Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Genius of Landscape: Rural Form


Rural form seems static when we look at it as a landscape. A crisscross of roads, telephone wires, signs punctuating fields, fences, gates, forests and waterways. It stands in rotting barns or sunny porches or in anonymous highways whispering through to another place. The farmlands have been as they are for a hundred, two hundred years. Or two thousand years as we poke through their dikes, their ditches, their weedy ditches, their dusty or gravelly roads. 


Crops change in texture and color and in the shape of plants and paths. But has this landscape, undulating or flat, shady or sunburnt, ever looked different? Farms go on for miles, forests as we pass them present a wall of green or of brown and black and white, light is freckled, flecked through them or blocked like a solid, depending on the season. 



A hill or mountain in the distance far or near renders a green blob with a cloud at its top, a barrier to the destiny of our vision. A vista stopper or a shadow maker or a vertical thing to overcome. Small and large towns, cars, implements, signs, trees, hills, sad pokey places with old churches and new gas stations and motorcycles and sheds. Decay or life the rural landscape is more social but asocial and curtained, cordoned, clamped.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Borrowed Landscapes: A Study in the Evolution of Form


I was with my colleague Patricia Loheed at the fabulous Polesden Lacey National Trust Garden in Surrey, south of London. Pat gazed over the expanse of formal pathways, rich plantings, rose gardens, forest and field. She focused on the chalk hills across from the manicured property and exulted, "they designed this to be a borrowed landscape!" That summer we were planning a trip to the deeply historical region of the North Downs for design students from the Boston Architectural College. The Pound was worth two dollars, our students were poor, and the ambitious, expensive trip had to be cancelled. But we got to scout around in preparation for our doomed course, including rewarding visits to many National Trust properties and gardens. What did Pat mean by "borrowed landscape," and why was she so excited? The excitement was that we were getting a firsthand look at landscape architecture in the making. By incorporating the scenery outside, the visual footprint of Polesden Lacey was enlarged, dramatized, and made a good deal grander. Pat, whom I consider right on just about everything, taught me something valuable that day. But in this essay I'm thinking about a different kind of borrowed landscape.

    Polesden Lacey and its Borrowed Landscape


As a biologist I'm aware that few characteristics evolve more than once. We can uncover the relationships of “unrelated” species by looking at their DNA or more simply, by finding homologous anatomical features that have been inherited from a common ancestor. The world of plants, my area of study, is so rife with morphological similarities I wonder sometimes if there are any real differences among its species. For example I see patterns of fern-like growth (circinate vernation) in emerging shoots and flowers of many unrelated species, plants that evolved long after their fern ancestors. And we humans share so much in common with the rest of the living world that our common ancestry with plants, insects, and even fungi and bacteria, is a moot point. Even though we are only distantly related to say, sharks, we share an inherited vertebrate body plan, not to mention cellular, metabolic, and molecular features in common. 




So what about landscape evolution? What do built landscapes have in common? Are landscape ideas inherited, borrowed, shared, stolen? Or have they arisen independently in many different places and times? I have pondered landscape form and its evolution since I was an undergraduate anthropology student at Grinnell College. There we read the enchanting The Making of the English Landscape by W. G. Hoskins during a year abroad. That slim book shaped a profound curiosity in me that followed wherever I traveled. Recently my interest in how landscapes develop brought me to a nearly deserted forest monastery, Magul Maha Vinhara in a remote jungle corner of southeast Sri Lanka. It opened a new landscape chapter for me. I could see there how human yearning for control and connection with the landscape brought about a unique design interaction with nature. I took pictures, rapid-fire, of the large reflecting pokuna (meditation pond). I was aware of the strange atmosphere of the pond, which bore a similarity to someplace else I had seen, far away. Uploading my pictures to flickr a month later it struck me. The meditation pond at Magul Maha Vinhara reminded me of a place I had seen in England. Was there a design connection? Do our garden designs come from a single ancestor, like our DNA? If not, who’s been copying whom?


My question goes back to a visit to the Stowe Landscape Garden in Buckinghamshire, England. This time, it was part of a study trip for undergraduates from Boston University. Stowe, like many of the premier landscapes in the UK was redesigned several times through its history. Chief among its designers was the 18th century figure Lancelot (Capability) Brown, who is counted among the founders of landscape architecture. 

