Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Water and the Built Environment

Getting ready for an adventurous five-week trip to Sri Lanka where I will focus partially on water.

The island of Sri Lanka, best known for beaches and Buddhas, features a lesser-known geographical phenomenon. Since antiquity, thousands of reservoirs have dotted the landscape. The reservoirs, large man made lakes called wewas, were associated with irrigation, agriculture, and the development of civilizations on the island. These massive public works projects, rebuilt through the ages, are still in use today, often cheek-and-jowl with rice paddies, another landscape feature I hope to explore in detail.

From what I've read, wewas allowed the ancient Lankans to grow two crops a year in their tropical, seasonally dry climate. A relative abundance of food provided the basis for what is today one of the most densely populated countries on Earth. Doubtless the wewas played a role in the development of a governing hierarchy as well as religious and social complexity we see today in Sri Lanka. (I promise to take notes and lots of pictures for future posts. Right now I'm betting that my iPhone5 stays home).

All of this is incredibly cool but the Lankans weren't alone in massive waterworks projects. In other posts I've written about the amazing canals of Xoximilco, south of Mexico City, a paradise of human collaboration with microbes, animals and plants.

Farther north in what is today the Salt River Valley of greater Phoenix, Hohokam peoples developed massive reverse-flow water systems that allowed for three crops a year and supported a population of hundreds of thousands of people. Trade based on Hohokam agriculture spanned thousands of miles and spurred enormous cultural interactions.

One last example. The Nabateans, a poorly known, semi nomadic group who inhabited the Negev Desert in what is today Israel, utilized water catchment techniques that allowed agriculture in one of the world's driest regions. I saw an example this past summer of a similar technique, low tech but highly effective, at the Hopi Second Mesa in Arizona.

Water and water use is such an enormous issue in contemporary society. We depend on vast expenditures to maintain technologies that support human endeavors of every sort. Here in the United States we exert punishing pressure on water resources, emptying ancient aquifers, introducing toxins to our freshwater, and abetting disastrous salinization in freshwater ground tables hundreds of miles from the ocean.

Whether these water management strategies are sustainable will depend on how well they (and we) adapt to future changes and contingencies. As we look to past civilizations we can see that long-term sustainability is never a guarantee in any climate.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Urban Geography, Ecology, and Sustainability

Many years ago when I was an anthropology major in college ideas of urban ecology held great interest for me. I return to them now as a biologist, a sustainability consultant, and a lifelong city dweller. Urban ecology seems richer and more complex to me than it ever did. Where once I saw the urban landscape as a primarily social landscape, I see it now as a larger complex of realities both human and non-human that shape the world profoundly.

We can think about urban form as the streets, buildings, and open spaces of the city. But we can't separate these physical presences from the life of the city. Transportation, work, commerce, and play all go on in these "hardscape" spaces and play a mutual role in affecting, and being affected by them. So the urban landscape comprises both structures and the humans and their activities within.

But this framework still seems too simple. So much more is going on. The urban landscape is an open system that interacts with its environment. Light and heat energy, water, and movement all flow through the system. Tons of "stuff" are brought into the urban environment every day and they either stay or leave, sometimes in the same form and sometimes radically altered. Raw and finished materials, carbon dioxide, wastes of every conceivable sort move in and out of the city in a kind of steady-state flow that reminds me of cellular systems in living organisms. Art and ideas are also exported from the urban environment, less tangible but not immaterial.

In my blog "Botany Without Borders" I wrote about non-human life forms in the city. Everything from bacteria to algae, grasses, trees, and animals of every sort have a place in the incredibly complex urban web, all of them in close contact, sometimes intimate contact, with their human contemporaries. Urbanization has, in many ways, exerted a negative, simplifying effect on the larger ecosystem through paving, channeling, building, mining, and dumping. The changes are physical and chemical in nature, and have challenged once diverse lands and waterways. But inside the special ecosystem that is the urban space lies a unique, deep, well of diversity, unexpected perhaps, largely unseen, but powerful in that it influences the urban landscape in many ways we still may not understand.

