THREE PLACES, THREE ECOLOGIES – AN ECOPOIETIC PERSPECTIVE
Stephen K. Levine
Ph.D., D.S.Sc, REAT, Professor Emeritus, York University (Toronto, Canada), Founding Dean of the Doctoral Program in Expressive Arts at The European Graduate School (Switzerland)
The essay is based on a description of three geographical locations with which significant events in the author's life are associated. All these locations are in one way or another connected with economic activity, which has an increasing influence on cultural and natural environments. The author believes that all three examples show that all ecology is now social and cultural ecology. At the same time, the three places indicate a different approach of people to the organization of their environments. People and the environment are more affected when economic benefits are paramount. The situation changes when beauty becomes the ultimate criterion for the organization of the environment and its “ecology.”
Keywords: beauty, nature, ecology, ecopoiesis
What is the place where we live? How is it dependent on its ecology? How can we develop our living places ecopoietically, that is, in a way that respects and brings out their possible beauty? These questions frame the presentation below of three quite different dwelling places: Saas Fee, Switzerland; Martha’s Vineyard, USA; and Toronto, Canada, each of which has been my home at different points in my life. I hope that by depicting these specific locations from my own lived perspective, I can illuminate both the problems and the possibilities which are critical for the time and place in which we live.
I first came to Saas Fee, Switzerland, in 1997 for the second summer of the European Graduate School (EGS), and have returned every summer since, except for the current summer when the pandemic has made international travel dangerous for all. The university began in 1996 and held its classes first in Leuk, a medieval town perched on a hillside overlooking the valley of the Rhone. We were based in the Kinderdorf, a school for children with disabilities. The school was built into a hill and offered a view of the valley below. At the same time, we could hear the constant hum of traffic from cars driving to or from the French part of Switzerland. The town itself was small and scenic, with an ancient church that had a bone-house in its cellar, an old town hall and a castle partly in ruins. The summer was warm, and for relief from the heat we would go swimming in a pond in the Fienwald, a protected forest nearby in the valley.
For the first session of the second summer, we moved to Saas Fee. Some 1500 meters high and surrounded by snow mountains that went up to 4500 meters, Saas Fee was an entirely different place. A glacier loomed over the town; the Allalin and other mountains were covered with snow, and the summer was cold, sometimes quite cold. This was indeed a different environment – remote, hard to get to, without cars or industry, silent, with pure air and hiking paths all around. That first summer, classes were held in the school house and the town hall in the center of town. We were an anomaly in the village and garnered many long stares from the old mountain families who lived there and ran the restaurants and hotels which nourished the tourist trade. We created a little world of our own, with an alternative culture based on artistic expression in a community setting.
Photo: Saas Fee mountains
It took several years before we became habituated to the town and before the townspeople came to accept our presence. Once the campus was built in 2000, on a hill outside of town called the Steinmatte, it became clear that we were not going to go away and that we too were part of Saas Fee. We became an element in the summer mix, comprised of Swiss and German vacationers and hikers, Hasidic Jews from London and Antwerp going to the Alps as their familiars in New York went to the Catskills, punk Japanese snowboarders looking to get high on the slopes, and assorted others.
One time, just outside of town, my wife and I came upon a group who looked as if they had lived there forever. They suddenly became silent, stood stock still, and stared at us in wonder, until one of them suddenly exclaimed loudly, Ausländer! (Foreigners!) They then resumed their conversation, satisfied to have placed us somewhere, even if unknown. We would always be strangers, but no more so than everyone else who visited from afar.
Saas Fee is a Winter ski resort. The greater part of its economy depends on Winter skiing; the summer is relatively uninhabited. Ski shops line the streets, and restaurants, hotels, chalets and apartment buildings are crowded together as closely as possible. The social ecology of the town is based on tourism; it has been described rightly as a “monoculture.” EGS fits awkwardly into this framework; but perhaps the programs at the university fit awkwardly into the world.
I do not know what happens behind the scenes in the town. The mountain families who control the economy are close-knit and do not share their secrets easily. It seems as if there are few zoning controls. Houses, hotels and apartments are built as closely as possible to each other. A good example of this is the development right in front of the Steinmatte campus. An attractive old house on the hill had been the home of Carl Zuckmayer, the German-Jewish refugee writer who made Saas Fee his place of refuge and ultimately his home. His daily walk around the town was memorialized as the Zuckmayer Wanderweg, and plinths with quotations from his writings were erected along the way. The walk begins at the edge of town just before the forest. The plinth there reads, in my translation, “Happy are those who dwell where they were born.” But as we walk up the hill on the path, we come across another stone inscription, “Home is not where you were born but where you wish to die,” the words of a refugee who has finally found his place.
