Friday, September 25, 2015

Curated landscapes: Local Answers for a Global Problem

Landscapes exist because they are perceived and built by humans. Landscape is a cultural construct and so by association it is a human construct. To a greater or lesser extent every landscape shows a human touch. Landscapes are curated. It follows that you can find curated landscapes anywhere in the world. And because they are a  product of human culture, landscapes are curated differently everywhere. 

am in Sri Lanka to study landscapes in transition, a phenomenon you pick up on every time you see a newly paved road, a construction site, or even a neglected irrigation tank, deep in the countryside. Landscapes evolve, they change over time, they grow and decay. They are always in transition. And part of that has to do with human intervention or the lack of it. 

Yesterday we visited the beautiful ancient site of Wessa Giriya, part and just south of the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Unlike Anuradhapura,  Wessa Giriya is relatively untouched by tourists. It predates the Buddhist settlement of Sri Lanka though in time it became a holy site to Buddhism as well. It is comprised of a series of large rocks and caves, with evidence of stone carvings , cave paintings, granite posts that once supported structures, and assorted relics of the human past. 

Most striking to me are the ruined gardens, partly fed by channeled water, that are part of the site. The natural beauty of the spot was harnessed to create meditative walkways, pools, and points along which the welcome breeze is felt most strongly. 

This harnessing of nature is a characteristic of Sri Lankan civilization. Maybe all cultures harness nature. We do in the West. But traditional Sri Lankan landscapes were accomplished through stewardship--something we have only begun to learn in our part of the world. Stewardship and not extraction has made this civilization viable for over 2500 years, about the age of Wessa Giriya. 

Waves of invaders introduced new cultural ways. Colonists exploited and degraded the landscape. But the tank irrigation systems remain, albeit largely in a state of disrepair. How can we learn from the traditional Sri Lankan landscapes, even those that lie in ruin like Wessa Giriya, to find new ways to approach our global problems of sustainability?

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