Monday, August 31, 2015

Great Sri Lankan Colleagues

It's exactly two weeks before we launch off for nine months in Sri Lanka. Janet and I also feel like we're launching into a new part of our lives. It wasn't easy for her to wrap her head around leaving work and for me, this Fulbright is allowing me to take a whole new research direction. 

So yesterday over a beer my son-in-law Jose asked me if I'm nervous about the upcoming trip. "Not at all," I told him. "We have everything planned out, where we'll stay, how we'll get from place to place," etc. I had a sip of beer-the last one I'll share with him for almost a year, and rethought my answer. 

Actually it's not about having things planned out. It's about the great colleagues who have built relationships with me over the past few months. From technical support from the Fulbright, who got the visa approval process going so I could leave early, to intellectual partnerships with my colleagues at Rajarata University who are eagerly waiting for our face-to-face discussions, I have a great feeling of welcomeness and well-being. 

It's not that I need to be taken care of. Far from it. It's more that I feel we're falling into a well-feathered nest with a group of people who are more than looking forward to our arrival--they're looking forward to the work we can do together. So am I. 

The same goes for my colleagues at the University of Moratuwa. Though my teaching role there is not concretely defined, we've agreed on some of the projects we'll undertake together. We have a few specifics lined up, like an upcoming seminar I'll give on writing a scientific paper. Not as exciting as the work I'll be doing on ancient sustainable landscapes in Rajarata but just the same, a real bread and butter contribution. 

And then there are mysteries. In November I'm invited to Southeast University in Kalmunai, a place I've only passed through before. I'll give a keynote talk there and spend a few sessions with faculty and students exploring how we learn together. But really, I have no idea what to expect except that we will be welcomed there. I just expanded my Boston University swag purchases to get ready for that visit!

So much excitement, so much support, so much eager collaboration. For me this is truly a new experience. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Intangibles, unprettiness, risk, randomness, and results

Especially in these days of a drying planet, nothing sounds worse than a dry lakebed does it? And the not-prettiness is amplified by the word "tank," which is what they're called in Sri Lanka. Tank is an adopted word from "tanque," which is how Portuguese  cartographers labeled them on 17th century maps. What am I talking about? The 30,000-odd paradisiacal lakes built by humans in partnership with nature over a 2500 year period. It all took place in Sri Lanka, where I will start a Fulbright next month. 

I have to start my Fulbright a few weeks early, hopefully to beat the monsoon that arrives in the North Central Province like clockwork every October. And it's all for the sake of exploring dry tank beds, something that's barely been done before. I don't know if it's because no one thought of it or that they thought of it and then thought the better of it. It's not a pretty proposition. Sounds dusty, hot, and muddy doesn't it? And all during the most humid days of the year, just before the monsoon breaks. But I hope the exercise will reveal insights into the complex functionality of these ancient, magnificent, sustainable, and all-sustaining bodies of water. 

The idea to explore dry tank beds didn't come from nowhere. In May I spent a week walking through the countryside in Rajarata (the heartland of North Central Province), visiting as many tanks as I could. At that time the tanks were overflowing, their spillways gushing water and the  rice fields below the dams shimmering with the new crop. As I walked the tanks I developed so many questions. Why were the dams shaped convexly, storing the water like open arms? What was the role of  spillways, of sluices, and other features in controlling the water? Were the tanks just storing and distributing water, or were they behaving in a more subtle way, perhaps persuading the water to flow in certain ways? 

It seems to me that the tanks behave subtly indeed. How else can we explain the known facts that certain parts of the tank collect silt, other parts accumulate alkaline water, still others gather salt? If one "simple" body of water can do all of this sorting, then the tanks must be very complex structures.  

The goal of my Fulbright is to study intangible landscape features and to develop questions from them. In the case of the tanks the intangibles that I considered led to one big question: what's at the bottom of the tanks and how does it explain their complex functionality? Searching the literature kindly provided by my friend Chandima Gunadasa, librarian at the International Water Management Institute in Colombo, yielded few results. More was gained through correspondence with Dr. M U A Tennakoon, who directs a UNDP-sponsored village tank rehabilitation project in Rajarata. Then after lengthy correspondence with my colleagues at Rajarata University I was put into contact with Professor Madduma Bandara, who has been studying tank structure and function for decades. It was Professor Bandara who pointed out that dry tank bottoms are poorly studied. His interest piqued, he agreed to join me in the field. 

