In 1879, while in Mexico, Patrick Geddes temporarily lost his sight. Convalescing, and unable to write, he started conjuring up diagrammatic images in his imagination to aid his thinking. Partly mnemonic, not unlike the “memory palaces” of classical training in rhetoric, Geddes discovered that these diagrams were more than just memorable ways to organize his ideas; they were productive, and helped advance his thought in new ways. When his sight returned, he continued the practice of using these kinds of diagrams only now he would draw them out. He called them “thinking-machines.”

It strikes me that that The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, the periodical Geddes launched in 1895, is structured as a “thinking-machine” both in its parts and as a whole. I suggest that it is partly mnemonic, partly heuristic, but ultimately something to work with.

Sunday Talks

Ever the professor, Sundays were opportunities for Geddes to give lessons in living to his children. He had one of these lessons, “jotted down by their mother,” published in 1905 as The World Without and The World Within. Sunday Talks With My Children. He starts with a little story concerning their garden: remember, for instance how we looked at our garden early last spring, and saw it was very poor in bulbs, so we dreamed of it rich and bright in snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils for another year. Then as autumn came on we planned how to arrange these. Gradually the plan developed in our heads, with its patches of white and lines of gold, with its circles and groups of varied colours, its dotting over the lawns and its massing under the trees. And so we planted them, and in spring they will begin to come. Indeed, they are already coming; scrape away a little earth, and you see there is the crocus-bud piercing its way already.

The use here of the seasons, and the calling forth of new life, can’t help but evoke those same tactics in The Evergreen. But the story is highlighting a process of remembering, dreaming, planning, enacting, and observing (and of course delighting!) To study this process Geddes asks his children to imaginatively build four quarters, or four “rooms,” to house this “circle of operations.” The Evergreen is also built in this quadruple way, most obviously in the four seasonal volumes, but also internally with I.The Season in Nature. II.The Season in Life. III.The Season in the World. IV.The Season in the North. Geddes divides his square into two halves—The Out-world and the In-world each with a passive and active operation. The Out-world is the world of seeing and acting, the In-world that of dreaming and planning, and as the lesson of the garden describes there is a constant movement through each quadrant.

"These are the four chambers of your life...Yet these four make up one rounded whole—the circle of life. Let us call it rather the spiral of life, and think of it as a growing spiral—widening with the years."

What makes Geddes diagrammatic structure (his circling the square) so important is the movement he imparts to it—his architecture starts to spin. He particularly wants Art and Science (in his day decidedly kept apart) to move this way; mutually supportive, symbiotic.


        Fylfot (Celtic Swastika)

The Key

Geddes travelled widely, and this Sunday talk was a kind of leave-taking. He wanted to offer up his children a parting gift. Something they,

“...could carry and use...all through their lives...the key, the sign which should open each of the four worlds—the Out and the In, the Active and the Passive in each—Life in its many aspects or possibilities. That talisman is simple. It is before you; it is one of the many meanings also of the Celtic Spiral…”

This Fylfot (the Celtic Swastika) is what clearly indicates the movement of the four worlds. It will appear again later as the backbone in Geddes most complex diagram “The Notation of Life.”

The Evergreen is likewise a gift; a thinking-machine to help us educate ourselves about the great rhythms of the outer world and our inner lives—a going forth, and then returning.

“Away now into the garden; then when you lie down to-night and shut your eyes, and your inner world appears more plainly, you may see old beauty come anew. Plan boldly what you would like to see, to show; choose the best, and see if you cannot carry out your planning. Do what you can while I am away.”