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Landscape Design from Love for our Homelands: an antidote to consumptive and exploitative practices

Interview by Yixin Han

There are not many conversations that leave us thinking and astonished for days afterwards, and there are rarely any ideas and disciplines that can challenge the field of landscape architecture in such a serious way. But during my interview with Aldo Ramos and Yuchen Li - two artists from the Weaving Realities Collective – they have expressed ideas that I think can profoundly impact our profession.

It was through my Honours Programme supervisor that I got in touch with the two artists. Their participatory art delves into indigenous wisdoms and ways of relating to the world, pushing back against the exploitative and consumptive nature of modern life. This summer, they are showcasing their work at the exhibition ‘Beelden op de Berg’ at Arboretum Belmonte Wageningen. I thought this was a great opportunity to learn more about them and their work.

I think we are more than ever in need of a fresh perspective that can not only inform us in ours designs, but completely shift our conventions and way of thinking. And I was so surprised that after the conversation with the artists, I found myself deeply resonating with their words, as if they have put into words what I felt all that time but could not find the words to express.

It was a cloudy day in late spring when we met at the Arboretum café. When I shook their hands, they greeted me with warmth and friendliness, as if I was an old friend of them. I invited a friend who was also interested to come along, and as we sat down, Aldo and Yuchen started to introduce themselves. Without much hesitation, they delved immediately into the discussion of their art practice.

So often when we think of art, we have this image of paintings in a museum, silently waiting on the walls, as if they know we are only looking at them, thinking about them, just to forget about them. But Aldo told us that indigenous knowledge can only manifest in art through feeling and thinking with the land. This is the essence of ‘sentipensar’, a concept that plays a central role in their art.

This relationship with the earth is mainly reflected in food. Take for example cacao. We think of it as something that can bring us sensory pleasure, something that is purely for our consumption. We have no relationship with it other than an ingredient to our daily beverages. We know so little about it - what the trees looked like in earlier stages of growth, how it is embellished with small, almost unnoticeable flowers directly on their trunks, and how they provide a home for tiny insects. We see it as an object and not as a verb, an action. We do not see what it does, and we are blind to its relationship with us and with the earth.

How to break free from this consumerist and materialist way of relating to the world? Aldo and Yuchen’s answer is through participatory art through food and performances. By immersing yourself in the experience and the different senses, your body is thinking with you. You are not only thinking, but thinking through feeling – ‘sentipensar’. It goes beyond intellectually thinking, prompting a deeper understanding and connection with the world around us. ‘Cooking becomes a form of resistance when we want to revive ancestral knowledges while being conscious about our own relations to the land and the people,’ Yuchen told us. ‘Your body is an action of the community, the community is an action of the mountains, the rivers, the land. It is through learning, connecting, and sharing, that this deep ancestral relationship can be cultivated.’

Cooking thus becomes an art, an art that can be shared, tasted, and experienced collectively. In the same way, the ancestral soup recipe ‘Milpa’ shows the deep relationship and respect the Mayan people have for their land. This recipe is passed down generation to generation by mothers to daughters. Yuchen explained that for the Mayan people, Milpa is not seen as something they have simply cultivated. They perceive it as integral to their existence, as she put it, ‘because of Milpa, there is us.’

This shows their deeply mutual connection with the land, and how their daily lives revolve around what they can give back to their land, their people, their kin. During the workshops and performances where these recipes come to life, you do not stand there as a spectator and passively consume it. By inviting everyone to cook together, it breaks this established dynamics, and people are actively creating a memory of their shared time together. 

In the end, our conversation lasted for two hours, and they had so much more to share. It felt like they were speaking from the heart, with no need for intellectual intricacies and academic fussiness, yet still enriched with so much knowledge and wisdom. 

I think that what I have discussed with Aldo and Yuchen relates directly to the way we work as landscape designers. So often we are required to look at things from a distance, from a spectator point of view, as someone standing outside of the place we are designing for. When this overly scientific perspective teaches us to approach a place - with all the trees, flowers, people and rivers in it - in a cold, detached, overly rational and analytic way, devoid of emotional connection and warmth, how can we then do our work as a designer? 

When we see a tree as an object, a resource, as something we can take from the land and place it everywhere we wish to, are we not reducing them to something that has no value when they are not useful for us? When we assign monetary value to a piece of land, are we not just thinking about what we can take from it, without considering for a single moment what we can give back? When Wageningen University – that after all promotes itself as the ‘number one most sustainable university of the world’ – adopts the motto ‘To explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life,’ are we not solely focused on what we can extract from nature?

As humans, every one of us has our families, hometowns and ancestral lands. We are carried, from this life into the next. How can we not feel the love for our lands when we cross the bridge with the wind in our face, when we can feel spring blossoming all around us even when we are in the city, or when the meadows along the highway are scattered with yellow rapeseed in early summer? How can we not fall in love with the way children are playing in the heat of the afternoon sun, all the green that is flashing by in the train window and the damp smell of summer rain? And how can we possibly forget all this when we are making designs for our very own homelands? 

Throughout our education as landscape designers - coming from a scientific background - we are encouraged to see things objectively, to distance ourselves from the act of feeling. But making designs should come from a place of compassion, of love and reverence for a place. It feels wrong to try to separate ourselves from these relationships with the land and the people, something that we can deeply feel in our bodies when we are attentive to it. We, especially as landscape designers - in order to come up with good designs - should strive to design from a place of warmth, of empathy, of care, and infuse our work with kindness and compassion.


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