Sound Foundations

Whatever we wish to construct, whether a garden, a building, a business or some other product of our creativity, nothing is more important than building the enterprise on sound foundations.

The foundations of The Knot Garden are the soil. As with other types of foundation, soil is largely invisible except in such areas as flower beds where only the surface can be examined without a spade. The Knot Garden recognises that what is unseen is often more important than what is in plain sight.

I was alarmed this morning to see an article in the Guardian reporting a warning by the environment secretary that the UK is 30 to 40 years away from “eradication of soil fertility”. The Knot Garden usually takes politicians’ statements with a pinch of salt but my curiosity compels me to look more deeply into the story so that I can discover what lies behind it.

The ominous assertion reminded me of a chapter entitled The World Below Our Feet in John Humphrys’s book The Great Food Gamble, in which he refers to “the least explored and least understood environment on the planet: the earth beneath our feet”. He goes on to describe the damage that mankind has done to the soil through intensive farming methods.

I have thought from time to time about the importance of soil quality but have not so far been able to spend time to understand the science of this complex and fascinating subject. Surely soon, especially given my unexploited interest in the closely related subject of geology, I will conduct some research into the ecology of soil and the factors that affect its quality. This is a fascinating domain, crucial to our existence, that appears to be widely overlooked.

One important function of The Knot Garden is the identification of areas of personal ignorance (in subjects that are important to me), creating awareness and opening the door to an exploration of key themes that are relevant to my belief system.

I am not prepared to take the MP’s statement at face value but I will certainly treat it as a sharp reminder that I need to improve my knowledge of the soil and develop an informed view of whether it truly is being degraded in a manner that is dangerous to humankind.

Combatting Noise With Noise

I seem to be far more sensitive to noise than the vast majority of people. This is particularly apparent when I travel by coach, especially when going to work in the morning. I treat the two and a half hour journey to Victoria as a period for meditation, contemplation and creative thought. Interruptions are by no means welcome.

When the passenger sitting nearby thoughtlessly plays a video on their smart phone without using earphones, I have a weapon with which to retaliate. I have the means to produce sound at a much higher level of volume than that which is rudely intruding into my inner world of calm. Rather than confronting the inconsiderate traveller, I choose to combat sound with sound.

I’m not surprised that Beethoven was deaf. Have you heard his symphonies? What a noise! In certain parts one has the impression of a solid, impenetrable wall of sound. Then there is the marked use of dissonance in passages that waver between chromatic brilliance and the borders of cacophony.

In case you think me unreasonable in resorting to the use of superior decibels to counteract a rather muted but nevertheless annoying noise, let me assure you that the sound from my iPad is directed not at my fellow passengers but into my own ears. In fact, to make sure that I do not disturb others, I wear high quality headphones.

With the volume turned up high, the puny sound from across the aisle stands no chance of getting through. And oddly, with the magnificent music of the incomparable Beethoven battering my ears, I am able to remain relaxed and focused in my reverie.

The Knot Garden approves of the use of carefully weighed confrontation when no alternatives exist but urges us to consider other solutions first.

The Enemy Within

We are told, with some justification, that in order to win our battles we must exploit the weaknesses of our adversaries. But what of those conflicts in which our enemy is not some corporeal antagonist but oneself?

We often have a tendency to accept  our own weaknesses too readily, proclaiming in a matter of fact sort of way that “I am not really much of a something-or-other” and believing that who we are – and therefore to some extent our destiny too – is determined entirely by our genetic make-up. We think that our nature was fixed at some early stage in our existence and that we cannot change ourselves.

The Knot Garden believes that our capacity for self-transformation is far greater than people generally imagine.

Naturally, any programme of change that we decide to undertake must begin with an examination of our weaknesses. The problem is that we often suffer from weaknesses  that are hidden from our view. I speak from experience here. I discovered recently, when reading Chris Voss’s excellent book Never Split The Difference, that I have lived my entire life without understanding the importance of being an accomplished negotiator.

I have since learned that empathy-based negotiation is a critically important skill to all of us save those who live as hermits in caves, avoiding contact with other humans.

The Knot Garden exhorts us to search within ourselves to find our key areas of weakness and then work on turning them into valuable assets. Only in this way can we hope to become truly strong.

A Most Underrated Activity

It has often struck me, as we saunter through the idyllic valley that lies close to Sapperton, a few miles from our home, that walking is a vastly underrated activity. I silently express my gratitude to the broadcasting corporations for keeping away those who would rather watch live darts, snooker of horse racing on television than stretch their legs.

I guess that many people shun walking as a form of recreation because its benefits are rather subtle and do not deliver the fixes of entertainment, excitement or instant gratification that they crave.  Many avoid walking in the rain, proclaiming that the conditions are miserable or commenting on how filthy it is outside. I take the opposite view, finding only happiness in rain-walking, which cleanses the soul as well as the dusty streets.

