Are Animals Conscious? I Dunno—Are We?

March 8, 2014 § 2 Comments

A study published by University of Lethbridge Department of Psychology professor Jennifer Mather in 2008 proposed, in summary, that “cephalopod molluscs may have a form of primary consciousness”—that they are “heavily dependent on learning in response to both visual and tactile cues,” “may have domain generality and form simple concepts” and seem “aware of their position, both within themselves and in larger space, including having a working memory of foraging areas in the recent past.” A 2013 study by Mather and Michael J. Kuba summarized that the cephalopod brain “does not just have centralization of the molluscan ganglia but also contains lobes with ‘higher order’ functions such as storage of learned information.” The decentralized nervous system, “particularly in the arms of octopuses, results in decision making at many levels”; the cephalopod “is first and foremost a learning animal, using the display system for deception, having spatial memory, personalities, and motor play. They represent an alternative model to the vertebrates for the evolution of complex brains and high intelligence, which has as yet been only partly explored.”

At first glance, the question of animal consciousness struck me as an odd one; assuming they are not lifeless automatons, or robots programmed to perform a certain limited set of functions, how in fact could they not be conscious in some way, shape or form? This depends, of course, on how we define it, but the idea of “consciousness” as it’s normally understood may be a relic of outdated philosophical thinking, and will have to be revised in light of more rigorous scientific research. Katherine Harmon Courage asks an appropriate question in the Scientific American online blog: “should we humans really be surprised that ‘consciousness’ probably does not only exist in us?” The correct question, it seems to me, is not whether other animals are conscious, but rather what types of consciousness they exhibit—and what are the factors that limit the “consciousness” of both humans and other animals, genetic or otherwise. To pretend that humans (Homo sapiens—”wise man”) are the unique repository of this quality, this “privileged state of subjective awareness,” seems more revelatory of the need to set ourselves apart from the rest of nature rather than an objective inquiry into the matter. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, signed in July 2012 [PDF], states that the research on consciousness is “rapidly evolving,” the accumulation of new data requiring “a periodic reevaluation of previously held preconceptions in this field.” It states further that “neural circuits supporting behavioral/electrophysiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus),” citing evidence that “human and non-human animal emotional feelings arise from homologous subcortical brain networks”:

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute of Brain Science, stated in 2012 that “[e]xactly how organized brain matter gives rise to images and sounds, lust and hate, memories, dreams and plans, remains unclear.” I suppose one could carry out the mental experiment of an extra-terrestrial being visiting our fair planet sometime in the near or distant future (assuming we haven’t ruined it by then), and asking the same question about us: “are they conscious?”


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Update (March 11): Related to questions of consciousness, a recent article from New Scientist (reprinted in the Washington Post) addresses the question of whether or not certain invertebrates feel pain in some way comparable to humans, and consequently if they are capable of suffering. Researcher and professor Robert Elwood emphasizes that direct comparisons with humans are not always appropriate; denying that crabs, for instance, feel pain because they don’t have the same biology as us “is like denying they can see because they don’t have a visual cortex.” Again, this type of reasoning would depend on narrowly defining these capacities, such as seeing, as seeing like a human—that is, there would be no other possible way of seeing, “seeing” being a uniquely human property or behavior. The article also makes the distinction between learned behaviors—arising as a result of experiencing pain, remembering it and acting in order to avoid it—and simple reflexes, which may be unconscious and automatic responses to stimuli. Experiments with crustaceans revealed “prolonged and complicated behavior, which clearly involves the central nervous system,” as opposed to insects, suggesting that insects have had no evolutionary need or constraints to experience pain in the same way.

Importantly, the article qualifies suffering as a subjective experience, and therefore “private to each individual, leaving us only with educated guesses” as to how it is actually lived—the implications being that there is ultimately no way of fully understanding how another organism suffers, except by way of observation and experimentation. One difficulty arising from this, it seems to me, is that certain results/behaviors can be wrongly interpreted as “learned,” or conscious, when they are in fact reflexive, and vice versa.

