In the midst of the cold, still isolation of winter, we are presented with abundant visual confirmation that our landscape is a communal one and that we collectively create patterns through the motions of our daily lives. So, in the last days before the thaw, I encourage you to put on an extra layer and take a walk around your neighborhood. Look at it through winter’s lens. What can you learn?The gardens of Versailles - when Louis Le Vau designed them, did he think about what they would look like under snow? Photo credit: France d'Art et de Lumière Facebook Page
This Saturday (March 29 at 10 am!) Sophia Rabliauskas of Poplar River First Nation will be presenting on the meeting ground between culture and nature. Her topic, "Spiritual connection with the land: sustaining traditional territory" and her role in protecting the boreal forests of Manitoba, are of particular personal interest. The Poplar First Nation is one of five Anishinaabe First Nation communities who joined together with the Manitoba and Ontario governments to nominate their ancestral lands, Pimachiowin Aki, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The deferral of their nomination has become the subject of much dialogue about how to recognize the heritage value that lies in the bond between culture and nature.
Earlier this month, Willowbank students participated as student contributors to a discussion at the Université de Montréal's 2014 Roundtable "Exploring the Cultural Value of Nature: a World Heritage Context". Sahra Campbell and I were asked to compare Pimachiowin Aki to other Listed World Heritage cultural landscapes and to comment on what can be done to recognize sites whose heritage value lies in their culture-nature bond.
We started by studying Pimachiowin Aki's nomination and the subsequent evaluations that led to its deferral, along with evaluations of The Vega Archipelago in Norway and Grand Pre in Nova Scotia. These helped us understand the fundamental challenges imbedded within silo'd evaluation mechanisms that impede our full understanding and recognition of sites like Pimachiowin Aki.
In answering the question at hand, we spent some time considering what “sites like Pimachiowin Aki” might be. Are they aboriginal cultural landscapes? Or can they be any site where the bond between humans and nature is essential yet largely intangible? For sites that sit somewhere in between, we came to realize that the land itself could be understood as a social actor, forming the entire framework for a culture.
We learned that Pimachiowan Aki is an ancient, continuous, and living cultural landscape in which the forest, waters, wildlife, and all other beings are understood as one living entity. The Anishnaabeg ensure the continued manifestation of their values through land-based activities guided by their embodied traditional knowledge and cosmology, which includes an intricate network of geographic references and travel routes. While tangible qualities do exist in the landscape, its tangible signs of cultural significance were not created with permanence in mind.
The Vega Archipelago and Grand Pre were chosen as comparison primarily because they were nominated under related criteria to those which Pimachiowin Aki were aiming for. It turned out they were useful comparisons for a variety of reasons.
The Vega Archipelago is part of a large cluster of islands just south of the Arctic Circle. It was inscribed to the World Heritage List in 2004, primarily because of the unique way in which generations of residents, specifically women, have developed a unique relationship with the area's wild eider ducks. This relationship led to the practice of eiderdown harvesting, for which Vega is now well-known. Over time a symbiotic relationship has developed between humans and wild eider ducks, wherein ducks will nest in specially built “eider houses” and women collect eggs and down in return. The harvest of eiderdown is still carried out in the traditional method, thus defining Vega as a continuing cultural landscape.
Sahra learned that the people of Vega are primarily seasonal residents and many return to their lives in the city on the off season. Unlike Pimachiowin Aki, where First Nation communities reside full-time, there is less economic imperative for the community at Vega to modernize its traditional techniques. At Pimachiowin Aki, modernization of their traditional practice simply ensures their cultural continuity, but may be viewed as a loss of authenticity and integrity.
Grand Pre in Nova Scotia was inscribed in 2012 for retaining its pioneering, traditional, and sustainable agricultural techniques, and for its role as the iconic place of remembrance of the Acadian diaspora.
From its ICOMOS evaluation, I learned that the indissoluble bonds between culture and nature are embodied in the Acadian people’s lasting ability to control and develop fertile marshlands subject to salt water flooding. The continuing use of their traditional polder system is a community-managed example of sustainable agricultural land use in a living landscape.
This comparison between Grand Pre and Pimachiowin Aki pointed out a few things for me:
- World Heritage criterion can be tricky for communities to use and interpret. No kidding?
- Like Sahra noticed, it is unclear whether modern upgrades to traditional ways of life, such as the replacement of wood with modern materials in the aboiteaux of Grand Pre, or the replacement of canoes with powerboats at Pimachiowin Aki, are evaluated as evidence of a healthy, continuing cultural landscape or as a loss of integrity.
- There seems to be a certain amount of comfort in celebrating landscapes where the human relationship with nature is one of control, or where there is a lasting mark of culture. This material fetish is apparent in the celebration of man-made features imprinted on Grand Pre, and in the fascination with Pimachiowin Aki’s rock art images and pictographs.
Having just scratched the surface of the enormous body of relevant work both within and outside the World Heritage Convention, it was no easy feat to understand how to approach sites like Pimachiowin Aki, whose heritage value is largely intangible. We think there is a real need to clearly connect the dots between all the discussions surrounding the bond of nature and culture. Several of the week's talks highlighted promising resources, including the IUCN's Protected Area Categories that recognize cultural value. Looking outward at the progress that other cultures have made and inward at the ways Intangible Heritage is recognized can also give us some additional insight.
