Categories
Blogging Journal Musings

Typhoon No. 14

After watching what has happened when Hurricane Katrina hit the United States, it is disconcerting to learn that the huge approaching Typhoon No. 14 is bigger and stronger than Katrina. We’ll find out in the next two days what the typhoon will bring. Already, two days before the typhoon the vanguard clouds dropped torrential rains that flooded many areas of Tokyo. The annual increasing strength and size of typhoons and flooding are probably early signs of what we can all expect in the years to come.

I’m sorry I’ve been off the blog for so much time. For a while there my computer was completely down as my main hard drive decided to give up the ghost. Luckily all my data is backed up. I had “fun” for about a week learning how to install a hard drive, reinstalling all the software, and rearranging the desktop system so that it would work with my working style.

I’ve also been outside a lot, getting myself in shape, and spending time with people face-to-face. I’ve even started writing hand-written letters again. It all feels so analog. I don’t expect to give up the blog, and I hope to start up writing regularly again, but I also want to be careful with how much time I’m at the computer. I just don’t want to let the experience of the real world slip by; there is too much to see and experience!

Categories
Climate Change Global Systems Failure Journal Musings Nature Society Stewardship

A Moth Wing of Devastation

I think I am slowly losing my mind. It has been building that way ever since the awful events of the New York tragedy. Something snipped on that day and as time has given me perspective I realize more and more that the waywardness of my heart and soul centers around an invisible despair, rather than on anger or righteousness. As the inevitable drums roll and boots keep marching past something lurking behind it all tethers itself to my voice and prevents the proper words from forming. For three and a half years now it is as if I have been screaming in silence. And no matter how many tears well up or doors I strike or cries of agony escape my lips as I watch the unwrapping of terrible things on the TV or printed pages or on the computer screen, the silence absorbs it all in utter indifference. My heart is breaking. I can’t take much more of this awful truth. Part of me needs to believe that we are still decent, but every day it seems to get worse. And the helplessness and impotent fury are stealing away the center. On the one side it is this utter madness speaking words through cruelty and violence, on the other it is the breaking of our beloved Earth.

I don’t know exactly what it is, but something deeply disturbing has unraveled the string that has always connected me to making sense of my life and to living every day. If I look inside I can sense the wildness of emotions and the animal panic. Something isn’t right with the world or with myself. The vertigo of teetering on an icy edge never goes away.

Beth, over at Cassandra Pages refers to the interview of Seymour Hersh. What he speaks about is nothing new, but the affirmation of an insidious doom that he creates by bringing all the jigsaw pieces together left the hair standing on my back because of how true it all rang. Then I glance left and right at the increasingly alarming reports recently about the coming global systems failure, the chaos of humankind facing mass extinction, and the mind just lets go. It is so huge. Beyond my ability to comprehend or emotionally envelope.

What am I to do? Recently I’ve been trying the only thing I can do… start small. Go out into my garden or onto the street, wade through the oceans of pain, and press my fingertip against the surface of tree bark or taste a snowflake on my tongue. I know it doesn’t make an iota of difference in the fate of this world we’ve so badly mismanaged, and most likely the tiny administrations will be swept away in the flood of destruction, but if I must go then I want it to be on my terms, holding dear those things which do still make sense.

As I jogged along the river bank near my house a few days ago I little girl riding her bicycle ahead of her mother, called back, “Mama. If only I could take a trip to another country! If only I could travel to those faraway places right now!”

Her voice still rings in my ear. A heart yearning for engagement. I wish her all the best and cling to the tiny hope that her request might come true, and that the winds of change bring scents of relenting. Of hands stayed. Of a missed beat and a resumption of real reality.

Categories
Journal Living Things Nature Stewardship

Ebb Tide

Shetlands Seabird Nursery
Sea bird nurseries in Orkney and the Shetlands. Fulmars with chicks. The Orkneys and the Shetlands, Great Britain, 1995.

This will not make world headlines and most likely will not trigger most people around the world into a mass hysteria, but when I read the news in the Independant yesterday about the massive drop in sea bird populations in the North Sea, I couldn’t help but feel a great chill sweep through me akin to the shock I felt when first hearing the news of the New York tragedy. In fact, as I sat contemplating the repercussions of what is happening in the Orkneys and the Shetlands, and broadened my perspective by connecting the dots between what is happening there to all the interconnected ecosystemic failures around the world, a slowly dawning horror spread through me like a pool of blood. Global warming is no longer just conjecture. It is no longer the day after tomorrow. It is happening right here, right now. And the consequences to us are truly terrifying; they make the New York tragedy look like a garden party in comparison.

And of course, there will be lots of debating whether there really is any danger at all, whether the data is slanted, whether the loss of the seabirds will have any bearing on us financially or in disrupting our merry lives. The focus will remain on Iraq and the American election and our global habitat be damned. It’s always about just us, and always we disassociate ourselves with any relationship to the respiration of the planet. We like to think of ourselves as astronauts within our own homes.