Everything Is a Remix, part XXIV

January 7, 2014 § 2 Comments

Although originality is certainly a virtue, I see a problem with the fact that artists are often accused of “ripping off” other artists by copying and incorporating portions of their songs in their own work. Not only does popular music—and music in general—depend largely on choosing between elements of an already existing repertoire of themes, techniques and ideas, it could be argued that part of the artistry is the ability to cleverly incorporate and rearrange these elements in new ways to create something novel and uniquely personal. After all, if one was required to reinvent the wheel with each song, or book, there would be very few songs to listen to, or books to read, and the distinction between being influenced by someone and outright copying them is not necessarily so clear—the point at which an idea is modified so much that it becomes another distinct idea is not so clear either. If ideas can be “stolen,” then most of us are thieves on some level. Furthermore, music, as one human activity among many, like language, is subject to inherent limitations resulting from our inborn capacities (genetic makeup), and so we should expect to see what are basically unlimited variations on a finite set of abilities—we should not expect humans, in other words, to begin producing “non-human” music. Even though we all have certain inherent capacities which are more or less the same, no one creates in a vacuum, and most human activities are a result of a collaboration, whether direct or indirect. In fact, it could even be said that this blog post itself is a remix of an idea which inspired me in the first place to write on the topic (of course, this apparent similarity is merely a coincidence).

R.L. Burnside Delta Blues 1969

Album “Mississippi Delta Blues – Vol. 2” released by Arhoolie in 1969 (thanks to Stefan Wirz [www.wirz.de])

For example, according to the presentation on R.L. Burnside’s 1969 release on Arhoolie (recorded in 1967), his track “Skinny Woman” is based on Yank Rachell’s 1934 recording of “Gravel Road Woman.” In what might be its earliest recorded form, we can locate a version of “Gravel Road Woman” interpreted by Yank Rachell & Dan Smith. Musically, they are similar in the way that many Delta Blues songs are similar, but not recognizably so, and Burnside simply seems to have used the idea and lyrics of the song as an inspiration for his own creation, most notably the repetitive melodic motif in the bass. Burnside’s song was later covered, with different lyrics, by the Black Keys under the title “Busted,” released in 2002. Moving to Scottish musician Bert Jansch, who was himself influenced by American folk and blues singers, “Blackwater Side,” itself based on the traditional folk song “Down by Blackwaterside,” was released in 1966, three years before Burnside’s album—the song incorporates a motif very similar to Burnside’s “Skinny Woman” but was released before it, raising the question of who exactly influenced whom, if at all. Led Zeppelin, whose tendency to lift the songs of bluesmen/women for their own purposes is well-documented, released their—or rather, Jimmy Page’s—version of the song in 1969 under the title “Black Mountain Side,” thereby barely concealing the origins of the piece.

This all brings us to four observations of interest: 1) Although a song may be “based on” another, it can sound rather different, 2) Unoriginal ideas may still result in good music, 3) When copying, it is not the lack of originality which is insulting, as much as it is the failure to acknowledge where one’s ideas come from, and 4) Even though one may not even be aware of the provenance of one’s ideas, they may still be virtual copies of other ideas.

Yank Rachell & Dan Smith: Gravel Road Woman (released 1934)

Bert Jansch: Blackwater Side (released 1966)

R.L. Burnside: Skinny Woman (released 1969)

Led Zeppelin: Black Mountain Side (released 1969)

The Black Keys: Busted (released 2002)

Happy Thanksgiving 2013

November 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

History can be a dangerous thing, for two reasons: 1) because it is often the victors and/or dominant sectors of society who write official history, it is subject to the usual distortions and falsifications, and 2) because once you begin to study it seriously, you might actually learn something. So here is a history lesson to go with your turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, all true (except for Burroughs’ fanciful “laboratory-developed AIDS,” which, as far as we know, seems to have originated in present-day Cameroon a century ago, spread partly as a result of European colonial adventurism). Oh, and don’t talk politics at the table, it’s not polite.

Thanksgiving Prayer

For John Dillinger
In hope he is still alive
Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1986

Thanks for the wild turkey and the Passenger Pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts
-thanks for a Continent to despoil and poison
-thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger
-thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin, leaving the carcasses to rot
-thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes
-thanks for the American Dream, to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through
-thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feeling their notches, for decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces
-thanks for “Kill a Queer for Christ” stickers
-thanks for laboratory AIDS
-thanks for Prohibition and the War Against Drugs
-thanks for a country where nobody is allowed to mind his own business
-thanks for a nation of finks — yes,
-thanks for all the memories (all right, lets see your arms, you always were a headache and you always were a bore)
-thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.