What started as a random walk through the countryside is turning into a collaborative international research endeavor. No one could have envisioned it because it grew from questions based on observations of the intangible. It's not easy to sell a research proposal based on what might be learned. You're supposed to have a carefully laid-out plan, ready to be executed according to a defined schedule. The Fulbright took a risk when they approved my proposal on landscape intangibles, a proposal that had collected a series of rejections over the past couple of years. I intend to pay them back for their good faith gesture. So, here's to intangibles, their associated randomness and risk, and the very tangible results that can accrue from them. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

People of the slot and groove

The inspiration for my upcoming Fulbright is the analysis of intangibles in the Sri Lankan landscape. In earlier posts I've written about lots of examples but a kind of "big one" has been on my mind that I keep putting off. I discussed it briefly with my artist-designer friend Gihan Karunaratne, one of the most creative thinkers I know. I hope I'll be able to take lots of pictures of it in the field and persuade busy Gihan to visit the National Museum in Colombo to study some examples. You may be wondering what I'm talking about. 

When I visited the rural North Central Province of Sri Lanka in May I saw lots of examples. Using all kinds of materials, but especially wood and stone, the ancient Lankans employed all kinds of slots and grooves in their effort to tame, direct, control, and store water. The slots and groves and the planks that fit into them weren't exactly obvious during my forays. They were the kind of landscape feature that I really love, the feature that is hidden in plain sight. 

What do these design forms tell us about their makers? For one thing they introduce us to the intentionality of the people who built and used them. They are assuredly cut, well-measured and executed. They show a confident mastery of materials, as well as an understanding of water, the material they were meant to interact with. Perhaps most interesting is their simplicity. That simplicity is a kind of bespoke response of solid materials to their fluid partner, water, slightly different in each example. The stark contrast between messy water and the built, carved, and planed materials it encounters is remarkable. 

The slots, grooves, and planks are also unusual in that they constitute a hard element in a soft landscape. Nothing is softer it seems than the lazy ponds of the tanks covered in lotuses. But that landscape was created by the application of hard materials to it, materials used to establish the bunds, sluice the water, and direct it into beneficial streams. 

How were these techniques used in other building situations? We know for example that features of the bunds such as their curvature and angle of repose was applied to the construction of dagobas all over Sri Lanka. These are as much in evidence across the island as the ancient, carefully finished granite pillars of extinct temples, pillars that are as beautifully dressed as any 19th century granite work we can find in New England.

All this speaks to an advanced design ensemble based on a few simple but effective shapes. Something like a Mozart sonata or a Bach cantata, a few notes go far in explaining a richness of sound. Our Sri Lankan example of slots and grooves takes us to the same aesthetic heights on the broad shoulders of practicality. It is the epitome of agricultural design. 

Transitioning into International Cooperation

Months of planning and correspondence with Sri Lankan colleagues in preparation for my Fulbright yielded something unexpected: An international network of support and cooperation. I'm not sure how it started but it may have come from the day when Dr. M U A Tennakoon wrote to say he'd pick us up at the airport. 

Dr. Tennakoon is the director of SAP SRI, an NGO involved in research and training in sustainable irrigation systems at the village level. Among other projects SAP SRI has been working on rehabilitating a tank in Alisantha, close to my field sites in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. Chris Koliba, a Fulbrighter and colleague who I met in Colombo last May, suggested that I get in touch with Dr. Tennakoon in the first place. Our correspondence grew over the months until at last I asked Dr. Tennakoon for a face-to-face meeting when I arrive in mid-September. It was then that he offered to fetch us at the airport so we'd have time to visit, and to plan what I thought would be our sole visit the following day. 

I guess I realized then that something bigger than I planned for was happening. Instead of letting the Fulbright do its due diligence of picking us up at the airport he was putting himself into the not inconsiderable inconvenience of fetching us himself. He had also asked me to put him in touch with colleagues at Rajarata University so he could coordinate my activities up there. So what was kind of a fantasy for me, wandering among the dry tank beds, exploring with a couple of colleagues, was becoming something worthy of attention and sustained cooperation, a scale of activity I'm not used to in my job as a fairly solitary teaching professor. 

I decided to re-read some of the emails from Dr. Tennakoon. I realized I had overlooked SAP SRI's connection to various United Nations  agencies like the GEF and UNDP. My bad. I'm used to ignoring alphabet soups. But instead of ignoring this time I got busy on twitter and in a few minutes I was in touch with some pretty centrally situated people in those agencies. More people came on board and soon I was asked not only about my blog, but approached for a potential media production. This at the same time as new contacts in Sri Lanka and throughout South Asia popped up in twitter. 

I'm used to getting things done in the classroom, not getting involved in the big world out there. My phD and subsequent research in botany was similarly inward-facing, in spite of international fieldwork I undertook and completed. Here now is the chance to stay small, the village, the tank, the bed of reeds, in work that has international implications. What amazed me is that there's a network out there to support and amplify this work. My Fulbright started as a project on landscapes in transition. I feel like something in me is transitioning too. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sri Lankan Landscapes in Transition

My Fulbright project is a study of cultural landscape ecology. I am concerned with rural and urban landscapes in transition. I'll be working with colleagues at the University of Moratuwa and at Rajarata University. 

