The Missing Link

Patrick Geddes is a name that comes up often in the random hotch-potch of places I go – the Scottish Poetry Library, (he’s the source of the logo “by leaves we live” geo-poetics, permaculture, education, ecology, philosphy, culture – he’s had his hands in them all. For a long time I thought I should find out more about him, and then I came across this book, published by Luath in 2004 Think Global, Act Local: The Life and Legacy of Patrick Geddes.

It’s a collection of essays reflecting different aspects of Geddes’ life and work. It comes over as scrappy, slightly incoherent, and with strange gaps that make it hard to come up with a satisfying perspective on the man and his work, but after reading the second chapter ‘Patrick Geddes – the Life’ by Walter Stephen, I’m inclined to blame Geddes himself for that. His work was so wide-ranging and there is so much of it, that it is hard to pin him down anywhere.

I’m not sure this isn’t half the attraction. I love this random, global, fast-moving, multi-disciplinary rampaging in all directions- I do a lot of it myself! I like his disapproval of the over-specialisation that was taking place in academic circles in his era (he lived from 1854-1932), and which has only got worse since then. And I passionately believe in engaging heads hands and hearts in the learning process (a phrase he coined).

I found myself intigued the work he did on the Valley Section, showing the intrinsic connection between the land, the people and the work they do (I’d add the language they speak to this nexus), which stresses the importance not only of adapting living spaces and working processes to the terrain where they are located, but also recognising the need for diversity and co-operation.

The most satisfying aspect of his work, however, is the ‘observational technique’ he advocates in design – the Diagnostic Survey and Conservative Surgery. We are very prone to starting our plans (for anything from a web-site to a new kitchen)with a blank canvas, and this sometimes leads to what I call the Pol Pot theory of organisation. You start with Year Zero, the concept rules everything, and heaven helpthe person, the piece of kit or the ornery fact of lfe that gets in the way. Not Geddes. He started with what’s already there, assessed what happened in a particular place, and how it worked and how it met the needs of people living there. And then he changed only what needed changed. Moreover, he strongly believed in empowering communities to upgrade their environments themselves according to the needs they perceived, rather than the objuctives foisted on them from outside

This process – survey, analysis plan – is most frequently referred to in permaculture design, but it also came up in the YCW groups of my youth as the maxim ‘See, Judge and Act’ People familiar with the document of Vatican II Gaudium et Spes will also find echoes of it there, and consistently throughout Catholic social teaching. In this context, it is worth pointing out that Geddes’ father was an elder in the Free Kirk of Scotland, and I had some significant preconceptions about Wee Frees knocked sideways when I read about his background. I never would have imagined that the Free Kirk was in discussions with Cardinal Newman, and the emerging Baha’ai movement.

This book has opened up significant and exciting lines of thought for me, which I hope to be following up during the next year.

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