Sunday, March 8, 2015


There's a story that the Red Hot Chilli Pepper's second guitarist, John Frusciante, used to tell that I just love. When john was recording his first album with the Chillis, they'd play pieces back, and he'd start yelling "listen to that! Do you hear the ghosts there?" John said that he heard ghosts and spirits all over their records. Of course, at this time, John was looking deeply ravaged by drug addiction, so people started giving him some worried looks when he'd mention ghosts. Understanding the danger here, Flea, their bassist, took John aside and said "buddy, not everybody can hear the ghosts, only we can." And so john stopped talking about ghosts... for a while.

Years later, a healthy, sober and drug-free Frusciante started talking about ghosts in his interviews again. There's some footage of him sitting in a beautiful victorian hotel lobby where the band was recording and in it he explains why he always insisted that the Chillis record in such places. He points to all the fine craftsmanship of the crown molding, and to the obvious signs of age and wear, and he says "all these little things, these spaces, they hold ghosts and spirits. So when we record in a place like this, we get those energies inside us, too." 

"How else could we get them onto the records?" 


That's one of the most beautiful descriptions of the idea of an "emergent property" that I've ever heard. 

At some level of "complexity" the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. We call that an "emergent property." A human being seems something more than a big heap of cells, tissues and organs. A forest feels like more than a collection of trees. And when a song becomes more than a collection of notes, we say it's got "soul." 

To some, John might sound crazy, but he's just speaking the language of "magic," "spirits" and "energies" that the human intuition has always used to speak of "emergent properties." 

When we walk into an old house, we see the amazing craftsmanship--work that few can replicate these days. We see the signs of age, and wear and living. There's a large gash by the back door. And signs of care and love, too. The human brain is sophisticated pattern-recognition software--of course all of these things will speak to us, they'll tell us all their bitter-sweet stories. 

Artists in most every culture work in "movements" such as "Romanticism" and "Modernism." The emergence of these movements are always a response to what proceded them, and in turn, what had preceded those movements, too. Each generation works together, developing and exchanging ideas and perfecting techniques... and because of this, they put so much more into their work than any individual ever could. A painting might be the work of a single painter, but if she was any good, she didn't just put her own soul into it--she got all the stink of her generation in there, too: their history, their struggles, their ideas, their philosophies of life, and what they thought of those who came before them. She knows her paint brush is a divining rod, with it, she can coax the ancestors into that canvas. 

If we can allow ourselves to be open to it, we can intuitively "get" those layers of meaning, something that seems alive, that moves, speaks and sings to our very souls: an emergent property. 


Every couple of years, I try to visit Iargo Springs up on the Au Sable river. 

This place was considered sacred by the Ojibwa, who brought the sick here to heal in the curative waters. Since I was a kid, I have always felt the healing energies of this place. In the pilgrimage down the long flights of stairs the temperature can drop 15 degrees on a hot day. I felt envoloped by this coolness and the soft light through the high forest canopy. It was like entering into... some tangible and real force much larger than myself. The clear pools of water seemed to radiate with a deep stillness and the energy of the hills behind seemed comforting and safe. 

I can come to this place and sit all day, and its energies get inside me and still my own. when I leave I am changed. 

People of all cultures have recognized the "Genii Loci," the "Spirit of the Place." Virtually every hill, valley, and settlement--any ecosystem with enough complexity--had one. These anthropomorphized versions of place were the first gods and spirits that we humans worshipped. It was often the shaman, the one who knew how to relate with these spirits, who sited new settlements, told where to plant the orchard or sew the grain crop, or planned the temple. In his designs, he'd bake brownies for ghosts, whisper to the ancestors, crack jokes to the genii loci...

How else would he get them in there? 

And this has never gone away. In more intuitive cultures, people still speak of fairies and spirits in the woods, in the waters. This language is the tool they use to understand that there are some places that are curative, and some that are best avoided. People still build little nooks and crannies for elf-folk, gnomes and dhakinis hoping that if they attract the right energies, they can recreate the sacred feeling of a place like Iargo Springs. 

Even in our culture, urban ghost tours remain incredibly popular. 

As a maker, gardener and Permaculture designer, I have a deep desire to get as many ghosts as I can into the human habitats I co-create with communities, ecosystems, ancestors and the Genii Loci around me. While it's important to have our designs grounded in research-based approaches, it's equally important to find ways of translating the strange language of intuition. 

Despite all our technology, in this regard we moderns are no different than the thousand thousand generations before us. 

There's only one door to this place, 
you must find it in moonlight,
find a sincere desire,
put on the shaman's cloak, 
beat the drum, 
carve the antler, 
seek the fae, 
speak to ghosts.... 

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