The Ecology of Cancer, and What do Ants have to do with it?

Ants are like cancer cells. Conversely we might say that cancer cells are like ants.

Even though they sometimes feel more mammoth-like and slothful, lumberingly prehistoric rather than tiny and socially frenzied. “They feel.” Of course cancer cells do not have feelings so far as I know. What I mean is that they feel to me, these colonies of CLL cells that circulate through the bone marrow and the blood and the lymphatic system, they feel to me massive and heavy and slow. Or more accurately, they make me feel like a sloth, I imagine myself as one of those creatures I saw a few weeks ago in the Tar Pits in Los Angeles: slowly dragging my massive body over the never-ending earth. But in the last few weeks I have also been having nightmares, dark and jagged dreams in which a massive sloth-like creature is out there, lumbering over the horizon, coming closer, filling the screen, threatening to engulf me. This CLL beast exists, I guess, both within and without.

When I heard Deborah Gordon declare that ants are like cancer colonies I experienced a rush of resistance. I did not welcome the idea of analogizing my condition to a common-and-garden insect that lives in colonies, rather than to the singularity of an exotic species of mega fauna now extinct. I was alarmed not charmed by the image of colonies of ants scurrying around in my body. But also in some peculiar way I did not yet quite understand, this analogy—of cancer cells to an ant colony—struck a chord. Suddenly a new image, one not immediately accessible to my habits of thinking and feeling, began to reverberate.

Ants, the ants that I know, live in my garden, not in my body. It has always been mysterious to me the way ant colonies would spring up in the garden, how they would know where the aphids were congregated, how they would march and scurry from their nests to my favorite rose bush, devastated by a colony of aphids. Aphids are small insects that suck the life out of plants and then secrete a sugar-rich sticky honeydew that ants love. In fact they “farm” the aphids, protect them from predators and parasites and nurture their eggs. In the face of this alliance—a mutualistic relationship or type of symbiosis—I would feel very small and ineffectual. All I could do would be to hope for an invasion of ladybugs (to eat the aphids, and thus deflect the ants) or I could spend hours everyday hosing off the aphids with jets of water. Sometimes you would sink a pitch fork into the compost pile and as if from nowhere a black mass of moving matter would crawl up your arm. After initial panic—rushing around dementedly shaking arms, trying in a frenzied manner to brush the ants off—I figured out that in the process of pursuing their own ends, foraging for fabulous stuff to take back to their nests, they were doing me a favor. Like worms, they were doing their bit to toss and turn and hasten the process of decomposition in the compost. In the end by leaving things be—as much as is possible for a neurotic controlling gardener—the garden settled into its own ecology. Or rather, it became more possible to observe the interaction of plants and creatures. To see, for instance, which plants attracted bees and when. African blue basil and rosemary are bee magnets. The weedy fennel, when it’s younger is a host for the swallow tail caterpillar that turns into a spectacular butterfly, flits around the garden and then sashays off to Mexico. Later, when the garden is festooned with the fennel’s yellow umbels the bees come swarming in.

But the story is not so simple, not such a paean to natural balance and harmony.

Enter the chickens.

Nowadays there are no infestations of ants, no plagues in the garden. The beak of a chicken and a squirrely squirming ant—these things exist together in a powerful force field of attraction. Heaven if you are a chicken, pretty dismal, I guess, if you are an ant. Though maybe the ants have just changed their habits, become invisible to chicken and human eyes, or moved on over to my neighbor Mrs Tam’s garden. Chickens also love worms, but since the birds are surface scratchers and since the vegetable beds and the compost are barricaded the worms survive there, in fact they survive everywhere deep in the soil, doing their work, sifting and turning.


Ants are like cancer cells, says Deborah Gordon, in so far as they are regulated but without central control.

An ant colony is regulated, its survival depends on the distribution and co-ordination of tasks and roles. Communication, or an exchange of cues, exists between the ants. The tasks and roles themselves are not fixed, but shift and change as the environment shifts and shapes. The ants exist in a dynamical social network. A hub may form for instance simply by ants moving into a space where there are lots of interactions. Gordon calls it the anternet. Ants do not always behave the same way. Foraging behavior for instance changes in times of drought. If one element changes (e.g. the availability of water) then the behavior of the colony changes. These changes, in turn, shape social and reproductive patterns. By observing these changes in patterns of behavior or modes of regulation, scientists can observe how natural selection is working on this colony.

There are many biological systems, apart from ants, that function without hierarchy. Bird flocks, without a leader, turn in the sky, fish schools swerve to avoid predators, tropical forests develop patterns of diversity… and cancer cells mutate and metastasize. For all of these systems, we still don’t fully understand how the parts work together to produce the dynamics, the history, and the development of the whole system.