We considered that it may be worthwhile to reassess the current definition of Outstanding Universal Value. Pimachiowin Aki was deferred because it did not demonstrate how its intangible associations were of outstanding importance when compared with other similar sites. There may well be other sites with similar biodiversity, land-use patterns and traditions as found in Pimachiowin Aki, but to see these commonalities as diminishing the "exceptionality" of each site is narrow-minded. We suggested that shared experiences paint a richer, more multilayered portrait of human integration with the land.
What do we gain from nominating the “best” examples if it means overlooking the subtle differences, common traditions and overlapping patterns that connect us all?
Judgements about value attributed to cultural heritage may differ from culture to culture, and so perhaps developing a more inclusive and holistic approach to determining the value of a place would help bridge the divide. For instance, nominees could be consulted on a case-by-case basis regarding what other ways they might express their Outstanding Universal Value. Cultural barriers to understanding may go beyond language, as written submissions with photographic supporting material in a neatly-sharable package are not universal ways of communicating.
Another approach to defining Outstanding Universal Value can be considered in terms of a Land Ethic. Remembering that humans are nature helps to understand that nature and culture are deeply ingrained within us, and that worldviews do exist without the construct of a separate nature.
With over 50% of humans living in urban landscapes, our dominant landscape is one of materiality.
It is a small portion of humanity that embodies a land ethic, and an even smaller portion that can live harmoniously with nature for millenia without dominating it with visible and permanent cultural elements.
Places where this land ethic sits are indeed places of universal value.
Seeking answers to present at the roundtable left us with further questions that we asked the other roundtable attendees to ponder:
- Are the categories of nature and culture artificial and arbitrary?
- How can a bond be honoured when there is little evidence of human or cultural manipulation of the landscape?
- How can subtleties be accepted as outstanding values?
- Can World Heritage honour the fact that a culture of living lightly on the land, leaving little trace, may indeed be more “bonded” to a landscape than one that has had a lasting, visible impact?
We'd love to know your thoughts, and to continue the discussion at the Willowbank Lectures in coming weeks.
March has been an in-depth month of Cultural Landscape discussion, from the foundational theme of culture-nature bondedness.
Renate Sander-Regier kicked off this spring's Willowbank Lectures with a lively discussion about human-nature relations. The lectures have become a springtime ritual, when Willowbank hosts the community after a long winter, and neighbours discuss brain-tickling topics over coffee.
In the sun-warmed Bright Salon, we shared our favourite places to connect with nature, ranging from the backyard to the beach, and discussed feelings of being a part of versus apart from nature. In her research, Renate has tapped into the myriad ways people enhance their well-being by connecting with nature, often through acts of ecological stewardship. Her study of the Fletcher Wildlife Gardens illuminates the mutual benefits of volunteering in the natural environment there. I was particularly intrigued by the steadfast efforts of urbanites working to daylight their cities' Lost Rivers, which has become a global movement to free these natural features from human control.
Fellow classmates Sahra Campbell, Angus Affleck and I were fortunate to attend an annual roundtable discussion at Université de Montréal on the same nature-culture topic, this time through the lens of World Heritage. I'm excited to share our contribution to the discussion here, in the next few days. In the meantime, Willowbank 2nd years are putting many "faces to names" in Ottawa this week, exploring key projects in our nation's capital, visiting some of our favourite instructors' work spaces, and learning about the specific challenges of concrete. More on that later too!
Join 5 conversations contemplating the meeting ground
between nature and culture
March 15 | Renate Sander-Regier, Geographer and Naturalist, Ottawa
Human well-being and ecological well-being: exploring human-nature relations
March 29 | Sophia Rabliauskas, Poplar River First Nation, Manitoba
Spiritual connection with the land: sustaining traditional territory
April 12 | Jan Haenraets and Alyssa Schwann, Preservation Landscape Architects, Vancouver
Global perspectives on landscape design and preservation: Scotland, India, Canada
April 26 | Victoria Dickenson, Director, McMichael Gallery, Kleinburg
The herons are still here: history, nature and culture
May 3 | Robert Mellin, Architect and Scholar, Montreal and Newfoundland
Winter in Tilting: slide hauling in a Newfoundland fishing village
$20 | lecture or $85 | series
For more information or to register visit: willowbank.ca
Expressways carve car culture into landscapes, elevating automobiles both in our consciousness and in space, over the pedestrian realm of a city or the pastoral pace of the countryside. In the same way, oil infrastructure elevates North America's revived culture of oil production throughout the continent's landscapes, changing them from urban, agricultural, and wilderness landscapes, to oil lands.
Take a look through the pretty 'oil landscape' google images in the last post. As if placed there for me, a lone photograph of a natural gas flare is hidden among the oil-on-canvas images. It even blends in, with its rainbow and pastoral background. Clicking leads to Eugene Richards' "The New Oil Landscape", a National Geographic photo gallery of fracking activity in the Dakotas.
