Sunday, August 21, 2016

Building a grammar of landscape--my experiences in Sri Lanka

Two months out of Sri Lanka and still putting the long time we spent there into perspective. I'm so glad I wrote intensely and every day while we were there. The immediacy of my impressions and emotions holds so much. Still without going back to those posts I know there is a lot to pull from the impressions I recorded. I'm almost afraid to lift the lid. 

It's been my habit in the weeks and months since we got back to speak openly, freely, about my impressions. And usually this is in a negative light. Janet asks me to tone it down and I know why. There are precious few moments in an interaction where you can actually communicate. There are seconds only in which to engage a listener in my "report" and making it negative is a turn off. Who could rightfully complain about a free trip to paradise, all expenses paid!? It's also not entirely true. There were a great many positive experience and countless instances of beauty, really sublime beauty, that tempered the evil. But what to do? I've been tied in knots trying to cope with the world I saw and it's easy, so easy to get trapped in the bad. 

I'm not a negative person. Not by a long shot. But get me talking about the way I perceived interethnic relations in Sri Lanka and out it pours. Maybe from a distance we might consider it as the difference between a "pluralistic" society, which I assert we have here in the United States, in spite of our problems and our recent disastrous summer, and a "majoritarian" society like the one I witnessed in Sri Lanka. That phenomenon, that base non-acceptance of minorities, that will-to-dominate by the Sinhalese majority, and the subsequent low-level simmering hatred between people in  the different religions (Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim--it was all against all and horribly convoluted, with alliances and endangerments popping up and cooling down like a lava lamp) was maybe the scariest thing I ever explored. It was expressed in so many ways, from comments people whispered to the media, and within the landscape itself. All these things I wrote about over the past months. All
of them are in my blog posts. So many could not be prettified. 

What about that landscape? How was it that I went on an extended excursion to explore landscape and came away acid-etched by the cruelty and crudeness of what appears like a pristine paradise to the informally touring eye? Janet tells me it's in that landscape analysis where my real contribution lies. A place at once personal and hidden in plain sight. Anyone could see it. Hard as it is to interpret things people tell you (I reckoned that most of what I heard from Sri Lankan "informants" was lies), the landscape is there in its bareness, its openness, its obviousness. I've written a good deal on how landscape is a collective endeavor, how the landscape is shaped by the very steps each of us take. It's not hard to project then, that over an historical period endless "moments" of landscape-building reflect a society. The government projects, the edifices and infrastructure-these are just part of it. Landscape is built every second by its users. We are its builders. 

So landscape taken on its own terms, without a theoretical bias, without a structured program of observation, has a huge amount to offer. We might compare it to a child learning language. There's just the language, the surroundings, and the participants. Let it roll and the child builds a personal model that becomes its language. Like language, landscape is used and interpreted, mined for meaning, available for endeavor. These simple facts reach out to us as a way to embrace culture and happening at the thin film of the present as well as, through clues and palimpsests, into history. 

My immersion in Sri Lanka was an immersion into landscape. Into the specific landscapes it had to offer. It was less about activities, events, discussions, debates, reading or "research." It was about this trying to take landscape on its own terms (not necessarily at face value) and it absorbed me. It absorbed me in ways that I'm not sure I could replicate here at home, partly because I work and live here. Trying to parse my own native surroundings might be too great a task. Finding patterns in an alien landscape is something doable. Especially when the alien starts to feel natural and you discover yet another layer you must acclimate to. 

Some of that landscape work was about getting lost, sometimes literally lost, with just a compass and the map I'd studied and memorized imperfectly (never with me on my long walks or bike rides). Sometimes being lost just meant being lost to myself, somehow blending in, making myself insignificant, even though my age and skin color made me a remarkable intrusion in people's lives. But keeping my head down, getting over the strangeness of, say, sitting in a movie theater surrounded by young Tamil Sri Lankans, rewarded me with the gift of experience. 

Through experience we learn, it's the central locus of John Dewey's philosophy, something I try to inculcate in my university teaching. But what we learn and how we learn are individual. Whatever slices of landscape I dug into in Sri Lanka were my personal handful. I couldn't expect another person to live them the same way. So it's not a problem I reckon, that my experiences were "secular" in a deeply religious country--visiting a friend in the hospital, seeing a movie, going to the gym. Was it necessary for me to enter a temple to grasp the landscape? Maybe. Maybe not. Frequenting landscapes internal and external, making them part of my routine day by day, I made the landscape my own. And the impressions I gathered were my own. Building this grammar of landscape bound me up into personal interpretations I still have to unravel. 

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