It has often felt to me as though the garden is a battlefield. The march to the rose bushes and the swarming in the compost bin seem to be ant maneuvers carried out with all the efficiency of military campaigns, masterminded by some center of control (and sometimes the body too feels like and is popularly conceived of as a battle zone where the war against cancer is waged). Indeed this is how the great and pioneering ant scholar E.O. Wilson described ant society—in terms of hierarchy, conflict and regimental organization. So why should we relinquish this view (or feeling) in favor of the model proposed by younger scientists, including Deborah Gordon? Most significant for me, in terms of the efficacy of the analogy, is that Gordon and others tell a different sort of system story, emphasizing situated (therefore variable) processes of recognition and response. They understand the ant colony as composed of flexible units (whose functions change according to situation) and propose a system characterized by different architecture and components. Nodes of interaction are at the heart of Gordon’s model and frequencies of interactions at nodes are what shape material social orders. It is this that grounds the argument against the way that Wilson’s analogy works, wherein the behavior of ants is offered as a sociobiological model for human behavior. Ants, Gordon argues, don’t provide moral lessons or insight into behavior or feelings, but they do provide insight about the dynamics of networks, systems without central control.

It’s a tricky business, this maneuvering (is it a dance or a battle?) between feelings and conceptual models, between the garden and the body, ants and cancer cells. Sometimes new images, just as much as new data, can interfere with feelings and reorient one’s thinking.

What matters in networks is the ecology of the system.

So, taking our cue from ant colonies, how might we think about the ecology of cancer? What are some of the ways that cancers diversify and spread? How is organization regulated? How, with answers to some of these questions, might we approach intervention in ways less dramatically belligerent?

Cells in the body act collectively—for example, as networks of neurons to produce sensations, or as patrolling T-cells that mobilize other immune cells to respond to pathogens. It seems they communicate with one another. In the process of metastasis, the cancer cells may use signals from healthy tissue to recruit other cancer cells to a new location, where certain areas of tissue constitute an attractive resource. If researchers can figure out how cancer cells are recruiting then maybe they can set traps to prevent them from doing this.

All very well, but it doesn’t solve my problem (and my oncologist’s) which is how to understand the malignant cells of my cancer, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), as part of a cancerous system, given that it is a cancer of the blood not manifested in solid tumors. In CLL the cancer cells (malignant B cells, a type of white blood cell) course through the marrow and travel through the blood and lymphatic system. What happens in a “normal” body is that the B cells are recruited to fight infection, they die off often and regularly and new ones grow. In CLL, because of some genetic glitch, they don’t die off but in fact relentlessly proliferate, interfering with and crowding out the production of healthy white cells, red cells and platelets.

Although the cancer is in the blood and not localized in tumors the cells do cluster, they form hubs just like ants. They cluster in lymphoid tissue. Research has identified a form of regulation in this lymphoid tissue, or micro-environment, whereby malignant B cells communicate with other healthy cells. Curious about the relation of the cancer cells to certain healthy cells Dr Kipps and his colleagues looked at this relationship in the lab. They found that when the CLL cells were removed from the “suspicious” healthy cells, the CLL B cells began to die, whereas the same cells, when replated back onto the healthy cells, perked up immediately. Because they supported the survival of CLL cells and because CLL B cells became attached to them, the researcher group called them “nurse-like cells,” or NLC. They concluded that one of the ways CLL cells survive is by recruiting these protector cells.

Dr K describes CLL as a very social beast. By this he means that the survival of the cells depends upon a network of relations, which indeed amounts to a form of regulation, without central control. The relation between the NLC and the CLL B-cells is symbiotic just like that between ants and aphids. In a dynamical system like an ant colony it is possible to observe how when one element changes (e.g. the introduction of drought) the behavior of the colony changes. So, similarly, by focusing on the microenvironment of another dynamical system – a colony of cancer cells – it becomes possible to envisage forms of intervention more akin to the strategic introduction of drought, rather than war. Rather than therapies which are the equivalent of carpet bombing, indiscriminately destroying good blood cells along with the bad (which anyway doesn’t work with CLL which is notably resistant to standard chemotherapy), the solution might be to try and intervene in the signaling system to change the behavior of the cancer colony. Or, as Dr K puts it: to foster therapies that isolate the CLL cells so that they die of social neglect.

To observe how cancer colonies evolve, how cellular activity is regulated, how selections are made: this chimes with other ideas vibrating in the air in this second decade of the twenty first century when the Darwinian inheritance is being reconfigured. We humans have made such a mess of the planet that perhaps our only hope lies in attending more closely to other forms of organization, to looking more closely at ants and fungi and chickens (with whom we share about 60% DNA) and extinct species like the sloth from the Paleolithic era to species like bees that are disappearing by the day, as we poison the environment and our own bodies. By looking outside the human body to other “bodies” or clusters of living cells in the natural world it seems to me that we have more chance of figuring out solutions, or ways of being in the world, perhaps even ways of living with cancer rather than definitively conquering it. Just as in certain approaches to invasive species in habitat studies. It’s a reversal of the gaze or perspective. Rather than trying to understand the natural world through the lens of human society, we reverse the perspective so that a description of a natural society—an ant colony in this instance—can illuminate how we think about modes of organization in the human body. Or, more pertinently (since reversals always carry the dangers of dualism) we can begin to think of the nature-society play as itself like an ant colony.

