dirty (08/06/01 01:10:05)
by Martin Liefhebber
Closing my eyes I deeply inhale the rich fragrance that rises from the soil. Nudging closer I discern a sweetness of smell that I have rarely experienced. I love to crawl into the rich humus and make my dwelling within it with "The Darkly Splendid Earth" resonating in the background. I open my eyes and realize my head is inches away from a termite nest. This is the home of the genus Recticultermes. Considered a pest by most of us, Dr. Tim Myles from the University of Toronto’s Entomology Lab says: "They are the most useful creatures to clean up the soil and to make compost. They give new life to where there was death. Our rainforests would not exist without them." He has studied the insects for years under a microscope and knows of their usefulness. All we have been told to know is that termites are pests and therefore we must poison them to protect our dwellings.
Most of us however despise them if even we were aware of their usefulness. Even worms, how many of us are believing they are not creepy. Perhaps, on a rainy day from high above, we think to ourselves; "They dwell where it is dark, dank, the place where we end up when we die, the last place where I want to be now." or perhaps it is just because they are slimy, or that we just cannot understand how they breathe under there because we certainly can’t. Where are their eyes?
Not wanting to know anything beyond this, we make them other-worldly. Are worms alien beings that can threaten our very existence? It takes a mind to heal a mind. We must open ourselves up to be trained to grasp the nonrational side. We are so skeptical. Because of our rational training, we believe only what is apparent on first analysis. Is there such a thing as reincarnation? Well perhaps. We are, in fact, returned to the earth, the beginning of a new cycle.
"In the end our bodies are placed in wooden husks and as seeds we are planted. Outside our control the seed and its husk, disintegrates, becomes unrecognizable and grows into other life forms." I wish I could remember who said that.
Beyond our control nature reacts, reconstitutes itself. In concepts of Deep Ecology every cell of the body is replaced each seven years. A layer of our skin is regenerated and shed every day. The natural order produces waste which is energy for other uses. The skin we shed is dust that settles on our furniture and is, we hope, swept away by the wind so that new life can be fertilized elsewhere by parts of our bodies. In turn we breathe-in dust molecules which could have come from the fossil spores of animals long ago dead.
Absolute chaos! We don’t know where it is taking us. Where are the boundaries? Our parents tried to impose boundaries. They warned us that playing in the ditch is dangerous and messy. Don’t get covered with muck! Get out from under there. Stay out in the open! Clean your finger nails. Flee from the dark and dank and dirty into the clinically clean, sterile and white. Remain amongst allies. Fear to bow down to mystery. Take flight!
No. We like it tidy.
As adults some of us studied "Philosophy of Garden Design." We were asked to admire those French Royal gardens that stretch for miles and miles in a linear direction with everything conforming. We were taught the advantages of design control. To have overview. Not to be amongst but to be above. We were taught of Kings’ Highways, the only route for the King and entourage to travel to assure survival. Straying off the road, amongst the trees was to invite ambush and a quick demise. Kings sacrificed everything in nature to ensure survival of the bureaucratic order.
Bureaucracies sought victory of architecture over nature. Mussolini said architecture is the art of the state. Fascist architecture also emphasized openness and transparency as to symbolize virtue of morality. The transparency is ironic because fascism needs censorship for it to function. How did it happen to build consensus to fight nazism and fascism. How was it done? Today the questions is how can we fight apathy and paranoia.
Is this also why forests have been removed because of paranoia, a fear of being ambushed? For generals overview and transparency is essential to win a war. Was the Vietnam war not a war between nature and machine? The west had the computer/machine on its side, with laser guided trajectories for missiles. The other side had the deep jungle. We slashed wildly at the demons, judging them to represent an other worldly - and threatening culture. Afterwards we realized this modern slug-fest had made us fatigued and uncomprehending. Still, with jaws set the corporate leaders ask us again to rally and take out our aggression against nature. They also ask us instead to trust instant gratification and in neurotic gadgetry. They will not stop finding newer and more arguments in attempt to marginalize nature.
The Western world is burdened by a suspicion of nature as an unpredictable partner; a source to trouble that can only emanate from the deep and mysterious. In the middle ages it was widely believed that diseases such as the plague originated from miasma, the poisonous atmosphere arising from swamps and other putrefying matters. "And today, even though some scientists suggest the AIDS disease has been with us for centuries, many believe that AIDS came from Africa. The same people believe in the existence of extensive jungles where darkness and unknown is rampant and is to be feared. Much of this fear is based on not wanting to know, not being comfortable with reality, not being soil-conscious.
