Miljöskadad. Swe. Adj. (lit.: "damaged by one’s environment"). Idomatic expression meaning that someone is affected by one’s
background, education or other conditions, to see or perceive things in a certain way. For example, a language
teacher automatically registers bad grammar on television shows even without trying to look out for them.
So I have a
major in Philosophy. Which is why sometimes, I find myself pondering on
thoughts – usually thoughts to which there are no clear-cut answers, or just
some small thing that I think may be insightful – even when I’m
watching a movie, out in the forest, on vacation, etc. Sometimes, I get
interested response from other people when I share my thoughts. Or a prolonged
discussion; a counterweight. At other times, people don’t seem to get me. But
then again, that’s how it is.
in combination with my trip home to the Philippines, I was on vacation in Japan
for six days with my high school friend and my sister. Our destination was Kyoto,
the old Japanese capital before the Meiji era. With the shift of Japan’s
capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, Japan saw a change from its feudal system to a
democratic one. Kyoto is thus still home to the structures of “old
Japan”, and is the face of the country that comes straight out of samurai
stories. It is a beautiful place littered with temples, palaces and pavilions.
The Golden Pavillion, Kyoto
At the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, a landscape representing a pebbled beach
gardens often provide a beautiful backdrop to these temples and palaces. The
gardening work in some of these gardens must have been enormous. Pictures of Japanese
gardens are one thing, but looking at the gardens in real life just leave one
with a sense of awe and speechlessness. Even thoughtlessness. I found myself at
times devoid of any other thought than that everything around me – this nature –
was beautiful. Yet, nothing in the garden was untouched by human hands. An
anecdote from the Imperial Palace of Kyoto goes that gardeners used to pluck
the pine needles one by one, to form the trees to what they are.
the landscaping of the gardens shows the viewer the beauty of nature. Human work
has raised the natural beauty of plants and trees to a level where one can
do nothing but gape and admire it in its majesty. It’s like an ode to the trees. But the
trees and bushes in the gardens were also in a way – and I hate to use the word
– deformed. Large tree branches, for example, could be supported by vertical logs
to hold them up and help them grow their natural direction. But other trees were
supported by trellises to help shape them and form them – train
them into this beauty that really wasn’t the tree’s true form, but an idealized
shape of a beautiful tree.
A tree growing from the rocks, being supported into the natural direction of its growth. Silver Pavillion, Kyoto.
At the city park outside of Kyoto's Imperial Palace
Layers / tiers of branches look almost like a pagoda
paradoxical thing is that although the gardener’s craft has trained the tree,
the gardener really could not have done the craft without the tree’s natural
inclination to grow. The gardener, in a way, only uses what is already there
and what is natural to the tree. In effect, the gardens give a peaceful and
harmonious atmosphere – but also behind it, there is some hint of violence and human
dominance over the natural world.
I began to
wonder if this was a good thing or a bad thing. In Sweden, one of the things I
like the best is the easy access to the natural world: forests, lakes,
mountains. Scandinavian aesthetics, in contrast to the Japanese one, prizes the
“raw look” over landscaped forms. Yet, as I imply here, the untouched look in
Swedish nature is also an aesthetic judgment. In fact, much of nature here is
also formed by human hands and human will. Even the fact that nature reserves
have to be left alone basically says: “Here, you may cut a branch and build a
fire, but here you may not. Here, we leave the nature reserve’s natural beauty
for future generations and generations of animals, plants and insects that live
there.” The difference is that one may not always be aware of the human
intervention and human will when things look “raw” – or in an attempt to
problematize the word – when things “look natural”. In the aesthetic forms of the Japanese garden,
I easily reflect about the role of humans in nature, both as caretakers in a
humble human role connected to the natural world, but also as being in a
position of power and mastery over it. I don’t think I’ve ever had such strong thoughts
in the Swedish mountains. There, there has been a same feeling of reverence and
belongingness in nature, but I hadn’t really reflected much about the paths there
made my generations of people. Possibly, I thought of the effects of increased tourism
on sustainability, but even these are very technical aspects of human’s
dominance (and the limits of our dominance) over nature. As a preserver of “raw
beauty”, humans take another role – although also a master's role – as the
preserver of what we believe and value to be the “original” order and harmony
In Sweden, on the trail up to Kebnekaise mountain station
Lea somewhere in the forests of Kolmården near here (I believe by Getå ravine)
Bird watchers at Lake Tåkern, one of the largest European bird lakes. It is itself also a product of human intervention. The lake exists because of reclaimed farmland around it.
nature is also, in its own way, ordered in such a way to lift the natural
beauty of the surroundings, for the sake of people viewing it. In other cases,
gardeners and foresters may not really have tidied up the trees, but have instead
provided a vantage point from which to admire it. In other cases, there
has also been some landscaping, even when the effect seemed natural. In
Norrköping, the city park was designed in English garden style to recreate an
untouched look, contrasting from the French geometrical style that was the
trend in the 1900s. Maybe our relations to the natural world, after all, goes
through our character as cultural beings, and is closely linked to our sense of
thing that I also reflected on while pondering about these thoughts is the
aspect of time. In the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto, there stood a tree that was formed
to such an unusual bending shape that I couldn’t help but be astounded,
thinking how generations of gardeners shaped a tree into the form it is today.
Each gardener probably saw very little difference in tree growth, but over a
long period of time, their combined work displays itself in the form of the
tree. Is this work an ode to their craft or an ode to the tree? Certainly, the human
craft is apparent. But what struck me was that those who have worked generations
on this tree – and we who admire at it – would live a miniscule time on earth
compared to the tree itself. The tree will stand for generations to come, but also
change and be changed with time.
At the Abbot's quarters near the Golden Pavillion
I tried to
look for a Swedish counterpart and thought of Jättegrytor near Kebnekaise,
which are holes in the ground formed by ice and rock grinding downwards for thousands of years. In this case, it was the forces of nature that
helped shape the rock. But when I stood there, I also got a feeling of being
small with respect to Time.
Near Kebnekaise, a "giant kettle" (Jättegrytor)
would recommend Kyoto to anyone. Such a nice place to visit. Good food, good
company, nice sights, friendly people. I admired the beauty of their gardens, and
the philosopher side in me realized that these gardens were able to take me
close to the questions so central to environmental science: What is nature?
What is natural? And is nature and “the natural” something that exists independent of human intervention, value or aesthetics?
"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is
around to hear it, does it make a sound?"