I don’t for a moment think that Dr K and co are spending their time out in the desert down on their knees observing the behavior of ants. They are in the laboratory working late at night, separating the malignant B-cells from their nurse-like protectors and replating them, and trying to figure out how to intercept the signals. They are running algorithms. In defining the various cells, structures and molecules that protect the CLL cells they are working on the development of novel anti-leukemia agents such as monoclonal antibodies and immune-based treatment strategies and genetically engineered T-cells. No, they are not looking at ants; but for me, as a gardener and a non-scientist and someone with cancer, bells start chiming.

In writing this I have become less alarmed by the ant analogy, more attuned to the reverberations sparked by hearing Deborah Gordon speak. At some point analogy clicks and opens up a different link. A link to the ecological.

Even though he places emphasis on the environment Dr K is cautious: We still don’t fully understand how the parts work together to produce the dynamics, the history, and the development of the system, he says. There isn’t a single explanation for how CLL happens, let alone how it evolves, adapts, transforms. Unpredictable things happen. Needless to say there also isn’t a single solution.

Nevertheless, this perspective gives me hope. Not that a cure for CLL will be produced tomorrow, but certainly that more efficacious and less damaging possibilities are opening up that might prolong the life expectancy of people with CLL (so far this has not been possible). The outlook is considerably brighter than when I was first diagnosed six years ago.

It fills me with energy and hope: that this research can be understood in terms of a larger project, within an ecological matrix encompassing micro and macro environments, time scales ranging from the big bang to now, symbiotic relations as apparently diverse as the relation between ants and aphids in a garden and malignant B-cells and nurse-like cells in a CLL environment.

It gives hope when things are going well (like now, when treatment is resting in a sweet spot). Not when you are teetering on the edge of a chasm filled with black rising sludge and you see death edging its way up out of the tar pits toward you, like a massive land sloth.

In the dark times it is the sloth that imaginatively materializes, rather than a colony of ants. Although the ant analogy has greater scientific resonance, the sloth connects affectively to my bodily experience. But in the process of writing this piece I have relinquished the idea of ants scurrying around inside my body, am more able to situate ants and cancer cells in an analogous relation, within the framework of dynamical systems. This I realize: it is not necessary to feel ant-like in order to grasp the import of the analogy. You might say my cognitive apprehension has marginally improved. On the other hand, it is only through sensation, through ways that the body experiences being in the world, being in the garden as well as in the hospital and the lab, that understanding grows. Figures of speech, often fantastical, may seem to be at odds with scientific data, but the human sensorium involves a rich patterning of signaling networks. The connections between science and imagination are myriad and marvelous.



“Ants are like cancer cells”…….. Deborah Gordon in her talk “The evolution of collective behavior in ant colonies.” at the conference, “Anthropocene: Arts of living on a damaged planet,” May 8-10, 2014, organized by Anna Tsing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her writings include Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior (Primers in Complex Systems) and Ants At Work: How An Insect Society Is Organized.

“the researcher group called them “nurse-like cells,” or NLC”….. “Blood-derived nurse-like cells protect chronic lymphocytic leukemia B cells from spontaneous apoptosis through stromal cell–derived factor-1”

Jan A. Burger, Nobuhiro Tsukada, Meike Burger, Nathan J. Zvaifler, Marie Dell’Aquila, Thomas J. Kipps,  Blood. Oct 2000,96(8)2655-2663;

“chickens (with whom we share about 60% DNA)”….. NIH 2004 News Release. “Researchers Compare Chicken, Human Genomes: Analysis of First Avian Genome Uncovers Differences Between Birds and Mammals” National Human Genome Research Institute. Last Updated: November 17, 2011  Accessed May 15, 2014.



Spheres of Glass

I wandered, lonely, escaping from the Seattle Sheraton, from the giddiness of social encounters and a plethora of conference talk, escaping Chihuly. Chihuly ornaments and glass sculptures are nested in every niche of the Sheraton, commanding attention from every shiny polished vantage point. Almost every hotel in Seattle (and many other hotels around the world) exhibit Dale Chihuly glass works, but his great popularity is centered on the garden installations. I saw “Gardens of Glass: Chihuly at Kew” in 2005, but was neither charmed nor seduced. As a tourist and gardener and sometimes critic, like others of my ilk I would always rather be seduced than not. On the other hand I’d rather be intrigued than charmed (but of course you cannot always choose the things that move you, you cannot orchestrate those moments when the air turns cold and you shiver, or when a hot feverish breeze gets under your skin, or when perplexity renders you speechless; for all that a certain kind of taste is trained into your body, you cannot always predict how you will react). So now, visiting Seattle for the first time, Chihuly Garden and Glass is on my bucket list. I’m intrigued to see how these glass works work in their native setting, hoping my mind can be changed.

After all, the conceit of these garden installations is potentially intriguing: the insinuation of fantastical glass sculptures in amongst real plants. They are mostly, though not entirely, gigantic, these sculptures, bearing names like garden grass, reeds, blue herons, sun, French Blue Ikebana with orange and scarlet frog feet, green trumpets, red orange reeds. They imitate and mimic. As you wander through the garden you encounter vegetative landscapes, living matter, interspersed with signs of the synthetic, squishy materials juxtaposed with brittle surfaces, warm and fleshy with glassy coolness. Of course no garden is entirely natural, but if all gardens are to some degree designed then grand public gardens like Kew are meticulously curated (and so too, one imagines, the “original” Chihuly Garden). As a viewer ambling through a series of interconnected gardens or galleries, one’s curiosity could be tickled, one’s sense of assurance about which goes with what. Mimesis in this mise-en-scène possesses the potential to provoke the irreality of the garden itself.

