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What has landscape architecture and industrialized society to learn from indigenous cultures and their symbiotic relationships with nature?

‘Despite nature’s many earlier warnings, the pollution and destruction of the natural environment has gone on, intensively and extensively, without awakening a sufficient reaction; it is only during the last century that any systematic effort has been made to determine what constitutes a balanced and self-renewing environment, containing all the ingredient’s necessary for man’s biological prosperity, social cooperation and spiritual stimulation.’ (Ian McHarg, Design With Nature)

At the dawn of the twenty-first century it becomes clearer and clearer daily to scientists, environmentalists, and landscape architects alike, what massive climatic and ecological devastation has been caused by one-hundred-and-fifty years of human industrial activity. Mankind can no longer avert its eyes from environmental catastrophe by pretending that the science behind such doom-full asseverations is unsound, that the results are ambiguous, that the evidence is dubious. As these delusions are blown away by ever more certain evidence, there appear in their place the horrific spectre of rivers and oceans sated with pollution and filth, rainforests ravaged by deforestation, deserts extending at unnatural speeds, and  the atmosphere a toxic and noxious fog filled by the vast emissions of our industrial societies. In less than two centuries, man’s industrial and technological acceleration has brought him to the brink of environmental collapse. It is now evident to all but the most blinkered or obstinate governments that comprehensive action is needed urgently to prevent our follies from going past the environmental ‘tipping-point’ that we have neared and whereafter we risk permanent and irreparable devastation. There have been  myriad suggestions from environmentalists as to which solutions must be implemented to reverse this damage of the past two centuries; there have likewise been many summits, conferences and treaties convened to discuss these issues – the most recent major one being the Kyoto Agreement ratified by all countries except the United States. This essay however examines what landscape architects and conservationists may learn from the relationship with nature and the environment known by indigenous peoples for tens of thousands of years.

It looks, in particular, at what may be understood from the ‘ways of life’ of the Bushmen of the Kalahari in Botswana and Namibia in particular, and also the aborigine peoples of Australia, the indigenous Indians of the Brazilian rainforest and the nomads of the Mongolian steppes. These peoples have lived in many instances, in a near perfectly harmonious and undisturbed relationship with nature for thousands of years -- in the case of the Kalahari Bushmen for over ten thousand years! The philosophies and mythologies of these peoples reveal how they understand and rejoice in the benevolence and fecundity of nature and the profound generosity of the gifts that she has continually bestowed upon them. Universally amongst these peoples there is an intense respect and gratefulness for nature and for what, in McHarg’s phrase, is the ‘glorious bounty’ that she provides. It seems almost too simple and too obvious to say that modern man, who has wreaked enormous damage in fifteen decades, might have a great deal to learn from peoples who lived without any such damage for more than one thousand decades!

 In this essay’s analysis the term ‘symbiotic’ will be a key criteria of investigation; the notion of two organisms (man and nature) feeding from each other and using each other for mutual benefit. After a section of historical reflection where it glances at the seminal and pioneering ideas of Ian McHarg and J.B. Jackson, this essay goes on to explore how the knowledge of indigenous cultures about the environment might be fused with modern technology to create an ideal, sustainable and environmentally-friendly form of landscape design and city-planning. Moreover, the essay studies the notion of ‘collective consciousness’ amongst society as to the planet we inhabit and our collective responsibilities towards it. Throughout these last sections references are made to modern examples of the themes under discussion, as well as contemporary designers such as James Corner, Mark Treib and Sebastian Marot.           

It is vital for students of landscape architecture to know something of the genesis of the theory and practice of landscape architecture; this historical orientation informs the student as to how landscape architecture can be a medium through which the understanding of nature by indigenous peoples may be fused with the technological advances of our own societies to form and develop environmentally friendly and sustainable sites for the future. Within this history, perhaps no one’s ideas are more seminal than those of the father of the discipline: Ian McHarg.   