Octagon Lake, Stowe Landscape Garden

We know that Brown had visual knowledge of Eastern gardens because he stated that he was familiar with "Chinese" garden design. It is doubtful that he ever saw a depiction of a garden from what was to become Sri Lanka. Certainly he never visited. Yet the qualities we find at Octagon Lake, the great reflecting pond at Stowe, are abundantly present in the disused tank at Magul Maha Vinhara and a hundred other places throughout Sri Lanka. Did Magul Maha and places like it represent a sort of prototype "Eastern" garden (one that Capability Brown might have envisioned) or do we humans just like reflecting ponds? No doubt the shimmering vision of trees reflecting on a lotus-filled sheet of water evokes a universal feeling of meditative well-being. Have we all been building reflecting ponds all along? 

Reflecting tank at Magul Maha Vinhara, Sri Lanka

My guess is that Brown was influenced by reflecting ponds from the East but the technology to make them, at least large ones, was a recent “discovery” in northwestern Europe. Brown enlarged Octagon Lake from a smaller one started by a predecessor. I am not a garden historian but I've seen a few, and from my observations extensive reflecting ponds are absent from earlier formal gardens of Europe. Moats, yes. Fountains, certainly. Large naturalistic reflecting pools? Not until technology made it feasible, and not until intensive contact with East Asia, which affected culture and aesthetics. Where Europeans were putting gardens into four-cornered patches, laying straight paths through lanes of pruned shrubbery, and developing a symmetrical "physic" of useful plants, Buddhist monks and the simple farmers of Sri Lanka had long since learned the art and science of impounding water.

So, landscape evolution, tradition, innovation, aesthetics, and science? How do they all come together? In terms of science and tradition the physic gardens were an innovation of 17th century Europe, places where beneficial plants known to the Greeks and Romans could be cultivated for use by healers. In the Sri Lankan world, a slew of beneficial plants had been known since time immemorial and they grew everywhere. They were (and still are) part and parcel of the Ayurvedic scheme. We know that some Latin plant names, for example Nelumbo (lotus) were borrowed from the ancient Sinhalese (nelum). We know that styles of sculpture and even architecture were shared between these two disparate parts of the world, but we don’t know who started it all. We know that the reflecting tanks of Sri Lanka came out of an ages-old tradition of the wewas and the kulams and pokunas, water tanks that were used for irrigation and for meditation. Europeans couldn't build huge reflecting pools like the wewas because they didn’t have the technology until the 18th century. Europe finally mastered engineering techniques that were old in Sri Lanka around the time of the "Enlightenment" (funny--did Europe borrow that term from the Buddhists too?). Meanwhile, designers like Capability Brown sought to bring the grace of meditative landscape to the richest patrons of northwestern Europe. But beauty, harmony, and peace were part of the everyday working agricultural landscape invented in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the East. 




Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Consequences of Exurban Sprawl

The last couple of days have been harrowing for the people who live in "tornado alley." Probably the most powerful and damaging tornado in history demolished parts of the town of Moore, Oklahoma this week. So many people were killed, including many children who were stuck in schools at the end of the day. There was nowhere to find safety. There were no storm shelters at the schools or elsewhere. Structures in that part of the country are built without basements, partly to save on construction costs. The immense destructive power of storm was overwhelming. The vortex of destruction was enormous.

Until quite recently the terrain where this disaster occurred was an agricultural landscape. Urban sprawl, or if you will, ex- urban sprawl had placed tens of thousands of unfortunate people in the path of destruction. Did they have to live there? Isn't building in the path of killer tornadoes something like building on a sand dune, or a river bottom or the side of a volcano?

I often wonder why we find ourselves in the places where we end up. My moves across this country from Chicago to Iowa to Alaska to San Francisco and finally to Boston were dictated by education, love, and work. Too bad for me I have chosen the most expensive places to live for most of my adult life. This is not necessarily because I have the means to live in San Francisco or Boston. But these places seem like the only reasonable choice. I am a seriously underpaid professor, not rich by any standards considering my level of education, but relatively wealthy compared to many Americans. My guess is that people move to the exurbs for more living space with less of a price tag. We threw out our car several years ago because we can walk pretty much every place we need to go. I know that the people in Moore, Oklahoma have to drive. I know that gas is not cheap anywhere. So maybe what I pay for rent and public transportation and urban crowding is somewhat offset by the expenses people face out there to drive their vehicles.