But the garden and museum fell short of conceit.

So here I am, escaping the extravaganza, walking back to the downtown conference along 5th Avenue. Walking segues into trudging. It seems as though I have been hiking for days through rough terrain. A sliver of anxiety worms its way up, up from heavy footsteps into my stomach and buzzes there, a caged mosquito, looking for blood. An old familiar feeling, a feeling that hasn’t visited for months. Perhaps, I tell myself, it is not somatic at all, just disgruntlement, the massive gaudy Chihuly glass works—luridly pretty, drained of affect—weighing heavily upon my fragile psyche. Suddenly a wave of home sickness ripples through me, a yearning—to be home, curled up in bed with Elvis and Roxy, or in the garden picking fava beans, or in with the chickens, cooing, stroking their silkiness.

Lonely as a cloud.

When all at once I see a crowd, a host, of spectral chickens. Dead, plucked and headless chickens, impaled, fluttering and dancing in a shop window. Two washing lines slice the window vertically. Meat hooks hang from the cord lines, piercing the elongated yet rather fat necks, all skinniness concentrated in the legs which dangle in the air, feet splayed open like hands stretching, feeling for solid ground. In between the legs and the necks plump appurtenances, rounded if rather lumpy breasts. Is it a shop, a restaurant, an office? There is no lettering, no description, no invitation.

My dragging footsteps freeze.

Behind the chooks hangs a large Chinese paper lantern, once scarlet now faded to puce, and in the right foreground, on a dusty cluttered desk, a jar of bright lively daffodils. Golden. In contrast the chickens are pasty and pale, a grimy faded yellow. The sickly yellow of birds-eye-custard, dished up in my childhood at the end of every vile boarding school meal, smothered over every horrible pudding, the horribleness only exacerbated by this fraudulent cover-up. Or is it whiteness turned old and musty and tinged with the ochre of decay? I step closer, nose against the glass. There is something odd about these chickens, they are too smooth, too drained of blood, too dusty, their necks—inauthentically fat—are hollow. There is something about them that makes me want to reach out through the glass to feel their textural duplicity.

These are imitation carcasses, synthetic chickens, plasticcy. Relief and hilarity. The sense of laughter, however, isn’t just provoked by the discovery of the hoax, rather it’s to do with the uncanny persistence of irreality, an undecidabilty that persists in the scene before and after discovery, for now I’m part of this scene that I stumbled upon. The sense of unease, shadowed by the intimation of disease returning, the horror provoked by this exhibition of dead and naked chickens, the unasked-for juxtaposition of my silky girls and these synthetic mute corpses, is somewhat alleviated by the certainty that they are merely imitations. I’m off the hook, “my chickens” whose heads I would never chop off, who I would never pluck and hang and eat, are OK, they remain in the realm of the real while these phantoms are merely incarnations of a spectral brutality. But then the scene I witness—as though in a museum, as though this is an exhibit, as if it were a still frame from a movie—insists on including me in its mise en scène, on incorporating the dissociation from which I suffer. Cognitive dissonance shot through with strains of the uncanny. When I see ducks hanging in Chinese butchers, gleaming and velvetty in their soy basting, I can’t wait to taste and to experience in the mouth the crunch of their crispy skin. Even chickens, I never hesitate to eat chicken, I enjoy the cooking of chickens and chicken parts. “Chickens” in general. Not particular chickens. Not my chickens.

I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door.

Freud, writing here about the uncanny presents us with a scene conceptualized as a frame within a frame. He is jolted, subjected to a shock. We might almost say that the movement involves transference, it is a movement between—between the viewer and the image. Enter the chickens as a third term, a mediating twist.

Speaking of cognitive dissonance, of the personal and the social, of no man being an island:

 The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance.

How bizarre to come upon this apparition on an ordinary street, while ambling along, to encounter thus the uncanny echoing or correlation of living and dead, natural and artificial, self and other, chickens and daffodils. Somehow this view into another world (office, butcher’s shop, Chinese restaurant?) wakes me up, looks back, interpolates. The austerity of the frame, string strung across the window asymmetrically, the sickly color-co-ordination, the insinuation of springtime and gardens, of a host of golden daffodils, into this macabre composition is provocative in a way the Chihuly is not.

It would be wrong to say that on glimpsing those daffodils my heart with pleasure danced. But a lightness did indeed enter into my leaden feet, as I imagined a dance macabre between those denuded plastic chickens and my feathery cooing girls.

