Archive for March, 2012

generative seattle

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

The story of the land itself is often left out of many elementary history books and perhaps this is done for expedience. Yet a simple exclusion also reveals a world of judgments and deeply held beliefs. In general we don’t value the land on which we are dependent and therefore don’t spend time to explain its history. It is exactly this minority status that makes its untold story important late in life because it gives us access to the power points of our culture. How and why might this story of the ages be retold?

Lets take a moment and examine this shadow land by traversing the local terrain of the Puget sound, beginning at its point of greatest transition in 1850 with the passing of the Donation Land Law Act and ending around 1900. This brief glimpse will look upon the Native cultures and their relation to the land and then the newly settling European perspective. Through doing this we’ll compare the two cultures constellations of beliefs and how that relates to their concepts of time. Let us emphasize that what we give time to and how we use time, is intimately linked to what we believe and how we perceive this most precious of resources. By exploring time we can begin to see more completely how we shape our world with it.

What first set this idea in motion were some maps I came upon at the Pacific Northwest room at the UW back in 2000. All were drawn in the mid eighteen hundreds yet revealed different stories. One map in particular was of the native descriptions of place interpreted by the anthropologist T.T. Waterman. Another was a survey by Edwin Richardson for the territory of Washington, containing Seattle and including the Dawamish River, Lake Washington, Elliot Bay and other know places. These two maps bridged a gap between metaphor and material, symbolic and real that I was trying to find words for. Here was an example of how language and technology obviously influenced material reality.

This was local history yet it seems also typical many places you go. Modern technology and it’s transformational paradigm have moved to change communities on most parts of the globe. If you travel around the lip of the Pacific rim and find yourself in Japan the people and ecology of that place have experienced the same challenges that arrived with changes in development here even if they may have avoided the out right genocide that we were able to impose on tribes in the northwest during our most dramatic and epidemic cultural shifts. Dealing with the consequences of these social upheavals is the struggle of contemporary life. Modern reality can cause one to idealize more primitive cultures, desiring escapes of all kinds. And yet a more careful look at history might shake us free from the temptation to create familiar dialectics. Perhaps the larger question a city like Seattle and its economy asks then (if a region were to speak for itself) is whether it is possible to be more attuned to natures course and to rebuild for resiliency.


Before 1850:


The first people to colonize the Puget Sound region came over the Bering Strait, from China, during the occurrence of the last ice age. By 1850 these people had been securely settled on the land in and around Puget Sound for at least two thousand years. An approximate nine thousand year process, by which the Native Americans became accustomed to the geography, flora, and fauna of the region. A rhythmic process controlled by the resources of natural world. When the sun came up and when the sun went down, when the moon waxed and waned and the tide followed its course up and down the beaches, when the salmon returned to spawn up the rivers, when the ferns popped up their appealing fiddle heads, and the huckleberries ripened, these were the primary rhythms that the natives moved to. To say that they didn’t shape the land, however, through their own interests, technology and mythology would be simplistic at best.

The Natives of this Puget Sound region, had by the time the first Europeans arrived, a complex and evolving system with the land. Although they had main lodges and villages they also had summer camps, although they primarily ate salmon, they also traded for venison with the forest people and whale oil with the Makah; although they had slaves within a generation they could become free, although they gambled to win wealth, they also threw pot latches to rid themselves of most of their possessions, and all these apparently contradictory aspects of these many villages worked together as a whole to reveal a culture highly attuned to its surroundings and working as a dynamic whole.

It is recorded that the tribes of Whidbey Island set occasional prairie fires to keep the open spaces clear, to replenish the earth, and to encourage the growth of particular plants like bracken fern, which they enjoyed as sustenance, and which responded well to the scorched soil. This one practice had many uses because it also increased the biodiversity of the island ecology, making their land ethic contingent and even synonymous with biodiversity. Other practices also followed this ethic of careful attention to the cultivation of the land. These carefully balanced systems were later questioned by settlers, perceived as uncivilized, contradictory, irrational when in hindsight they might be described as prescience.

