete mental abilities. We have only just started to find out how all these areas and abilities actually work, but the resulting theories will far surpass in detail and complexity the simplistic philosophical generalizations of previous centuries about how knowledge is acquired and ideas are formed.
The bottom line at this point is that classical ideas like Kant's really aren't wrong, but they are like what classical Newtonian physics was after Einstein, correct as far as it goes, but just a piece of a much more profound, bigger picture. And the rest of that picture will be filled in by work in neurobiology and cognitive psychology, not by further vague philosophical speculation, which can only propose the most general explanations about these epistemological questions, rather than demonstrate in detail how the mind and the brain actually perceive and extract information from reality and then use the information from sense data to generate ideas about the real world. 
 Then there follows a reaction again from 'A Customer' entitled

 In response to "Good for it's time, but..."
"Personal Knowledge" by Michael Polanyi is still a valuable contribution, even now.
"Magellan" has said that subjectivist investigations don't buy you much anymore, but consider this:
Objectivist investigations don't tell you anything about how to use your own mind- the only tool you have for understanding Science to begin with. Yes, our brain is incredibly complex- yes, it has scientifically-investigatable structures which may be responsible for our consciousness- but without the actual, unavoidably personal use of your brain, you have nowhere to begin. I have all the structures that Magellan discussed in my brain, serving me at this very moment- but their function is underneath even what Polanyi calls "subsidiary knowledge". We can be aware of how our mental processes appear to behave to our conscious mind, but we are not aware of the work and usage of our individual neurons. If Magellan can show me how to become aware of the individual structures in my brain with all their individual neurons, and consciously micro-mangage their function in a way that results in me obtaining a better understanding of the world than I have only through the subjective perspective of my conscious mind, then I will say Polanyi is useless.
Until then, exclusively Objectivist investigations of the conscious mind won't buy you much, in terms of understanding how you (necessarily working out of the perspective of your own state of consciousness) comprehend the world we live in. If you want to learn something, anything, from science-- and still retain a sense that you can legitimately use your own subjective mind (albiet carefully) as you learn-- then it is worth reading Polanyi.
I don't want to criticise 'Magellan' as later he does say that he might have gone too far, but the way he thought is so typical for those who don't think further then their nose or only see what they think is outside them (matter) that they don't reflect that they make constantly judgements with their minds.(or their neurons?)

I would like to end with two quotes
"if one is of the opinion that the brain thinks instead of ourselves, then
one also transfers the problem to the next question; namely how does the brain come to think?"
by Rudolf Steiner in his 'Philosophy of Freedom'
 “Either there is no knowledge (including the knowledge of philosophical
atomism) or there is at least the knowledge that philosophical atomism is false.”
         by Marjorie Grene in  'The Understanding of Nature '.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Landscape perception workshop 10-17 july 2010 (short version)

 This report was written by me and then edited and published by Bud Young from 'Landscape Research'

Lac Montbel

At Lac du Montbel , the first day, facing south towards high mountains, a varied group of European landscape enthusiasts examined what it was they saw. Using drawing it was evident that everyone noticed the lake, the hill with its village, an intrusive water-tower and fields. Behind that they recorded a hill-ridge covered with trees and still beyond, the high mountains. Notably each person had a different take on the scene.  One looked at geological features, one just at colour, another majored on agricultural features and the other noticed the mood/atmosphere including the sounds. Predictable perhaps, interesting certainly. The 'Legible Landscape' manual, which is widely used in Holland to engage people in landscape and its development, was issued to offer guidance for the following days.

Recognizing that landscapes contain many different factors, both large and small, the next day the group concentrated on plant observation by walking through a deep gorge to a high mountain plateau. The main task was to observe the many different manifestations of plant growth (forms, colours etc.) in relation to their distinctive sites.

In the evening they were introduced to Merleau Ponty through a work by David Seamon  and discussed how we experience and are engaged in the world. The main idea is that it is through our perceptional experiences that our body-subject learns/knows  how to interact with the world and it is only partly through cognitive (conscious) endeavours that we experience the unlearned.

The group went out for a day to practise a ‘Legible Landscape’ session on the edge of a large flat valley facing Puivert Castle.
In the evening through a work by G Maier the group was introduced to Aesthetics as a new way to acquire knowledge, based on sense-perception and experience and not on logic or abstract thoughts. What came to the fore was that any appearance is a combination of many factors and elements (they can even be in a certain way, outside our vision e.g sun in case of shadows or plant growth) many of which we miss due to our original intentions. The main aim was to bring across how the many factors: light, weather and even personal attitudes, play a crucial role in how we ‘meet the appearance’ or ‘how we experience the event’ and the more conscious we are of these relationships and the more numerous they are, the richer the aesthetic experience. The group seemed to have taken this in and the theoretical parts became more a discussion group around a few central thoughts, readings or texts, rather than a course instructor’s presentation.

near Lac Soulcem
The next morning, they visited  the 'End of the World, a valley deep in the high mountains bearing the imprint of human presence; the water reservoir, the shepherds huts and cheese making rooms and the grazing cattle. What the group asked itself here was, what would it look like without such signs. Here the combination of sheer vastness of it all, the feeling of the pre-historical ---geology) and understandable history (the shepherding activity), the silence and their own small presence, constituted an experience of the sublime.

Plateau du Sault
Subsequently on the Plateau du Sault, a remote high place between the mountains, the group explored together a landscape which has not yet been spoiled by adverse developments. There, a 'Legible Landscape' walk and the act of drawing architectural features in the village  revealed the bones of an archetypal mediaeval landscape: the church in the middle, houses all around and beyond these the intensive vegetable and fruit gardens  and the further fields with a mixture of variable arable crops and intensive meadows, all encircled by more extensive grass fields; beyond this the forest.  It was an experience that the landscape here was a cohesive unity and had a strong identity as if everything grew ‘out of the ground’  Was it because it was so isolated? Certainly it was not easy to get there!

The group's experience of how the landscape reflected  mediaeval Occitan society was deepened by visiting the medieval centre of 'La Cite' in Carcassonne and  a village where the houses were situated in an accurate circle around the church. From Fanjaux, a hill-fort village and important historical site they had a marvellous view of the large broad valley below,  situated between Bordeaux (Atlantic) and Narbonne (Mediterranean), with  its harmonious patterns of fields, hedges, and villages, and across in the far distance the Montagne Noire (Haute Lanquedoc). A true example of the working together of nature and culture through time.
View from Fanjaux

Editor’s note
This appears to have been a thoroughly European event. The group comprised one Welshman, one Latvian, one Dutch lady living in Finland and a man and woman from Spain. Days in the field were accompanied by evening discussions and a presentation.