You have to walk through the Chihuly museum in order to reach the garden. Which means your experience of the garden is overdetermined by the sense of aesthetic homogeneity indoors. Actually the transition between the two realms is striking. It is called the glass house, and although modeled on the great glass houses of the nineteenth century such as the Crystal Palace, it is a very simple structure, bare and austere. In contrast to the nakedness and transparency in which you find yourself a huge sprawling floral abundance hangs from the ceiling: glass flowers, larger than life, fashioned in red gold and orange, drip lusciously, suspensed in space, suspended forever. As you stand under them it is almost impossible not to imagine the whole gigantic structure crashing, splintering, dispersing into a thousand pieces. It’s a gloriously extravagant composition, this mixing of glass textures, this invocation of an aesthetic of timelessness through an illusion to practices of preservation, to ways of keeping things alive in artificial environments. Like glass houses, like museums, like tombs.

In the glass house a space opens up in which to meditate upon scale and materiality.

But after the glass house is the garden and before the glass house there are galleries, endless iterations of frilly floraciousness. The psychedelic underwater worlds are interchangeable with the flowery abstractions. The garden is just another gallery, a medium of display, a staging for the performance of anxiety: to elevate glass blowing from a craft to a grandiose art. Such production requires factory conditions and many workers. Nothing new in this, but the process of effacement in the name of a single genius artist serves to efface process in general. I so wanted the installation to yield a tension, a gesturing to something outside itself, to the multiple imbrications of nature and art, to the materiality created out of breath and fire. What I found was an abundance of precious cheerfulness but little sense of the uncanny, or of the fragility of glass, how close it is to splintering. Nor much sense of how the social is inscribed in the material world. Wonder is a word often used to describe the Chihuly effect, but for me wonder served to efface the complexities of process.

Wonder is also the predominant response elicited by another famous and popular display, the Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, in the Harvard Museum of Natural History (often acknowledged by Chihuly as an influence). This collection is composed of 3,000 models of ‘Glass Flowers’ constructed by father and son Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, over five decades from 1886 through 1936.In fact all kinds of plants, not just flowers, make up the collection which was commissioned in order to teach students of botany. The models are disturbingly life size (too large to be miniatures, too small to be sculptures) and remarkably accurate in anatomical detail and color.

The wonder that these “flowers” elicit is complicated by a range of emotions and epistemological speculations, as evidenced in the richness of critical writing that circulates around them. Much of this writing hovers between description and defiance of description. How unlikely that these scientific models should be made of glass rather than other substances so much more amenable to modeling (they are constructed primarily though not exclusively of glass) like wax or papier mache. Their materiality, in practical and imaginative terms, is of the utmost importance. While extremely thingy they are also chimerical. Wonder is generated in the play between seeing and not seeing, knowing and not knowing: you know they are made of glass and yet ….. “They look real enough but as if the real is from another realm,” says Jamaica Kincaid. It is she who captures the uncanniness of the artificial perfection, and nails the relation of these objects wrought in glass to the garden.

The glass flowers and their many stages of being are in a state of perfection stilled. It is always a gardener’s wish to have perfection and then to have it forever. It is also within the gardener’s temperament to first desire forever and then to do everything possible to dismantle and smash forever. If the flowers encased in cabinets stored in the museum make up a garden, they are not the exception to this latter sentiment. Though it seems as if they will last forever, every cabinet bears a legend warning of their fragility. The people taking care of them give assurance that they will last forever. But as every gardener knows, forever is as long as a day.

Glass matters here, but other materials matter elsewhere. Plastic and yarn, for instance, can be exploited for their mimetic potential. What matters is scale and texture and the way that the materiality of the sculptural object is able to gesture outside its own perfection (its mimetic perfection, or formal coherence) to chisel a crack in the cognitive dissonance that glues everything together.

Think of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s glass poem, Wave/Rock. The poem is constructed not on the page but on a thick sheet of glass onto which the words Wave and Rock, many times over, are sandblasted. The letters of the word wave “break” on the rock constructed not on the page but in glass. The form of the words mimics their meaning, enacts their materiality. Waves break, and simultaneously the process of waves breaking is frozen, the cycle of nature is eternal, and at the same time fragile, vulnerable to destruction particularly in and by human hands: the one who sculpts, composes, the one who reads and sees and knows and does not know. Wave/Rock dislodges an habitual cognitive dissonance. We might almost say that the movement involves transference, it is a movement between—between the viewer, looking at and through the glass, and the image.

Enter the chickens, proposing a third term, a mediating twist. For me the chickens in this instance represent an ecological dimension that Finlay Patterson most likely did not intend, but that the work now speaks.

Glass in the end is not the most important thing (though glass contains a particular potential). It is the materiality of the process incorporated into the sculptural object, the “work” in the “work” which gestures towards something playful and also potentially destructive. The wave, this one wave which is also many waves, all waves, breaks over and over again but is itself vulnerable, and perhaps after all not so eternal.