— William S. Burroughs

American Holocaust: The Destruction of America’s Native Peoples
David Stannard, professor and chair of the American Studies Department at the University of Hawaii

Decoding Language, part I

September 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Yesterday it was reported that Ketchum, a public relations firm, had placed a September 11 Op-Ed by president Vladimir Putin into the New York Times, which Buzzfeed editors characterized as “controversial.” The Times‘ public editor promptly issued an explanation, the editorial page editor stating that “[v]ery few Op-Ed articles have received as much immediate attention;” hyperventilating patriots were “horrified” that the journal was “aiding and abetting a long-term foe of the United States” by printing Putin’s dangerous sorcerer’s incantations. Max Fisher declared that it contained “undeniable hypocrisy and even moments of dishonesty” — which begs the question as to why anyone would therefore be surprised to see it in the Times, which employs a scribbler such as Thomas Friedman. Such fact-checking is indeed welcome, no doubt, but there have been episodes where it would have been much more helpful. Justin Elliot writes that Ketchum has a history of placing articles at the behest of the Kremlin, with the goal of, among other things, promoting Russia “as a place favorable for foreign investments.” So, what we have learned here, hardly news, is that governments will do anything they can to further their interests, including influence campaigns in foreign media outlets.

Despite the predictable howling from those still clinging to an outdated, fanatical cold war ideology, in its substance the Op-Ed was banal, the only striking element being that it was — supposedly — penned by a foreign head of state. In its tone rather conservative, called “A Plea For Caution From Russia,” it claimed that “there is every reason to believe it [gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.” It should be clear that Putin, as a head of state with clear interests at stake in events unfolding in Syria, and capable of marshaling vast resources for a propaganda campaign, should no more be taken at his word than anyone else. However, while the evidence from the UN has still not been presented, and no chain of custody has apparently been established for whatever weapon(s) was (or were) used, such an explanation should be seen as no less plausible than the claims of the U.S. government (which possesses little credibility itself on this matter) as to the nature of its “proof” incriminating the Assad regime.

Words often have several meanings depending on the context, and here “controversial” simply means “that which does not toe the Party Line” — the Party Line being that the Syrian government unambiguously carried out the recent August 21 attacks on the Damascus suburbs — rather than “that which sparks robust debate,” or “that which is unsupported by evidence.” Such a definition creates the circumstances for some startling leaps in logic, and discipline can be enforced to such a degree that if the Party Line dictates that the Earth is flat, stating that it is in fact spherical will be considered “controversial.”

Other words are often, and have always been, employed, not for their intrinsic meaning, but rather for their utility as ideological cudgels against opponents. John Schindler, former NSA analyst and counterintelligence officer who now teaches national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, theorizes that Edward Snowden and Wikileaks are likely fronts for an elaborate Russian intelligence operation (a rather convincing dissection by Tim Cushing of this conspiracy theory may be found here). Notwithstanding that such a scenario is possible, and shouldn’t be completely ruled out, Schindler’s theory is reminiscent of the paranoia to which intelligence agencies themselves can fall prey, while assuming the worst of their adversaries, leading them to erroneous conclusions, due to their own ideological bias. He believes that journalists mediating the slow trickle of revelations gleaned from leaked documents are waging a “propaganda offensive,” and “have masked their radical activism under the (thin) guise of post-modern journalism.”

The operative phrase here is “radical activism,” and it is meant, among other things, to differentiate what people like Poitras, Greenwald and Barton Gellman are doing from the “authentic” and “objective” journalism which would be more to his liking. The phrase is in fact a smear, and as a smear, it carries little content, but is intended to vilify political opponents in order to marginalize and discredit them. The tactic is a staple of ideological warfare with a long tradition, the palette of insults offering such terms as “communist,” “isolationist,” “liberal,” “anarchist,” “traitor,” and countless other epithets, the purpose of which is to render objects of vilification, and the ideas represented, toxic by attaching stigmata, thereby isolating them, and preventing any substantial debate on the issues themselves. What the words actually mean, or whether the objects of scorn actually demonstrate such qualities, is wholly irrelevant.

One could, for example, ask whether it is not the policies themselves that are extreme and not those criticizing them — but that would require a modicum of honesty. A brief overview of some examples of this and past U.S. administrations’ “radical” policies will suffice: John Yoo’s radical executive theories, which authorize the president to act virtually without constraint, the global rendition and torture network initiated after the September 11 attacks, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, now acknowledged by anyone with a pulse to have been illegal and immoral, the highly destructive consequences of which are still resonating in the region, the continued deployment of nearly two thousand nuclear warheads, including the latest nuclear posture review, which retains the doctrine of “counterforce” and a hypothetical first strike capability, the Kennedy administration’s terrorist campaign against Cuba, the near destruction of Indochina, the Reagan administration’s arms transfers supporting a campaign to destroy parts of Latin America, including the more recent expansions of a presidentially authorized UAV assassination program and sprawling surveillance/security state, to name just a few. If these aren’t considered “radical,” then the word indeed has no meaning, and can be used for whatever purposes one wishes.