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Before the 1970’s mankind did not possess a comprehensive or total understanding of his relationship with nature and his environment; his knowledge was splinted and fragmented and so unification of environmental theories and ideas was a very rare event. Moreover, no detailed and systematic philosophy of environmental design had yet been conceived. The creation of this philosophy fell, above all, to Ian McHarg. Lewis Mumford’s eloquently tells us of the significance of McHarg’s, the ‘inspired ecologist’, for environmental studies and landscape architecture. Mumford says:  ‘. . . his is a mind that not only looks at all nature and human activity from the external vantage point of ecology, but likewise sees the world from within, and a participant and as an actor, bringing to the cold dry colourless world of science the special contribution that differentiates the higher mammals, above all human beings, from all other animate things: vivid colour and passion, insatiable curiosity, and a genius for creativity’. McHarg’s work was vital because he showed that man must conceive of his environment as a totality and respond to that totality with a dedication and awakened consciousness yet unparalleled in human history. McHarg opened man’s eyes to the destructive capabilities and tendencies of man with respect to his environment; he showed ‘. . . the way in which modern technology, through its hasty and unthinking application of scientific knowledge or technical facility, has been defacing the environment and lowering its habitability.’ McHarg nurtured a nascent consciousness amongst environmentalists and academics as to the threat of pesticides, herbicides, green-house gases etc; and his epoch-making book Design With Nature established the fundamental principles of a philosophy of landscape architecture and city-design that is harmonious with nature and seeks to benefit from nature’s generous fruits without consuming them exhaustively. McHarg’s philosophy had and has a practical aspect and a tremendous efficacy upon environmental renewal if people are willing to implement its advice. This knowledge must ‘. . . be applied to actual environments, to caring for natural areas, like swamps, lakes and rivers, to choosing sites for further urban settlements, to re-establishing human norms and life-furthering in metropolitan conurbations’. McHarg imbued landscape design and city-planning with a distinctive and previously all-together lacking moral and ethical dimension, and swung round the aesthetic sensibilities of these disciplines to exalt and revere the principle of harmonious inter-action and inter-dependence with the environment. In Mumford’s words, again: ‘McHarg’s emphasis is not on either design or nature herself, but upon the preposition with, which implies human cooperation and biological partnership’. By this philosophy a design is not imposed upon nature and does not therefore run the risk of being unsuccessful due to its incompatibility with the environment; but instead a design emerges out of the natural features of the landscape. By this approach, the meeting of design upon environment will be a natural and harmonious fit. To use a medical metaphor: the landscape will not reject the organ that is transplanted within it: the two are intimately joined. Perhaps, at bottom, there emerges out of the work and philosophy of McHarg, Jackson, Rachel Carson and all who have come after them, the conviction, that if done in the correct way and with the correct attitude, man can even ‘improve or ‘perfect’ nature by adding the element of himself to it.

 For more than ten thousand years the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, a vast 500,000 kilometre square area of southern Africa, have lived a lifestyle that has changed nearly nothing for this entire period. The Kalahari Desert appears to the softened Western observer as a barren, inhospitable and intolerably difficult place to survive – yet alone live continually! But the Bushmen have not only lived here amongst the dunes, plains and brush for countless millennia, but they have prospered also. At the heart of this ancient way of living is the harmonious and balanced relationship that the tribes of the Kalahari share with the environment that supports them. This is a ‘symbiotic’ relationship where man takes what he needs from nature, but only enough, so that nature in return profits by being treated respectfully. A useful analogy is the one Courtlander makes between the shark and the little fish that clean it: the shark is cleaned by these fish as they remove its parasites and in return the fish are fed by the parasites of the shark. The relationship between the Bushmen and nature is similar: the Bushmen feed from nature’s bounty and then nature benefits also to the extent that she is treated respectfully. This relationship is symbolised in the abodes and dwelling places of the Bushmen: their huts are made of materials taken from the immediate environment: grass, wood, animal skin, earth. These products are all used with maximum efficiency so that nothing is wasted and nothing in nature is harmed; these features are elaborated in the sacred places of worship of the Bushmen (mounds, mountains, watering-holes) where these materials are used more extensively. Klaus has shown in his three-volume work The Sacred Rituals and Magical Practices of the Bushmen of the Kalahari the Bushmen’s celebration of nature by way of numerous religious rituals and magical practices. Other cultures that share an such an intimate and delicate relationship, and such a direct reflection of this the style of their dwelling places, include the aborigine peoples of Australia who live a very similar lifestyle to the bushmen and venerate Ayres rock as the acme of nature’s munificence – as has been well documented by Kama’eleiwiha in Native Land and Foreign Desires; also, the myriad indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin in South America as recorded by Davies in his Indigenous Tribes of Brazil; and the nomadic peoples of the Mongolian steppes.