Take “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs.” This is a project initiated by the Institute for Figuring, run by Christine and Margaret Wertheim. The Wertheim sisters, inspired by a type of mathematical modeling called hyperbolic geometry, put out a web call to invite women to join them in crocheting a coral reef, following some simple mathematical rules for generating a certain kind of spatial configuration and dimensionality (interestingly embodied by reefs and reef creatures). Women from all over the world responded to the invitation, contributing individual items and elements. The Institute for Figuring initiated workshops, crocheting workshops which incorporated an ecological component, a learning about reefs, about the threats posed to their existence particularly from the onslaught of plastic detritus.The artists, as well as using more familiar materials such as wool and yarn, incorporated into the sculptures recycled materials, such as plastics. Leslie Dick, from whose fabulous essay I learnt of this project, writes of a “mental shift in scale (from individual item to larger combination)” which is “mirrored by the relation of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs to their real-world counterparts, particularly the Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific. Leslie Dick contends that the project, drawing on so many practitioners, produces a new kind of artist (and thus art work), one immersed in reverie, in a project that enables a rich variety and combination of imaginative explorations. She invokes this kind of artist:

While she may have confidence in her expertise, her work avoids grandiosity, remaining at a manageable scale (until it joins the larger combination). This artist particularly enjoys the invitation to sink below the ocean, to enter its dreamlike darkness, an alternate reality of color and shape. She enjoys making phallic shapes, using her hook and yarn to build leaning towers, star shaped fortresses, a landscape drawn in lumps of color. She enjoys making vaginal shapes, fuzzy, curly edged openings, soft to the touch, fronded and weird.

I have only seen images on screen but these marvelously thingy things look so incredibly life-like, so reefish, it’s uncanny. And dissonant too, the way “alien” materials are almost seamlessly crocheted into the sculptures. There is a cognitive dissonance at large in our world now: we revel in the beauty of underwater worlds, of forests and canyons, of places like the Great Barrier Reef, and we are filled with wonder at art that mimics that beauty and preserves for eternity a Platonic perfection. Peeking into the world of “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs” jars that perfection, chisels into the glue of cognitive dissonance, invites reverie and wonder and playful engagement but also a cognitive recalibration, a reimagining and respinning of a conceit that intertwines the natural and synthetic worlds.

Speaking of cognitive dissonance – as we were making our way back from the spectacular San Juan Islands where we spent a night on Orcas island, a catastrophic event occurred in beautiful Washington State, one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history. As we hiked around Cascade Lake and climbed to the top of the tower on the top of Mount Constitution, marveling in this world seemingly so pristine, a community in Stillaguamish Valley in the foothills of the North Cascades were suddenly without warning buried under mud. A natural disaster? Unforeseen, said the emergency manager of the area. Timothy Egan wrote a week after the event that in fact there had been warnings, most notably a report in 1999 that outlined “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hillside that just suffered a large catastrophic failure (although it seems the inhabitants of the endangered community were never told of these official reports). Egan reports visiting the area 25 years ago and being shown a mudslide occurring on a hillside above the river, a hillside in which old growth forest had been clear felled, leaving nothing to hold the hillside in torrential rain. Just like the hillside above the small, disappeared community, of Oso.

Egan says, “The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance… A legacy of settlement is the delusion that large-scale manipulation of the natural world can be done without consequence.”

Scale and texture. A continent, an ocean, a garden, a shop window, forests, mud, glass, yarn, plastic, plants, the real and the imitative, the beautiful and the catastrophic.

I return to San Diego where rather than rain there is a drought, and the river if it can be seen at all, is skinny. I make a routine visit to the hospital on the UCSD campus and am astounded by the number of new buildings, massive grandiose medical buildings mostly, being developed on the very edge of canyons. Mesas have been sliced into and rearranged. Glass and concrete structures teeter on air. We have no old growth forests here, just coastal scrub and chaparral. But they too hold the earth down. What, I wonder is the cognitive dissonance we suffer from here? I imagine a performance art project enacted by chickens let loose on the medical campus, or even an installation of dead, plucked and headless chickens, hanging from the canyon walls, dangling over freeways, reaching for the daffodils.


“I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment…” …. Sigmund Freud, in a footnote to his 1919 essay, “The Uncanny” in Art and Literature. Trans. James Strachey. Comp  & ed Angela Richards. 1919. The Pelican Freud Library 14. London: Penguin,                    1985. Freud situates his essay as an investigation into aesthetics: “understood to   mean not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feeling”     (339).

 The “taming” of this continent Timothy Egan, “A Mudslide, Foretold,” The New        York Times, 29th March, 2014.

accessed march 29th.


“They look real enough…” Jamaica Kincaid, “Splendor in the Glass,” The Architectural    Digest, June 2002.

Accessed 15th March, 2014.

“mental shift in scale (from individual item to larger combination)…” Leslie Dick, The       Institute for Figuring and Companions: Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reefs. Track 16             Santa Monica,” X-tra, Summer 2009, volume 11 number 4.       hyperbolic-crochet-coral-reefs/

accessed 12th February, 2014.















Blown Through the Air

Falling asleep in the air, surfacing in San Diego, creepily hot in mid winter. The garden is confused: fruit trees blooming, lettuces wilting, chickens discombobulated, facing with befuddlement the question: To lay or not to lay today? today is it winter or is today not winter not today?

Leaving Australia as temperatures climbed over a hundred degrees. On the East coast of the U.S. in grubby smouldering cities where only sometimes snow flitters fitfully across the landscape there are four inches today.

Wild fires are breaking out in Australia and in California. How wild I wonder? Raging yes, but unrelated to the domestic?