The National Security Agency’s invasive, global spying network, not to mention U.S. intelligence agencies’ collaboration on more offensive “cyberwarfare” capabilities, exemplified by the Stuxnet virus (along with Israel), appropriately takes its place among such extreme policies. Regarding the ongoing NSA disclosures, I have seen some who are of the opinion that such secret information must be kept “out of the hands” of “radicals” (meaning, the public), the responsible gentlemen like General Keith Alexander presumably being the more appropriate guardians of an aggressive surveillance apparatus — such a person is incapable of even entertaining the possibility that the radicals do indeed already have control of the apparatus, as they seem to be the ones running it.

A Valuable Lesson From Sieur Papillot

April 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

A word of history is in order. Indispensable element of year’s end festivities, the papillote is a confection originating in Lyon, France during the late 18th century, consisting of a chocolate treat wrapped in glistening paper, usually accompanied by a paper featuring a phrase, or image, reminiscent of the Chinese “fortune cookie.” Found in the Lyon chez moi monthly publication from December 2007 is this concise explanation(Fr) [PDF] of how the papillote came about — like many momentous discoveries, a completely fortuitous event, the original motives for the innovation being completely unconnected to subsequent developments.

If the legend proves true, and it seems likely that it is, Monsieur Papillot was a confectioner of candies in the Terreaux quarter of Lyon whose company had employed a young man who, as young men will do, became enamored of a young woman. At the same time that Papillot began noticing that a certain amount of merchandise was missing from his stock of chocolates, he surprised the young apprentice disappearing certain items for his own personal use, enveloping them in wrapping, concealing secret messages to be given to the object of his passions. The apprentice was swiftly reprimanded and thrown out of the enterprise by his ears.

Though the young man was removed from his service, not someone to let a good idea go to waste, the inspiration wasn’t lost: Papillot developed the notion of enveloping messages along with the chocolates, transforming the love letters into jokes or puzzles, which were then commercialized in the form of “papillotes.” Now an exceedingly popular item, a concept subsequently taken over by numerous other chocolatiers, annual production presently reaches nearly 3,000 tons per year nationally (France). If Papillot was able to profit from his former employee’s idea, another lesson surely didn’t go unnoticed by the young apprentice, who, after some time, must have realized that having a good idea is not enough: one must also be in a position to capitalize on it.

papillote candy chocolate France

Papillotes (image sallywallaceinfrance.blogspot.fr)

— Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute.

On Assholes and Power: A Public Service Announcement

March 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Ta-Nehisi Coates has what he deems a satisfactory definition of “asshole”, and I have to agree with him that it encapsulates the idea quite well, in all of its implications:

I think what we have here is a working definition of an asshole — a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms.

The implications being, although he doesn’t explore the idea in his article, that the very act of demanding that social interaction happen on one’s terms is in its deepest sense an illegitimate exercise of power. In his example, admittedly a banal one, the individuals making noise in the “Quiet Car” are in effect forcing everyone else to be subjected to their behavior without consulting them or worrying about how it affects them — that is, they’re demanding that everyone else accept their terms, and not asking. They simply don’t care, and not caring is one of the primary and most prized privileges of power.

We don’t need Foucault to tell us that power is generally more effective (in more or less democratic societies, that is) when it is invisible. Those of us who are part of a hierarchy, or who are sensitive to these phenomena, understand through experience that it is often the unspoken, hidden rules which govern the various organizations and relations most tightly because the unspoken rules, by virtue of them being unspoken, aren’t subject to modification. They are simply tacitly accepted, though unacknowledged. The implications of this are much broader, of course, but I simply wanted to show how power manifests itself in even the most ordinary occasions, because I don’t think it’s trivial — quite the contrary. Being aware of it on this small level can only help develop one’s awareness of it, and consequently to apply this knowledge to all other areas of one’s life. David Wong writes, in a quite perceptive piece at Cracked.com:

…he has the power, everything is fine. It’s not even that he disagrees on the issue; it’s that he refuses to acknowledge it as an issue at all. This will happen to you. You will be on one side of a conflict that does not feel like a conflict to you, because that is the conflict. […] You didn’t perceive yourself as being in a position of power because that is the main advantage of power — that you don’t have to think about it.