Is it a question of economics alone? I tend to doubt it. Part of the "American dream" is the pursuit of a lifestyle that you feel comfortable adopting. I might not feel any more comfortable in Moore than those people would feel in Cambridge. But I don't know. Recently, I've been thinking about moving to a warmer climate. Maybe someplace not as prone to rising sea levels as where we live here in Boston. Believe it or not Texas has been high on my list. But wherever I move, I won't choose to live in sprawl. I prefer to have less rather than more dependence on the vehicle. I prefer to live in a more diverse community. And wherever I live, though the museums and libraries may not match Boston, I want to be close to some cultural amenities.


Why this riff on culture? Isn't the most important thing to have a roof over your head? I guess some of my thoughts about sprawl really coalesced after this latest tragedy. As we build communities in far-flung regions at great distances from urban areas, we put ourselves increasingly in the path of destructive storms like a tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma. It's a known fact that dense urban buildings disrupt the atmospheric flow dynamics that breed tornadoes. Urban heat islands, for better or for worse, also change the heat exchange conditions that bring about tornado activity. But a few subdivisions out on the flat prairie do nothing to block storm dynamics. Like a house on a sand dune, they are right in the line of fire.




As we mourn the dead, comfort the injured, and rebuild communities like Moore, perhaps we should ask the same kinds of questions that followed Hurricane Sandy. Should we continue to build in these high-risk zones? Should we continue to fund private and federal insurance for these places? What are the real but hidden costs of building in places like Moore, in terms of loss of farmland, dependence on fossil fuels, and greenhouse gas emissions? And what are the social costs? Living out in the sprawling exurbs we choke public transportation and other infrastructure amenities that come with denser lifestyles. We "escape" diversity. And we weaken the society as a whole while finding "freedom" in the great but dangerous exurb utopia.



Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tornadoes: is it climate change or how we build?

The horror of yesterday's tornadoes south Oklahoma City is undeniable. It's hard to imagine the size or the impact of that monstrous storm system. Our hearts go out to the victims, especially the children who were trapped in their schools at the end of school day.

My students have been asking me if this is an example of climate change. I wish I were wise enough to give them an answer. Scientists have been predicting stronger storms, more intense droughts, and more frequent floods, all as a result of climate change. Whether or not we can point to these events as evidence of climate change the data are upon us. Warming oceans and seas, warming landmasses, and changes in climatological patterns are all part of the global climate change process. But I think it would be foolhardy to point a finger at yesterday's storms and say "Aha, this is climate change."

But what about the facts on the ground? What about the highways clogged with traffic, preventing emergency personnel from arriving at the scene? What about the widely spread out, if highly populous streets and communities of the region? What about the schools? Didn't they have basements for the students and teachers to take refuge in? Or were they part of a grand scale explosive exurban growth that pays little attention to the environment around us? For most of the sprawl that we see outside our cities is aimed at a bottom line economic: cheap housing for the most people possible with little regard for the landscape.

When I say landscape I don't mean the pretty up landscape hills and dales, mountains, horizons, river valleys. I'm talking about a landscape that we function in. A landscape of roads and miles weather systems. We flee the cities for "more land," but we do so at a cost. A hundred years ago an F5 tornado could have swung through what is now Moore, Oklahoma, with no one knowing the difference. Now that place is a landscape of strip malls, schools, housing developments, and cul-de-sacs. A kind of paradise I guess if you've got gas to go places and until a storm like yesterday's strikes.

We are all prone to disaster. Boston, where I live, was a sewage dump 100 years ago. Stockyards and slaughterhouses lined the Charles River, which was a stinking foetid mass of disease-carrying water. We figured out how to ameliorate that problem. And we brought more problems to the fore. Air pollution from cars, factories, and heating our houses nearly ruined the city. Later, racial strife, unemployment, and urban decay threatened to give Boston its final coup de grace. But somehow people stayed in town.