Fulmar CuddleI traveled to both the Shetlands and the Orkneys in 1995. I sat on the cliffs for hours gazing at the teeming millions of Fulmars, Guillimots, Black Guillimots, Razorbills, Gannets, Cormorants, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Arctic Skuas, Great Skuas, Arctic Terns, Great Black-Backed Gulls, Glaucous Gulls, Common Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Shags and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the sheer clouds of wings and metropolis-like vertical cities on the cliff sides. To think that by next year this will have vanished, like a great hand sweeping across a clock face, defies belief. It is like my heart has been raked over and my own existence and culpability questioned.

Here in Japan, a supposedly temperate climate, this summer the days are troubled by daily tropical storms, exactly how the Philippines, a tropical country, receives its summer costume. Mornings beamed into by a beating sun, followed by afternoons of thunderous showers. This is not Japan at all. The gods must be playing the wrong game up there among the clouds. Could it be a shift in values? Are the regions playing musical chairs and roles reversed? Am I going to have to learn to grow bananas and papayas now? Or will the Great Ocean decide to clean house and inundate the lowlands with an angry bath that will have us running for the hilltops in our shoving, thoughtless billions?

How much longer will the pastoral last? If the structure of the world we know falls into chaos, how long, for instance, will I survive without the medical elixir of insulin to keep my diabetic blood from consuming me? (a few days, perhaps? A month, as my body slowly eats itself to death and I crash into a coma?). Will we be left alone among the heat waves, to contemplate our mass stupidity and finally, but too late, take the blame for our irresponsibility?

Or can we learn now, before our brothers and sisters who sustain us vanish, that there is no hierarchy and that our ape-like motivations coupled to immense power makes for a time bomb that we must learn to deactivate now, or we all perish?

People want soft words and comforting scenarios. They cringe at the the idea of the romance disintegrating. But the natural world is as real as the hard knocks of the real human world. They are, in fact, one and the same. So when are we going to wake up and manage our home (the “eco” of ecology and economy) the same way that we are so compelled to do in our workaday lives? When will the natural world become our work and our livelihood? When, if we can imagine it so, will we become animals once again?

Categories
Architecture Art & Design Journal

Squatting Lightly On the Earth

Maine Tree
Oak tree standing beside the Maine coast, U.S.A., 1987.

This is the twelfth installment of the bi-weekly topics at Ecotone: Writing About Place. This week’s topic is Protecting Place. Please have a look at other contributions to the topic, or join in the discussion yourself.


With Russia’s official declaration earlier today that it would not ratify the Kyoto Treaty, because the treaty would limit its economic growth, a confirmation of the blindness and madness of the human world seems to have taken root and the shoots of the consequences will hereby officially make its first, introductory cough. The leaders (and, by association, the populace) are not taking the health of the planet seriously. You really have to question the sanity of people who fail to make the connection between the air they breathe and their own survival. This is the only place we have and yet we go on drunk, oblivious to all warnings. Nothing short of a super-hurricaned, multiple tornadoed, giant tsunamied, mass flooded, collapsing mountains, global food deprived catastrophe will seem to carry the clout needed to ring the bell in people’s heads that we are not going to survive this assault on our world.

The knowledge to care for our home is there. We know what to do, if we would only wake up. People like Bush focus on utterly petty concerns like the conquering of Iraq, but completely ignore the evidence of one of the most climactically disastrous years in history. Mass flooding in the States. Unending rain in Japan. Record-breaking heat waves throughout Europe (more than 10,000 people died in France alone). Uncontrolled wild fires in Australia. A new, unprecedented and fearsome drought in northeastern Africa. Huge super typhoons and cyclones in Asia. Unexplained mass dying off of mackerel and sardines due to new oceanic fluctuations. The entire, enormous island of Madagascar on the verge of an environmental collapse. The first melting of the permafrost in Siberia since before the last Ice Age. The breakup of the Antarctic Ross Ice Shelf…

What are people waiting for? Why do we deny that a problem exists? It’s like we have gotten caught up in a drunken party and are ignoring a great blaze burning right in our home, ready to bring the whole house down.

I was working for an architecture firm in Boston back in 1989 and one day was sent to measure and evaluate a site for a new holiday resort. I drove alone to the area, passing through wooded hills and New England style farmland. The hill where the resort was proposed stood overlooking a small lake and the surrounding countryside, with barely a break in the trees. I sat and ate lunch, sitting on a log and gazing at the clouds rolling by overhead. Birds twittered and sang in the tranquility, quiet enough to hear bees buzzing and grasshoppers zithering in the grass. As I sat there, the feeling that this place was perfect just the way it was crept up on me. More and more the prospect of walking around the site with a measuring tape and taking notes about the attributes and problems of the site in terms of architectural needs seemed like a foolish and unnecessary exercise. I did the work as expected, but as I drove back to Boston I resolved then and there that I would not be one of those contributing to the further degradation of the world’s already beleaguered natural places.