It’s actually a subtle observation. In other words, a healthy dose of a lack of self-awareness is necessary to any illegitimate exercise of power — and although the “check your privilege” refrain has become a knee-jerk platitude, it is grounded in a sound recognition that those in a position of power and privilege are often unaware of it, being shielded from this reality by that very privilege. Therefore, constant vigilance and self-monitoring are required to ensure that one isn’t being an asshole oneself — which is, of course, the whole point, as it is all too easy to recognize when others engage in egregious behavior while exonerating oneself. Don’t let it happen to you.

Flowers II

January 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

This rather long post relates events chronologically anterior to the previous post (Flowers I), but writing the first one inspired me to write this. It is a discussion on basic horticulture disguised as a personal account. In 2011 I was called back to the states for family reasons, my mother being diagnosed with cancer. To make the most of the time while I was there, and there was a lot of free time, I decided to transform a portion of her back yard into a garden area. Grass is boring, and the flowers were sure to have a positive effect on her — she was preparing herself to be initiated into chemotherapy, which is obviously an intimidating and frightening prospect for anyone (she is out of danger for now, thanks to a group of excellent doctors and nurses). There were selfish motivations as well; the work was actually enjoyable, relaxing, even if sometimes physically strenuous. Ultimately, it’s about transforming a negative situation into a positive one by doing something simple, yet concrete.

Garden full view

I had never done any gardening or horticulture before, apart from trivial things, so I had to learn from scratch, with the help of the internet, as well as some friendly neighbors. As I progressed in my reading, I began to realize that I knew absolutely nothing about flowers, or plants in general (besides the ones we regularly eat). It was just something which had never interested me. In French there is the phrase: l’appetit vient en mangant (appetite comes with eating), and despite the fact that it’s a cliché, it’s often true. The phrase, like most phrases, can be interpreted in several ways:

  1. Once you possess something, you’re no longer content with it, and want more — i.e., a greedy person is never satisfied.
  2. One develops an interest in something through doing it, participating in the activity. Only by actually performing the task does one begin to appreciate the subtleties and joys of it, which one was unaware of before. Thus, what previously seemed a dull and boring activity is transformed into something engaging, stimulating and enjoyable.

It’s this second sense that applies here – not only learning about the impressive variety of the different species of plants and flowers, their different requirements for soil, nourishment, water and sunlight, but also putting oneself to the physical work required to prepare the terrain. Dirtying one’s hands, when it’s not compelled by a zealous overlord but done freely, is good for the soul. The most interesting part is of course composing some kind of harmonious combination of all of them, compromising their variable needs with what’s aesthetically pleasing – sometimes you must choose one over the other, as flowers which seem to go well together don’t necessarily have the same needs for sunlight and have to be separated, moved, etc.

Path with stonesOne can design an elaborate space with pathways, trellises, bird baths, hanging baskets, climbing vines, anything — or even turn one’s front lawn into a vegetable garden, like this couple near Montreal (apparently they were absolved of their non-grass sins, they were able to maintain the garden, despite the howling of grass-loving fascists).

The rewards of vegetable gardens and flower gardens aren’t the same — one gives sustenance and the other some peace of mind, pleasure, psychological wellbeing (though many herbs valued for cooking and their medicinal properties also make nice flowers). When we consider how we find flowers so pleasing, it’s worth thinking of some basic notions of evolution — that is, we should remember that the qualities we appreciate in them have nothing to do with a “desire” to please us or the hummingbirds and bees which feed off of them, it’s a characteristic which favors their pollination and reproduction. The animals are attracted to the scent, nectars and colors (although in a slightly different light spectrum) much in the same way we are. That we find them beautiful is somewhat of a byproduct — far be it for me to say that’s a “bad” thing.


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The following does not purport to be an exhaustive, or even a necessarily well-informed, list of knowledge or techniques to be harnessed in order to have a successful garden, just a recounting of what I did with the limited knowledge and resources at my disposal, while having gleaned some very basic principles. It aims to be a distillation of some of what I learned while building a small garden.

First I delimited the area reserved for the garden area, meaning more than half of the yard was to remain covered with grass. Generally it’s more advantageous to choose an area away from under any trees, as most flowers need at least some direct sunlight during the day, and also because the numerous roots will make the soil difficult to turn and till (also, there’sTrellice with morning glory a limit to how much trees can tolerate having their roots attacked by gardeners). Nota bene : birch trees have elaborate root systems, close to the surface, so avoid if possible. After deciding where the garden area was going to be, and defining roughly the shape it would have, I proceeded to remove the turf. This is not as easy as it looks. There are machines made specifically for that purpose, as it would be grueling, of not to say impossible, for one person to remove it manually from a significant area — unless s/he is a masochist with a lot of free time, in which case I can suggest other activities besides gardening. One may notice, depending on the location (mostly eastern United States), Japanese beetle grubs underneath the turf; they should either be killed, or served with stir fry vegetables and a white wine sauce.