In this gallery is another striking image, one of South Dakota's Thunder Butte, gently sloping above a borehole waste pit.
Such significant interventions in the physical landscape interrupt the stories, rituals, and beliefs that nurture our shared cultures and individual spirits. Fracking, along with oil extraction and transport activities, physically alters existing ways of life and delicate ecosystems. We know this. What might be less apparent is how the visible indicators of these activities - the flares, waste pits, pipelines, mines and tailings ponds - are also capable of muddling invisible connections, legends and beliefs that connect a people to a place.
To others, the new oil landscape is one of hope, where you can make more money than could ever be made doing the same thing elsewhere, escape unemployment, plan a future, or enjoy being part of a new culture. Instagram hosts a fine selection of the imagery created by the burgeoning culture of Canadian oil workers, often depicting the general hardcore badass-ery that is life and hard work in the tar sands. Hashtags like #oilpatchlife, #oilfieldmoney, #oilfielddreams, #oilfieldswag, and #intheoilpatch lead to collections of photos angled to capture the enormity of machines and activities, filters carefully chosen to enhance the glow of a flare or the contrast of bright lights against a darkening sky.
A 2008 Canadian Geographic feature describes the awe-inducing effect of "oil sands central" at Fort McMurray:
"The beauty of the boreal forest that surrounds Fort McMurray and covers most of northern Alberta lies in its magnitude, but once you arrive at oil-sands central, what you see is a landscape erased, a terrain stretching in a radius of many hundreds of square kilometres that is not so much negatively impacted as forcibly stripped bare and excavated. Dominating this landscape are half a dozen giant extraction and refining plants with their stacks and smoke and fire, disorientingly wide and deep mines, and tailings ponds held in check by some of the world’s largest dams. As a panoramic vision, it’s all rather heartbreaking but, if one is forced to be honest, also awe-inspiring, such is the energy and the damage produced by human ambition." - Curtis Gillespie for Canadian Geographic
In fairness, wind turbines also punctuate landscapes with their sharp and foreign form, often massed in disorientingly vast numbers. The question is, which story of human ambition do we want our culture to tell through its landscape?
The name of this project is not a typo, but an admittedly unimaginative combination of the terms 'oil sands' and 'landscape'. However unimaginative, the process of naming led me down some funky trails.
When procrastinating, I often ease myself into real work by creating some structure (like pick a title) and perusing pictures of whatever it is I am trying to understand. From where I sit at my laptop in St. Catharines, images are an introduction to unfamiliar landscapes that words, and their subjective emotions, cannot always provide.
When I read “adjacent stacks litter the landscape of this territory, spewing smoke over the reserve”, I must see it to truly understand it. Here, Laurence Butet-Roch is describing the landscape of Aamjiwnaang and her thought-process behind photographing the reserve and its people. Specifically, she and Sarah Marie Weibe discuss the deep commitments that some journalists’, researchers’ and photographers’ have to the people, and often the places, they study (see Back in Aamjiwnaang and comments).
This perspective shapes my method of image-finding. I seek "authentic" images to help me understand. A photographer’s commitment to the people and places in an image, or better yet her immersion in the culture of that place, helps me trust her photograph.
Ms. Weibe comments that pictures “are powerful tools to give presence to absence”, pointing out their ability to reveal hidden societal issues. In the field of built heritage preservation, we draw or photograph a building before it is changed or destroyed to document and solidify its existence. According to Graham Fairclough however, a landscape “cannot be destroyed, only changed”. Images are sometimes all we have to document, provide evidence, and understand a changing landscape and the cultures it cultivates.
So, again I sit trying to name what I do not understand. Googling ‘oil landscape' revealed, as one might guess, a colourful display of oil-on-canvas landscapes.
I dismissed this as my own foolish use of keywords and moved on. Searching 'Oil sands landscape' delivered the shudder I was looking for:
Pouring over images of decimated places, their former state unrecognizable, feels like rubber-necking past a car crash. Simultaneously horrified yet grateful to be out of harm’s way, I lament the lack of regard for delicate systems. I wonder how it would feel if these loaded changes were happening in places familiar to me, and then remember they are. Fracking and pipeline proposals are threatening each place I've called home, including New England, southern Ontario, and the Maritimes. Typically, when I'm completely tied up in knots, I escape to a video of a pile of kittens or something equally mind-soothing. This, by the way, is a common response to overwhelm - looking away and escaping to something comforting. If you relate, Joanna Macy's 'Work That Reconnects' explores different ways of pushing through this pattern.
I leave you for now with a selection of "oilands" imagery for your perusing pleasure:
The relationship between nature and culture - between geography and identity - is a perennial theme in the Canadian narrative. Not only has our experience of nature shaped our culture, but our culture has transformed the natural environment into the unavoidably cultural landscapes we inhabit. This fertile exchange has defined Canada.
The 2014 Willowbank Lectures takes an eclectic look at the relationship between nature and culture, both past and contemporary. They gather a diverse group of speakers from inside and outside Canada who explore and interpret the meeting ground between the natural and the cultural.
Speakers to be announced soon.