How has our relationship with nature changed over time, and what constraints our ecological relationship with nature in modern society?
I was participating in adult education programs at VanDusen botanical garden last summer. One of the programs was the Natural Heritage Guided Walk by the indigenous initiatives coordinator. He told us story after story about relationships between indigenous people and plants while we were walking around the Canadian heritage garden at VanDusen.
Pondering about the relationship between time and ecological everyday living, I noticed the patterns in my studio projects that have been helping me generate thinking forward. Through studio exploration, I was visualizing and materializing my findings of the gap between modernized, urbanized living conditions and traditional ways of living where people were more directly connected to natural surroundings.
After spending the summer digging deep into my curiosity, I started to imagine what I think a sustainable living society might take. Wanting to grasp and spotlight the differences between contemporary modern living and indigenous knowledge-based living, the modest plan that I devised was to talk to my dad about his everyday living in the past, growing up in a rural mountain town in South Korea during the 60s and 70s.
I asked my dad a series of questions based on my curiosity about his living condition in the past, such as 1. Where does his plant knowledge come from? 2. What plants does he still remember how to distinguish? 3. After he moved out of the rural mountain town and started working in the city, did he still go to the mountains for foraging? And when did he stop going? 4. Does he miss foraging in the mountain? 5. How long would it take for a beginner to learn all this? 6. Does he have any specific mundane memories from the everyday living of his childhood? 7. What were the main everyday activities that he had to do in each season? …
Talking to my dad as a project
My dad has an enormous literacy of edible, medicinal plants that I’m envious of. But I should be careful with the word “envy” since it wasn’t really his choice and desire to learn. Thanks to his place-based knowledge from his upbringing environment, I also grew up eating fresh herbs and roots he foraged from the mountains.
Pondering my projects around pluralizing and materializing perceptions of time, I started thinking about what would happen once my dad passes away. When my dad’s generation ends, what will happen to their knowledge that could only be learned during the time and environment they lived in, which can’t be mimicked or easily traced anymore? How was my dad’s personal life influenced by the last sixty years of compressed capitalist development and politically initiated modernization of the rural South Korean economy? (새마을 운동, Saemaul Undong) In 2022, can we still practice living the way my dad once lived, obtaining slow and observational place-based knowledge and having rich livelihood interaction with nature?
It didn’t take long to realize the assumption that I had about his early life after our first call. I assumed he gained his plant knowledge to bring food to the table for his family, but it was mostly for economic aspects. From middle school, especially after my grandfather passed away, he started learning from village elders and other older kids about mountain plants that were valuable to sell. Hunting animals and foraging edible medicinal plants were the only source of promised income so that he could buy daily necessities for his school and the household. Meanwhile, I was raised in an urban apartment for most of my life, and I never had to go to mountains or other natural surroundings to seek food. My direct dependence on nature to sustain living is diminished, almost never even existed, and my relationship with nature is more centred on experience, beauty, and my mental & physical well-being.
To live in harmony with nature with sustainability in mind, I feel the need to return to the traditional way of living, just like how our grandparents used to live before the global level of industrialization and modernization, somehow replacing my modern beliefs and desires. But this feels unrealistic and unaffordable to many of our generation, physically and mentally detached from day-to-day interaction with nature.
More than half of modern humans now live in urban areas, and the number is expected to grow faster. People have to move to cities to afford their living and seek better opportunities for jobs and education to improve their lives according to their goals and dreams of what life they want to cultivate. And this environment and its commonality across the globe make it seem unobtainable to promote the idea that individuals can attempt to live sustainably in this modern speed and context of life.
What values, cultures, movements and relationships would be required so that everyday living can be considerate of our individual ecological impacts? It’s challenging to imagine living independently and disconnected from any urban, industrialized infrastructures and products, such as the type of place we live, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear. Ironically, city dwellers are becoming more individual, independent and disconnected from other neighbours, citizens and non-human beings that we are surrounded by.
By talking to my dad, I attempted to grasp what it is that we lost in our relationship with nature and what has happened to us over time to result in our current relationship with nature of exploiting and extracting resources without being responsible for the total cost. And what I have landed on is our activities to sustain our own lives depend on artifacts that (we think) we need as modern humans. And obtaining the life-sustaining artifacts is not directly dependent on me, or the place I live anymore. It depends on the economic outcomes of my everyday actions so that I can afford those things that were made by somebody else’s time and labour from somewhere remote from where I am. We no longer have to spend time and effort to obtain this slow, observational, multi-generational literacy of reading natural surroundings for food, medicine, and the warmth of the house. My dad’s direct dependency on mountains, although it was largely economic-driven, seemed to offer him a way of living with nature beyond beauty or disgust and fear from being so remote from nature.
I sense that the next step of this project is to either create 1. methods to travel time through memories of our family elders, or 2. visualize my dad’s day-to-day life to communicate and evoke other people to contemplate how their current way of living is not the only way to exist in the world. I have a gut feeling that it has to scale much bigger than the conversation between me and my dad.