It’s a bit like sex in the grass, breakfast in bed, says J, it sounds like a splendid idea. Nevertheless he brings me a tray with coddled eggs (Holly’s eggs: Creamy saffron yolks) demure in pastoral china, and a slice of toast festooned with two thick slices of Fat Dave’s bacon. Succulent, salty. Lula Mae stopped laying this week, the day that Holly started. They coordinate the rationing of human pleasure.

I have been a trifle chookless while travelling. Though In Hawaii at Hanauma Bay where I went snorkeling there were wild chickens on the beach. Not very wild, wild once perhaps for a while after escaping domesticity, now semi-naturalized on the beach, not exactly cuddling up but certainly making do quite well with peckings and pickings from human picnics. In Austinmer, on our way down to the beach for an early morning swim, Sarah took me by some chickens to whom she ritually throws her apple core, broken into pieces. In Melbourne each morning I would let Helen’s chickens, making an almighty ruckus as soon as light filtered into the world, out of their coop. After I left and temperatures soared she put ice cubes in their water and posted photos of them sheltering under the shade of the lime trees. And an image of the dog standing, just standing motionless, in the heat in the fish pond. Dazzle the water nymph, wrote Rosa.

So much to do. Pruning in particular—fruit trees, roses, grape vines—and searching for missing library books, buried under dust and piles of other books and mountains of accumulated fines. There is one I cannot find, Notes of a Native Son. I had begun to think of this book as mine I’ve had it so long, renewing it each year. Perhaps someone nicked it, or I left it somewhere like at the hospital or perhaps it has gotten mixed up with gardening books, I’ll check again today. Or perhaps not. When a book goes missing this is usually what I do: buy a replacement cheap and take it into the library, mock-mournful shame-faced, and the nice librarian Jimmy always says, you know we don’t do this you have to pay the fine on-line, and then he takes the book I offer and looks it over, quizzical, as though it’s a novelty for him and a vaguely wondrous event, to hold a book in his hands. And then he says, OK, this time, but it’s the last time. But this time I feel in my bones that eventually James Baldwin will turn up at home and I shall keep him, or it, that library book that has spent so many hours in my hands, made grubby with breakfast stains. After travelling with a kindle, its lightness—while in motion—has now become unbearable, hence this compulsion to pay the fine, as though then the book will materialize. Partly through superstition (paying the fine will magic the book into the world again; but also via an irrational though tenacious inkling that my heroic fine will keep the doors of the library open) I bow to institutional punishment; but I also bow down in homage to the world of books, of solid three dimensional sticky objects that sometimes carry you away on a fluid flowing stream, a river into which you can dangle a foot and despite what the philosopher says you can return and do it again and again it is the same river, you can find yourself again, albeit differently. Like Inside Llewyn Davis which we saw last night. That gasp of recognition as he encounters the man in the suit in the alley again, or is it for the first time, or the second time, and gets his balls kicked in. You think for a moment it may turn out differently, better.

In homage too to Baldwin. How he manages words and how they correlate or not with feelings and how feelings infiltrate and stoke the fire of politics. The fire. “Stranger in the Village” is, at any time and in any place even though of course time and place are specific and matter, an extraordinary essay, in its evocation rather than description, of what today is endlessly in so many contexts called “otherness.” A fire that burns through thickets of sentiment. Exile: what does it feel like, where does it feel, how to think it?

In Australia there is much provocation to think of exile and asylum. Thousands of asylum seekers confined in Detention camps, on and off-shore. One government after another, Labour included, passing the buck. A sticky sensation of guilt and shame adhering to my Australian passport.

But this sensation was not everything. The Australian sojourn was simply marvelous: a passport to pleasure. It came at the right time: Bondi Beach in summer, Fitzroy street, friendships renewed, gardens native and otherwise to walk in, long conversations, spicy Asian food, the bats the black bats swooping through an indigo sky, all this worked better than any drugs.

I got better and better. But was blindsided by others getting iller and iller. I guess this happens when you are away and return and see how everyone is older and not quite as young as we all once were. I felt a niggling sense of shame that I—who make such an habitual hue and cry about not-being-well—should be so well when others all around me were teetering like skittles, battling with demons of pain and separation, incomprehensible medical diagnoses and imminent death. I remind myself: there is no hierarchy of suffering. If I write in order to combat the feelings of isolation and uncertainty that chronic illness can foster, I write for other reasons too, some merely neurotic, some to do with the pleasure afforded by any addiction, and for some reasons (though reason seems far too grand a concept) to do with a sense that putting into words this thing called illness (yes I call it thus even though there are therapeutic regimes that advise rethinking it as “wellness opportunity”) produces a materiality, albeit chimeric and diaphanous, something that can spark recognition, something that can be passed from hand to hand, blown through the air or kicked from one place to another.

Well, that’s the hope.

