In Langscape Magazine Articles

Editorial  | Coming Full Circle

June 29, 2017

Through A Different Lens:
The Art & Science of Biocultural Diveristy

Langscape Magazine Volume 6, Issue 1, Summer 2017


Over twenty years ago, I was sitting in a conference room on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, along with some thirty other people  —  academics as well as Indigenous knowledge holders and activists. It was October 1996, and we had gathered there for the international symposium “Endangered Languages, Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments,” which would launch Terralingua and help catapult the idea of biocultural diversity onto the global scene.

We had been sitting in that room for three long and intense days, delving into the links between language, knowledge, and the environment. We had explored the causes and consequences of what Dave Harmon, a Terralingua co-founder, had called the “converging extinction crisis”  —  the simultaneous and interrelated loss of biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity. And we had discussed the urgency of action to stem the erosion of all three manifestations of the diversity of life on earth and sustain vitality and resilience of the planet and its peoples.

It was perhaps the first time ever that such a heterogeneous group of individuals  —  linguists, anthropologists, ethnobiologists, ethnoecologists, cognitive psychologists, philosophers, natural scientists, conservationists, natural resource managers, economists, Indigenous rights advocates, Indigenous language and culture champions  —  had been talking in the same room, discovering connections, building bridges. When it came to the “converging extinction crisis,” we realized, we were all in it together, and needed to work together to understand and to act.

Suddenly, a vivid image formed in my mind, and without premeditation I opened my mouth to share it. It was an image of what I thought of as “the new university”: a place of learning that would be suitable for forging the kind of integrated knowledge and action that I felt was needed to tackle one of the foremost challenges of our times. I saw the campus of this “new university” in my mind’s eye. Not separate buildings like so many silos scattered on an agricultural landscape, but a single one. Not a square, but a circle. No walls, but open windows. No ivory tower, but wide passageways leading to and from the “real world” outside. No sitting in classrooms, but walking as in ancient Aristotelian times. No labyrinthine corridors, but only one ring running around the building for people to circulate round and round. And no departments, but doors wide open across the sciences, technology, the humanities, and the arts, for everyone to go on a walking quest to learn about the interconnectedness of reality and of ideas and about our place as humans: as a part of nature, not apart from and dominant over it.

From the stunned silence and then the rousing applause that followed that impromptu speech, I figured I must have said something that resonated with all present  —  something that in some way reflected how other people, too, had come to feel through those three full-immersion days. Perhaps, for that moment, we all shared the same mind and saw the same vision: a vision of integrated knowledge transcending the boundaries of disciplines and knowledge systems, of engaged and ethical knowledge not separate from action but responding to a desire to work together for a better, more just, more sustainable world. I do know that we felt all the more strongly motivated to do just that.

It was only sometime later that I was struck by how similar my out-of-the-blue vision was to Indigenous views of knowledge and learning and, above all, to the idea of the Circle of Life, where everything is related to everything else, and thus everything depends on everything else and must be treated with reverence, respect, and reciprocity. In my vision, I had intersected something that was there all along  —  if one’s inner eyes would open wide enough to see!

With this Langscape issue’s theme, then, “The Art and Science of Biocultural Diversity,” we’re coming full circle in more ways than one: by going back to the idea of integrating knowledge across disciplinary boundaries and bridging science and the arts; and by joining hands in a big circle with all those who share a deep sense that, to again use Dave Harmon’s words, “there is a basic interconnectedness which defines existence” (Langscape Magazine 5:1, Summer 2016). As Dave puts it, the idea of biocultural diversity is “a framework in which [people] can come to their own understandings about the significance of diversity in nature and culture.”

Over the past two decades, we have indeed seen those kinds of understandings emerge and spread in multiple forms  —  in science, policy, activism, and on-the-ground work. But, at times, the concept of biocultural diversity can remain somewhat difficult to explain intuitively and visualize with immediacy. It can still feel abstract, almost aloof, failing to appeal to the emotional intelligence in us. That’s when looking at things “through a different lens” comes in!

As Barbara Dovarch, a social scientist and contributor to this issue, told me, “Scientists should try to look at their ‘science’ through a different lens… not romanticizing reality but experiencing it and, by adopting different languages to express ideas, being able to ground their own knowledge.” Through that reflection, scientists may be drawn to express the idea of biocultural diversity in a more emotive way by means of art or literature or poetry. Or they may choose to convey their thoughts and findings with the aid of visual or other media that offer a more holistic, integrative understanding of the idea. Or they may come to realize that some of what they thought of as “science” may rather be an “art”  —  a well-honed skill, a form of know-how born of long-term, keen immersion and action in the world of nature and culture around us.

In turn, artists, writers, and poets may be inspired by the idea of biocultural diversity and seek to use their expressive talents to convey its essence in a compelling sensory way. Activists, policy makers, and practitioners may realize the power of art to make the point persuasively, beyond what science can achieve.