The physical health benefits of walking are well understood, if somewhat underestimated. I suspect the wider therapeutic impact, including positive effects on our state of mind, are overlooked by most. In the right circumstances walking is equivalent to an active form of meditation. Indeed, static meditation often starts with one’s imagined presence in pastoral surroundings or on a quiet beach, listening to the birdsong or waves. Whether walking or sitting in quiet contemplation, the subject can achieve inner calm equally well.

There is plenty to occupy the mind while walking, if quiet reflection is not the goal. The view is constantly changing, but slowly rather than in the manner of a fraught action drama. The intensity of awareness rises and falls depending on the environment and there is the opportunity for creative thought or problem-solving. Sometimes profound ideas materialise, as they might while taking a shower. A companion offers the possibility of stimulating conversation.

The Knot Garden is thankful that walking is one of the world’s most underrated activities. Walking loses some of its appeal when one is buffeted by crowds or has to dodge aggressive commuters, as places such as Victoria Station require.

Time To Get Real

If we are at all interested in concepts, we must develop the ability to move seamlessly back and forth between the abstract and the physical, in the manner of rotating a circular control smoothly around a dial, first clockwise and then anti-clockwise. Rather than being two discreet states, these are merely locations on a spectrum that intersects with other spectra at every point on its surface.

I have given notice in previous posts of my intention to start with themes that lie at the conceptual end of the spectrum and gradually move towards the  concrete pole. As with any worthwhile journey, the direction of travel will not be linear but will see the path double back on itself and meander at will, becoming convoluted in places.

You must surely be wondering whether this blog is really about knot gardens at all, or is merely a vehicle for expressing some personal beliefs and presenting my own peculiar view of the world. After all, I have spent the last year, since the blog’s inception, dealing with general themes that do not appear to be closely related to knot gardens.

I feel now that the time has come to start an exploration of real, extant knot gardens. Only by doing this will I  become equipped to eventually design and build The Knot Garden in its corporeal form. I expect the completion of that assignment, still several years away from starting, to mark the conclusion of this project.

Precisely why is it important for me to visit existing knot gardens? Firstly, so that I can study their geometry. In a wider sense, I wish to understand the patterns used in their construction. It will be interesting too to learn something of those who commissioned them and those who built them and to discover the gardens’ historical context. Most of all, I wish to gain insights into the belief systems of the people associated with them.

Through a piece of good fortune I have discovered, after scanning through hundreds of images of knot gardens on the Internet, that the one that caught my attention more than any other sits just across the river from where I work – a mere fifteen minutes on foot.

Having done some brief research on St Mary-at-Lambeth, I am drawn both to the garden’s setting – which features a churchyard and a wild garden – and its history. For the site contains monuments to both the Tradescant family, of botanical fame, and Admiral William Bligh of The Bounty, who once found himself on the receiving end of a famous mutiny. Here must surely lie a rich vein of belief-yielding ore.

The Knot Garden believes that balance must be maintained between the theoretical domain of ideas and the tangible world of material entities. My forthcoming visit to The Garden Museum represents the first significant step towards creating the required tension. I very much look forward to entering for the first time the real world of knot gardens.

Ratios For Living

The Knot Garden has written before about the importance of numbers and has mentioned, in passing, ratios such as phi, represented by the Greek letter φ, and the less precise one, generally expressed as 80:20, that underpins Pareto’s Principle.

The Golden Ratio has intrigued some of history’s greatest minds for two and a half thousand years. The actual number, which approximates to 1.618, has remarkable geometric properties that have been recognised and applied by mathematicians, architects, observers of the natural world and (more recently) financial markets traders. Many people claim to have found evidence that φ was used in the design of the Parthenon and the ratio was subsequently given formal mathematical treatment by several prominent individuals, including Euclid and Leonardo de Pisa – otherwise known as Fibonacci.

The Knot Garden, when it finally starts to take shape, will no doubt manifest the Divine Proportion, to use another expression for φ, because of its elegant derivation and pleasing aesthetic. I find these to be more compelling reasons for using the ratio than any mystical attributes that people might imagine the number possesses.

But that time is still a long way off. And in the meantime there is much living to be done. And I am thinking more and more that I can use ratios in a loose, simplistic way to improve certain areas of my life.  The enhancements I have in mind will take the form of a more favourable balance.

I am starting 2018 with a significant step forwards, for I have negotiated an extra work-from-home day. Henceforth I will be home-based on Mondays as well as Fridays, saving me valuable time and money. I will be able to work more effectively and my quality of life will be upgraded.