Once the turf removed from the area set aside (which represented a considerable volume to dispose of), I mixed in some decent soil, mulch and manure over the whole area, tilling and turning the ground at the same time. Decent quality soil is important for a healthy garden, which brings me to the first major point:

  • You need to feed the soil

Some discussion of the importance of this factor — and Ruth Stout’s mulching methods — are found here : Building Fertile Soil | and here : Ruth Stout’s System

After the soil was sufficiently broken and turned, I decided what plants I wanted to put where. Here I must clarify that I intended to make a perennial garden (meaning flowers which survive the winter in whatever climate you happen to be in), expecting them to bloom again the next spring (or summer). That brings me to my second major point:

  • You need to know what your Hardiness Zone is

For the USA, find where you are on this USDA Hardiness Zone map here : USA Hardiness Zone Map | for Canada : Canada Hardiness Zone Map | for Europe : Europe Hardiness Zone Map | and a more general discussion : Hardiness Zones

It so happens that there were already several Peonies and Hostas already planted there, so I used them to help delineate a narrow pathway through the future garden, which would later be crudely covered with spaced paving stones. I then had to choose what plants I wanted where. This was done by going to the local outlet mall and hardware store, or whoever was selling perennials, and purchasing whatever seemed most robust, needing the least care. However, I failed to pay much attention to the requirements of each plant regarding sunlight, and ended up placing some of them in areas incompatible with their needs. This can result in the flowers not blooming, or the plant not being as healthy as it could otherwise be. Most plants need at least a few hours of sunlight per day, but some are less tolerant of shade than others. Some do very well with little sunlight, while those which thrive in the absolute shade are rare. This brings me to my third major point:

  • You need to know the sunlight requirements of your plants

Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of some good shade-tolerant perennials (thrive with less than 6 hours of sunlight):

  • Hosta (Plantain Lily – excellent plant for a novice gardener, reliable, resistant)
  • Astilbe (False Spirea)
  • Aconitum (Monkshood)
  • Pulmonaria (Lungwort)
  • Aruncus (Goatsbeard)
  • Heuchera (Coral Bells)
  • Hardy Geraniums (Cranesbill)
  • Hellebore (Lenten Rose)
  • Digitalis (Foxglove)
  • Ligularia (Leopard plant)
  • Brunnera (Siberian Bugloss)
  • Campanula (Bell flower)
  • Veronica (Speedwell)
  • Dicentra (Bleeding Heart)
  • Aquilegia (Columbine)
  • Lobelia (Cardinal flower)
  • Hydrangea
  • Bergenia (leaves give color during winter)
  • Fern

Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of some good full-sun perennials (prefer at least 6 hours of sunlight):

  • Echinacea (Coneflower)
  • Rudbeckia
  • Shasta Daisy
  • Aster
  • Chrysanthemum (Garden Mums)
  • Peony
  • Rose
  • Alcea (Hollyhocks)
  • Iris
  • Baptisia (False Indigo)
  • Monarda didyma (Bee balm, Bergamot)
  • Papaver (Poppy)
  • Delphinium
  • Eupatorium (Joe-Pye Weed)
  • Solidago (Goldenrod)
  • Salvia (Sage)
  • Perovskia (Russian sage)
  • Buddleja (Butterfly bush)
  • Penstemon (Beard-tongue)
  • Sedum
  • Ornamental Grasses

Fall-blooming perennials (flower late in the year) include:

  • Aster
  • Chrysanthemum (Garden Mums)
  • Solidago (Goldenrod)
  • Salvia (Sage)
  • Ornamental Grasses

A garden is part of an ecosystem, and the more flying creatures visit your garden, the better it will be. These are some excellent perennials for attracting bees, hummingbirds and butterflies (they tend to prefer bright reds, blues, pinks and purples):

  • Monarda didyma (Bee balm, Bergamot)
  • Lobelia (Cardinal flower)
  • Penstemon (Beard-tongue)
  • Buddleia (Butterfly bush)
  • Aquilegia (Columbine)
  • Veronica (Speedwell)
  • Papaver orientale (Oriental Poppy)