As we continue to learn more about urban ecosystems the mutual influences inherent in these systems will come to make more sense. As my friend and colleague Margarita Iglesia states, sustainable things tend to stick around. Systems that are unsustainable disappear. So for example in fifty years we'll see with some clarity what the place of the personal automobile was in the urban setting. Our understanding of water use, energy consumption, and land use patterns will also come into better focus. How will issues of density, green space, and recycling be understood? And how will we reconcile urban form, especially in the broader geographical perspective, with global climate change?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Obeying Your 3AM Thoughts

I was up at 3AM tossing and turning because I needed someone to fill a teaching position in the online program I coordinate. Specifically I needed a math person to rewrite and subsequently teach a course and everyone was turning up dead in the waters. Maybe it was the old syllabus I sent them, a strange mishmash of high school math and "practical" applications. Maybe they had better things to do, or thought they did, than get back to a colleague. It could be people were just being rude. Or...Sometimes people ask and ask for an opportunity and when you lay it out in front of them they get cold feet.

The one call back I was expecting last night didn't get back to me and with the weekend fast approaching and my effective working hours tick tick ticking away (we leave for Sri Lanka Thursday night) I was in a fix.

Nothing like the three o'clock hour (the devil's hour) to make you aware of your shortcomings in excruciating detail. Not a list maker, something unknown and unsensed in my head was etching an indelible to-do sequence in my mind as I laid in bed uncomfortable, dissatisfied, and panicky.

At 6AM the heat came on in the cold house. Down to 49 degrees. I got the baguette baking and the coffee brewing and sat down on the kitchen couch in what turns out to have been automatic pilot.

I started writing to all the people my fevered brain had noted in my half awake state in the middle of the night. Lois, Michael, John and others received super early-morning notes as I put out feelers to this second tier of people who in retrospect made more sense than the people I contacted in the first place.

All this had been instructed somehow in the middle of the night and I was acting according to program, not plan. I don't know how I concocted the list or what the logic was. And I don't know what made me get right to work on it first thing in the morning. I have to ask myself, was I still asleep?

By eight one of the people on my devil's hour list had gotten my note and responded immediately with"I accept!"

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Science, Art, Efficacy, Tools, and Supertools

I'm interested in the psychology of art--why people do it, what it's meant to represent, and what people hope to accomplish with it. These are broad questions that I think have deep applications, at least toward understanding the nature of creativity and innovation. I am especially interested in our early ancestors, pre-agricultural (Paleolithic) and early agricultural (Neolithic) peoples. What was their relationship to art? How did art for them bridge the ineffable gap between their own activities and the natural (or supernatural) world? How did they come to make art?

Some of these questions I explored in earlier posts like "Why Do People Make Art?" And "A Biology of Sculpture?" It's interesting to me that my ideas about these questions keep evolving. My understandings (or misconceptions) continue to evolve and refine themselves.

In "Biology of Sculpture" I began to write about the transition from stone tools to figurative sculpture. I'd like to pursue that further here.

These thoughts are influenced in part by some readings I did this summer for the NEH seminar on Mesoamerica and the Desert Southwest. There were a couple of readings that discussed corn "celts" and their symbolic significance. Shaped like giant kernels of maize, celts were a symbol of power and wealth. Where a single kernel of maize held significance of its own, for example reproductive power, sustenance, and continuation, a kernel-shaped celt might represent a whole storehouse of maize. Or several storehouses, or the supply of a whole village. A kind of magnification of meaning, an amplification of value is inherent in the celt. But it is still abstract and highly symbolic.

What about a stone or wood or clay effigy? Perhaps one that connotes fertility, strength, or abundance? My guess is that effigies like these arose from, or were perhaps formed from used tools. They represent a leap from one kind of human control over the environment to another. Imagine a stone tool and its many capabilities. Digging, cutting, puncturing, furrowing, separating, scraping. All of these activities would extend the agency, the capability, the strength of the human hand. Effigies could do much more.