Although I do not need a ratio to tell me that the extra work-from-home day will improve my life, I nevertheless find such numerical representations useful. They are, after all, very much a part of my nature. I am reassured that the ratio of home-working time to office-working time has increased by a factor of 3.33 from 0.200 to 0.666. The metric gives me a benchmark to work from.

I have considered the informal application of ratios to other aspects of my life. Omega-3 PUFAs to Omega-6 PUFAs, raw food to cooked food, vegetables to meat, water to beer, reading to television, walking to bus travel. The possibilities are endless.

The Knot Garden approves of the use of ratios in a light – even playful – manner. These numbers can truly help us to visualise the balance in our lives and to monitor progress towards our goals.

Human Energy

I am watching a video of what appears to be an alien world. The animation shows brightly coloured life forms of irregular shape moving through a sea teeming with activity, performing tasks whose precise purpose is a mystery to me.

One could be forgiven for believing that this is a science fiction movie. You would be half right. It is science but very definitely not fiction. Far from being set in a distant galaxy, the action unfolding on the screen is taking place inside our bodies. The star of this extravagant production is not the latest silver screen celebrity – it is the mitochondrion. This, as you will already know, is the organelle concerned with cellular energy generation through its role in converting glucose into adenosine triphosphate.

If we are at all interested in human energy then it is helpful to visualise the physiological mechanisms responsible for it. Unfortunately the science is well beyond me and I cannot justify the considerable investment of time required to fully understand it. But that does not prevent me from using a few key concepts to help build an abstract view of this fascinating and important domain.

Why should I take the trouble to construct such a mental picture? Because human energy is a fundamental component of performance. One could even assert that our ability to consistently generate human energy and to apply it effectively is a definition of performance.

To perform well, simply being able to generate the energy is not enough. Filling the petrol tank of your car won’t allow you to reach your destination if you drive around aimlessly or have no map or directions to guide you. The energy needs to be controlled and applied in a very precise way. And without the energy itself we are unable to even start the journey. A vehicle with an empty tank will not reach its destination.

You could easily fill an entire library with books about human energy. We will satisfy ourselves for now with an ariel  view of the factors that influence its supply and the effectiveness with which it is applied.

It is well understood that exercise promotes increased cellular density of mitochondria. The process, known as mitochondrial biogenesis, is facilitated by the remarkable cellular signalling mechanisms that respond to changes in stress – such as those caused by strenuous physical exertion. The human body is smart enough to know when it needs to make more mitochondria. Can you imagine your car building some extra engines because you keep increasing the number of passengers you carry and the speed at which you convey them?

Moving from the physiological sphere to the psychological, we must be aware of factors that sap our energy or cause it to be dispersed,  diffused or squandered.  We can look out for – and hence avoid – vampire beings, animate or inanimate, such as the Cyclops.

The manner in which our energy is directed depends on our goals, our cognitive ability, our mental health and our ability to concentrate our efforts. The Knot Garden considers human energy – and the effectiveness of its application – to be a matter of absolutely critical importance to the way we live our lives.

What Is Quality?

Given The Knot Garden’s interest in quality, it may seem surprising that after an entire year of writing this blog, the subject has hardly been touched – the post High Quality Income being an exception. Perhaps, as 2017 draws to a close, I should set the record straight on the reasons behind this apparent neglect.

A number of years ago, in common with Robert Pirsig and countless others before me, I asked the question “What is quality?”. In order to find the answer I started writing a blog, which I maintained for a little more than three years. After publishing one hundred and seventy two posts, I suddenly stopped writing for Quality Blog in August 2015. I did so because, ironically, I failed to meet one of my quality criteria – to always publish on time by midnight on every Sunday of the year.

You might think that stopping the blog altogether on account of such an infraction was an overly drastic measure. But certain principles should be held inviolate. There was no adequate excuse for failing to meet the deadline and so the price had to be paid. After all, if we do not have principles that we are prepared to back up with action, what do we have?

Does this mean that Quality Blog cannot be resumed? No – that really would be taking things too far. But if I restart it, I must first determine its precise relationship to The Knot Garden. The goal is to build on integrity, not to erode it. The two writing projects would need to reinforce each other. And my feeling is that if I am to get Quality Blog going again, I must start on the first Sunday in the new year. I believe this is my last opportunity to resurrect the project.

Quality is a subject of such critical importance to me, and of such a wide scope, that it merits its own website. My original idea was to gain worthwhile insights into the true nature of quality by publishing one thousand posts over a period of twenty years. I see no reason to change that goal.

I am not really one for new year resolutions. Why should we delay until the beginning of January the business of improving our lives? My impatient nature implores me to go ahead and implement changes immediately rather than waiting for some arbitrary date to arrive. However, we naturally approach the new year with ideas about how we can live better lives. I am no exception to this, although I do try to look beyond fad diets towards sustainable themes.