And Indigenous persons  —  whether scientists or artists or in any other capacity  —  may feel that, in their worldview, science and art are not separate at all, but rather are intrinsic parts of the same biocultural Circle of Life.

The contributions to this Langscape issue demonstrate all these varied but converging approaches  —  and more. In the “Ideas” section, three amazing women artists use art to convey concepts of Indigenous science, traditional knowledge and wisdom, and the behavior of life and biocultural diversity. Rose Thater Braan-Imai (Tuscarora) takes us on a nonlinear journey through art, science, and learning that “reflects a world in innate relationship and known through feeling”  —  a world and an experience embodied by a Sculpture Garden of Native Science and Learning. The Garden is an inter-tribal collective art project, now underway, that is meant to use the expressive power of Indigenous art to communicate Native Science: at its core, the powerful concept described in the Cree language as wahkohtowin, “knowing how you are related to all creation.”

Likewise, Barbara Derrick (Tsilhqot’in) uses her art as a way to “repair the broken arrow”  —  the arrow of language, cultural identity, and connection to the land. Her essay charts her own path toward rebuilding personal and cultural wholeness by immersing herself in her ancestral traditions and by expressing those traditions through her artwork. Key to her artistic vision is the idea that “the pulse or connection to ‘our relations’ is found in the four directions.” In the four directions image, the arrows “become a teaching handed down from the strength of the elders’ wisdom, used to guide the younger generation in growing and learning about their culture.”

An artist based in the Balearic Islands (Spain), Rosa Caterina Bosch Rubio is fascinated by the idea of negentropy, the tendency of life systems toward greater organization. She explores the tension between isolation and globalization and the capacity of visual language to “relocalize our world’s boundaries.” Circles and spheres are important to her creative work, as shapes that “allude to human limits as well as to our belonging to a larger world.” Rosa sees her work as an exercise in the “micropolitics of biocultural diversity”  —  as a way to “create meaning in the midst of this ocean of homogenous information that overwhelms us” and to celebrate “the local, the small scale, and the ordinary.”

The first two essays in “Reflections” are testimony to the ferment stirred by the current re-affirmation of Aboriginal cultures in Australia and to the power that the encounter of science, art, and activism has to change the way we see the world. Michael Davis unravels the many layers of Indigenous and settler histories and cultural expressions that are etched onto the northern Queensland landscape. He explores how, over time, this rich tapestry has attracted scientific and economic interest as well as (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) artistic imagination, often creating a tension between “dreams of modernity” and “ancient and enduring knowledge systems” that are predicated on a “totality of the expressive, the poetic, and the scientific.” In this clash of conflicting narratives, the voices of Aboriginal heritage, environmental protection, and esthetic vision are getting stronger.

Further south along the eastern Australian coast, Stephen Houston witnesses the ways in which the Aboriginal revival is bringing much needed “emotional intelligence” to bear on a still colonial-based education system as well as on public understanding of place and “Country” (the term Aboriginal peoples use to refer to their sense of belonging to their traditional territories). Aboriginal art and activism  —  from storytelling on Country to cultural festivals and collective art projects involving both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal participants  —  play an important role in this movement, giving Stephen hope that the “intelligence of sovereign connection to Country” will become increasingly relevant both in education and in public discourse and action.

Listening to and learning from place is also the theme of the third “Reflections” essay. Hilary Vidalakis muses on her years as a firelighter  —  a professional planner and igniter of “prescribed” fires  —  in the southern U.S. state of Georgia. Fire, she notes, has always been a regenerative force in this landscape  —  something that the region’s original inhabitants well understood and mimicked with their regular burns, whereas later European settlers came to see fire as the enemy. As the tide turned, the wisdom of intentional fires began to be understood again, and firelighters went to work. Learning the job, Hilary found, has less to do with applying textbook science than with acquiring the land-based art of “thinking like fire.” Biocultural diversity, she argues, should be seen as our relationship not only with the biological but also with the “elemental.”

The authors of our “Dispatches” all bring us a similar message: art and science go hand in hand in the work of safeguarding and sustaining biocultural diversity on the ground — with art sometimes complementing science, sometimes taking precedence over it as a way to convey a vital message. Saori Ogura travels to Zimbabwe to assist a local initiative that is revitalizing traditional grains as insurance against drought and climate uncertainty. As a scientist, she documents the plants and their uses; as an artist, she uses her drawings and photographs to compile the information in an accessible atlas for the local farmers, and conducts a drawing workshop for the local organization’s team. She firmly believes that “drawing enables us to better observe and capture the knowledge and wisdom of local people, the life of plants, and interrelations with people and plants to advance science.”

In Uganda, Eliza Smith probes the “glorious entwining” of art and agriculture in efforts to strengthen farmers’ biocultural resilience through the creative use of song, dance, and theater to convey and transmit agricultural knowledge. In a moving twist, Eliza encounters a woman, Anna, from a community of Batwa people who have been displaced from their ancestral forest home and forced to turn to subsistence agriculture. For Anna, then, agricultural knowledge is “new” knowledge —  yet, through song, she manages to express both her grief for the loss of her past way of life and her eagerness to learn the new way so she can care for her family.