The tools of our ancestors are physically, aesthetically beautiful in and of themselves. They possess grace, balance, and a profound personal character that comes from the intimate contact our ancestors had with them. Here's my hypothesis: As our ancestors developed cultural understandings of the natural world and their agency upon it--they began to develop ideas connected to a supernatural force--something that went beyond their own ability to dig, scrape, and cut. They came to some understanding of forces beyond them that controlled or allowed their ability to reproduce, to obtain food, and to continue their lineage. And they wanted some connection to that control.

Perhaps this is when they started to reshape their tools into effigies--an exercise that represented a profound change in their relationship with nature and with themselves. By sculpting "supertools," figures that connected with the supernatural, our ancestors sought to build a bridge between their efforts and the uncontrollable environment they wanted to influence. Supertools, which somehow became objects of veneration-objects imbued with power--allowed our ancestors to somehow possess some of that power themselves.

As our ancestors continued to refine their art they sought greater control over it and over their world. Eventually this translated into their design of space and the built environment, large-scale coordinated artistic activities that accommodated and in a sense, embodied ritual.

The photos below project a kind of time-line of change from tool to effigy. And ultimately, to writing.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Blank Horizon or Crowded Wall?

All of the seemingly simple things we see in the natural world are underlain by complex phenomena. As we learn by "taking apart” we come to analyze “complex” vs. “simple” in the phenomena we observe.

I sit on the MFA European paintings Gallery, an imposing room of heroic proportions surrounded by dramatic paintings of the late Renaissance. Each painting is filled with detail, sparkling with movement. Each painting provides challenging images of great depth, perspective, and visual insight.

As a museum patron I am asked to focus on each painting individually. But I expect I am also responsible somehow to take in all these images at once, like some kind of ornate circus. Why else would they be organized the way they are in this room?

Immediately my mind is drawn to the opposite--or is it the opposite-- scenario? The beach at Reid State Park on George's island, Maine. There the waves crash or roll gently onto a mile-long strip of sand, their noise a thousand concerts, their breaking arcs a baroque empire of color and contrast. This is where I first discussed with Victor the question of blank horizon vs. busy wall.

Are the waves on the beach and the pictures on the wall different? Or are do they both share similar qualities? Both are replete with images and sensed impulses, noisy even as they are silent.

And there at Reid I pick up my head and stare at the horizon. I search for a swell, a cloud, a bird, an island. I see only the lonely horizontal of the spot where sky meets the ocean. That place is simplicity itself. A straight line against an open space, the bisecting signal between two great panels of color. Yet in its silence it is somehow alive with the noise of life and a living planet. The noise I feel (I cannot hear it) is a visual noise as well, borne in the tension between two great masses, the atmosphere above and the water below.

So I ask, which is "busier," the horizon or the wall packed with art? Which is more peaceful? Which one more pleasing to the senses? Aside from their major difference (one is the product of human endeavor and the other a purely natural phenomenon), how do we distinguish between the two?

Which of our senses do we engage when observing, comparing the two? What kind of meaning, if any, do we invest in them? Is there a value to one above or different from the other?

Monday, January 7, 2013

It's the Details That Count

Thinking about my experiences so far during this sabbatical, and also keeping in mind the changes I want to make next year in my teaching practice.

The sense-dense experiences I encountered during my two-week residency in the Catskills are so memorable. The sound of mice in the cabin walls in the dead of night. The feel of the roughly hairy, slightly waxy udders of the goats we miked. The smell of hay and decomposing manure in the semi-enclosed barn where the salt licks were, and where I dragged pails of fresh water to the animals. The sensation of light in all its gradations, pitch black of night, dark grey of wake up time, softening light of the walk down to the milking barn, bright warming light of mid-day, mist-opaque light of cold mornings, sharp bright light of late afternoon.

How to get students to be mindful of detail? To slow down. To observe and relish the tiny details that nourish and teach us? Is it unreasonable to expect busy college students to do this? Or is this a kind of re-training that may awaken new appreciations, new ways of thinking, maybe new insights?

How far we are in most of our busy days from the nearness of observation. Yet how much we may learn from it.