Kenneth Clark talks about the composer Haydn being a peaceful, spacious, soil-conscious man.2 Reading the words ‘spacious’ and ‘soil-conscious’ peaked my curiosity. Clark’s description is not heard today. I could not let it go: today the word soil consciousness is not a vital character trait which contributes to brilliance in the art of composing music. ‘Soil’, ‘earth’, ‘grounded’, are words that are about being in touch with earth and therefore reality. Was Haydn possibly an environmentalist? Perhaps brilliance in art needed grounded-ness, being part of the soil. Perhaps artists can show the community how to become more soil-conscious. This would be better than having to listen to our leaders and politicians who prefer us to be out of touch, or for the corporate world to seduce us into a culture of escapism. The bureaucratic and corporate coaches us to escape the soil, and to resist becoming native. Hopefully more and more of us see through this guile.
Native describes an art of becoming. Time, familiarity, habit, ritual, a kind of knowing - all these are part of the process of becoming native. After first wiping out the native nature, the steady stream of European settlers who came to N. America acclimatized to a newly created industrial nature and achieved an appreciation for the white winter world. In the past this happened in spirit through music and folklore. They could get through the winter by growing vegetables in the summer and by building up a stock for the winter until the jigs and reels got the sap going. Now we hope the sun will shine on us somewhere else on this earth. I am curious about the thinking we have become accustomed to: the self-deception mechanism. Today it is the howl of jet engines rushing south which gets people going. Our way of dealing with winters north of the 43 parallel has created a culture of winter alienation. Learning how to cope with it has been the most positive spin on life with it. The best thing to do was and still is to remove yourself from it.
Morris Berman suggests that "...rather than thirsting for mobility and escapism, immersion in local culture could be a source of nourishment for ongoing life."3 To be yourself instead of wishing to be someone else. To be here instead of elsewhere.
My local newspaper reports for each of the next three days 83,000 March break travellers are flying south to escape the winter.4 An annual ritual when 250,000 people frantically pack some light clothing, if any, and sun block, tear out of their places, hail a cab to race to the airport, to act out being a native. Of course, when they leave they will all have to come back. Within ten days a total of a half milion bodies were transported from this city alone to provide a respite, to escape a mere ten days of winter. I wonder if this mobilization is on par if not more extensive than the Gulf war effort. Multiply this with say 10 cities similar to Toronto, situated north of the 43 parallel. Some 5 million people migrated from native soil in a desperate attempt to seek a less frozen native soil elsewhere, however temporary. The level of migration is stupefying and it occurs every year a mere 2 weeks before the end of winter.
Flight from the place you live, as if gasping for air, like fish having to be put back into water within 30 seconds, may of us cannot imaging surviving the winter without the march break in the south - even with massive expense to both the wallet and the atmosphere. flight or fight nature is going to evolve with or without us. The enemy is not a sudden danger of a symbol or personality representing danger. This time the danger has slowly crept in through the back door and has settled in the living room. For many, the danger has imperceptibly penetrated our lives. The enemy is ignorance, indifference and apathy. The kind that produces a leather belt to tighten the bloated stomach while inside the liner is rotting away. This fight is much harder to win. It needs soil-conscious artists and designers to create a better world. We have to have a ground swell of changes which many have been taught to fear and therefore oppose.
Well, this fear and opposition threatens the loss of the fight. Nature is threatening to shake us off.
Our training has conned us. The education of the industrialized world has isolated and swathed us from reality and lulled us into a deep sleep. Rip van Winkle did finally wake up to find himself a new person. It takes a mind to heal a mind. Perhaps we need an equally profound experience as Rip to become soil-conscious again. But all of us in the west have been trained to purge the nonrational side, therefore it has been hard for us to trust the vagaries of nature. I know I never understand why my mind wants to shut down, when I think of my heartbeat and that this beat is the pumping of blood through my artieries. This may be the reason shy I want to understand better how my own body works and therefore the earth. I want to be soil-conscious. I am working on it. Martin Liefhebber is an architect working in Toronto, he and partner Myrna Moore are part of a growing group of designers who are interested in integrating nature within spaces we live and work in.
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