What then has the modern landscape architect to learn from the symbiotic relationship of indigenous peoples with nature? Landscape architects of 2005, often working on sites at the derelict fringes of society, on industrial waste-grounds, the edges of motorways, close to airports and so on are often forced to work with sites that are sated with pollution, toxins, scrap materials and waste products. The rejuvenation of sites as these by landscape architects must be in accordance with principles of sustainability and environmental balance. The Bushmen of the Kalahari, the aborigines of Australia and so on have, above all, a certain ‘control’ about the way they occupy and use their environment. The Bushmen will only kill as many animals as suffice to satisfy their hunger; by not hunting to excess the Bushmen ensure the stability of the livestock populations and the other species that depend upon them. The aborigines of Australia and the nomads of Mongolia are intimately aware of the maximum amount that they can take from nature without forcing deprivation upon her; there is a ‘collective consciousness amongst these peoples as to their responsibility towards nature and as to what the relationship is between nature and society. For an aborigine or South American Indian to do damage to or pollute his environment is tantamount to an act of self-harm and self-destruction; and as such acts of mass pollution are undocumented amongst such peoples. Landscape architects must adopt a similar collective consciousness and try to emit this through their designs so that their audiences and users come to take up a similar consciousness. Landscape architects must also learn something of the ‘control’ exhibited by indigenous peoples towards the environments, and do this by building their landscape creations with the same centrality of control. This has been shown particularly by the work of Martha Schwartz in the United State and the Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam.  Instead of vast landfill sites that forever plant more toxins and pollutants in the soil, designs must embrace the technologies of recycling, bioengineering and so on. Notable examples of attempts as such design include the, the Evergreen Estate in Chicago, USA, the BMW building in Berlin, and, less well-known but perhaps most persuasively of all, in the Plaza de Paz in Bogota, Colombia. In each of these designs the materials used for construction are environmentally friendly and were produced in an environmentally friendly manner; the energy used by these places is clean and comes from renewable sources. Every aspect of these designs is intended to foster harmony and equilibrium between man and his environment, and to promote amongst users of these sites a deeper environmental consciousness that they might then extend to their families and colleagues and thus, eventually, force the governments who represent them to take up similar attitudes also. It is almost needless to say, that future opportunities for such design are endless.             

In the final analysis, landscape architects of the twenty-first find that they have an immense amount to learn about their discipline from the ways of life and symbiotic relationship with nature that have been known and practised by indigenous and nomadic peoples for several millennia. A landscape architect might indeed conclude that buried within this intimate and intricate relationship with nature are the ideal principles with which to compensate the rapacious appetite for and consumption of the environment by modern industrial society. At the heart of the indigenous and nomadic attitude to nature are the concepts of ‘balance’ and ‘equilibrium’: it is by these principles that mankind may continue to enjoy the bountiful fruits of nature without exhausting her ability to produce them. It is this exhaustive, relentless and apparently inexorable ‘taking from nature’ by our economies and cultures without returning anything to nature that has disturbed the delicate balance cherished by indigenous and nomadic peoples. Nonetheless, it is impossible for our age to dispense with the sophisticated technologies and industries that we have developed and to return to a state of indigenous lifestyle; what is needed is to create an architectural philosophy of design that fuses the simplicity and balance of the indigenous relationship with nature, with the technological advances of our own age. The duty and responsibility of the twenty-first century landscape architect is to produce designs and structures that bring these two philosophies together. It is therefore essential that landscape architects work intimately with scientists, ecologists, botanists, businessmen and others so as to bring the greatest amount of environmental consideration and reflection to the development of a particular site or project. By convening all of the particular parties interested in a site in this way, a dialogue may be opened between them and therefore the greatest hope arises that action will be implemented to guarantee the environmental health of a site. It must always be in his mind that as the world races towards the environmental ‘tipping-point’ of no return, that this responsibility upon the landscape architect is a heavy one. The realization of such ambitious landscape architecture has begun with the works of James Corner, Sebastian Marot and Mark Treib.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Academic Books, Journals & Articles

-- Bachelard, Gaston (1994) The Poetics of Space; Beacon Press, Boston.

-- Casey, Edward (1993) Getting back into place - towards a new understanding ofthe place world; Indiana University Press

-- Courtlander, H. (1996). A Treasure of African Folklore. Marlowe & Company, New York.

-- Ed: Corney, James (1999) Recovering Landscape; Princetown

-- Davies, P. (1971). The Indigenous Tribes of Brazil. Farenheit Press, Preston. 

-- Heidegger, Martin (1977) 'Building/Dwelling/Thinking'; New York, ed: Krell 

-- Heizer, Michael (1999) Effigy Tumuli; New York, Harry N. Abrams

-- Heizer, Michael (1997) Cities & Natural Process; London & New York, Routledge.

-- Jackson. J.B. (1994) A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time; Yale.

-- Kame’eleiwiha, L. (1992). Native Land and Foreign Desires. Frontham Books, Sydney & London.

-- Klaus, Walter. (1951). The Sacred Rituals and Magical Practices of the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Ford Books, Edinburgh. Ford Books.

-- Mathur, Anuradha, da Cunha, Dilip (2001) Mississippi Floods: Designing aShifting Landscape; Yale Univ. Press

-- McHarg, Ian L. (1971) Design with Nature; Doubleday/ Natural History Press

-- Mumford,L. ‘Introduction’ in McHarg, M.L. (1971). Design With Nature. Doubleday, Natural History Press.

-- Roy, Arundhati (1999) The Cost of Living; Flamingo

-- Smithson, Robert (1996) The Collected Writings; California Press

-- Ed: Swaffield, Simon (2002) Theory in Landscape Architecture - A Reader; Univ. of Penn Press

-- Weilacher, Udo (1996) Between Landscape, Architecture & Land Art; Birkhaüser

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