After he passed away, his daughter continued to live in the house and kept it more or less as it originally was. A few years ago, I am told, her husband expressed a desire to return to his native Austria, and she was persuaded to sell the property. The developer swore he would keep the house just as it was; and in fact he did–by simply adding more chalets as closely as possible all around it. The result is an aesthetic disaster; one could easily have the fantasy that if the original house were a living organism, it would be gasping for breath.
What saves Saas Fee from ruin is not so much deliberate planning, but a combination of social and natural factors. Since the purpose of building is to foster ski tourism, houses are built as close to the center of town as possible. And since the town is in a little bowl surrounded by steep mountains, there is little incentive to build outside of it. Thus the beauty of the landscape is preserved. The only development outside of town, besides the cable cars and mountain restaurants, are the hiking trails, which make Saas Fee and the surrounding area a hiker’s paradise. The trails are marked with signs, telling wanderers how long it will take them to get to one place or another. The walking paths themselves go along the curves of the mountain. Unlike the town, they bend to follow what is already there. Many years of walking these paths have made me feel that I belong, no longer an Ausländer, but, almost, a native.
Both inhabitants and visitors can see the glacier receding each year; global climate change is rapidly affecting this little isolated village. If it continues at this rate, the snow will ultimately disappear, and the economic basis of the town will collapse, as will the only source of water. Until the early 1950’s, Saas Fee was primarily a place for cows to pasture in the summers. The small town was inhabited by descendents of the original Walser settlers. There were no roads, and it could be reached only by foot or mule. The ecological shaping of Saas Fee came as a result of the development of ski tourism; if that were to end, the town itself would be seriously diminished, if it were to survive at all. In my fantasy, only EGS would remain, a lonely outpost as out of place in the landscape as it is in the world. But perhaps new social and economic factors would intervene, new development in response to these would happen, and the shaping of Saas Fee would continue in a different form unimaginable to us.
Human culture has shaped Saas Fee, for better or worse. Some Swiss students have called it a, “Swiss Disneyland,” and in fact on the top of Mount Allalin, there is an ice cave in which dwell, along other frozen figures, an accurate representation of Mickey Mouse. Nevertheless, if you can climb to the top of the mountain, wearing crampons and snow boots and using walking poles, following the mountain guide and avoiding crevasses hidden in snow, you come upon magnificent views of distant mountains and, ultimately, of Italy. If you are hardy, you can even traverse down the mountain and walk to a village for cappuccino before taking the bus back to town. Saas Fee is a good example of the work of the Anthropocene, sometimes brutally distorting the landscape, sometimes following it in a way that enhances its beauty, but always leaving its mark .
I first came to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1971. Set in the Atlantic Ocean some fifteen miles from Cape Cod (and sometimes described by people who live there as “a little island off the coast of Europe” to distinguish it from America), the Vineyard is reachable only by ferry and, more recently, by plane. Its inaccessibility by car has kept it from the overdevelopment that has rendered much of the neighboring landscape of Cape Cod uninhabitable. At the same time, strict zoning controls (what some call “snob zoning”) have preserved much of the “natural” landscape. (The original forests on the Vineyard have all been cut down, and the resulting foliage is second or third growth, but still beautiful).
The Vineyard is the obverse of Saas Fee – a summer ocean resort. As the rich and famous go to Saas Fee in the Winter (or so I imagine), they come to the Vineyard or someplace like it in the summer. The tourists come and go, but the natives remain (on the Vineyard we say, “Summer people–and some are not!”). Like Saas Fee, Martha’s Vineyard is almost totally dependent on tourism. If the beaches were to vanish – or just as likely, be fouled by oil – the economy would largely come to an end.
Photo: Martha’s Vineyard beach
There is a strong conservationist impulse on the Vineyard. The well-being of the people who live there depends on the beauty of the landscape; and there is a love of the place for its own sake. A somewhat strange alliance of year-round native islanders with wealthy summer residents results; both have an interest in preserving the island. Sometimes these forces join in social struggle against the inexorable force of capital, although lately enormous buildings, so-called “trophy houses,” used by their owners only a few weeks in the year, have begun to sprout up. The towns try, with some success, to limit their size.