Today we are threatened by the same global climate change that may have spawned the Oklahoma City tornadoes. We are within a few feet of flooding by a swollen, restive ocean. And like Oklahoma City we have urban sprawl of our own. Don't imagine for a second that I've got my head in the sand about that. But we have something here that is both tangible and intangible. We have a critical mass of infrastructure, talent, and the will to make the city work, that holds us inside its boundaries. We understand that we pay taxes, state, municipal, and federal, so that we can thrive here in a particular kind of civilization. One that recognizes many kinds of people who may have little in common with one another. Boston has the worst climate in the world. We live in cramped close spaces within the barking distance of one another's dogs. And natural disasters can occur at any time. To anyone. But our built environment, at least here in town, more or less follows patterns that were understood by the first builders here.

There are places in and out of cities that are prone to danger. We need to think before we use more land for sprawl. Building subdivisions, strip malls, churches, and schools on the busiest thoroughfare of tornado alley is like building an atomic power plant on a fault line.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Many landscapes: report from the bicycle seat

Winter has been so long and the spring so hesitant. Finally the weather seemed warmish so I got on the bicycle. I have been riding my wife's bike because mine doesn't seem to fit me these days. I'm getting used to the feeling of her bicycle. But it does have some strange features. I guess it's got a steel frame, which feels every bump on the way and sends it right up to the rider. That's me. So these bumps big and little make me more aware of the landscape then I would have been riding a bike I was used to.

Landscape, what a full and fulsome place, potentially a falling place. For the bicycle rider there are so many landscape features that pose a challenge. Bumps and potholes and cracks in the pavement and uneven surfaces are part of the adventure. The landscape is full of more than just things that are physically apparent. Unseen processes are also part of the landscape. Car doors waiting to be flung open, pedestrians stepping down from curbs against the light, drivers on the phone whose turns are wide and not that precisely aimed.

So landscape exists on a spatial and a temporal level. Being on a bicycle, especially in the urban landscape, takes you through a different dimension than the space you share with drivers. The bicycle is at once robust and fragile, smooth and bumpy, mechanical and human. The contradictory realities of riding a bicycle in the city encourage an awareness of landscape that brings to bear an unexpected, sometimes unpleasant world.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

White noise and the built environment.

Last summer I took my BAC students for a walk around my neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Students were in town for a one week intensive, part of their work for a Masters degree in sustainability. As a botanist I like to guide people through the natural landscape of the city. Every year I try to find a new and innovative approach that will capture the students' imagination and keep me interested. So our walk last summer took us through the dynamic area around M I T called Kendall Square.

In and of itself Kendall Square is fascinating. Very busy with people and businesses and offices, a place that was planned but in my opinion, a place that works. It's layered, nuanced, and very alive. I like to start at Kendall Square because students can take the subway and we can begin by observing many kinds of transportation that converge there. There's also a subtle natural component that is interesting but not obtrusive. The short walkway lined with trees and benches behind the subway station take you out of the city, through a magic corridor, and into the space that comprises MIT.

From Kendall Square we walked a few steps to a large courtyard that is bordered in part by the Stata Center designed by Frank Geahry and Associates. We came to a neat row of pin oaks on either side of the line of picnic tables. I set the students to work right there asking them to take 10 minutes to do some writing. Since this was the first day of the intensive I wanted them to write about what sustainability means to them.

These are serious students, and as they warmed to the task a deep silence fell over all of them. As their pens scratched the paper I began to hear background noises. The courtyard has been designed to block traffic noises pretty effectively. The sounds of humans were also absent because the courtyard is large and can't hear people talking. But a horrible noise reverberates from every building around the otherwise beautifully designed courtyard. Noise from the gigantic heating and ventilation systems on top of all the buildings dominate the aural landscape. Strange that such a carefully designed space, a meticulously designed space, an expensive space full of artwork and nature and surrounded by premier architecture, should have such a nasty sound profile.

Strange as well that when I asked my students about it they told me they didn't hear anything. A moment of listening and they were well tuned in to the noise. Another teachable moment learning about design.

I came back to the space this afternoon to take some photos for this post. Amazingly, the reverberating horror sounds as bad as it ever did, creating a nightmarish atmosphere where science and creativity are supposed to flourish. We think a lot about the visual reality of our built environments but as planners we must consider many more aspects of the landscape.







Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Perfection and the Platonic "ideal" in art and science

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is featuring an exhibit of drawings by Michelangelo. The drawings provide a great look into the mind of this 15th century Renaissance Scientist-Artist. I learned a lot from the drawings and the notes that accompany them. One new piece of information was that Michelangelo was deeply involved in architectural projects of his day. In his architectural drawings Michelangelo tried to achieve a kind of perfection through proportion, line, and balance, ideas that were formulated in Western thought by the ancient Greeks.

I vaguely remembered that Renaissance architecture was concerned with these kinds of questions and I've seen many buildings of that era that reflect the kind of vision Michelangelo was seeking. But the exhibit introduced me to a further insight. Until I saw this exhibit I hadn't understood how closely scientific and artistic inquiry were during the Renaissance. In a sense, architecture was (and is) a place where science and art unite. During the Renaissance and for many of the ensuing centuries, art, science, and architecture continued under the influence of Ancient Greek thought, a striving for "perfection."

When we teach our undergraduates about the development of scientific thought we stress the conceptual importance of Plato and Aristotle. Their world vision was one that valued "perfection" or the "ideal" as a kind of goal. Perfection, however it was expressed, was a reflection of the ideal world On High. Scientists who observed the natural world from the Renaissance onward struggled to understand natural form and process in terms of Platonic ideals. This teleological approach, which embraced a religious framework reflecting Aristotelian thought, prevented an understanding of the evolutionary process until well after Darwin.

Strange to think about all of this after visiting Sri Lanka and observing a culture that recognizes a different sort of "perfection." Also strange to think about Michelangelo's struggle to make "perfect" or "ideal" buildings based on geometrical proportionality when our own approach to the built environment is so much different. Or is it?

We still strive for expressions of the ideal, even though we have deconstructed or rejected so many of the old ones. It is still difficult for most of us to wrap our heads around evolution. To do so, we have to come to grips with the fact that evolution is a random process, untethered by any goal except for survival and reproduction. Our built environments, epitomized by starchitectural excess, strive for an ephemeral sweet spot of aestheic-high capitalism. And our cyberworld is modeled on perhaps unreachable goals of speed and connectivity. Somehow in the West the Platonic ideal is welded into our thought and practice. We express our will to control differently from Michelangelo but we speak the same language.





Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Biomimicry" and the built environment: a Renaissance perspective

I was delighted by the temporary exhibit at the Boston Museum of fine arts that features drawings of Michelangelo. The exhibit is only one room and most of the drawings are small. But they are not insignificant. The notes accompanying the drawings were skillfully composed and provide a lot of information.

I learned a lot from the show. For example, I didn't know that Michelangelo had been involved in number of architectural projects. Among these were plans for military fortifications.

For his inspiration in one of these projects Michelangelo chose to use the form of crab. What I learned from the notes was highly perceptive. If we think about a crab and its form we immediately consider the carapace of the animal. The outer shell is built for protection. At the same time it enables the crab to move flexibly in its environment. So the crab can attack or withdraw within its hard yet flexible shell. Thanks to the rounded shape of its carapace, the crab can sense and respond to stimuli from all directions. You can imagine that these features of nearly 360 degree visibility, flexibility, and protection with would all be desirable functions of a 15th- or 16th-century fort.

I don't know if this particular fortification was ever built. It gave me food for thought about some of my students' attempts to design using biomimicry. People tend to look at biomimicry from a visual rather than functional standpoint. Even when we consider function, we tend to forget that any organism or part of the organism functions in many overlapping, even contradictory ways. The way living systems interact and respond to their environment is complex and goes beyond visible features or any single function. The morphology or shape of an organ, for example a leaf, is only part of the story. Designing a building that is shaped like a leaf does not mean it will do photosynthesis or circulate water, nutrients, or gas efficiently. Part of the strength of Michelangelo's fort design is that he incorporated the shape and function of the crab around a suite of functional parameters. In a sense, he abstracted the crab's functionality and applied it to his design.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The asynchronous landscape

This morning I was looking at a plastic container full of fresh strawberries. I imagined the strawberries about a week from now. Unopened, ethylene gas had accumulated in the package. The strawberries went from ripe to beyond ripe. The white fuzz of fungi had exploded all throughout the container. Luckily, it didn't happen. But imagine if we could look from the present into the future or back into the past. With natural systems, which are always changing, this isn't so far-fetched.