One of my goals is to see Sri Lankan landscapes through the eyes of Sri Lankan people. As a teacher, I of course want to train students to observe their landscapes, and to awaken in them the enthusiasm for close observation of intangibles. These intangibles, I think, hold the key to new ways of learning. Hence they are as valuable as they are hidden in plain sight. 

Pulling together venues for student work has been a bit complicated. In part this is because I don't have formal teaching duties. Also I think this is because my modes and motivation might not be entirely clear to my colleagues. 

So here's an email I sent recently that may have clarified the situation. It resulted in an agreement to bring students into the field with us. On my dime!

Dear Professor B,

Dr. A forwarded your note to me. It is very exciting that you will join us in the field. I have been reading your work now for some years and I very much look forward to meeting you!

As for involving students in this field work, I wonder if you can suggest some methodology that we can use to make this a valuable learning experience for them. 

My goal is to walk through as many dry tank beds as we can find, and to document what we see. As in any cultural landscape ecology project, I suspect there are many intangibles we will observe, possibly for the first time, that will lead to further research questions. An important objective here is to encourage students to use their powers of observation and to develop as many questions for further research as possible. 

As you mentioned, dry tank beds have not been studied extensively so I anticipate that this will be a qualitative study, hopefully one that will whet the appetite of students for future tank research long after I have gone. I was in North Central Province for a week this past May, when I met Dr. A. My guide took me to about 20 small tanks around Mihintale and from that visit came the idea to study the dry tank beds. I think by studying subtle features of the tanks--colors, angles, curves, dimensions, artifacts, deposits, etc., as well as the relation of biotic to abiotic features we can gain insights into tank structure and function. 

So in short, the "methodology" here is transparent. It is the same used by Darwin, "observe, document, reflect, and question." I use this phenomenological, constructivist methodology with all of my students, both graduates and undergraduates. So if you can suggest a further methodological approach that will be of benefit to students I will be very grateful. 

So. Students will be coming into the field with us. Let's see where it goes!

Getting Ready for Sri Lanka

Things are intensifying here at home and also in Sri Lanka, which I've been preparing for for months. In fact it feels like years and in a sense it has, because in 2013 I first became acquainted with the irrigation tanks of Sri Lanka as a curiosity. Later that year it grew into a wide literature search as I spent several weeks in the Tozzer Library at Harvard, and with the help of librarians there started to pull together a base of knowledge and along with it, a bibliography. 

was introduced to the work of Professor Madduma Bandara who I'll be meeting in a few weeks...seems almost miraculous that we've been able to make this contact. And along with him in the field Dr. Abeysingha has agreed to bring students from Rajarata University. So it looks like I'll get the long-awaited (and we'll see if it's an ill-fated plan) scheme to bring a group of researchers to the tank environment. My goal all along has been to see the Sri Lankan landscape through Sri Lankan eyes. 

As if all this weren't enough my months-long correspondence with Dr. MUA Tennakoon of the South Asia Partnership has come full circle. Janet and I will only be in Colombo for a couple of days and I wanted to have a face-to-face conversation with him before we head to Anuradhapura. Out of the blue he told me he would pick us up at the airport when we arrive on September 17 so we can start our discussion then and there! He plans to spill over into the 18th and on top of that he asked me to put him in touch with my colleagues at Rajarata University so we could coordinate the site visits we're planning. 

I anticipate that one of these will be the village tank at Alisantha, not far from Rajarata University, which SAP SRI has been involved in rehabilitating. Dr. Tennakoon sent me amazing pictures of the perahana (the reed beds) at Alisantha, one of his major areas of focus. The reed beds, which are located close to the catchment area of the tanks, filter sediments out, soften the rush of water into the tank, and harbor a great deal of biodiversity. They are severely threatened and Dr. Tennakoon reports that they are not present in most tanks. So this will be an opportunity to study them close up and Tennakoon has hinted that I may be able to participate in replanting some of the perahana at Alisantha! To get my hands in that on-the-ground level activity will be an amazing opportunity. 

Also amazing is the response I've gotten on twitter to my posts about Alisantha. As it turns out SAP SRI partners with the UNDF and the GEF, and folks there have picked up on my excitement about this project. New horizons all around. 

So, there's been a lot brewing and lots more to come. I hadn't expected that I would start this early but to meet the end of the dry season, when we have the best chance at seeing the dry tank bottoms, I had to get there before the end of September. Thanks to Ramya Jirasinghe, our Assistant Director at the Fulbright Commission in Colombo, the visa process was sped up and set into action! Now I have to do my part.