Friday, November 9, 2012

Art, Science, and the Sacred Landscape

I'm reviewing an interesting book called "Earth Perfect?" edited by Jannette Giesecke and Naomi Jacobs. It's a look at nature, utopia, and the garden, loosely organized around themes of design, ecology, and aethetics. As I explore the book it strikes me that in spite of an introduction that retells an ancient Chinese tale, the book is solidly western in its orientation. This is an unfortunate oversight that results in a limited view of the topic.

For this summer's NEH travel seminar one of the highlights of our reading was a text derived from an exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum called "Road to Aztlan, Art from a Mythic Homeland." As the title suggests, the theme of the book is a retelling, in many media and over many hundreds of years, the "Eden" story of the Aztecs. The book (as well as the seminar) opened my eyes to the fact that in pre-conquest America there were many interpretations of human cultural origins. All of these centered around the sacred landscape.

As we learned during the five-week seminar, sacred landscapes are part of an historical and contemporary world vision that extends over thousands of miles and hundreds of cultures and languages among indigenous peoples in the Americas. It is a different conception of landscape than our "western" vision, and it is worth studying in detail. Beyond art and beyond aesthetics, the concept of the sacred landscape is one in which humans, as part of the landscape, are part of a larger, living, spiritually charged world.

In that landscape, every rock, every tree, every hillock, holds meaning and a connection with the supernatural. It is a landscape that humans are part of, but also a landscape in which humans must tread respectfully to maintain balance. It fascinated me to learn that this concept was shared by tiny native communities in nearly inaccessible forests or deserts, as well as mighty empires like the Aztecs or Toltecs.

I had a chance to learn more by taking pictures that told their own amazing stories. One example is Teotihuacan, the gargantuan pre-Aztec city north of contemporary Mexico City. The pyramids of Teotihuacan were built in a distinctive talud y tablera style, a style meant to mimic terraced agricultural fields. In their bright white coating of lime they must have shimmered against the blue sky. These pyramids, and the city in which they were centered, may have been built to invoke an Edenic, pre-empire concept of Aztlan.

Teotihuacan was a built environment. It was designed to mimic a domesticated natural environment (terraced farmlands). But wild natural environments were (and remain) primally important to indigenous peoples. For example, we consider the Grand Canyon as a transcendently beautiful, perhaps even spiritual space. But to the contemporary Hopi who live in the vicinity of the Canyon, the space is more than beautiful. It represents the place of Origin, the sipapu, from which a new generation of humans emerged into today's "Fourth World," after the collapse of an earlier generation.

Not far from the Grand Canyon lies the mysterious city of Chaco, remotely sited in the Chaco Canyon and abandoned for centuries. Chaco is a quiet, almost desolate place now, accessible via a miles-long gravel road in the heart of Navajo country. Chaco's amazing sandstone formations are a dramatic backdrop to the ruins of the largest ancient cultural center north of the Rio Grande. A close look at its architecture suggests that the distinctive style of building at Chaco mimics in some way the sacred landscape in which it is found. 

Teotihuacan, Chaco, and the Grand Canyon are outsize examples of sacred landscapes. All of them incorporate the idea of humans and their place in nature. But the same ideas apply to small communities such as the Nahua settlements in Veracruz described by Alan Sandstrom in the Nahua Newsletter

and in decades of scholarly papers in which he has contributed immensely to our understanding of humans and their relationship to landscape. 

In the interest of keeping this post short I've written only the shortest summary of my thoughts. In keeping with my theme of art and science I want to stress that non-Western concepts of landscape are yet another way we can consider how things are looked at in many different perspectives. The relationship to the landscape of the builders of Teotihuacan, Chaco, or a tiny village in Veracruz all are mightily different than that of the planners of New York or Boston. But in all these cases, humans have beheld the natural world and struggled with their place in it. In upcoming posts I want to explore more the differences and similarities in these world views.

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