What about our urban landscapes? What about the green spaces we build in them? Can we foresee how they will look in 50 years? In 100 years? When I take my students from the Boston architectural college to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston I ask them to visualize this asynchronous landscape. I ask them a somewhat provocative question. When Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned this space, did he look forward to the way plants would fill the space in the future? How much did Olmsted know about plant form? How much did he care about what way his built landscapes would appear a century later?

So when we design spaces or buildings or landscapes or urban habitations we need to think about the future. This isn't rocket science. It isn't some sort of astral projection. I think it requires a little common sense and the possibility of stepping back for a moment from our egoish grand plans. If we consider more than the productive snapshot of our immediate present, if we take a moment to imagine a past and visualize a future, maybe we can design built environments that grow into the future as they become more beautiful and more usable.





Saturday, May 11, 2013

Breaking Records for Greenhouse Gases

Well scientists just confirmed that carbon dioxide is at its highest levels in millions of years. It seems a given that climate change will accelerate as feedback mechanisms in the atmosphere respond to the peak in greenhouse gases.

As I read the report in this morning's New YorkTimes there is an ad on the next page for a device that spews carbon dioxide to control mosquitoes in your back yard. A whole section is devoted to travel to exotic places. Yet we know that every car ride, every flight, every air conditioned moment burns fossil fuels and releases carbon dioxide.

Billions of people live near coastlines with rising ocean levels and more billions of people will be affected by global climate change. Governments have done a dismal job of curbing greenhouse emissions yet in a way it's not the fault of our "leaders." The demand for fossil fuels, the addiction we have formed, is part of the deep heart of our consumer culture. I use more fossil fuel energy in a day than my Sri Lankan friend uses in a month.

Time for bicycles?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Elegance and "Moment" vs. "Monument"


I have spent a lot of time reading about and pondering aesthetics. As an artist and a scientist and a traveler and a trained anthropologist I look at aesthetics from many different angles. One of these is what I call “moment vs. monument.” The “moment” is the small things--the curve of a branch, the shadow of a building, or the texture of a fabric. I tend to observe these things more completely than I observe the “monuments,” the whole tree, the towering edifice, or the complicated tapestry. I find that in my mind I translate these small, sensual signals into an understanding of the larger “whole.” I don’t know if this is how it works for everyone. I do think that our hard-wired nature to see things as small and uncomplicated suggests that this kind of thinking is universal. We tend to build upwards from the small to the large.



This way of building things up from smaller details may not work for everyone. However, I do recognize that this kind of observation comprises my “best practice.” What is yours? As long as I understand how I observe, as long as I understand my own aesthetic sense, then I can enhance my understanding of my world. This is not to minimize or overly extol the value of details. The small things help me interpret the big things but they also have a meaning of their own.



Scientists, like artists and all the rest of us, face the natural world, a world that we have to interpret. Thinking critically about that world, making decisions based on feelings we can trust, is what aesthetics is about. Aesthetics is a way of interpreting chaos into something understandable. Aesthetics is a way of problem solving that helps us articulate our understand to others in a way that can be generally accepted as elegant.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Genius of Landscape: An Ancient Experiment in Sustainable Design


On the ground you wouldn't know it. Dusty roads, scrub forest, greasy towns, the occasional cooling expanse of rice paddies. But from the citadel rock of Mihintale, the founding place of Buddhism here and the highest point for miles around, you sense the power of this place, agriculturally, socially, and politically. It is a landscape of culture and spirituality, a landscape that reflects its people and their collaboration with nature. From the white bubble stupa atop Mihintale you stare out to the west and in front of you lie the giant dagobas of Anuradhapura, enormous white bubbles in the hazy smoky morning landscape. With Mihintale, these epitomize the cultural and political hegemony of the Sinhalese in ancient times and in the present. This was a thriving kingdom of power, a genius landscape.


A place of great natural beauty, ancient Sri Lanka was, and to some extent still is a symbiosis between humans and nature. About 2500 years ago the ancient Sinhalese, who traded with civilizations as far away as Greece, started designing dams (‘bunds”) that transformed their landscape. An island the size of West Virginia, Sri Lanka has two monsoon patterns. Depending on where you are on the island, this translates into extended periods of drought, conditions less than ideal for growing the national staple, rice. The development of bunds and their associated irrigation ponds (“wewas”— the English term “tanks” was derived from the colonial Portuguese “tanques”) enabled the ancient Sinhalese to grow enough rice to support a burgeoning, art- and architecture-rich civilization. Wherever you go now you see ancient evidence of the three A’s, Agriculture, Architecture, and Art, much of it focused on the wewas.