We built our own small house in Chilmark, a remote and relatively uninhabited town known for its beautiful beaches, in 1984, when land prices were affordable. A few years later, a realtor in the area decided to sell a large parcel of land that she had acquired to a developer who planned to build over a hundred houses and guest houses. The character of the town would be radically changed as a result. The developer’s plan was technically within the zoning restrictions of the town planning board, but if it were implemented, the social and natural ecology of the town would be radically changed.
We were living year-round on the island that year and became involved in the struggle against over-development. A neighbor helped organize the people living in the area, and we successfully petitioned the town for a one-year moratorium on building. Then a conservationist group devised a strategy by which those whose property fronted on the dirt road in the area, as ours did, would grant an ecological easement; this meant that the road could not be “improved” by paving (thus prohibiting the passage of heavy equipment carried by large trucks). Several neighbors also sued the realtor who had sold the property, on the grounds that she had assured them that when they bought their land, the surrounding area would not be developed. And a wealthy property owner created a consortium of people who offered to buy the land from the developer and put it into conservation.
At this point the Land Bank stepped in. The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank is a non-profit institution funded by a two-percent tax on every sale of property on the island. Its purpose is to use that money to purchase and maintain land for conservation. A fortunate coincidence also came about in that the real estate market plunged at the same time as we were fighting the development plans. Suddenly the developer found himself holding a large mortgage on a property which could not be sold during the moratorium, a property which was under litigation and whose value was rapidly going down. Under the circumstances, he was only too happy to sell the property to the Land Bank, which promptly took it off the market and made it into a nature preserve. Neighbors donated adjacent land, and the result today is a beautiful 500-acre preserve, traversed by walking trails and maintained by the Land Bank. The shape of the island, or at least this part of it, was fundamentally changed.
Not all the struggles against over-development on the island have been so successful. There is very little land that has not been built out, and as noted above, there have been built a large number of “McMansions,” giant houses of some 10,000 square feet or more, that mar the landscape. Some people have left the island in search of more isolated areas; others stay and fight against forces that originate from elsewhere in the global economy. The current pandemic may slow the rate of development, but no one knows what the future will bring.
At the same time, there now live full-time on the island many younger people who are committed to cultivating the beauty of this special place. Some are trying to work for the creation of a Housing Bank, similar to the Land Bank, which would build affordable housing for those who grew up here, usually priced out of the market. There are also many farmers trying to use sustainable agricultural practices. These young people are not utopians but rather have a realistic view of what is possible, given both the natural conditions of the Vineyard and the demands of the market. There is hope yet in paradise.
In the same year that I first went to Martha’s Vineyard, I moved from New York to Toronto to teach at York University. At the time, Toronto seemed like a sleepy little town to me compared to “the city,” as we called Manhattan, in our unconsciously imperial way. The Scots-Presbyterian character of early Toronto was still visible, Sunday was a day of rest with no shopping or sale of liquor, and it seemed that there were only one or two Chinese restaurants around!
For some, these features were what endeared Toronto to them. After all, Jane Jacobs, the doyenne of urban ecological thinking, had moved to Toronto to get away from the madness of planning in New York, in which whole neighborhoods were being razed in the name of “urban renewal.” (Minority residents of these areas called it “urban removal.”) Jacobs saw Toronto as a town of neighborhoods. She lived in a part of the city called the “Annex” (since it had been annexed to the original settlement a century before), where we ourselves came to live in 1979 just up the street from Jane Jacobs’ house. The Annex was a neighborhood of single-family homes, populated to a great extent by faculty and students from the nearby University of Toronto, as well as by writers, artists and other renegades.
In the 1970’s, the character of the Annex and other downtown neighborhoods was threatened by a plan to run an expressway down the neighboring street of Spadina Avenue all the way to Lake Ontario. Jane Jacobs and others led a fight to “Stop Spadina!” A bitter struggle resulted and, in the end, the expressway was stopped a mile or so north. The downtown neighborhoods were preserved – but then traffic began to build up in the outlying suburbs. An inner-city/suburban conflict simmered under the surface, and when amalgamation of city and suburbs occurred over a decade ago, the conflict came to a head. Since then, the city ofToronto has not had complete control over its development.
In 2010, a new mayor of Toronto was elected with suburban votes on the slogan, “The war on cars is over!” Suburban reliance on the automobile won out over rapid transit plans for downtown. “Transit City,” a major initiative of the previous administration, was cut back, and funding for subways and buses was reduced. Many bike lanes were eliminated as well. Somehow, from the mayor’s point of view, bicycles became the symbol for everything that was wrong with Toronto – they impeded traffic and impaired the economic efficiency of the city. Bicycles were also ridden by opponents of the mayor – one of his allies described bike-riders and their ilk as “communists.” Subsequently many of us proudly sported buttons with the slogan, “Bike-riding Pinkos.”
