...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

If a tree falls in a forest...

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.


This November, 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

Japanese 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.

Undoubtedly, 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

The 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 of nature.

 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.

Swedish 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 aesthetics.


Another 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)


Anyway, I 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?"


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