In my recent post on Sanctuary, inspired by Strzelecki National Park on Flinders Island, Tasmania, I brought up the tension between two factors motivating my interest in relicts of native ecosystems surrounded by human-dominated landscapes:
These ecological remnants are becoming smaller and rarer due to habitat destruction, invasive species and climate change, driving me to depict and “preserve” them on paper.
On the other hand I also find these isolated pieces of nature exciting, similar to the way I’m generally drawn to environmental edges, contrasts and “islands” (whether encircled by water or by something else). A natural environment is easier for me to comprehend and appreciate when I can experience it in opposition to a contrasting one, creating a feeling of empowerment. In the case of nature surrounded by human-dominated landscapes, that sense of control takes on a “taming” aspect—not very consistent with the conservation angle of #1.
Applying these contradictory reactions to design or conservation in the real world would at the very least require more justification. In fact they tie into a few competing (sometimes heatedly so) contemporary approaches to design and planning, relating to a wider philosophical debate on the relationship between nature and culture—including what “nature” and “natural” actually mean. These are issues that I’ve had an interest in since I was in design school. While the worldviews grow more out of an emotional response to the nature-culture relationship than my intellectual take on it, creating them has led me to dive more deeply into those interests. I’ll be writing a lot more about them in later posts, as one purpose of this blog is to put the worldviews in a wider, more interdisciplinary context. For now I’ll add one more thing—words like “nature” and “wilderness” are highly loaded but I’ll be using them freely, without the scare quotes (even though some of my professors would be shaking their heads). My reasons for doing so go beyond just a lack of better terms. More explanation to come.
Unlike in the real world, in the worldviews themselves I consider the tension between #1 and #2 to be inspirational in itself rather than a potential problem. In real life the natural environment depicted in Hidden Valley is far from encircled by development, but the “insular” feel of the place led me to imagine it simultaneously from both the “conservation” and “control” perspectives.
The work is inspired by the national park of the same name (alternatively called Mirima, in the Aboriginal language) in the far northeast corner of Western Australia,. The park features an “island” of dramatic sandstone formations right adjacent to the town of Kununurra; the accessible part of those formations is cut by a valley that contains the park’s entry road. But as much as the geology, for me what defined the wild character of the park was its baobab trees (Adansonia gregorii), the only species of the genus outside of Africa/Madagascar. There were in fact many baobabs planted in the town itself—an empowering juxtaposition too, if you consider each tree to be its own bit of wilderness “tamed” by sidewalks and parking lots. But despite this intermingling, walking among the baobabs and colorfully banded cliffs in the park I felt much more than a few hundred feet from the city streets.
Hidden Valley is highly idealized in order to accentuate nature/non-nature contrasts. The park is actually bordered by development only on one side and extends far beyond the “hidden valley” itself (the only part of the park interior accessible or visible by road and trail) in every other direction. But, given that the valley zone is the part that I could experience, the park felt like a much smaller, isolated piece of wild nature and I imagined development surrounding it on all sides. So on paper I shrunk the park down to just the valley zone, densified parts of the town, and surrounded the rest of the park with agriculture. Other artistic liberties included borrowing a palm-filled valley from another nearby site with similar geology (Keep River National Park)—I wanted to dial up the internal, natural contrasts a bit too—and adding more baobabs to the valley interior.
The park-town relationship can be experienced in multiple ways. From inside the “hidden valley” itself the town might as well be miles away, and yet because you know it’s there just beyond the wall of rock formations, the contrast is still felt. From observation points atop the rocks overlooking the town, and looking at the rocks from points within the town itself, the park feels a little less wild and isolated but the contrast is right there to see. Hidden Valley incorporates all three of these vantage points. This idea of “revealed vs. concealed” contrasts and the resulting impacts on feelings of insularity and empowerment are more just introduced here than explored, but later works and posts will go deeper.
One note on the “design” of the town, which is partly real and partly meant to match the part that is. Like most urban/suburban environments, from above and from within, it’s pretty banal (car-oriented, disorganized and scrappy). But I would strive for this effect even if I were designing the town from scratch, which I plan to do in some future worldviews. The reason I’m not inclined to represent avant-garde, master-planned cities alongside wilderness might have something to do with motivation #1 above—I see these constructed environments in a somewhat sinister light, and their being chaotic and lacking clear intentionality of design could reinforce the vulnerability of the relict environments they surround.
Natural relicts tend to have both an ecological and geological component—vegetation as well as landform —so the edge created by agricultural or urbanization coincides to some degree with a topographical edge that would’ve been there anyways, heightening the contrast. (Of course geology usually explains in part why these particular places have been preserved in the first place—rocks, slopes and cliffs will discourage development more readily than plants.) In Hidden Valley both components are significant; in the next post vegetation will play a more important role. Usually landform alone isn’t enough to draw me in, but later on I’ll have a lot to say and show about one important exception—volcanic cones.