It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with architecture. Done the right way, architecture can help create extraordinary and integral human artifacts upon the land that exist almost as an extension of the land itself. Most traditional farming communities around the world have developed vernacular designs that work closely with the habitat they exist in, often enhancing the human presence within the landscape. One of the most ecologically balanced, human-altered landscapes in the world is Tuscany, in Italy, where a medium was reached, by which the natural world and the human world could co-exist without destroying one another. Traditional Japanese settlements worked much the same way, often with a buffer zone, a “commons” (zoki-bayashi or sato-yama), where wild animals dwelled and human interference was minimal. Such communities often continued for centuries with little or no deleterious effect on the land. Tokyo itself, when it was still named Edo, was once the largest city in the world, with over a million residents, hardly producing any waste, its water clean, its coastal fish the pride of the country, and nearly everything was reused.

These examples show that humans can create settlements and use local resources wisely, without destroying the delicate balance.

Ecologically efficient rural communities continued mainly because the amounts of resources they consumed and needed for upkeep were small compared to the ability of the landscape to provide, and also because they had time to become familiar with unique local issues of climate, terrain, feeding capacity, and so forth. With time many of these communities came up with unique solutions to problems that only experience could help recognize. The northern New England landscape was once plowed under to plant crops, but the poor soil and rocky conditions eventually caused many homesteaders to give up and move back to the cities, later to be replaced by livestock oriented farming.

Once human settlements began to grow, however, and the demand outstripped the resources, all the problems associated with modern development took over. The problems are so huge today that just attempting to figure out where to start to tackle the issues can leave one reeling.

Architecture itself has fallen into the trap of glamour and riches, often leading the drive into bigger and bigger projects, with less and and less thought given to the consequences. And yet there are architects who have thought deeply about how we might address the issues of huge populations, destruction of natural habitat, overrunning of space, and over-consumption of resources. During the 60’s Christopher Alexander and a group of back-to-the-land thinkers at U.C. Berkeley developed the idea of “The Pattern Language”, a kind of encyclopedia or almanac of typological precedents used throughout human history for dealing with local conditions or architectural needs. The book of the same name, “The Pattern Language” lists and diagrams hundreds of patterns and ideas that a modern day architect or settlement builder can browse and use within a design context. The genius of this idea is that it takes into account local differences and allows an individual to tailor a project according to individual needs. It is almost the opposite of the standard modular cookie-cutter designs that dominate most large scale development.

Another project that has been developing steadily since the sixties is the Arcosanti project, an ecological town in the middle of the Arizona desert. The brainchild of Italian architect Paolo Soleri, the town is being built by volunteers who develop solutions to onsite problems as they move along. Almost 40 years in the making, the project aims to house an entire town of 5,000 people, while using a minimum of resources and attempting to become an extension of the landscape itself. The idea of using a ecological town stems out of the premise that, if contained in a limited space, the population will cause minimum damage to the surrounding land, while providing all the needs for its inhabitants. Whether or not this idea will succeed remains to be seen.

Malcolm Wells, an architect living in Massachusetts, and with whom I was in contact for a number of years while I was still an architect, is one of the most influential architects promoting “green architecture” (See his book “Gentle Architecture”). He believed that it was important to build human settlements and buildings that put the environment first, so much so that he advocated building designs that actually incorporated the landscape as part of their construction. He proposed cities with forested roofs and subterranean streets to get cars out of the way. He is most famous for his underground houses which, when approached, look like gardens dripping with flowers, grass, and trees.

Fufu Garden Walk
View of walkway to the dining room of the Hotel Fufu, designed by the Japanese architecture firm, Team Zoo. The area to the left, covered in grass and trees, actually covers an entire underground hall, complete with skylights and clerestories, vents and rafters. Above the Enzan Valley, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, 2002.

Shortly before I returned to Japan I had a conversation with Malcom Wells on the telephone. He had just finished apologizing for not being able to take me on as an apprentice, when I asked him what advice he could give me for getting started as an architect, especially in green design. He first replied that I should make sure to get a thorough background in all the essential fields of architecture, such as construction, drafting, structure, materials, typology, history, project management, drawing, and design. Then he said one last thing which has remained with me to this day, and which defines how I want to approach all the work that defines my commitment to the natural world:

He said (at least to this effect), “Forget the new sites and new developments. Forget trying to break new ground on pristine land. Instead, find the ugliest, most polluted, most badly damaged strip of earth you can and dedicate yourself to bringing it back to life. Find the beauty in it and revive it. Coax wild animals back to inhabit it. And when you’re done, be able to say that you helped the place to grow more healthy and beautiful than it was before it was destroyed.”

This is what the preservation of the world ought to be, I believe. We need to learn to be healers. If nothing else, we can start small, right here where we stand.