Some examples. In the famous Golden Temple of Dambulla a series of caves holding hundreds of Buddha statues. The cave walls and ceilings are covered with paintings. In one cave I discover something the guidebooks missed, a series of paintings that depict the natural fauna and flora of Sri Lanka, centered around a map-like image of wewas. The wewas are not like any I’ve seen so far. They are squares, with rivers or canals running into them and lotuses growing out of them. My wewa moment at Dambulla is to be repeated many times as I slowly discover the nature of the thousands of wewas, enormous, incongruous sheets of water that cover much of Sri Lanka.



I am in Jaffna in the far north. Once the second city of Sri Lanka, isolated and besieged for decades of conflict, it “opened” only a few years ago. Its visual stimulation is so strong that I decide to stay some days and only walk the hot streets and take pictures. Dodging buses and bicycles I walk for miles and find tanks everywhere. Some, like the Dambulla depiction, are square. Each tank is associated with a Hindu Kovil or Buddhist center. Canals crisscross the city, empty now but once running with water along footpaths that remind me of the sunken roads of Surrey. I realize these were boundaries! The tanks and their associated religious architecture were originally the focal points of separate villages that grew together over the centuries.




Once, each village was responsible for the maintenance of its bund and wewa, and fed itself on rice irrigated by the wewa. Wewas started as local endeavors and later became the focus of kings. Rulers who wanted to centralize their power had to feed their people. Feeding the people meant growing more rice. More rice, more irrigation, bigger wewas. I travel to an incredibly atmospheric corner of this incredibly atmospheric country, finding myself on a road atop the bund of Kalawewa, one of the largest irrigation tanks in Sri Lanka. The bund is as large as a Mississippi River levee in Louisiana. It is out of proportion to the human landscape around it. To my left is Kalawewa, its horizon just visible in the rain, and to my right, far below the level of the water are villages, paddies, banana groves, coconut palms, jungle. My driver stops at steps hewn into granite. I take off my flip flops and climb the slippery steps, gingerly in the rain, and behold the massive Aukana Buddha. Aukana is an important pilgrimage site blessedly overlooked by tourists. I am dead alone in pouring rain with a giant graceful granite Buddha, serene in his rock robes, built by a great ruler to face the wewa he built for his people. The colossal Aukana Buddha and Kalawewa bund are design masterpieces.



 Back to the heights of Mihintale. Broad expanses of irrigation tanks, huge sheets of water filling the flat plain with life. In a real way the tanks, not the rice fields, are the source of life. The paddies lie exhausted and fallow now but the tanks teem with life. Even from a thousand feet above you can see the lotuses and lilies, sedges, algae, and abundant bird life. I assumed the tanks would be pristine expanses of water but they are hotbeds of biodiversity. Just as the tanks refill continuously with water, the teeming organisms in them replenish the nutrients that fertilize the rice. We harvest the rice and eat it, a one-way flow. But the tanks, as reservoirs of richness, seep nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients into the thirsty rice fields.




The millennia-old experiment in sustainable design continues in the layout of villages. Wetlands below the wewa are for rice. On higher ground, the ubiquitous banana. Above the banana gardens coconut palms and spice trees, and on higher ground close to the houses, vegetable gardens. If you are lucky your guesthouse serves vegetarian rice and curry. You are eating a meal that was grown within a kilometer of where you sit. If your guesthouse is near a rice paddy, like the one I stayed at in Kataragama, you will hear the thrum of insect and bird life all day and night. The birds feed on abundant fish that crowd the wewas and the fish in turn control mosquitoes. The colonial British subjugated the Lankans by tearing down bunds and draining the wewas. Malaria and starvation decimated the countryside and nearly ended the great experiment of the wewas. Many are restored now, and Sri Lanka is malaria-free. Large rice paddies are harvested by combine now, not a good thing for the soil, and fertilizers and pesticides are making their appearance. Less people work directly in agriculture, another by-product of development. New ways of life in an old landscape.