I had an immunoglobulin infusion the day after returning, blood tests still looking good, feeling fine, but of course it’s a just a matter of time before the symptoms return. Kipps asked me if I’d finished the book. I think he does not know what a holiday is. Lucky for me he works so hard. As expected the ball is in my court, but the choice is more clear cut than often: Continue without drugs for as long as six months if this good runs lasts that long, or start back on a low dose of revlimid with or without the ritoxumab. Certainly I would opt not to do the combination. Too many infusions and all the stuff that goes with that. But Sheila, wonderful Nurse Sheila, said that it would be possible to do the revlimid off-protocol so I wouldn’t be tied down by endless testing and could arrange labs with her and be able to travel. It’ll cost something but not a lot. The simple truth is this: I don’t want to think about it now. Am going to put it off for a month but then will probably opt for what Kipps sees as a pro-active move and the possibility of staving off the next big treatment for longer.

In future posts I will sketch some vignettes of this Australian escape. For if obsession is potentially curative so too is travel. Obsession narrows the gaze and travel expands it. Though they are not as antinomous as it might at first appear. Travel, good if you can get it, is a way of interrupting and shaking the quotidian. Recharging and reshaping.

I take heart from Pamela Brown, ironically wry and curiously lyrical. In her latest book of poems, Home by Dark, which she gave me over cups of tea in a café at Edgecliff station, she writes

 Like Michael said,

Now we’ll spend

The rest of our lives

Watching our friends die

But, and elsewhere, she also writes

 This is my quotidian

But it’s not everything

Chickens Saved My Life

Chickens changed my life. Saved my life. Though it is also true to say that as we surf the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness and death, many things, people and events change what we call our “life”. A life is merely a conglomeration, a concatenation of effects and affects, often unpredictable, though even when predicted things seldom turn out as expected.

And it was not by chickens alone that I was saved. But among all the therapies—chemo, meditation, acupuncture, naturopathic treatments, exercise—chickens, four glorious chicklets-becoming-hens—have changed things most dramatically. Holly, Lula Mae, Sabrina and Funny Face flap, flutter and jump onto anything that might resemble a perch, including human shoulders and heads. They frequently land together on one side of their feeder and tip it over. They also landed like a miracle, about six weeks ago, on me, and tipped the balance from death to life.

I have an incurable cancer, a form of leukemia called CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia), so like everyone else I am going to die but probably not tomorrow. Still, life was becoming rather hard to live. Now – after spending the summer in chemo-and-chicken therapy, I have been given a reprieve. I have been wanting chickens for years, and for years have been putting it off, there were always other things to do, work to get done, fetish desires to satisfy. CLL is one of the slow cancers, for some people it does not progress beyond what used to be called the “indolent” stage. For others it can race along alarmingly fast for a slow cancer. My symptoms just got gradually worse, though I wanted to defer treatment for as long as possible since once you start treatment you also start damaging your body’s ability to fight back. As my wonderful oncologist says, there are no such things as side effects. All drugs have a range of effects, some good some not so good (and sometimes the connection between good and not-so-good is knotted, complicated, only measurable over time). So when my oncologist said I think its time to start treatment and I saw the summer disappearing into an infusion center the absolute horribleness of my condition (so far no treatments have lengthened life for CLL patients) took hold, gloom defeated an habitual pollyannerish reflex. And then, in the midst of gloom, my thoughts turned to chickens. Chickens turned into obsession.

Soon I could think of nothing but breeds of chickens and what color eggs they lay and coops and ventilation and chicken manure and compost and predators and fencing and automatic watering and mites and fleas and worms and herbal remedies, and the chirruping noise that chicks make. I dreamed of collecting fresh eggs from free ranging chickens fed on weeds and greens and fruit from the garden. I could smell the omelettes made from these eggs, buttery and sizzling, sprinkled with herbs. I could also smell the chicken shit and rapturously and endlessly imagined the compost we would have, how contentedly my garden would grow. J, my partner, embraced the idea even more whole heartedly than I, encouraging a flagrant defiance of budget in order to get the project happening. I spent endless hours on the internet, ordering books from the library, reading back copies of Backyard Poultry, visiting friends and perfect strangers with hens in their yard. Planning in minute and exacting detail. My treatment lasted three months and some of that time was spent back-breakingly (not me) and obsessively (me) assembling “el palacio de las princesas,” so named by my friend Isabela. And then the ordering. And then the arrival one morning, through the mail, of a cardboard box containing four day-old-chicks. Through all this demented focusing on chickens I had been feeling not too bad, forgetting the C word. And now my forgetfulness morphed into full-blown happiness. We started laughing. The tiny chicks are fluffy and adorable but also absurd in their pomposity. As the chicks grow their absurdity develops along with their adorability, keeping us laughing, tickling a severely compromised immune system, kicking it into gear.

Two weeks ago I saw the oncologist and he told me what I already knew, could feel, that so far the results are good. This isn’t the end of the story, there will be more tests and more treatment sooner or later. But for the moment I’m feeling better than in years and it feels great. This blog—about chickens and therapy and cancer—will tell the story of the chickens from the moment a vague idea became focused as an all-consuming passion. But it will also be about other things, because just as a life can be changed by a chromosome going awry so it can be changed by a chicken or a book that one is reading or a feral plant that takes root in your garden, and grows into an intriguing presence, altering the culture of the garden and making you see and feel differently.