In the Mesh

[Venice: With 6,000 sand cisterns, the city was “formerly a dense collection of fresh water aquifers, sitting in a saltwater lagoon.”   Courtesy Archinect and Eleanor Pries’ travels cataloged at Systems that Seep]

In The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton puts forth the idea of  “The Mesh”:

“Mesh is a short word for ‘the interconnectedness of all living and non living things’…It can mean the holes in a network and threading between them.  It suggests both hardness and delicacy.  It has uses in biology, mathematics and engineering and in weaving and computing… It has antecedents in mask and mass, suggesting both density and deception.  Mesh can mean a complex situation or series of events in which a person is entangled; a concatenation of constraining or restricting forces or circumstances; a snare”

“…The mesh appears in our social, psychic, and scientific domains.  Since everything is interconnected, there is no definite background and therefore no definite foreground….each point of the mesh is both the center and edge of a system of points, so there is no absolute center or edge.”

According to Morton, The contemporary value of the ‘ecological thought’  lies in its investigation of the fabric of the all-inclusive mesh.  A mesh of infinite relationships which we are not separate from.  Morton is essentially and eloquently restating a basic ecological concept: effecting one part of a system – an entity, a node, or process – always effects other parts, whether its strategic or unintentional.  What we find most interesting about the mesh (…or the network, assemblage, expanded field, etc.)  is not the illusive ‘fact’ of the mesh per se, but more the expanding ways in which it is currently interpreted and utilized to achieve any number of ends.  Forensic or meta interpretations of ecology are central concerns in Morton’s writings on ‘Nature’ and ‘Ecology’.  His endeavor is apropos.

Lets say it another way.   A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionate effect on the environment relative to its biomass (*).  We could borrow this definition to speak of keystone concepts in language and knowledge.  Certain words or concepts emerge to take on sizable areas of conceptual activity in the noosphere.  For example, the word ‘culture’ was generously thrown about in the 1990’s, generating a huge nomenclature that includes cultural relevance, cultural bias, culture shock, cultural construct, sub culture, etc).  It seems this was largely productive, although it reached its limits in some of postmodernism’s endless tail-chasing.  Reaching back further in time, Freud’s introduction of the subconscious did the same sort of thing, expanding the mind-thought paradigm itself.

We would argue (as Morton and others do) that ecology is a keystone concept of the present, and as such is in need of significant unpacking.   Ecology is used everywhere for any number of political, social, scientific and design agendas (witness the current nomenclature of sustainability).   A good question is what currently isn’t defined along ecological descriptions?  How  ‘nature’ or ‘ecology’ is defined or imaged is critical to how it is engaged and manipulated.  We are currently particularly active in working out what the mesh is – a process that always will be inherently provisional and incomplete, yet is so interesting and revelatory in and of itself as departure point of design speculation.

“We can’t see everywhere all at once (not even with Google Earth).  When we look at x we can’t look at y.  Cognitive science suggests that our perception is full of holes….The infinite is not an object to be seen.” – Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought

[“Wailiqui is one of the floating islands of Uros in Lago Titicaca. Located about 3 miles east of the port town of Puno, these 40 islands float low among the totara reeds. The Aymara people construct these islands from these reeds and their soil base. Each island has about 5 families and 15-20 people. To construct an island, the families harvest the soil-root base of the totara reeds from the lake, sometimes traveling 6 miles or more by boat. They cut blocks of the soil-root base, about 2m by 3m and bring them back to Uros. This base is called killy in Aymara, is predominantly the root of the totora reed with some loose soil, and is about 1 meter deep. To connect these root blocks, they drive large stakes into the root blocks and then lash them together to create the floating foundation of the island. Layered on top of the roots are the cut totara reeds, also about 1 meter deep. The surface is spongy and mostly dry with a lot of spring under foot. The reeds that are out of water grey with time and sun. On the island base, new layers of totara are added as some of the reeds rot.” – Eleanor Pries]

To claim something as ‘natural’ or ‘ecological’ without clarification doesn’t mean much anymore.  It’s like renaming the sky.  It takes being more deliberate and articulate about what is meant and what is being constructed, in both conceptual and physical realms.

*Thanks to Eleanor Pries and her travels to Seeping Systems*


  1. on meshes, have you checked out the Julian Raxworthy book The Mesh Book? It’s great, and has that Peter Connelly essay that I keep referencing.

    You can get a lot of Raxworthy’s writings here– he’s rad.

  2. I love that book and Raxworthy’s explorations – particularly his ongoing interests in maintenance regimes and process. Thanks for the link.

  3. The idea of “Meshworks” is instrumental to the “integral “thought of Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics and Ken Wilbur’s Integral Vision which has spawned “Integral Ecology” from Sean Esbjorn-Hargens & Michael Zimmerman which all strive to define a framework for conceptualizing the “Whole” while working on or studying the parts of “holons” I have found these concepts to be usefull in trying to derive a method for the design of cities experience.

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