Sinhalese kings once controlled the wewas. Along with Buddhist religious heads they built a landscape at once natural and entirely in the service of its builders. The tanks and their reservoirs of nutrients, the fish inside them, and the rice they nourished all went to the kings, and through them, to the faithful, who contributed their labor, building, maintaining, planting, harvesting, and processing. Evidence of royal power is part of the broad landscape, bubble stupas spreading across the horizon like clouds that touch down onto the earth, and giant Buddhas like the Aukana. But the hegemony of the Sinhalese civilization lay in irrigation and agricultural works they mastered. A landscape of richness, sustained over thousands of years.

        This essay appeared in the June 2013 issue of Arcade Magazine

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Genius of Landscape: Wilderness


Water, air, and rock. The wilderness we know has ocean with waves and currents and tides. Playing on the sand or against rocks, a kind of ever-changing void that stays a void and stays a void. A horizon, a foreground, a verge of sand or swamp. Crashing at seawalls or sucking horizonward as the tide moves, or rolling on it or slurping in it, the ocean as ocean challenges, rivets our attention, threatens, and nourishes.



Rivers in the wilderness course through valleys, on plains, flash through mountains. They create wetlands with willows. They sing or gurgle in a constant changing instant, every molecule of water attached to the next and the next never still. Do the molecules exist? What is their phenomenology? Can a stream of endless invisible particles floating on their linear bed inform? Are they form? What do they form?






Wilderness air moves in a million ways. Eddies around a sudden bolt of lightning, stratospheric streams on the back of cold fronts, or sluggish foggy drippy wafts as the warm weather approaches. Air whistles or whispers or murmurs, a more liquid liquid than water, soft or hard but irrepressible. Unseen but known, never tried. Constant, caressing or not, bearing pressure where none is felt. Atmospheric.




Mountains rise and crash and slither and die along with the rest of the earth's forms. Smoothing and eroding and crumbling and shifting, rocks and earth settle and dance and dust the leaves that rustle and rest or resist. But all this movement is abstract. It happened somewhere else at some other time and to perceive it all in its present is too much for us. Maybe a photo. But do we have to perceive these movements to appreciate them? Are they anything more than glacially slow processes that comprise the "laws of nature" but which don't really affect us? Is their development part of what we call "landscape" or, without human agency can they be considered as landscape? Is the photo and the human perception of that photo enough to make these mute scenes into a landscape?



If the landscape is just a snapshot, a study in the present tense, is it landscape? Development, dynamism, change--all of these contribute to the forming of landscape and landscape is forever forming. Just static is something else. Landscape is alive.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Landscape Still or Moving?




Experiencing the landscape is a snapshot of the present, a surface at once flat and bumpy, lit and shadowed. Or it is an immersion into an always present moment, a moment that tunnels or ramifies or disappears or endures like an old piece of cloth. In landscape we engage a surface reality, a reality that holds a fascination and motion of its own, a reality that is so "present" it's hard to believe it has a past. Or we see into a past at once murky and clear, designed of its own dreams, elusive, illusion, allusion.



The landscape seems static, unchanging, glacial. It may appear magnificent or insignificant, close or far. Or the landscape is a cascade of movement, starry cold and distant, or the shaded, singing liquid of a waterfall, or warm and smoky with the depth of murky aromas. We see wind in the trees and the grass, we see the movement of cars on the expressway, we see a squirrel busy replanting our garden, and we sense the changing of the day in the movement of light and shadows in our landscapes. But our brains work against us, against what we see. We assume, we almost have to assume, that our landscapes are static. How could we function in landscapes that move, that change, that transform? How could we behave as the instrumental beings we are, or believe ourselves to be, in a landscape lacy with melancholy, neither forged nor knitted, only a wisp of colored smoke?



As part of our cognitive toolbox, as beings that "do" we hold a model of the landscape as something that accommodates us. We act in it or upon it. We are present in its present and we move through it to more presents. Like our planet we know it moves but we perceive the landscape as unmoving. How else can we work in it? The job of landscape is to be still, not to change, to provide a backdrop for our activities. But as a "present" landscape is perforce a moment, temporary and all-quiet, without fabric. Without fabric there is no texture and no time and in a heartbeat we realize the non-concreteness, the non-presence that is evidence of landscape.