1 Starting from the middle of the twentieth century, the issue of what we call “the natural” and “the artificial” in the Mediterranean context has been controversial. There is no place in our environment that has not been influenced by the human species, either actively or passively.
The anthropic transformations probably began with the earliest Neolithic settlements: thus, our landscapes are the result of a historical process, and their ecological and cultural values derive precisely from this manipulation of space.
However, the changes introduced by the human species have not always produced beautiful environments, nor have they always been ecologically efficient. Sometimes accelerating the transformation process has led to critical situations, which in turn have produced and are still producing hardly harmonious landscapes with little or no balance.
2 The landscape needs time to absorb changes. These changes leave on the landscape the distinctive marks of all the processes that take place there, whether they are social or cultural or ecological etc. Such changes introduce dynamics and movement, directions and flows.
The concept of time warns us that we must keep thinking that our environment is made of live material: plants and animals that interact and modify the support, which is transformed and deformed by tensions that we can often know and understand, and thus map and represent.
The marks that time introduces into the landscape show us a specific way of occupying space. Reading these marks will help identifying the nature of the relationships established between beings living in specific places.
On a global scenario, with the right observation skills, we will be able to detect regularities that shed light on some of the complexities defining the systems. We will be able to identify phenomena of spatial organization and thus to anticipate, manage and project the processes.
3 The look of our landscapes is that of a large heterogeneous mosaic, The organization of the mosaic derives from the agricultural structure, through the interaction with a system without any formal pattern recognizable at first glance (the “natural” system). The organization also occurs in relation to other rigid structures, which have a very expensive performance in terms of energy but are highly efficient in cultural terms, for the generation and transmission of information and knowledge (urban system).
The landscape is a mosaic of inter-dependent units, built with materials from the site –geological or plant materials– or with imported materials, and under specific climate conditions.
The units have been formalized by the systematic and persistent appropriation of space; they have been able to change the appearance of the support down to the first centimeters of soil layer, and also to stress the deeper strata with the extraction of minerals and water.
This is a complex fabric, which maintains the basic ecological functions and is also flexible, with the ability to reinvent itself.
In the landscape we can read orders that were strictly imposed by a productive logic (agricultural, industrial, touristic…), sometimes ignoring fragments of ancient landscapes, never pristine but rather evidence of past situations. Those scenes were built by imposition – of exotic vegetation, foreign cultures, imposed images – and they restructure the system with the purpose of perpetuating themselves, just like a natural disturbance .
4 The landscape of conflict is what we are interested in, because it is the landscape where we live, the one that cannot hide from its own mistakes. In this landscape, we can observe the effort that was made to achieve beauty, by looking at the sheer evidence of the rush, of the contradictions between tradition and modernity, of the use and abuse of space.
We can observe the titanic effort to catch up with a time running too fast, to absorb external influences that are impatient with the territory; the effort to keep pieces of eco-efficient landscapes; to reinvent itself into complex landscapes.
Nevertheless, this is an effort that pays back: the landscape that we observe is interesting.
It is interesting because it gives us the opportunity to reflect on the products of our time: the communication by means of obscene transgression that we find in advertisements, the chaos caused by overpopulation, the re-infatuation with nature, the north and the south,…
5 The ecological importance of maintaining and enhancing the natural processes of our urban and rural areas requires landscapers to study the form of ecosystems in order to project the functions.
The mosaic of different systems shaping our landscapes can thus be “reinvented”, and new forms may incorporate arguments coming from agricultural geometry, random distribution of plants within the forest, artistic orders, as long as the ecological processes are efficiently maintained.
Within this framework we will be able to impose specific rules. We will thereby be able to talk about the topography of vegetation when, for example, we design a forest farm starting from tree production times and from the area needed for growth, or when we rebuild a wetland in an ancient area of aggregate extraction exploiting outcropping groundwater. We will also be able to do so when, motivated by some urbanistic inertia, we propose the restoration of some natural process: for example, the control of salt-wedge estuaries in coastal aquifer systems, starting from the reclamation of flooded areas, exploiting river delta dynamics, and finally redesigning river mouths.
We can thus project formally interesting and ecologically appropriate settings; still, knowledge of the processes that build the landscape is necessary. This means not only knowledge of the landscape ecology, but also of related urban trends and territorial management, agricultural and forestry productivity, and of course the cultural evolution of the landscape.
last The standardized culture of the twentieth century pushed naturalistic knowledge aside: thus, the recent generations are unable to name the trees in our cities or in nearby woodlands, or the birds that live in marshes or in our parks. As a society, we have developed an “amazon” view of natural systems: we appreciate faraway territories that have a low level of anthropization. This ultimately leads to ideas that invoke the most categorical untouchability, turning away from the complex historic reality that built our landscapes.
In some cultural environments, the skill of observation has been developed in one direction only, or at most in two: either technological or artistic, and the two have been too often unrelated to each other.
We should transgress these limits, and mixing with the disciplines that are unknown to us, even better with those for which the learning process is not directly comparable: for example, those people who were trained in scientific thinking with those who were trained in design thinking.
We should facilitate interdisciplinary conversation as a fertilizer for the fields of contradiction and paradox, because they are the fundamental basis of the desire to acquire new knowledge. We should look beyond the horizon of today’s disciplines for a change in approach, a change in language.
I encourage you to develop the ability to interpret processes or to recognize different kinds of elements other than human constructions, to learn from nature, and to work so that society can incorporate this knowledge as a factor of cultural distinction.
Anna Zahonero Xifré
Barcelona, julio 2014