My personal favorite perennials, for ease of care and beauty:

  • Hardy Geranium (many varieties to choose from)
  • Hosta (Plantain Lily)
  • Campanula persicifolia (Peach-leaved Bellflower)
  • Peony
  • Alcea (Hollyhocks)
  • Ligularia dentata (Leopard plant)
  • Heuchera (Coral bells – many varieties to choose from)
  • Eupatorium purpureum (Joe-Pye Weed)
  • Papaver orientale (Oriental Poppy)
  • Iris siberica (Siberian Iris)

One could continue with this forever, and this only scratches the surface, so here are some useful gardening sites which provide more thorough discussions on all the aspects of the different perennials:

The Garden Helper | Dave’s Garden | Painting with Flowers


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Wildflowers should not be neglected. Part of what I find interesting about them is the way they haphazardly scatter over the most unlikely areas, and many of them are just as beautiful as any privileged perennial — also, as animals will make no distinction between wildflowers and cultivars, some wildflowers will attract as much, if not more, flying creatures, making them a benefit and not a drawback. My original idea for the garden area was for there to be a centralRed wildflower patch reserved for wildflowers, surrounded by a path, because I wanted there to be a more unruly and natural aspect to some of it. I find that an exaggeratedly ordered and cultivated garden is generally uninteresting, and not as beautiful. There are certain “wildflower packs” one can purchase at some hardware stores, mixtures of seeds and paper mulch which one can spread haphazardly over a certain area, and cover with a thin layer of soil. Such collections often include a large proportion of annuals to perennials, like Zinnias, Baby’s breath, Bachelors button, and are worth trying — mine bloomed fairly densely. Otherwise, they can be found in the countryside, forest, or even at the side of the road and transplanted. I noticed next to the road, for example, some purple wild Asters blooming during the fall, which I transplanted immediately into the garden. The bees thoroughly enjoyed them. You’ll see a birdbath in the middle of the wildflowers here, a sure way to attract birds during hot weather.

For wildflower identification in the US, see: Wildflower Conservancy | Wildflowers of the United States

Wildflower patch

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Populating your garden with varieties that flower at different times of the year is good, ensuring that there is always something of interest to look at instead of there being one concentrated bloom period surrounded by nothing. Once I had decided which plants I wanted (the selection process was a bit haphazard, me being an amateur) and had a vague idea of where I wanted them, I began transplanting them into their places — while respecting the needed distances between them. When plants are bought young it’s easy to underestimate future growth, causing one to plant them too close together. The empty spaces between them will eventually be filled in.

After the all of the perennials were transplanted, I proceeded to cover the soil around them all with a layer of mulch — ideally, one could use a mulch/compost mixture. There are two reasons for doing this : 1) It smothers weeds 2) It adds organic material to the area around the plants, which is always welcome. Bark mulch, wood chips, sawdust, and any other compost material can be used, but one should avoid too much bark. Also avoid using landscaping fabric, or tarps, which are effective at smothering weeds, but can also prevent the soil from receiving the moisture and organic material it needs. See: From Dirt to Soil. I was lucky enough to have a friend of my mother’s who practiced wood-turning in his shed drop off regularly the several bags of wood shavings and dust resulting from his work, always a multicolored mixture of the banal and exotic woods he sought for his bowls (which are excellent, by the way).

Another method to prevent weed proliferation is to place low-growing ground cover plants between the larger ones, which will help suppress forming weeds in the same way mulch does, as well as filling in “empty” space. Some good, robust varieties often used for this purpose are:

  • Pachysandra (Japanese Spurge)
  • Vinca minor (Bowles Vinca, Periwinkle)
  • Lamium
  • Brunnera macrophylla (Siberian Bugloss)
  • Ajuga (Bugleweed)

— all of which will tolerate (even prefer) a fair amount of shade. Also sometimes used for ground cover is Convallaria (Lily of the Valley), which has pretty white flowers, but comes with a strong caveat : it is extremely robust and can spread rapidly, taking over. Lysimachia (Creeping Jenny, Moneywort) is another to avoid for this same reason, unless you have a well-fenced in area over which you don’t mind it proliferating.

I placed square paving stones along the small pathways already designated, more for aesthetic reasons than functional ones. Over the years they will tend to sink into the soil.

