Saturday, September 5, 2015

Culture Eyes: Water Eyes

Getting ready to launch into my Sri Lanka Fulbright in just a few days some thoughts take hold. They focus on culture and water, two parts of the landscape puzzle I am going there to study. During past times when I've visited I've been acutely aware of these aspects of the Sri Lankan world, and these nine months will give me the chance to visit them in depth. 

It's a given that when you're inside your own culture you don't pay it much attention. It's the matrix you swim in every day. You breathe it as your daily routine. It's as common as your morning bowl of cereal or bus ride or stepping on the gas. Parts of your day or the people you run into might stick out as annoying or pleasurable but you are in the groove. Whether or not every day is the same as the one before, the culture that embeds that day like a pearl is yours. It's so smooth you tend not to notice it. 

When you walk out of your culture you become acutely aware of the new culture you are entering. Things that should be the same are different. Dimensions of the day, of the street, of the sounds around you have changed. You want to retreat. You want to explore. If you are lucky you gain culture eyes, which help you observe, record, and distinguish your new world. 

Same goes for water. Water in our world in Boston is many things. A river to cross to get to work, the nearby Atlantic Ocean, barely tamed and always cold. Something clear and drinkable that comes out of a hose or tap. Water is unmistakably part of our daily routine. And the way we experience it has to with our culture. We have built water infrastructures that reflect our culture and the abundance of water around us. Because we share a common culture with Phoenix, Arizona or Los Angeles we find similar culture-bound infrastructures there, in spite of geographic and ecological differences. 

We tend not to notice the moment a drop of water stretches before it breaks. Or the first swoosh of water as it enters a bucket. Those water moments remind me of what I'll see in Sri Lanka. In the rural Dry Zone, where the monsoon is about to break, water and culture combine to determine a unique landscape. 

The cultural landscape ecology of Rajarata emerges at once distinct and beautiful. Ancient irrigation systems support ancient agricultures. These persist through the overlay of contemporary asphalt and diesel. Human built lakes like giant valves fill with the pulse of water, control that water, and distribute it. Like a thousand alveoli they become full of with water and empty themselves when the rains have stopped. It's seasonal. And we should arrive there right on the cusp.  

The physicality of the place is moderated by culture, by the placement and shape of dams, by the sluices and spillways that release water, by the plants that are nurtured or neglected, by native or introduced fish species, by the lotus people harvest and the songs they sing. Tank-based culture is a hyper local phenomenon with global implications about the way we relate to water. With our culture eyes and our water eyes readied, with some help from colleagues, and with a little weather luck we should be in for a spectacle. 

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