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On Cabbages and Escape from the City

A comment on my Instagram from my British ex-pat Danish-resident former mathematician buddy who I have always addressed simply as K, though more expansively she is sometimes known as Kel, inspired me to push the boundaries of metaphor on what would have been a very long IG reply, but will probably be a pretty short blog post.

I posted this image of from fractal cabbages. Mathematicians, sciencey people generally, and people who just like that kind of thing often wax lyrical on the perfection of fractals. We do that a lot with things which strike us as harmonious and in balance with how we understand the universe (science) and how the universe actually is (art / philosophy).

Fractals combine apparently simple mathematical truths, and to pattern-seeking humans, they have an aesthetic quality to them we find pleasing.

In this photo, we have repeating fractal patterns in the form of the leaves, the ribbing and contouring of them, and also in the ice crystals emanating from their frozen tips.

Kel directed me to a wonderful resource where two mathematicians from Cornell University investigate the connection between the plain described by a lettuce leaf and hyperbolic space (and how to crochet both).

The thing which leapt out at me was a specific characteristic of "hyperbolic space" which serves to define it and, I am sure, we could all use a little reminder of:

In hyperbolic space, parallel lines curve away from each other - the further one travels from any point the more room there is.

This immediately made me think of The City. Buckle up, I am about to stretch a metaphor much further than it's elasticity should allow it. Also, I am going to randomly throw concepts of space and time at each other which do not actually fit together at all.

In any society, The City is the object of mass.

Imagine a star, it creates a huge sink in the fabric of spacetime which dwarfs all other disturbances around it. Sure, planets, moons, asteroids all bend space time, but compared to the well around a star, they are barely pimples.

Since, or before, the beginning of "technology", cities have been that deep well in the continuum of society. Either the city pulls people towards it or the countryside spills people out of itself. Are you running from the top of a hill, or being pulled towards the bottom? It doesn't make any difference really.

You can start where you like (European-centricity ahoy!) - 1701 and Jethro Tull's seed drill meaning less work required in agriculture, or 1764 and the spinning jenny creating employment in the cities. Cities empty the land, they always have done, and that is more or less the point of them.

Cities have never been self sustaining. That's not the point of them. The Capitol, and it's relationship with The Districts, of the Hunger Games is only different from the reality of today in terms of turning up the dials a little. It's a little more extreme than today, but other than the oppression and pedicide-as-entertainment, it's not a whole lot inaccurate.

Being "not self-sustaining" is a bit of a misdirection, really. It considers cities as independent from their surroundings. They are not. The countryside which feeds the city is as much a part of the complete system as the city itself. So, there's nothing actually inherently wrong with this as a system.

Nothing wrong with it, that is, as long as it can continue.

My belief is that it cannot.

I am not advocating for a mass exodus from the cities. I'm not that political. My role is to encourage people to look more critically at the city, and consider how the failure of one part of it virtually instantly requires the failure of the whole of it.

When you try to imagine a life where all of a sudden the supermarket shelves are empty, you shouldn't think of that in terms of "what will I eat this evening?", you should consider the question "what if the essential workers of this city have nothing to eat this evening?". What would be the consequence of hungry nurses, fire services, police, the people who keep the electricity and the water running, who make sure the waste and the waste water disappear like magic? The sanitisers of streets and public spaces and city maintenance ordinance workers going without food?

Do you think that they are going to prioritise their jobs over their family's empty dinner table? Why should they? If the supermarkets run out of food, it automatically means the city runs out of people to prevent looting, to clear up the rubbish, keep the lights on.

The question is - how many countless, invisible others are responsible for you being able to enjoy the life that you have?

The purpose of the barracks is NOT AT ALL to show that you too can run away from the city. You probably can't. It is to ask you to question how society works, and to hold a torch in the direction of immense amount of work needed simply to survive if you're doing it on your own, also the pretty basic city-life standards which you have to give up. I am not trying to encourage you to do what I am doing. I want to show how precariously knife-edge late-stage capitalism is, and help you to think about how to create a better society.

The requirement for so many people to live so close together in a city, each invisibly interdependent is not so bad. I have lived in cities all my life, and for the most part, really enjoyed it.

But I can tell you this for certain, as you escape the gravity sink of the city, and move out into hyperbolic space, parallel lines noticeably diverge and the room for self-examination, for breathing and for living quickly expand to create new space.

Space which cannot even be seen from the well of the city.


Gravity sink image - BenRG, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Capitol (Hunger Games) from

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