As with the Braken fern, when Puget Sound Natives saw a useful plant flourishing in a particular area, they would determine the reasons via careful observation and then encourage further growth using this acquired knowledge and selective practice. Nettles were another example, made into a tea for colds and the leaves and stems rolled and dried to make string, it was always in use by the people of a village. By chance, the human refuse that added to the richness of the soil surrounding the villages attracted these plants, and eventually, with human encouragement, these crops were within easy reach. There are many such examples in which the first peoples self interested stewardship of the land was a way of life and an ethic. As Harlan Hagau pointed out in Eden Ravished,

“The land to Indians was more than merely a means of livelihood for the current generation. It belonged not only to them, the living, but to all generations of their people, those who came before and those who would come after. They could not separate themselves from the land… however, As they became dependent on white man’s goods, the land and its fruits began to assume for them an economic value that might be bartered for the convenience produced by white man’s technology. This is not to say that the Indian attitude toward the land changed. Rather it illustrates that some Indians adopted the white man’s view.” (Harlan,65)

With the creation of the Donation Land Law Act of 1850 and then the Muckel-te-oh Treaty of 1959 former native relations to the land became obsolete. Not only, as Harlan suggested did some Natives choose to acquire new European objects, but in most cases there were few alternatives for their survival with the loss of their land, relocation to new reservations, and the generational and linguistic bonds severed through the long hand of government and religious organizations. There was a clear European agenda to eradicate this connection with the land and it’s ethic because it did not coincide within its shared concept of development, production, civilization, and modern identity. One could simply say that eastern and western concepts of time had collided, on this frontier, this place called the Puget Sound.


After 1850:

There had been many explorations, contacts, and even some settlements of the Puget region before this point. But because of the low population of Europeans, a very different set of social dynamics prevailed between the two groups. In general, the first Europeans trappers and hunters were much more dependent on their hosts, and although this simplifies the actual history of difference between early settlers and Natives, many fur traders did marry native women and adapt to their village life.

In 1850, however, this all changed with the direct importation of European visions of settlement. The Donation Land Law Act qualified every man to settle Western land, and within four year of cultivation, own it. The agenda was clear the vision of cultivation was a European one. America no longer only wanted furs from this hinterland but it wanted to intensify its profits by establishing colonies that would log and feed the nation. The eradication of the native land ethic was in progress. In the eyes of Eastern bureaucrats and Protestants, native peoples did not practice cultivation, they did not live a civilized life and the Europeans were going to bring them this, through making the land more productive and increasing the population density.

Of course, the land was already richly abundant and this fact was obviously what attracted settlement. There were numerous records of astonished journals, pages gaping wide at the beauty and fertility of the land, and yet in an odd set of contradictions, Europeans sought to improve perfection. Arthur Denny, Doc Maynard, and Henry Yesler were among the first to settle Seattle. Each man had his own story yet they were all possessed by a vision to make Seattle a great (productive) metropolitan city that reflected what they knew and loved from home.

Those who settled the Puget Sound region, despite the abundance surrounding them, found it quite difficult to grow the crops they had brought along. Enormous work went into cultivating these non native species, especially in weeding out the native ones, which farmers often did not realize were wholly edible. Because of the difficulty of this work and the slow deterioration of the land through the use of the plow, farmers rotated different crops until finally settling on fruits and dairy farms for most of Western Washington. This required a dependence on other parts of the country to supply the goods that they could not grow, because of habits, religious ideals, and the pace of change their lifestyle demanded something as to for unheard of. As one botanist described, “ The arrival of the white farmer spurred the most cataclysmic series of events in the natural history of the area since the Ice Age” (White, 36).

In many ways the European land ethic that arrived in 1850 to settle Puget Sound couldn’t have been more different than that of the Native Americans, and this was because of complex historical reasons of course. Biblical language encouraged settlers to view nature as something wild that needed taming as opposed to something with its own intelligence which could be learned about, honored, and lived in harmony with. This created an enormous rift between Native and European cultures. Each had its own reference and perspective on civilized behavior. For these new European settlers the Western landscape was as incomprehensible as the Natives were. They did not speak the language of the landscape or of its people. They were also in the unique position, because of the power of European technology, not to have to learn it.


Land Ethics and Concepts of Time:


A useful way to discuss the differences between European and Native land ethics is by comparing their concepts of time. In The Anthropology of Time, Alfred Gell introduces us to a debate between physicists concerning the conflicting theories of time he calls models A and B.  Gill begins by describing how in theory A time has the tenses of past, present, and future, while in theory B time consists of before and after. Within the first model time is abstract, transcendent, and homogenous, while within the second model time is concrete, process linked, and immanent. Model A focuses on the future, change, and the process of becoming, it is dynamic yet thin, while model B resides in four dimensional space, a stable field, where change is contingent on the qualities manifested by a thing. Model B is causality and connection while Model A is separation and judgment. Although this model could represent many different dimensions for this exercise lets imagine that theory A is a distinctly modern European model of time while theory B is one familiar to most indigenous tribes.

