She studied sacred places and learned from indigenous communities how to safeguard a landscape against wildfires. Australian-born landscape designer Julia Watson travelled the world to study a unique array of ancient technologies aimed at preventing the exhaustion of the planet. All of them based on one fundamental principle: the absolute symbiosis between man and nature.
There is a way to heal the world, but we need to listen to indigenous cultures that have always lived in symbiosis with nature, says Julia Watson. The Australian-born landscape designer embarked on a seven-year journey to redefine technology and identify the kind of technology we actually need to confront climate change. Over the phone, her voice sounds lighthearted. Laughter is punctuated by more pensive moods and wonder. Watson has studied a unique array of technologies, some based on knowledge thousands of years old. All rely on one fundamental principle: the absolute symbiosis between man and nature.
Currently in Brooklyn, New York, over 5000 kilometers, Watson sounds remarkably close. ‘I’m having a baby next week,’ she says straightaway, ‘So everything is in flux. We’re not quite sure when it’s actually happening.’ It’s a wonderful new chapter in a remarkable journey that began in her own childhood. It has led her to become one of the world’s foremost experts on nature-based technologies and ecological resilience. She regularly teaches urban design at Harvard and Columbia universities, and recently wrote the book Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism..
‘Lo-TEK is a word I made up. It was a necessary redefinition of traditional ecological knowledge and the technologies embedded in it. This accumulated body of knowledge is passed down for generations in songs and stories. Usually in the form of orally based transmissions, a characteristic of indigenous and local communities’, she explains. ‘People call nature-based technologies low-tech as opposed to high-tech, the realm of technology that we understand. Low-tech is non-industrialized and based around a different set of parameters. But the technologies I was looking at are very complex. They are seasonal, have evolved over long periods of time, and were meant to work for generations. They had all these unique characteristics that defined them as their own body of technology, and as something that can be seen as a climate change solution.’
Traditional ecological knowledge consists of intertwined layers of knowledge, practice, belief, worldview, and technologies. But because the latter are categorized as low-tech, nobody really noticed their existence. ‘They were completely overlooked. Then you get into another conversation about the reason why. Because of racism, colonialism and other forces at work in the world.’ So she founded Lo-TEK, a design movement that builds on this indigenous knowledge to create a nature-based, sustainable technology.
What put her on this path was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The world’s second largest ecological disaster made an indelible impression on her young mind. It occurred in March 1989 when, on a routine sea crossing, the hull of the tanker ruptured, spilling more than ten million gallons of crude oil. It polluted over two thousand kilometers of Alaskan coastline. Watson still vividly remembers the television images of birds being cleaned by scores of volunteers. ‘People who are my age remember it as well, sitting there, watching it and really feeling it deeply. I saw it when I was eleven, twelve years old.’
The experience was traumatic, she admits. ‘Totally. It was around the same time that we first travelled to America, and I went to Yosemite National Park. It’s a sacred place as well and I had never seen anything like it.’ She remembers meeting a deer face-to-face and feeling the overwhelming grandeur of nature. ‘But we didn’t learn about climate change until about two years after that, in ninth grade. It was difficult to find literature. We called it the greenhouse effect. It was something that was whispered at the back of the normal cultural exchanges, and now it’s such a loud voice.’
Watson set out to investigate the ecological technologies of various indigenous cultures. In the book she takes us to eighteen countries, from the Philippines to Tanzania and Iran, and reveals ways of living in a close rapport with nature. For centuries, the Khasi tribe of Northern India have woven magnificent living bridges from aerial roots of rubber trees. Some grow as long as eighty meters. Hidden deep in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, the Kayapó tribe has introduced hundreds of different plant species into the rainforest, creating a varied and highly productive food base.
In other parts of the world, communities have perpetuated the ancient art of building floating islands. In southern Iraq, the Ma’dan tribe has done so for the last 6,500 years. ‘I wanted to have a direct input from local people, speaking about the place they knew, belonged to and lived in. In Peru I saw the wonderful floating island technology at Lake Titicaca. The Uros people there build huge brick modules ranging in size from two by six to six by ten metres, which they lash together. They cut the modules from the root system of totora reed that grows in the wetlands. Because of the type of decomposition and the cellular structure of the roots, these bricks have buoyancy. They create large floating islands where several families live. It’s an incredible technology. When you walk on these islands, it feels like walking on a spongy waterbed. Your balance is quite challenged.’