Woodchips garden with bench

If you have been spreading organic material/mulch around your plants for years (see Ruth Stout link above), you may not need to make a compost pile, but it’s good to have one anyway. Most gardeners keep one, which basically is broken down, decayed organic material to feed to the plants, and good compost will allow one to forgo chemical fertilizers in most cases. The end result should be a dark black earth, a humus-like substance rich with nutrients, which also helps improve the soil structure. Worms may also be used. See: Use of Compost as a Soil Amendment | Composting at Home | How to Compost

Although the chemistry of composting may be complex, a compost container can very simple, and there is no reason to build or buy an elaborate, sophisticated model. Many different types and sizes of containers are possible. See: The Perfect Compost Bin | How to Build a Compost Bin

Ultimately I decided to make a version of the “Perfect Compost Bin” linked just above, for its simplicity and modularity (the segments can be added or removed at will, used elsewhere if needed). Nota bene : for making wooden structures to be used outdoors, rot-resistant materials are preferable. See a comparative chart of the different species here, taken from a 1967 study by the USDA: Choosing Wood for Outdoor Projects. I chose cedar because of its relative resistance, preferable to treated lumber, and also because I didn’t want any chemicals possibly contaminating the compost pile. Cedar laths sold as fence posts at a local lumber yard, cut to size, did fine. You can see it it this photo, at the back:

Compost bin

It’s important to have the horizontal slots between the segments, as they let air circulate, needed for the composting process. I even drilled several 3/4″ holes in two opposite sides of each segment, alternating from left/right to front/back. One should use sufficiently thick wood to avoid warping or breaking of the sides, as the container will receive a certain amount of abuse over time.


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Other simple wooden structures can be built to make the garden area more interesting, add form and variety as well as being useful. As well as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, one can bring other birds with the judicious placement of Bird house on vertical bamboobirdhouses around the garden area. I made three copies of one very basic model — again, out of cedar wood — placed at certain heights, attached to bamboo poles. From what I read on the subject, it seems that birds don’t much care for or need beautiful, shiny houses to live in — which significantly simplified the task of making the houses: the more rustic the better. Some of them live in holes in trees after all, and what we may see as beautiful or quaint may not interest them in the slightest… As someone said on Twitter once: Like my new bird feeder? *I point to a pile of seeds in the driveway* Yeah, birds don’t really care how you feed them. In other words, the houses should be appealing to birds, and not to humans.

The fabrication is straightforward: 1/2″-3/4″ cedar (or other suitable hardwood) planks cut to size, an approximately 1-1/2″ hole for entering and exiting, a sloping, overhanging roof to protect any parents feeding their young through the hole, and no sanding to smooth the surface. An important detail is to allow for air to circulate by leaving, or drilling, holes in the bottom corners. The bottom should be removable to facilitate eventual cleaning. A landing peg some inches below the hole is optional, but if it’s there, they will probably use it. The sloppier the better. Some bird species apparently prefer to nest higher than others, as well as slightly different sized holes, but they generally don’t seem to be too picky. See: Birdhouse Build Ideas | How to build a cheap bird house | How to build a Bluebird house

Birdhouses on bamboo Birch tree

Another wood structure worth considering for a garden area, relatively easy to design and build, is a pergola. Designed to create a sort of roof by providing a structure to climbing plants and vines, it also can be aesthetically pleasing to look at. One should try to place climbing vines such as grapes, Clematis or other vines around it so they can envelop the structure, eventually covering it, like a trellis. One could build a pergola out of cedar, but that would be costly,Pergola looking through so we opted for some traditional Ye Olde pressure-treated lumber. My brother supplied most of the ideas and tools, it being his idea to build it.

The principle couldn’t be simpler : a set of parallel lathes or beams held up by vertical support beams and cross beams. The parallel beams can be crossed on top by another set of parallel lathes, solidifying the structure. One can embellish with certain details or add benches, as I did here. This requires a post hole digger, a tape measure, a circular saw, a level, some drills (preferably cordless) and a day or two of time (more if you’re working alone). The vertical beams should go at least 3-4 feet into the ground, otherwise it would be unstable, especially if people will be using a bench. One can pour concrete to anchor the beams into the ground, but if you’re not building a massive pergola, and you fill in with some gravel and/or sand and mud, concrete is not necessary. As for the rest, if you played with Lincoln Logs when you were little, or had an erector set, there’s not much to explain. It does make for an agreeable place to sit, and it also provides an additional structure from which to hang plants. Here is a presentation of the assembly of a pergola much like the one we built: How to Build a Backyard Pergola. See some more elaborate designs here: Trellis Structures

Pergola with bench

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All of this is, of course, a pretext for posting more photos.

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