For instance culture A produces a calendar or a clock to describe the structure of time while culture B follows genealogy and seasons. For culture A time appears dynamic because with in this thin world of reason or judgment there is always a point to over come, some tensed belief that must be revised or updated with the passage of time, and this requires effort. This effort creates work and the sense that time is dynamic when in fact it is we that are dynamically restructuring the world in place. While in model B, nature continues on rhythmically, everything has a time and a place. For those living with model A, however, there is never enough time or space in the moment because identity is cut off from its connection to the spacious natural world. We can also see that two such different models, and the feelings that describe them, create very different relationships to work, and therefore explain the opposing economies and identities of indigenous and modern cultures of both today and yesterday.

One way to explain some of the differences in these two concepts of time would be to look at how technology changes the structures of society. For pre literate cultures, all knowledge was passed on through a story telling circle, and the speaker was dependent on the audience for recognition of truth and meaning. In literate cultures truth was determined by who recorded it and was less dependent on the feedback of the audience. Subsistence societies lived within the before and after schema that believed in causality and connection between events such as they experienced in their dependence on nature and the people of their tribe. While agricultural societies that needed to record information about over production for purposes of trade, focused on differentiation between individuals and events, change, personal will, and objects of desire, and because of this frame always sought to increase their production and control of natural resources.

The feeling of each of these worldviews is quite different. In schema B man is grounded in the natural world, in seasons, “in congealed time more or less coextensive with space” (Gell, 155). In schema A man is caught in a “wafer-thin screen of unique events in a continuously changing and moving present” (Gell, 155). Looking beyond the Northwest to Japan in 1978 the scientist and farmer Fukuoka explained how civilization values increased production to the detriment of the land because with development its concept of time and space also changed. He explained that “ In farming there is little that cannot be eliminated. Prepared fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide, and machinery – all are unnecessary. But if a condition is created in which they become necessary, then the power of science is required” (Fukuok, 168). In this example we begin to see that the demand for metropolitan life and increased production and population is at odds with sustaining a bio-diverse environment.

Fukoyama agreed that perhaps the metaphorical problem at stake were the concepts of productivity and time enmeshed in agriculture. Within his garden overlooking Matusyama Bay on the island of Shikoku he explained,

“Long ago in this village, in the days when the farmers were turning the fields by hand, one man began to use a cow. He was very proud of the ease and speed with which he could finish the laborious job of plowing. Twenty years ago when the first mechanical cultivator made its appearance, the villagers all got together and debated seriously which machine was faster, and without looking beyond considerations of time and convenience, the farmers abandoned their draft animals. The inducement was simply to finish the job more quickly than the farmer in the next field. The farmer does not realize that he has merely become a factor in modern agriculture’s equation of increasing speed and efficiency. He lets the farm equipment salesman do all the figuring for him… Now questions of time and space are left entirely to the consideration of scientists… In nature, the world of relativity does not exist. The idea of relative phenomena is a structure given to experience by the human intellect. Other animals live in a world of undivided reality. To the extent that one lives in the relative world of the intellect one looses sight of time that is beyond time and space that is beyond space” (Fukuoka, 170-1).

Fukoyama sensed when he left studying plant disease and returned to his family’s land to farm that there were larger issues at stake than what new herbicide to apply to weak and dwindling crops. Trusting his own ability to observe the natural world and follow his intuition while working in his garden led him to the understanding that more people are realizing today; modern agricultural practices don’t work in the long run. He also explained that in order to follow a more sustainable path individuals will need to question many of the ideals our current relationship to time encompasses; development, productivity, and absolute authority.


Modern Challenges

We’ve done a tour of  the Pacific Northwest and looked at how Native and European ethics of agriculture were related to their concepts of time. These concepts of time were affected primarily by technologies that changed social structures, religious practices, and personal identities. Images of toiling in the fields, of heaven and earth, all hallmarks of the western cannon require marked cycles of destruction and resurrection. For natives it would seem, however, the spirit was not separate from the world in this way, rather intelligence and spirit was everything, and if the land were to die within this context man would die with it too.

Although the Bible was the primary article of European culture there were other important implements for the transformation of the West. In the Way We Ate: Pacific Northwest Foodways, Jaqueline Williams introduced us to the significance of food habits and memories. These were in fact the habits and memories that would colonize the western landscape. Although Williams focuses on the creative ingenuity of women settlers and attempts at food substitution her essay based on letters and diaries reveals, like the maps, the ideals that would not simply be projected but would be literally planted in the land. And where the land was not fit for such dreams, it would be reshaped in almost every conceivable way through logging, regrading, irrigation, and damming to become the landscape of productivity they envisioned, in a distinctly new American form.