Toronto has a new mayor now. The war on bikes is officially over, and a number of new bike lanes have been built, but biking remains as perilous as ever, if not more so. The automobile rules the city. Only due to the pandemic has the city become safe for pedestrians and bikers. I am not confident that this will be the case when things go back to “normal.”
Toronto has changed in other ways as well. Small houses downtown have been replaced by large condominium towers; the city now has an enormous condominium population. Many of the old neighborhoods remain but are more and more threatened. In “normal” times, before the virus, traffic congestion was everywhere, and the air was substantially polluted.
Culturally, however, Toronto is much more alive and vibrant than it was before. An enormous influx of immigrants from all over the globe has brought tremendous energy to the city. Toronto now has more foreign-born inhabitants than any other city in the world. And the arts have flourished in ways that would not have been imaginable in the Toronto we first encountered. Artists have also been at the forefront of the struggle against mindless development, although many have moved out of Toronto to the smaller city of Hamilton in search of cheaper housing.
Is Toronto still the town that Jane Jacobs imagined it to be? Jim Jacobs continues to lives down the street from us in the house that his parents owned. In the 1970’s, he sold me my first bicycle in Toronto, the Chinese Flying Pigeon, a large single-gear vehicle that came in over a hundred parts, with the instructions all in Chinese (Jim figured them out). I still rode a bike until a recent accident, though I stayed away from the more heavily traffic-congested streets. The number of people who’ve died in bicycle-motor vehicle accidents is rapidly increasing. It sometimes feels like open war has been declared on bike riders. As elsewhere, the automobile rules.
At the same time, ecological consciousness has increased immensely. There are many neighborhood groups in Toronto that are banding together to put pressure on the city to take account of the effects of over-development An example is the “Green Neighbors” movement, in which neighborhood groups, initially formed to help residents in a particular area respond to climate change, are now creating a network designed to help the city and the province to put more ecologically sensitive policies into place. As they do so, they have also begun to discuss what it would mean to build an urban environment that would be humanly habitable. What principles would such building have to follow? And how would we get from here to there? It seems we need a different understanding of what it means to live together if environmental action is to bring meaningful change.
Photo: Toronto skyline
Ecology in the Anthropocene depends now upon culture. We sometimes speak of ecological systems as if they were self-contained and permanent, although in fact they are always permeated and affected by other such systems and by changing conditions . In the Anthropocene, all systems are permeable and subject to change by human action. However, such change does not necessarily mean degradation. Poiesis is guided by beauty as its goal. If we were able to follow an ecopoietic pathway, we could transform nature in such a way as to bring beauty into the lived world.
In this brief essay, it is not possible to go into the revised concept of beauty that would have to be developed for us adequately to understand this ecopoietic path. I hope to develop this concept further in a future issue of the Journal. Suffice it to say here that I understand beauty not in the manner of traditional aesthetic theory, which posits it as the result of a judgment made on the basis of disinterested observation, but rather as a lived experience which is transformative not only theoretically and affectively but in a practical way as well.
Furthermore, we cannot take account here of the radical changes that would be necessary for us to live ecopoietically. How to transform a relation to nature that is currently governed by profit and power rather than by aesthetic criteria? What would it mean, for example, if we were to think of “urban development” as aiming to create beautiful cities that support human flourishing in a thriving biosphere rather than that of maximizing profit for the propertied classes?
Of the three places discussed in this essay, the city of Toronto stands out as the most problematic. As the world moves toward greater and greater urbanization, building mega-cities that sprawl out into their surrounding areas so as to touch upon each other, following aesthetic criteria in development seems more and more unrealistic. We could even wonder if the idea of a beautiful city is chimerical, given the characteristics of the typical megalopolis in which more and more of us live.
Nevertheless, I believe, poiesis is always possible, and ecopoiesis is in fact not only possible but more necessary than ever. We are now at a critical point in the existence of human life on this planet. We need to bring aesthetics into ecology and ecology into aesthetics if we are to find a way to live well together. My hope is that following the ecopoietic path will take us towards that goal.
Reference for citations
Levine, S.K. (2020). Three places, three ecologies – an ecopoietic perspective. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 1(2). – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru.