"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Posts tagged “life in England

Crowdsourcing and Prototypes

This post carries on my summary of Clear Village’s Walled Kitchen Garden Project running in partnership with Imogen Heap’s composition of #heapsong3. Saturday morning we cleared the field; Saturday afternoon we started the collaborative design process.

Sunday morning brought the largest team to the site. The team hailed from many diverse locations. I travelled from Southern England, while others travelled from the other areas in England, United States, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus to join in the fun. Everyone worked around their own obligations with some people making a holiday of the workshop while others bounced around as they needed to. Martin greeted us on Sunday by mucking around on the guitar while other facilitators explained the project to the people joining in. With all the new faces, we hit “Rewind” on the design workshop, choosing to prototype an element of all of the designs.

Creativity gets unleashed with an incubation period. After the feedback session from Saturday, we could identify the strengths of each design to see if it was feasible. Saturday morning found us trying to prototype a reciprocating roof made of bamboo, a repetitive tripod structure, a free-standing triangular structure (affectionately dubbed “The Cheesecake”), and a central pole people’s pavilion that could serve as the entrance. My group was working on the central pole design.

I wanted the design to have some echoes of the local environment. Too many “new” structures stick out like a sore thumb because they lack continuance with other things around. On Saturday, we experimented with tripods made of fallen sycamore trees so we had two reasonably straight sycamore trunks with a fork. We brought one fork down from to the field for our prototyping. Continuance came from using the sycamore as the central part of the design. Our design called for putting the sycamore in the ground to anchor it. The trunk went straight up and down so I wanted it stable. No trees crashing down on my head, please.

Incidentally, the first thing we wound up prototyping was digging the hole. Our field was mostly a heavy clay soil. It had compacted considerably. Digging the holes proved rather fitfully difficult. We started working with the spades, but the soil was hard, the spades didn’t move the soil easily, and it was easier for us to go out rather than down. Then someone brought us the hole borer. The hole borer was sized almost ideally to our task. But the soil proved incredibly resilient. We would get the borer down 2 to 5 inches, it would get stuck, we’d pull it out, and then clean out the loose soil with hand spades or by hand. If nothing else, my team had the technical knowledge of working in the space.

When we got the central pole in, we placed the four bamboo rods that would be supporting the netting overhead. Our design called for four more holes to be dug to support bamboo poles that would give height to our pyramid (enabling people to walk around the structure). Since we purchased pre-cut bamboo, the bamboo itself served as a natural measuring stick. One 4-metre length of bamboo determined the side. We also had to figure out how to support the various angles coming together with lashing.

And other prototypes started to fill the field….

We learn so much about design when we actually try to build and install them. The “Cheesecake” team found some stability issues when they wanted to keep their structure free standing. The “Reciprocating Roof” team found that there’s actually a lot of knowledge required to make a roof self-support so they wound up pulling the plug on that feature. The “Tripod” team realised that they could get adequate support on two legs. And my “Centre Pole” team learned that digging holes is fitfully difficult.

When the gardeners could walk around the structures, they had a distinct preference for the openness of our centre pole structure. And as the stones were cast, the centre pole formed the base concept.

Tune into the blog tomorrow for our recording session with Imogen Heap.

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Designing a New Life for the Garden… Together

In this post I discuss Saturday afternoon at the Walled Village project run in collaboration with Imogen Heap.

After spending our morning preparing the field, we took a different approach to the afternoon. Clear Village, the organization facilitating the open air lab in the Walled Garden, uses a participatory collaborative design process to ensure that various voices influence the shape and texture of projects. After all, Clear Village views itself as a catalyst organization for sustained community change. The project would fail without solidly involving the community in the project design.

My own work in engineering education has shown me that there is a lot of mystique around what it means to be a designer. When people come to see their daily activities as design activities, it can remove some of the underlying assumptions that to be a designer, one must have the right profession (such as architecture or engineering). Clear Village also finds the educational process important so a facilitator led a discussion around a design process. I particularly appreciated how the facilitator described a design process, acknowledging that a lot of people have created variations on the design process theme. For the most part, we also avoided making the process linear. And, like a lot of things, you really learn about design as you actually attempt to design something.

Because of the sheer number of people on site and everyone’s different interests, we divided first into a plants team and a structure team. Owing to some spontaneous tree clearing at the wall, some in the group had already hit the first point of structural inspiration to make tripod structures with the sycamores. We then divided the structure team further so more voices could express ideas. As an engineer with sketching experience, I found myself coordinating a team.

Personally, I often embrace a definition of engineering design as design under constraint as a useful tool for thinking. Our structure had to have potential to cover the entire field, allow people into the structure to tend to plants, and provide protection from birds (netting) and frost (horticultural fleece). We had 50 bamboo poles 4 metres in length as well as the earlier fallen sycamores. To allow for people to move around the structure easily, all teams worked with a human access height of 2 metres.

Putting numbers in created an interesting design dynamic. “Covering the field” meant either being designed to the field size (roughly 10×10 metres with a smaller area for actual planting) or designing for fractal expansion where a core would repeat itself. It was also a little strange to have the field size influencing design when we had actually never measured the field and worked from very rough estimates. To provide frost protection for the plants, the horticultural fleece actually has to be a lot closer to the ground than 2 meters, creating upper and lower structural concerns.

For our part, my team focused principally on designing to field size. All of the design teams wanted to avoid the standard rectilinear structures easily built with bamboo. We explored echoing the various polytunnels around the site in combination with various triangular structures. I’m also not the best orthogonal-view artist, so we struggled a bit to communicate how the five different structural components came together to cover the field.

Both the structure and the plants teams needed to work together. After all, the plants team couldn’t put plants in the ground until the structure established locations and shapes for the various beds. All three structural design teams shared their ideas, and a couple of members of the planting team proposed an idea based from their earlier tinkering with the sycamore tripods.

I thought the Clear Village facilitators did an excellent job at making sure the different designs could be discussed even as some teams lobbied hard for their design. Our discussion focused on the various merits of each design, identifying how various design ideas could come together. We ended the time with a weighted vote where people could vote with 3 stones to either strongly vote for one design or divide their preferences by putting stones on the various sketches.

My team’s sketch didn’t do so well. At the same time, all of the teams benefited from the thorough vetting of similarities and differences between designs. I felt good about getting stuck in with whatever design concept the next day. Something magical happens when you actually start to build up the design.

Then a whole new group of people joined in on Sunday, creating some different dynamics. In the next post, I’ll discuss Sunday morning and the surprises of prototyping.

[And as an author’s note, I will be pulling pictures into these blogs in the near future as more and more team members are getting their pictures posted online. Right now I’m focusing on writing.]


Getting Stuck into a Project with Imogen Heap

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that Imogen Heap was partnering with Clear Village to restore a walled garden in conjunction with Heapsong3. All of these announcements happened online, and here’s a blurb from Imogen’s site that tells you what we were expecting to happen.

In order to make the experience really rewarding and useful, Clear Village have thought it best to run an immersive program in which volunteers / participants / local residents can be involved in a learning and doing journey and become part of a team.

So in collaboration with the Borough’s Park managers, Clear-Village will be holding an open air lab for a maximum of 20 people over 6 days (22nd – 27th Sept inclusive) that will include presentations, exercises and creative get togethers. If you’re not a local, we have a hotel nearby that is pre-booked with 15 rooms at £55 per night (£65 if 2 in a room), including breakfast and transport to and from the garden (10 minute drive).

You can either come for the short period (22nd – 25th inclusive) or long period (up until 28th) when there’ll be art workshops also. We will feed and water you during the day and you’ll be forever welcome into the garden! You would have your evenings free from 5pm to enjoy nearby London (30 minute train from Gidea Park Station, Essex) or the local countryside.

You are then invited to ‘The Garden Party’ on the 8th Oct at The Round House (where we live), doubling up as the release of Heapsong3. It’s also Thomas’ birthday which he is ‘giving’ to the garden (friends and family bring cash not pressies!). If you’d like to come to the party but can’t be one of the 20 garden angels, you are welcome to come for £99 (all proceeds go toward further Walled Garden projects – places limited to 50 people).

For the 20 garden angels, your jobs could range from:

• Clearing the decks via bricklaying, carpentry, masonry, irrigation expertise, catering, revealing original footpaths, tilling the soil.

• Creating artwork from the debris of the clearing to be positioned around the park to raise local awareness to the ongoing project. (for those staying for the full 6 days)

We would be very happy also to have people with some knowledge of biodynamic agriculture, permaculture, architecture, community project management, drawing/live sketching etc.

I arrived on Saturday and worked through Tuesday. I found a team of folks preparing a large plot for planting because weeds had overrun the area. With spades, forks and hoes, we tried to bring this garden back to life. I chose to jump right in as other plots were roped off for safety reasons. The old greenhouses and poly-tunnels need a lot of skilled demolition. Our team focused principally on one overgrown plot.

Weeding fit my gardening skills nicely. Everything in the field needed to go. We also had a bit of a treasure hunt. The Friends of Bedfords Park had planted potatoes a few months back that were ready for harvesting. In particular, the raised beds were good places to find potatoes. Some stones tried to masquerade as potatoes, making the game that much more fun. Everyone on the team was really friendly, and conversations sprang up around a range of topics.

Because potatoes get planted in raised beds, we had to level the field. People worked with the forks and shovels to get the field roughly level. Other team members took to what we called “the penguin walk.” Treading the field requires you to take small steps using your heels to push down the soil. The ever-colourful Martin (also the parks director) showed us how to tread and recruited a team of people to “look really daft while doing it.” The three people closest to him got on the task right away while the rest of the team worked to prepare the far side of the field. Imogen came down to help and joined the penguin walkers while also joining right in with the team’s chatter.

At some point in the morning, a camera and mic boom showed up. [Weeding requires a lot of time looking down at the ground.] It was a bit strange to garden on camera but Clear Village and Imogen Heap commissioned a documentary about the Walled Garden project and the making of Heapsong3. Personally, I’m not really a taking pictures type of person, but many other folks on the team had really nice still cameras. After a point, I just got used to people taking action shots.

After the team had been working for a while, Lois brought in the winter vegetables and the salad crops we were planting. Martin facilitated a discussion about the difference between horticultural and permaculture techniques. Horticulture uses a rotational system of monocropping while permaculture inter-crops with symbiotic intentions. Certain plants do well when planted next to other plants as the various combinations offer natural protections from pests. The team knew that we’d be having to think carefully about how we wanted to plant the various plants.

By the end of the morning, we had the field nearly all turned over and ready for planting. I was quite impressed.

In the next post, I’ll discuss Saturday afternoon.


How badly do you want it?

Over-familiarity can breed contempt, but sometimes we need ready access.

My own church life is quite odd in England. The Orthodox community is rather thin on the ground. Generally, parishes that serve services in English rent spaces within Anglican buildings. Some parishes do not even have a regular priest so they meet once a month. Coming from communities in the States that, at minimum, observed weekly Vespers and Sunday Liturgy, confronting spareness has had its share of difficulties.

But there is something about sparseness that provokes desire. Sparseness forces one to make a choice. Being Orthodox has produced its share of difficulties, precisely when so many other opportunities present themselves. Additionally, being a Christian isn’t exactly a solo sport. Many of the Christians I’ve met here have not even so much known about Orthodoxy, let alone talked with an Orthodox Christian.

I was trying to think of an appropriate analogy to most of my opportunities to spend time with other Christians. While I keep a very bounded Communion discipline (only communing in Orthodox parishes), I do take advantage of a range of opportunities to get to know other Christians. Occasionally, these include an invitation to a Eucharistic service.

As I reflected on the run-up to Christmas, I realized that between 15 November and 25 December I had identically three opportunities to receive Communion. Such realities leave one hungry! And when you’re hungry, you definitely ask yourself why you make the choices you do.

Because so many people I interact with are Anglicans (fancy that), I often have to address the divergent Communion discipline with the folks I’m getting to know. [Anglicans will commune anyone who is baptized in the name of the Trinity, although in practice this discipline comes as anyone in “good standing” with a Christian church as some Anglicans don’t take exception to the idea of communing Quakers.] It’s particularly challenging on days where I would like to receive if a legitimate opportunity was available. But, as I was thinking about an appropriate analogy, finding myself in a non-Orthodox context when I want to receive communion is like craving a hamburger during Lent. It’s a non-starter.

I resolve the tensions by trying to make an active choice to prioritize being at Orthodox liturgies. Today definitely had the character of having to drag myself to get going. When you have an investment in a train ticket and need to leave your house 2 hours before the service starts, you experience the journey differently than when your parish is 5 minutes away from your flat. But I’m learning to welcome the space for desire.

And I really do miss Vespers.


The Oddity of a Full Church

Spirituality in England knows no lack of contradictions. Churches exist everywhere. That’s part of the problem. There are seven Church of England parishes within a kilometre of my flat. While I live in a reasonable residential area, the population to support seven vibrant communities does not exist. It has never existed.

Some parishes serve historic communities. One of the churches, St Nicholas, has had a building on their present site since the 11th century. The majority of church buildings arrived in conjunction with a church building boom in the 18th century. If you had a lot of money, the fashionable thing to do was to erect a huge edifice in your honour (and to the glory of God, of course!). A couple of the parishes I have visited could easily house a congregation of 1000, perhaps 2000, people. But, if you walk around their designated parish boundary, perhaps 500 to 800 people live in the territory. There is simply no way to fill a church.

Unless of course, your parish has something that so distinguishes it people travel to come. Herein lies another contradiction of Anglican life. Some churches lean heavily towards low-church Evangelical styling. Other churches are so highly Catholic you almost expect Benedict to be saying the mass. [Okay, maybe that last point was a slight exaggeration.] Within the Anglican communion, you almost feel like you’re at Baskin-Robbins trying to declare your favourite flavour of the month.

Coupled with these observations, the English are very English. You wonder if there’s something in the English DNA that restricts people’s ability to smile and greet you with a handshake. [To this end, the people of Boston are also very English.] The general English persona does carry the benefit of knowing that when an English person is friendly to you, it does carry a matter of genuine sincerity. However, the English are a reserved people, very reserved.

So imagine my surprise when I walked into a church on Sunday, felt genuinely welcomed by someone who recognized me from work, encountered a full congregation, and witnessed adults singing songs that had hand motions to encourage their kids.

Who knew the English had it in them?


When Life Halts

Originally my plan to get the life in England series going was to pick up where I had left off, but those gap-filling posts will arrive later.  This week has been marked by two four-letter words: sick and snow.  As such, I basically have been in my flat since Wednesday, grateful for the weather circumstances.

Being sick is no fun at all.  I can tell that I have transitioned more to being an adult as I would just rather be sick, get it done with, and then get back to work.  We’ve had a bit of a plague going around the Institute.  Sometimes it is a simple matter of time before everyone succumbs.

The snow fell as I focused my energies on feeling better.  People started making comments that the city was going to shut down.  I grew up in Minnesota, so a bit of snow is “No big deal.”  Yet Minnesotans also employ snow plows en masse.  The English, on the other hand, just seem to try to drive over the top of everything.  Compacting the snow generally causes it to melt and refreeze, giving a sheet of ice.  When vehicles became stuck, people left them in the streets.  It all left quite a mess.

For my part though, I was grateful for the chance to get some work done at home.  We’re at the end of the term already.  On Thursday I have a group presentation I’ve been diligently preparing.

Today temperatures are up to 7 degrees Celsius (45 degrees Fahrenheit for my American friends), rendering the snow a memory.  I’m also feeling considerably better, which also helps matters significantly.

This post has been brought to you by the letter “S.”


Yes I know I still have a blog

My apologies for letting the blog slip.  Being in a different post-graduate environment can provide a shake-up for just about anyone.  Additionally, being in a different country creates a considerable urge to go fun and interesting places on the weekends.  I tested my investigative detective skills at 221B Baker Street this weekend, so I’m feeling confident in my deductions.

I am going to shift my blogging targets to 4 posts a week, suspend the “Friday Forum” in favor of an “Anytime Forum,” and try to keep the “Life in England” tag active for my friends and family.  Additionally, I am going to stop my regular Sunday blogging on the Gospel readings associated with the Orthodox Church.  My ability to attend the Divine Liturgy here is a bit limited as my local community only serves the service twice a month.  As a result, I either go to Matins with my local community or I attend services at a different parish.  From what I can tell, there are 3 slightly different lectionaries in use owing to some jurisdictional pluralism on the island, so it’s hard for me to study the right gospel for Sundays.

Watch this space as I hope to be resuming a reasonable posting rate this week!