: The Human Age

Handmade Landscapes


Handmade Landscapes

Now lets zoom in closer.

The Earth isnt the same when you fly over it at three thousand feet and look for signs of humans. Its easy to lose your bearings. All the reassuring textures of daily life are lost. Gone are the sensuous details of wild strawberry jam, a vase of well-bred irises with stiff yellow combs, the smell of wild scallions beside the kitchen door. But its a grand perch for viewing our tracks on the groundvisible everywhere and just as readable as the three-pronged Ys etched into the snow by ravens or the cleft hearts stamped by white-tailed deer.

The landscape looks very different than it did to our forebears, although we still use the sixteenth-century Dutch word (lantscap) to mean the natural scenery of our lives. Peering out of an airplane window, its clear how weve gradually redefined that rustic idea. No longer does it apply only to such untouched wilderness as Alpine crags, sugared coastlines, or unruly fields of wildflowers. We manufacture new vistas and move so comfortably among them that quite often we confuse them with natural habitats. A field of giant sunflowers in Arizona or an extravagance of lavender in Provence offers a gorgeous naturalistic tapestry, even though both were sewn by human hands.

From the air, you can see how mountains lounge like sleeping alligators, and roads cut alongside or zigzag around them. Or slice clean through. Some roads curve to avoid, others to arrive, but many are straight and meet at right angles. Where forests blanket the earth, a shaved ribbon of brown scalp appears with implanted electrical towers shaped like stick men.

We not only bespangle the night, we broadloom the day. In summer, our agriculture rises as long alternating strips of crops, or quilted patchworks of green velour and brown corduroy. Miles of dark circles show where giant pivoting sprinkler systems are mining the water we unlocked deep below ground, which were using to irrigate medallions of corn, wheat, alfalfa, or soybeans. Lighter circles linger as the pale shadows of already harvested crops. Evenly spaced rows of pink or white tufts tell of apple and cherry orchards. Among houses and between farms, small fragments of wooded land remain untouched: either the land is too wet, rocky, or hilly to build on, or the locals have set it aside on purpose to protect or use as a park. Either way, it proclaims our presence, just as the canals and clipped golf courses do.

Where retreating glaciers once dropped boulders and stones, scattering rocks of all sizes along the way, hedgerows border the crops. Farmers first had to unearth the rocks and boulders before they could till the land, and they piled the riprap along the edges of fields, where they were colonized by shrubs and trees that thrive in crevices and trap the drifting snow. On the first warm spring days, all of the snow will have melted from the corrugated brown fields, but not from the rocky white-tipped hedgerows that frame them.

Where dark veins streak the mountains, coal miners have clear-cut forests, shattered several peaks with explosives, scooped up the rubble, dumped it into a valley, and begun excavating. The blocks and crumbles of a stone quarry also stand out, and the terraced ziggurats of a copper mine rise above an emerald green pool.

Where mirages swim in the Mojave Deserts flan of caramel light, tens of thousands of mirrors shimmer to the horizon, each one a panel in an immense solar thermal facility. In other deserts around the world, and on every continent, including Antarctica, arrays of sun-catchers sparkle. Oil refineries trail for miles, swarmed over by pump jacks attacking the hard desert floor like metal woodpeckers and locusts.

Our pointy-nosed boats dot the ports and lakeshores; our tugboats wrangle commercial barges down the blue sinews of rivers. Newly hewn timber looks like rafts of corks floating toward the sawmills. Where marshlands attract flocks of migrating birds, one may also spot the scarlet paisley of our cranberry bogs, and the yellow of the mechanical growers that flood the bogs and then churn the cranberries to loosen them from their vines, corralling the floating fruit in long flexible arms. Red capital Ts are the stigmata of our evaporation ponds, where salt concentrates hard as its harvested from seawater, in the process changing the algae and other microorganisms to vivid swirls of psychedelic hues. One sees our dams and harnessed rivers and the long zippers of our railway lines, and even occasional railway roundhouses. Theres the azure blue of our municipal swimming pools, and the grids of towns where we live in thick masses piled one upon the other, with the tallest buildings in the center of a town, and long fingers of shorter buildings pointing away from them. The cooling stacks of our nuclear power plants stare up with the blank eyes of statues. Low false clouds pour from the smokestacks atop steel and iron plants, factories, and power stations.

These are but a few signs of our presence. Of course, our scat is visible, too. Junkyards and recycling centers edge all the towns, heaped with blocks of compressed metals and the black curls of old tires, swirling with scavenging gulls.

Weve created a bounty of new landscapes, and lest the feat be lost on anyone, we even tack on the suffix scape to describe them. Ive come across cityscape, townscape, roadscape, battlescape, lawnscape, prisonscape, mallscape, soundscape, cyberscape, waterscape, windowscape, xeriscape, and many more. And lets not forget all the industrial parks.

