Notes from Underground: learning from moles


On 30 acres in Dumfriesshire Charles Jencks created his Garden of Cosmic Speculation, an 18th C garden ‘full of ideas’, as he put it. The ideas in question are highly abstract, modeling ‘the cosmic architecture of galaxies, black holes, and the Big Bang’, and provoke (in me at least) something of a double response. On the one hand, like the perfectly laid out geometrical forms of the gardens of Versailles, outside Paris, it looks like the imposition of human order onto a nature that must at all costs be tamed. On the other, the geometry in question is not that of angles and straight lines, but mimics the (mathematically describable) organic curves found at many different levels in nature, both cosmic and micro-cosmic (like DNA). And from the pristine photographs it looks as if landscape maintenance is a major task chez Jencks, with an enforced regime of grass mono-culture, the better to accentuate the curves, a cross between a canvas and billiard table cushions. It was with both delight and relief that I read that the invasion of part of Jencks’ garden, Snake Hill, by moles and voles, had occasioned some head-scratching. As befits a very 18th C project, Jencks had spoken of “using the landscape to investigate what your beliefs are. And the appearance of the moles took this process forward. … [Some] said we must get back to normal, and get it right, the way it was, and I thought a long time and said no, no, no, we must work with nature. And this is a very good illustration of catastrophe theory in action … it’s a co-creation with nature… nature makes a move, we make a move, and we’re in dialog.”

This is a great model for Yellow Bird as a Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art]-in-process, in which, yes, there are ideas-put-into-action. But not only moles give you feedback. What is exciting about Jencks’ moles is of course that moles are not just destroying, but creating whole underground earthworks, much more complex than the burial chambers of Egyptian pyramids, for example. An army of mini-James-Turrells. Half blind they may be, but they have, in a very positive sense, a highly developed ‘tunnel vision’. (Cf. rats, famous for being better at solving maze puzzles than humans.)

Jencks’ model of ‘dialog’ with nature is very productive. Returning from the sea, there is a peculiar reassurance in stepping on to ‘terra firma’. Earthquakes understandably cause deep anxiety. ‘Undermining’ is almost always a negative term. Jencks’ moles and voles caused part of the garden to ‘fail’. Hegel and Marx played with the characterization of their own writing as ‘molework’, both in the sense of undermining and exploring, perhaps renewing what Kant had called the Groundwork of philosophy. /See ref. below/ For the most positive narrative, we might compare the vital role of worms in a fertile soil, aerating it at many layers, drawing down surface litter, digesting decaying organic matter into soluble nutrients, etc. Here, holes, tunnels, are communication pathways, transmission channels, part of the health of a living soil, rather than undermining a firm, dead, impervious solidity.

Walking around the lake last night, I found fresh mounds of soil on the grass.

“So, Yellow Bird is a Gesamtkunstwerk-in-process! Tell us more …” [to be continued]

[See David Farrell Krell’s article “The Mole: Philosophic Burrowings in Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche” in boundary 2, Vol. 9, No. 3, Why Nietzsche Now? A Boundary 2 Symposium (Spring-Autumn,1981), pp.169-185].