Yet to what extent was the land productive before? Was it less productive in its diversity than in our developed monocultures? We might say yes, but was this productivity sustainable and life giving, not only in the material sense but also in the psychological and environmental one? As we see the very ground beneath our feet eroding, with many native animals, plants, and habitats, for which we depend, on the brink of extinction this question deserves our full attention. It is my belief that these miss placed dreams, are jeopardizing a rich reality that arises from accepting some limits. Limits that help to establish connections and a sense of meaning that is tangible and can be passed from generation to generation as alluded to at the beginning.

When my design firm started years ago, I wanted to explore where my clients came from and build gardens that helped create a meaningful connections to place. Yet early on I learned an unexpected principle of good design. Go to the site you are interested in, respond to the environment, walk through it, feel it. Write notes and draw up a plan that is purely intuitive, then put that drawing away. Later take the measured site and try conceptualizing it in a new way using angles and planes that don’t already exist, yet serve a purpose for an idea you have for the space. You can do several of these maps, but choose one schema you like most and combine parts of it with the intuitive plan. Find ways of melding all these conceptual worlds. In the end you will have a garden that functions well on multiple levels. It may take years to get to a point where you are able to integrate all this so that is why we sometimes hire specialists, yet that shouldn’t be expected, much can be learned by picking up a new skill on your own. In addition there is the issue of templates and imposing rules that didn’t arise organically from a place, being your own authority helps to mitigate some of the costs of a top down system.

Coincidentally Seattle has a history that parallels some of the garden design story described above. The city it seems had two primary authors Arthur Denny and Doc Manard that argued over a north/south grid for the cities flow of activity versus a topographically oriented design that followed our shore and many hills. Parts of the two designs were combined to the chagrin of both parties, and we can see how that influenced the shape of the city today. Despite this design combination (or due to it) no other city has undergone such dramatic earth works as Seattle. If you look at photos from the 1850′s by 1900 it is almost impossible to recognize the same places around town because of projects like the Denny regrade and the filling in of large sections of the Seattle waterfront. This all happened to make the landscape fit Arthur Denny’s grid. While Doc Maynard’s design follows the shapes of the water front and structures that were already there. Besides an  environmental niche and geographic location shared with many large cities like London, cities that have been building for centuries, Seattle’s development in comparison is relatively short. This creates a certain sense that anything is within easy reach, the pioneer spirit and the concern for a new home are still strong felt experiences.

If for a moment we put words like spirit to the side what if we find some specific points of interest that arise when design meets reality. Belltown is often hard to imagine on the road because it is a kind of narrowing in the grid as you squeeze the map up around lake union. And yet this magic trick in space has also created an enclave for artists and businesses. How do you make this area also available to tourism and commerce without distortions of situation? It’s quite possible that if we understood these issues of translation between worlds we might have an even more enjoyable experience of the sites themselves, getting to know them in new ways and harnessing those strengths. Recently some story telling was stenciled on the supports of the West Seattle bridge near a bike path thick in the heart of the industrial district. On my way to pick up art supplies, and stopped for a moment at railroad cross road, I was caught in a cool beat-nick moment of locomotives bitty-boom, bitty boom and bikers chit-chating in concert.

Seattle is lucky enough to be a world class city, with businesses that draw talent from all over, a people that have a love of the out doors, and the place they have chosen to call home . It is also a mix of local and foreign from marked waves of immigration and development. All this wealth begs for a certain artistic reflection and ethos. The most meaningful places in the city, that we go back to again and again to read a book or have espresso often have an evident history, a quirky location, or a nexus of activity that draws us in. Tourism isn’t an end in its self obviously, yet, I know a number of recent immigrants to the Northwest for example who go to the Volunteer Park Conservatory just to feel something they can’t experience without getting on a plane home or indulging in a membership at a local sauna! It’s these sorts of reflective and resonant places that make a city more personal. It could be argued that the biggest challenge for the 21st century is how we make urban life more livable while we resolve important environmental issues. Seattle is clearly redefining the boundaries between native and colonial in as yet unparalleled ways. and its good to remember specifically how and why. There have been numerous schemes to improve mankind, yet often these fall short. A movement like the Bauhaus wanted to radically change our being through changing the visual order, and succeeded in large part. Yet something was left for future generations to consider, and that might just be how does the generic make us feel and what would our sense of hearing or taste have to say? From there we begin again.