Although our handmade landscapes tend to fade into the background, just a stage set for our high-drama lives, they can be breathtaking. In Japan, tourists bored with volcanic mountains and gardens, and urban sightseers given to kojo moe, factory infatuation, are flocking to sold-out tours that specialize in industrial landscapes and public works, which are viewed by bus or boat. Especially popular are the nighttime cruises that feature mammoth chemical factories spewing smoke and aglitter with star-clusters of light, overseen by the moon and more familiar constellations. Its become a popular date for romantic young couples.

Most people are shocked to discover that factories can be such beautiful places, says Masakatsu Ozawa, an official in Kawasakis tourism department. We want tourists to have an experience for all the senses including that of factory smell.

If you come to Tokyo, dont bother going to Harajuku, the citys shopping district, Ken Ohyama writes in his book Kojo Moe. Go instead to Kawasaki, an industrial hub rich in rust, contaminated water, and polluted air. For thats where the industrial scenery is the most vivid. Some Japanese lawmakers would like a few of their working factories designated as World Heritage Sites, to draw even more tourists.

For the past twenty-five years, the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has been documenting manufactured landscapes all over the world. Many of his most startling photographs were shot inside Chinese factories that ramble for blocks, where workers pass nearly all of their daylight hours surrounded by machines, products, and each other, under artificial light. The size and scale of their surroundings play upon the eyes and mind as a landscape. So does each floor of a large office building in, say, Singapore, divided into dozens of honeycomb cubicles.

I find Burtynskys studio loft on a busy street in downtown Toronto. Large wooden tables flank several small offices, and a row of tall windows offers a portrait gallery of the days weather. A tall, slender man with graying hair and neatly trimmed mustache and goatee greets me, and we retreat into his book-lined office. Hes wearing a blue long-sleeved shirt with a small coyote logo howling up at his face. His voice is whisper-quiet, theres a calm about him almost geological in its repose, and yet his eyes are agile as a leopards.

Youve been called a subliminal activist

Burtynsky smiles. The moniker fits.

Part of the advantage one has as a Canadian, he explains, is that youre born into this country thats vast and thinly populated. I can go into the wilderness and not see anyone for days and experience a kind of space that hasnt changed for tens of thousands of years. Having that experience was necessary to my perception of how photography can look at the changes humanity has brought about in the landscape. My work does become a kind of lament. And also, I hope, a poetic narrative of the transfigured landscape and the industrial supply line. We cant have our cities, we cant have our cars, we cant have our jets without creating wastelands. For every act of creation there is an act of destruction. Take the skyscraperthere is an equivalent void in nature: quarries, mines.

Quarries as inverted architecture. I picture hollowed-out geometrical shapes, Cubist benches, ragged plummets. You cant have a skyscraper made out of marble or granite without a corresponding emptiness in nature. I havent thought of our buildings in quite this way before, as perpetually shadowed by a parallel absence.

And yet these acts of destruction are surprisingly beautiful, I say.

We have extracted from the land from the moment we stood on two feet. When we look at these wastelands, we say, Isnt that a terrible thing. But they can also be seen in a different way. These spots arent dead, although we leave them for dead. Life does go on, and we should reengage with those places. Theyre very real and theyre very much part of who we are.

My mind shimmies between two of his photographs: the stepped walls of an open-pit tungsten mine in northwestern Spain and a pyramid of lightbulb filaments, electronics, rocket engine nozzles, X-ray tubes, and the other particulate matter of our civilization. Theyre very different from the landscape photographs of the first half of the twentieth century, when Eliot Porter, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston celebrated nature as the embodiment of the sublime, with reverence and respect, in all its wild untrampled glory. Burtynskys photographs capture the wild trampled glory of humanity reveling in industry. For ages, nature was the only place we went to feel surrounded by forces larger than ourselves. Now our cities, buildings, and technologies are also playing that role.

Even calling something nature is a big change, Burtynsky suggests, from a time when nature existed all around and within us. Then we separated ourselves by naming it, just as, according to the Bible, Adam named the animals. Once we named them, they seemed ours to do with as we wished. Yet we were never as distant as we thought, and if we are learning anything in the Anthropocene, it is that we are not really separate at all. An important part of the landscape, our built environment is an expression of nature and can be more, or less, sustainable. The choice is ours.

IN THE HERE and now of an orangutan kids life, Budi relinquishes his iPad for a moment. Then Matt lifts a hand, points down with his first finger, and swirls it around as if he were stirring up an invisible brew. On cue, Budi turns around and presses his back to the bars so that Matt can give him a scratch. Matt obliges, and Budi shrugs in pleasure, then presents one shoulder, arm, and back again for more.

