Three Mini Book Reviews: The Back of the Napkin, Landscape & Memory, and Edible Forest Gardens

back of the napkin by dan roam
The Back of the Napkin, by Dan Roam

“Visual thinking means taking innate advantage of our ability to see, with our eyes and our mind’s eye, in order to discover ideas, develop those ideas quickly and intuitively, and share those ideas with others in a way that they simply ‘get'” This book is a brilliant elaboration on Bill Buxton’s idea of sketching, with a catch.

The brilliance is in the simplicity and elegance of the model:

  • people understand things better, and find them accessible, when they’re sketched, competently and articulately, one step at a time, by hand
  • collect everything you can look at that’s relevant, lay it all out, organize and orient it, and then do triage on it
  • define the problem using the 6 questions in the chart above, and illustrate it with the 6 corresponding types of graphic
  • explore the 5 dimensions of ways of looking at the problem: simple/elaborate, quality/quantity, vision/execution, individual/comparison, and change/as-is
  • when presenting the results of your problem-solving, start looking aloud, keep seeing aloud, continue by imagining aloud, and close by showing aloud (i.e. recreate the process you used to solve the problem) and then ask the audience if they agree with what you’ve shown (show, don’t tell, and this question answers itself)
  • this works best for complex problems
  • all good pictures do not need to be self-explanatory, but do need to be explainable

This may seem a bit cryptic, but a single read through the book and this is all you need to use this powerful technique for both solving (or at least coming to grips with) problems, and getting buy-in for your solution.

The catch? The drawings in the book are simple but beautiful. Doing this well takes lots of practice, both in conveying your meaning graphically (the expressions on your stick men, and their poses, are critical to the audience’s appreciation and understanding), and in using this technique to solve seemingly intractable problems. I intend to try it, but I’m so poor at drawing that it will take me a long time to get my sketches right. Fortunately, I’m really good at imagining possibilities, so my only problem with the technique will be my artwork. Really recommended.
landscape and memory by simon schama
Landscape & Memory, by Simon Schama

This hugely ambitious work was recommended to me by three friends. The notes and bibliography of this book alone are longer than some books I’ve read. Schama attempts to show, through a rigorous and detailed study of history and human behaviour, that we are all innately naturalists, that our bond with Gaia has always been powerful and that our sense of ‘apartness’ from nature is illusory. He says, at the outset:

If the entire history of landscape in the West is indeed just a mindless race toward a machine-driven universe, uncomplicated by myth, metaphor and allegory, where measurement not memory is the absolute arbiter of value,  where our ingenuity is our tragedy, then we are indeed trapped in the engine of our self-destruction. At the heart of this book is the stubborn belief that this is not, in fact, the whole story.

Many of the stories he tells are rooted in his own ancestors’ stories, and the book is intensely personal. He takes us through millennia of passion for nature and place, and our apparent fear and loathing of it. But right up to modern times this ambivalent relationship and “being-a-part ness” still resonates, he says:

The designation of the suburban yard as the cure for the afflictions of city life marks the greensward as a remnant of the old pastoral dream, even though its goatherds and threshers have been replaced by tanks of pesticide and industrial strength mowing machines.

I was not impressed by his arguments, which seem somewhat nostalgic to me, in this age of relentless and ruthless ecocide. But he is an amazing story-teller, and teller of the stories and lessons of history, and the book is compelling even when it is not persuasive.

Even more compelling are the stunning artworks which run through the whole book, such as the one above, that argue much more powerfully than words the inseparability of human spirituality from our love of and roots in nature. The book is an armchair visit to a vast science and history museum, and its stories of human altruism, savagery and struggle to live within and without nature, rootless and yet inexorably drawn to place, to home, stay with you a long time.

plant hardiness zones 
Edible Forest Gardens (Books 1 & 2), by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier

What is most remarkable about this exhaustive and practical course in temperate climate (zones 4-7) permaculture is that only about 40 of its over 1000 pages are about the work of planting and maintaining an “edible forest garden” (“a perennial polyculture of multipurpose [native] plants”); the rest is understanding what to plant, when, and why. The whole idea of these gardens is to enable you to harvest an abundance of varied foodstuffs with almost no maintenance.

The theory takes up the whole first volume and needs every page. The challenge, you see, is that even what we might perceive as ‘wilderness’ is in fact nothing of the sort. Humans, right back to First Nations thousands of years ago, have utterly altered the vegetation that now looks so wild and ‘natural’. On top of that, climate change has, since the ice ages, been continuously changing what grows where.

In order to allow nature to provide you, effortlessly year after year, a harvest of abundance, you first need to discover what naturally grew and what naturally will grow where you live. You need to study the botanical history of your home. Then, since it cannot be quickly ‘restored’ to natural, sustainable state (succession goes through many long intermediary stages and can take centuries to achieve equilibrium), you need to be smart enough to plan for a 20-30 year ‘hurry-up succession’ that will chivy the process along. You have to plant in stages, knowing that early stages are just preparing the soil, the ecosystem and the ground cover and canopy for later stages, and that some of the first things you plant won’t be around at the end of the succession at all if you’ve done your job right. This takes serious knowledge and study, a lot of patience and relearning what our ancestors learned as a matter of course. It’s in many ways a course in what Derrick Jensen has called “listening to the land”.

There probably isn’t anything you could learn that would be more important, for your soul, for your community, for your resilience in the coming age of climate change and other disasters that will require us all to become much more self-sufficient than we are today. Start now, and when cascading economic, social and ecological catastrophes hit us in the 2030s and bring existing food production and other systems to their knees, you’ll be ready to gather the fruits ofyour labour.

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