Jean Thomas runs into a similar experience about the role of performance art in the Torricelli Mountains of northern Papua New Guinea, where she and her husband Jim are on a mission to save the Tenkile, an endemic species of tree kangaroo, from extinction. Local communities have traditionally hunted the Tenkile for food, but cultural contact has transformed their ancestral way of life, leading to overharvesting. Whereas science-based education fails to elicit the desired conservation behavior, community drama through which people act out their cultural connection with the Tenkile does succeed, leading to a rebound of the Tenkile population and to the protection of vast tracts of its habitat. As an educator, Jean found she was the one to do a lot of learning, having been given “the privilege to learn from thousands of years of experience and traditional knowledge held by the local people.”

While working to understand Indigenous perspectives on environmental protection in coastal Queensland, Colleen Corrigan fills her traveling watercolor journal with beautiful sketches of the landscape. Painting helps her deepen her understanding of that landscape as she learns from Aboriginal community members how “caring for nature is an obligation and synonymous with protecting culture, language, and essentially identity” and how language is vital for people to describe, care for, and link to the land. In a way, art is Colleen’s own language to describe the land and find her connection with it.

The Kalix fishing communities of northern Sweden we meet in Francesca Price’s and Clare Benson’s photo essay are also struggling with a language issue: in this case, the difficulty of translating their traditional knowledge about sustainable fishing from their ancestral Swedish dialect into the standard national language and into the formal language of science. Yet translation is crucial for them to protect their fishing rights in the face of new adverse regulations. Clare’s photographs bolster community members’ struggle by making that knowledge visually jump out of the page, while Francesca’s text gives voice to people’s passionate desire to hold on to their way of life.

There is plenty of passion, too, coursing through the “Action” essays  —  and plenty of creative uses of art and other visual and verbal means to affirm the importance of traditional and local knowledge and of cultural and spiritual values for community-led decision making about conservation and development issues. Barbara Dovarch introduces us to four different communities in Asia and the Pacific that have taken to “people mapping”  —  a community effort to represent the structure and dynamics of their social and environmental surrounds on beautifully creative maps or 3D models  —  as both an affirmation of identity and a tool for self-determination and local decision making. In addition to sharing her experiences through her text and photographs, Barbara also echoes the words of community mappers from all over the world in a poem — her way to look at her work as a scientist “through a different lens.”

Similarly, Nigel Haggan seeks to bring other voices to the table when it comes to environmental assessments of large-scale projects such as oil pipelines and megadams in British Columbia, Canada: the voices of Indigenous peoples and local communities, of Indigenous spirituality and deep ecology, of art, storytelling, and other informal, non-technical means of expression. The goal is to affirm the crucial relevance of the “poetics of place”  —  intangible cultural, spiritual, and emotional values  —  that have so far been excluded from environmental decision making. Nigel’s essay itself is an exercise in the poetics of place, bridging science, storytelling, and art with traditional Irish tales, his own poetry, and his daughter’s imaginative drawings.

In the heart of New Guinea, William Thomas has been working for years with the Hewa people to document their traditional knowledge of forest species and their ecological interactions and to bring that knowledge to bear on decision making about conservation of the area’s still largely intact forests. At a loss as to how to represent the complexity and intricacy of that traditional knowledge, William stumbles into the perfect visualization technique: the Social Network Analysis graphs that are normally used to represent relationships among people. The traditional knowledge graphs created for him by Chris Leberknight bring species and their interactions together in a way that is both visually compelling  —  like images of delicate neural networks or distant galaxies  —  and informative at a glance, bolstering the case for community-based conservation.

When it comes to creatively portraying local biocultural diversity through visual art, it is hard to beat the “One Square Meter” project conceived by Liza Zogib, Divya Venkatesh, Sandra Spissinger, and Concha Salguero and realized by Almudena Sánchez Sánchez, Ana Trejo Rodríguez, and Inés García Zapata. This glorious project celebrates the exceptionally high biodiversity of one square meter of grazed Mediterranean grassland by representing it in a three-dimensional one-square-meter sculpture of grazed land with its diverse complement of plant species  —  all made of felted wool! The sculpture was a smashing success at the 2016 World Conservation Congress, vividly making the case for sustaining the ways of life of mobile Mediterranean pastoralists.

I draw tremendous encouragement from the extraordinary creativity and deep humanism that the essays in this issue express. I do feel that, slowly, we’re coming full circle in our understanding of how everything on this earth (including ourselves) is interconnected. And when it comes to art and science, we’re taking a leaf from the Indigenous world. In Rose Thater Braan-Imai’s words, “Art and science are not separate in the Indigenous world. They are birthed by the same mother and take their expression from the rich consciousness of the flux.”

Bioculturally yours,

Luisa Maffi
Langscape Magazine, Editor
Co-founder and Director, Terralingua


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