Symbiotic Relationship

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What has landscape architecture and industrialized society to learn from indigenous cultures and their symbiotic relationships with nature? “‘Despite nature’s many earlier warnings, the pollution and destruction of the natural environment has gone on, intensively and extensively, without awakening a sufficient reaction; it is only during the last century that any systematic effort has been made to determine what constitutes a balanced and self-renewing environment, containing all the ingredient’s necessary for man’s biological prosperity, social cooperation and spiritual stimulation.’ (Ian McHarg, Design With Nature)

At the dawn of the twenty-first century it becomes clearer and clearer daily to scientists, environmentalists, and landscape architects alike, what massive climatic and ecological devastation has been caused by one-hundred-and-fifty years of human industrial activity. Mankind can no longer avert its eyes from environmental catastrophe by pretending that the science behind such doom-full asseverations is unsound, that the results are ambiguous, that the evidence is dubious. As these delusions are blown away by ever more certain evidence, there appear in their place the horrific spectre of rivers and oceans sated with pollution and filth, rainforests ravaged by deforestation, deserts extending at unnatural speeds, and the atmosphere a toxic and noxious fog filled by the vast emissions of our industrial societies. In less than two centuries, man’s industrial and technological acceleration has brought him to the brink of environmental collapse. It is now evident to all but the most blinkered or obstinate governments that comprehensive action is needed urgently to prevent our follies from going past the environmental ‘tipping-point’ that we have neared and whereafter we risk permanent and irreparable devastation. There have been myriad suggestions from environmentalists as to which solutions must be implemented to reverse this damage of the past two centuries; there have likewise been many summits, conferences and treaties convened to discuss these issues – the most recent major one being the Kyoto Agreement ratified by all countries except the United States. This essay however examines what landscape architects and conservationists may learn from the relationship with nature and the environment known by indigenous peoples for tens of thousands of years.

It looks, in particular, at what may be understood from the ‘ways of life’ of the Bushmen of the Kalahari in Botswana and Namibia in particular, and also the aborigine peoples of Australia, the indigenous Indians of the Brazilian rainforest and the nomads of the Mongolian steppes. These peoples have lived in many instances, in a near perfectly harmonious and undisturbed relationship with nature for thousands of years -- in the case of the Kalahari Bushmen for over ten thousand years! The philosophies and mythologies of these peoples reveal how they understand and rejoice in the benevolence and fecundity of nature and the profound generosity of the gifts that she has continually bestowed upon them. Universally amongst these peoples there is an intense respect and gratefulness for nature and for what, in McHarg’s phrase, is the ‘glorious bounty’ that she provides. It seems almost too simple and too obvious to say that modern man, who has wreaked enormous damage in fifteen decades, might have a great deal to learn from peoples who lived without any such damage for more than one thousand decades!

In this essay’s analysis the term ‘symbiotic’ will be a key criteria of investigation; the notion of two organisms (man and nature) feeding from each other and using each other for mutual benefit. After a section of historical reflection where it glances at the seminal and pioneering ideas of Ian McHarg and J.B. Jackson, this essay goes on to explore how the knowledge of indigenous cultures about the environment might be fused with modern technology to create an...
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