He just got his big-boy teeth a couple of months ago, Matt says. His baby teeth fell out at the beginning of the year he got rid of those giant Chiclets. Matt places some fresh fruit tidbits into Budis mouth.

Hes very careful with your fingers.

When he was really little he would biteHey, let go, Matt says, gently removing Budis finger from a flap of iPad cover hes trying to pry off. But then he had smaller teeth. When Id squeal, hed let go. Just like he was testing to see. Hes a little bigger now, and even if he didnt mean to hurt me, he could.

They may be the same weight as humans, but orangutans are about seven times as strong, and may not realize the damage a playful yank or slap could do to a human. Yet theyre also empathic enough to recognize anothers pain, regardless of species, and feel bad about causing it.

If he knows how to behave with people, the nicer his lifes going to beas he gets older he can do things like present body parts so that people can look after him. Theres no guarantee that hell be at this zoo forever, so it will be nice to say, This is the language Budi knows. This is what you need to know to communicate with him.

Budis mom, Puppe, wanders over to see what were doing. Elderly by orangutan standards, at thirty-six, shes the oldest of the zoos orangutans, with mature grayish skin (juvenile skin, like Budis, is paler), a Buddha belly, and wrinkling around her nose and mouth. Her face looks strikingly humanlike, as does Budis. Orangs meet our gaze with familiar faces and expressions across a hazy evolutionary mirage. Small wonder that, in Indonesian, their name means Orange Forest People.

Budi climbs the bars above his mom and dangles onto her head in a handstand, then slides upside down across her shoulders and rolls sideways off her back with a half twist. But she doesnt seem unduly bothered. After raising five tykes, shes used to such antics, and in any case shes always had a placid personality, a trait shes passed on to Budi, who tends to be relatively quiet as well. Not that orangs make much noise. The males may groan their long call to tell receptive females that theyre hunks and other males not to mess with them, but the females and young always stay so close together that they only need to make subtle squeaks and grunts. Also, theyre virtuosos of the visual. Most of their mutual knowing flows through an anatomy of signs, in which body language and pantomime offer a shared vocabulary. So Matts work with them always includes gestures as well as words. Its a technique thats also gaining popularity among human parents with toddlersteaching them basic sign language to make themselves understood before they can speak.

Show me your tummy, Matt says, turning his attention to her and quietly gesturing come here with both hands.

Let me see your tummy, Puppe, he says, pointing to her hairy orange belly. His tone with her is tender and respectful.

Puppe presses her big tummy close to Matt, who gives it a gentle rub. When he offers her some fruit she places a few pieces in one hand and delicately eats them one at a time.

Where are you going, kiddo? Matt says, as Budi runs off to a corner.

Grabbing a crinkly blue tarpaulin, he wraps himself up Caped Crusader style and returns to iPad play, triggering gorilla and rhino calls. Then Budi reaches for a control bar with buttons outside of the cage, and Matt brings the remote closer to him and lets him push the button that lifts a door on the wall dividing his enclosure from the next one. Hauling the tarpaulin overhead, he kicks a large ball through the door and dashes after it, brings it back, and pushes the button to close the door. Open, close, open, close. Hes like any kid getting a rush out of opening and closing drawers and doors.

Matt believes in giving the orangs as much volition as possible, and lots of mental and sensory stimulation (or privacy if they wish).

We make almost all their choices for them, and an intelligent animal should have opportunities to make more choices themselves, Matt says, from deciding on the type of food they want that day to what activities theyd like to do.

They didnt choose to be ambassadors for their ill-fated species, I think aloud, wondering if future geologists will discover that we allowed orangutans to go extinct in our age, or if we were able to rescue them at the eleventh hour.

No. His face clouds over.

The situation in the wild is very bad, I gather.

The last Ive heard, he says sadly, is that the population is segmented, and right now none of the Sumatran orangutan populations are sustainable in the long term, unless we can create corridors and protect those areas. There are so many benefits to orangutan corridorsthey handle the storm water, they prevent erosion, they produce oxygen, they provide places for orangutans to live. The owners dont want orangutans near their palm plantations, but if there were functioning corridors, there would be less animalhuman conflict.

So theres an Orangutan Awareness program at the Toronto Zoo, with education, outreach, and fund-raising for global orangutan projects. And theres the signature Apps for Apes program (at twelve zoos thus far) reminding people how much we have in common with the other great apes. When we see an orangutan at his iPad we naturally think, He could be my son, my brother, myself.

Budi touches a game on his iPad and the screen becomes an extravaganza of flurrying creatures, alive and finning, bubbling and whirling, in an underwater prehistoric world that Budi will never see. Nor will we, for we only know them at a standstill, as uninhabited bones, relics of a previous age as dramatic as our own.


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