Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Sri Lankan Fulbright journey: Always a way out

The focus of my Fulbright research in Sri Lanka is cultural landscape ecology. It's about the way people use landscape, configure landscape, and perceive their landscape. Cultural landscape ecology Is a study of tangible and intangible elements in the landscape, an attempt to frame new questions about how landscapes work. 

Here in Sri Lanka I'm looking at landscapes in transition with a special focus on village tank landscapes. The "tanks," actually some 30,000 human-built irrigation ecosystems, have been around since antiquity. Many are still in use but all are threatened by neglect, degradation, agrochemicals, silting, encroachment, mechanization, and development. That's a long list of problems that have, in a sense, led me to a hiatus in my research. 

After walking along dozens of tanks over the past few months, studying their environment, their soils, their plant life, their curvature, their infrastructure, and their people, I've come tentatively to the unglamorous conclusion that we don't know what makes them tick. I came in search of pristine tank ecosystems, hoping to uncover the ancient secrets of their complex functions. I found a "society of silt," in which rural cultivators are using the water from ever-diminishing tanks to grow a rice crop that would also be on the wane, were it not for copious agrochemicals and increasing mechanization. The tanks themselves? Most of the tank beds lie under several feet of silt. Like bodies layered in fat or arteries suffused with plaque. 

The silting problem has been known at least since the 1980s if not much longer. Earlier rural societies here dealt with silt in a number of ways. Special "silt sluices" were constructed, lined with copper, and elephants were used to stir up the silt, which drained naturally to the other side of the dam. Silt was used for tiles, brick, and pottery, as well as for conduit tubing that measured and distributed water from the tanks. Silt occurred naturally as it does today, a product of upstream erosion. Silting now is worse than it has been in the past primarily due to deforestation. Road building, development, land compression, and other by-products of human encroachment exacerbate erosion and make the silting problem worse. 

Yet the tanks limp along. Like a human body overtaken by age, the tanks function according to their capacity. A trip through the countryside when the tanks are full still provides the magical impression of a landscape suffused with natural beauty, innocent hardworking cultivators busy with their crop, birds and wildlife in thriving abundance. 

So it got me to thinking, since we haven't been able to decipher the collective engineering genius that built these thousands of tanks, isolated yet connected, deeply ensconced in remote jungles, undertaken, completed, and maintained by profoundly isolated, self-sufficient communities, whether the tanks were "engineered" at all-or whether their design might actually have been based on a template known to every villager everywhere--the human body. 

That question has taken me to my current research impasse. Days in the National Museum Archives have inched me a bit further but without a good reading knowledge of Sinhala I admit I'm in the dark. No one I've questioned has been able to give me an answer. Madduma Bandara didn't respond to my note. Engineers aren't hard wired to think along these lines. Tanks as living entities? As humans even? What kind of a crazy idea is this anyway? 

Maybe not so crazy. We know that in India the system known as "vasthu" has dictated architectural practice, including the orientation of water systems in relation to human settlement, for millennia. Vasthu is in part modeled on the form and function of the human body. It is deeply ingrained in the psyche of traditional Brahmic society. Might it have influenced the way tanks were built here in Sri Lanka? 

Time to take a break and see more tanks. Maybe lots more. But what does all this have to do with the title of today's post,  "Always a way out?"

When we're not out in the countryside Janet and I are busy poking around Colombo. After all this is very much a landscape in transition, where old neighborhoods are swallowed by high-rise projects and old life ways give way to the new. It's a gradual process but a very real one. Something we've traced in a number of ways since our first visit in 2013. 

Poking around town, and this holds true in the countryside as well, we've encountered on more than one occasion narrow lanes, tall fences, dark corners, or apparent dead ends. We've learned that in many instances here, these open onto a wider street, an open space, a continuation of the pathway. There's always a way out. 

Not to spread out into the metaphysical (too much) but I think this says something about the character of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. Things may not appear to be straightforward. There are twists and turns and obstacles and darknesses but ultimately, things here open up, often in unexpected ways. The built environment here, the "hardscape" within the landscape reflects this feature. 

"Always a way out" is a landscape intangible, but one with very tangible applications. How can I inculcate this idea to my architecture students here, or to my design students or for that matter my science students in Boston? After all the ability to find an opening, an egress, or an alternative is a foundation of evolution and evolutionary change. It's also a great principle to have in mind when you're designing or analyzing a landscape. 

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