I need to do more writing. And, while I have in mind some more ambitious projects, I feel compelled to crank up the stalled engine of Quality Blog once more. I will start in a week’s time with an explanation of why I brought it to such an abrupt halt. And I will set out my stall afresh, reiterating my reasons and my goals. I am resolved to it.

My Favourite Word

The idea of having a favourite word seems ludicrous. Especially for someone like me, who does not really believe in having favourites of anything. And, just to make matters worse, I hardly ever use the word that best qualifies for this dubious title. What then are my reasons for holding the word in such high esteem?

I should make it perfectly clear at the outset that I have never set out to find a word that I like more than any other. Rather than emerging from a formal assessment process, applied rigorously to all of the words in my (albeit narrow) vocabulary, the word has achieved its coveted status unobtrusively by seducing me with its understated charms over a long period of time.

In line with my well-established practice of doing things backwards, I decided to identify the criteria after I had chosen the word. I consider myself a bit of an expert at putting the cart in front of the horse. Precisely what factors have I applied ex post facto?

As you have already learned, the word scores low on utilisation. But there are more important indicators of quality than frequency of use. After all, we can easily tire of something if we do not restrict our exposure to it. One complementary pair of factors can be found in the aesthetic appeal of the word and the degree  to which its sound matches its meaning. The closely related property of onomatopoeia (what a gruesome word that is!), however, does not apply in this case.

Then there is the theme that the word represents. As you might imagine, this is an important consideration for The Knot Garden. We must also take into account the virtue of elegant simplicity – The Knot Garden tends to avoid long, complicated words – often used merely for effect – preferring ones with fewer syllables.

My nominated word gets a high rating when measured against these yardsticks. However there is a further, decisive factor to consider. The word possesses a peculiar characteristic that, as far as I can see, is not shared by any other words of similar length. Unlike the word queue, for example, eighty percent of which is composed of vowels, my favourite word contains none. All six of its letters are consonants.

I am sticking my neck out a bit here, as I have not carried out the brief research necessary to establish the uniqueness of this property. But I am reasonably certain that I stand on firm ground. And, if I am wrong, then my position remains unaltered, for it is still a rare trait.

Should I ever feel inclined to apply the principle of favouritism to words, my chosen one expresses a universally important concept that can be found in both the human and the natural worlds. And it is phonetically alluring. The word is rhythm.

The Meaning Of Christmas

The Knot Garden wonders how the meaning of Christmas has changed in modern times with the advent of a different type of miracle – technological innovation powered by Moore’s law. The traditional trappings of the religious celebration remain in some diminished way but what do people actually think about during the festive times?

We found ourselves sitting in a local pub yesterday, enjoying a meal in an intimate, well-furnished space. The small dining room was quiet and so, even though we are not eavesdroppers, it was hard to avoid hearing the conversation of the well-to-do couple who sat nearby. Snippets drifted through to our ears in spite of our attempts to shut them out.

I am often struck by how commonplace it is to find that people who exude charm, self-assurance and sophistication spend so much of their time, while ensconced in attractive social settings, discussing matters that are mundane, trivial and unimportant.

The couple’s discourse was of particular interest because it was concerned with Christmas. Their dialogue conveyed, through the manner and tone in which it was conducted, a sense that something profound was being explored. The illusion was shattered, however, when one listened to the actual words.

The confident, well-spoken man and woman were debating nothing more than the buying of Christmas presents, by and for their various family members – and especially their children. The banal intercourse occupied the entire duration of our stay at the inn. At times it became intense, heated even, verging on outright criticism and threatening to degenerate into an argument.

These apparently intelligent, accomplished people were spending their evening trying to figure out who should buy what for whom. Was it acceptable for a daughter to buy such and such a gift for her father? The lady at one point stated petulantly that she would buy the jumper she wanted herself – presumably because nobody else could be persuaded to buy it for her. The talk was highly judgemental and possibly a little manipulative.

That is what Christmas meant for these people. Getting what they wanted and imposing their will on others. If they had placed a proper value on their time they would surely have realised that the cost of their discussions would far exceed the value of the presents that they would receive.

What has happened to the idea of dispensing goodwill to all mankind? This creed surely still finds expression in isolated pockets of humanity but appears to be swamped by commercially-driven considerations. Perhaps, in an inversion of values, the idea of truly giving to others has been replaced by one of egotism and selfishness.

Even as a non-worshipper I can appreciate the generosity of spirit that Christmas should, and sometimes does, bring forth. As I write this I am once again listening to the opening part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, performed by John Eliot Gardiner and the Moteverdi Choir, which truly engenders feelings of joy and exaltation. And so I say unto you, in this season of celebration and compassion, Jauchzet Frohlocket!