Sunday, April 17, 2016

The power of cultural landscape ecology in a conflict zone

Conflict went on for more than thirty years. For all we know it's going on now and may stretch far into the future. Make that a Hundred Years' War, why not? Why stop just when the vanquished stop kicking? Conflict stretched back decades and decades and decades. Conflict was a side show and the main thing. Conflict hit every corner and every house and not just once. Conflict emptied neighborhoods and towns. Conflict assumed the legitimacy of a lime juice, the hardness of a whisky soda, the gentleness or sourness of milk. Landscape bore the scars of conflict. But landscape wore and wears and develops a cloak of healing, a disguise of normalcy, a cover of relaxed or frenetic rebuilding. Cultural landscape ecology, "landscape analysis" for short, finds itself in a place where reading isn't easy, comprehension more difficult still. 

The scientist is shown things. Things that shine. The scientist is like a crow or some kind of bird that likes to see blue shiny things, things that impress, things that stand out, things that sing with zing and by their reflective nature must have meaning. The scientist looks for low hanging fruit because that's human nature and here in Sri Lanka, owner of the world's longest and evilest conflict or sets of conflicts, the landscape lends itself to quick analysis. The sweet fruit seems to hang everywhere. Low and waiting. Hint. These things are not the things they seem to be. They may say something about cultural landscape ecology but not the the things the scientist thinks she's looking for. The scientist will have to learn to look under the surface of these things or better, she will have to discern the reason they are being shown to her. And the reasons she finds them interesting or thinks they have value for her or for her pursuit of understanding. These baubles and bling and rotting fruit covered with honey-seeking wasps are hard to resist because they seem to tell such a cogent story. They do not.   

The observer immerses himself and struggles to discern one space from another. To delineate boundaries. To form concepts of properties. These are hard tasks when "properties" could mean space or the characteristics of space. The properties of properties. Enough immersion over enough time and the observer may start to discern properties. But maybe not. And if he stays immersed and adsorbed into the process he may "lose track" or fail to find or be able to retell the story. Is it so bad not to have the "story" ready for an elevator talk? It may be far far better not to have this story and its properties than to have a story clothed in trite misconceptions bought for cheap. 

Property. A focus of landscape analysis. Property in either sense is a construct. Your property or its properties. Wanting concrete, the bones of the construct are imagined, reconstructed, bordered. But the constructs that underly the realities here are too resistant for this simple analysis. The learning curve is steep and fraught with misconceptions, misapprehensions, the lies of others, missteps, heat, fog, timidity. Only time and doubt give the outsider some kind of inside look. 

I heard a sociologist in the shade say, "if I'd been an anthropologist I would have had to stay longer and know the language." He would have had to learn something, to confront the elastic borders of his ignorance, to puncture his certainties, to question the constructs he built or the constructs others fed to him. He would have had to do something! Am I too harsh? Sorry if I seem that way. He made hisdecision to do small short visits when he returned home after his first six months. He sat in a restaurant. He ordered a spaghetti dish. Here in Sri Lanka it would have cost Rs 500 maximum. There in His state it was $14. He reports that he cried and cried and cried over that plate of carbonara, "absolutely lost it!"

A plate of pasta is part of the landscape and it may be the landscape itself. The call to learning is to learn this landscape and its ramifications. But the ramifications go beyond you, the research person. The ramifications, the meaning of that plate of spaghetti begin when you get beyond yourself. When you get beyond yourself you begin to understand. And that is only the earliest beginning. The bud of a beginning. Cultural landscape ecology demands an escape from self, not the closing in on yourself that you demonstrated and subsequently value. Like putting your legs up on a chair. We do it where we live. It's not done here. I know because I've seen the stares. I took them in and did something with them like not putting my legs up on a chair in front of me. I may not be valued more than you or lied to less but I suspect otherwise. Your behavior is trashy even if you mean no disrespect. 

Conflict scars and you must partake in that scar material. You must grow a third eye and not just focus on your stomach or your emotions. Maybe it's not just cultural landscape ecology that makes these demands. Maybe it is any pursuit. And that may be why so many of our scholars fall short. If you can't get out of yourself how can you encounter, filter, absorb that world? How do you discern the local and hyper local? How do you see past the ugly or the dirty? How do you find the patterns that weave a story or stories of your community? If you are crying over a carbonara you may not see construct from construct, place from space, scar from scab. 

When someone says they're from Ampara you should know at least some of the dozens of meanings "Ampara" carries. If you don't, learn them. You don't have to speak Amparish any more than you have to know how to make useable wood planks from a fresh coconut trunk. But if you are a geographer get crackin'.

Struggling to know properties and their properties you may begin to exchange information, analyze, perceive conflict where it is no more or where it exists only in the distant echoes of conflict you perceive where they reverberate on walls, verges, waterworks, fences, parking lots, bus stops, beaches, boardwalks, sidewalks, storefronts, temples, the crease on a face, the face that smiles, the face that doesn't smile, the sweet face, the darkened face, the potted plant, the drape of a sarong, the dog's trot or the cow's trot or the way the radio plays laughter and ribald humor on the Sooriya morning program when you sit in the barber's chair and the barbers and the other customers look at your eyes to see if you're laughing, if you understand you're supposed to laugh, or the fold of a newspaper or the gulp of arrack from a small bottle on the side of the road, desperately thirsty. 

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