Lígia Oliveira, artist, designer and researcher from Portugal, reflects on relationships between humans and nature, through the body and the landscape.
Beyond the mainstream Western way of considering landscapes as the scenario through which the body moves and exists, there are other possibilities. I propose to look at those afar from an extractive, controlling point of view, and reframed through a relational discourse. The starting point of this aim is the view that, albeit with potentially good intentions, the overall drive of the architecture, design and art practices within the recent Western tradition have been of mind over matter. What has been targeted, in this process and goal, is to control what is around – the environment, others, and the body -, through the means of power. Whilst the nature of each intervention, building, design, at its core, can be seen as inevitably relational – in relation to its context, be it land (and streets), elements (buildings, materials), beings and entities (citizens, audiences, users, more than humans) -, the common standard has largely been defined by imposition, exploitation and separation; quite ignoring the emotional, relational component of our existence. There is sometimes a little friendliness in it, yet, considering the overall results on a planetary scale, this clearly has been not enough.
A hallmark rooted in misconceptions, such as framing these disciplines outside of a consciously engaged emotional discourse, ingrained in its ways of doing. This is not exclusive to these domains, as overall, the Cartesian conceptualisation of separation between body and mind prevails across disciplines. In the West, the brain is considered to be where the mind, and consciousness, resides; and thinking, in itself, is predominantly seen as superior (again, power and control) to feeling. These notions are being challenged in neuroscience, namely by Damásio, who proposed a different take: “I feel, therefore I am.” The same author considers that the field of affection, sentiments and emotions is understudied in how they motivate human cultural activity, being the unidentified presence on cultural discussion; and that feelings and emotions mobilise the intellect, a process in which also intervenes creativity, our memory, philosophical enquiry and political concerns. I will go into that later. First, let us return to a subtle, pertinent issue in how we approach the nature of our work, within this power domain: separation and threat, largely an effect of reactivity. The rhythm of our jobs, as professional practices or within academia, has become largely dependent on speed, in what we hypothesise as efficiency, however correlated to an overwhelming response to feelings of urgency, anxiety and distress as it is. That is how our society works, after all; and we do so because we believe “it has to be that way.” Both conceptualisations, of mind over matter, and of innate urgency, define processes and outcomes; and both need to be addressed, within the current context of the multiple crisis we are having to deal with: climate change, biodiversity loss, mass displacements, overall anxieties (including eco-anxiety), and overwhelming grief. Consequently, it is important to reflect on what stance we want to proceed, and with what attitude, towards a coherent sense of processes and outcomes.
Apart from narratives of exploitation and distress, there are more that we can learn from. Narratives of stillness, of non-linearity; wisdoms that have observed cycles and changes throughout time, rooted in the land and that maintain a relational way of being with the Earth – close enough to notice when that relationship was starting to be imbalanced. Indigenous peoples’ knowledge inform us this is not the first moment we have lost that harmony, and of the ways of colonialism that led us to this scale of disfunction. I find that point particularly relevant, as it puts the emphasis on a set of behaviours, not on the species. After all, if the current climate change is driven by human activity, it is also the human activity of Indigenous peoples – who represent 5% of the world population – that protect 80% of the global biodiversity. It is not humans versus nature, but decisions that can be acknowledged and corrected. We can listen to their knowledge, in ways that are respectful and attentive to key processes; to observe and reflect on our own historical background, to when, in our own lands, there was harmony and recognition of the interconnection between humans and nature – even if for Europeans, that means going back to the Palaeolithic; to observe the processes and ways of being of other species. And finally, to critically look within: possibilities are diverse, and may run in common themes, ways of doing and being. Likewise, we gain from having an open view to work done across academia that has outgrown traditional silos of knowledge. Cooperation and community-based, inclusive practices, interdisciplinary approaches, curiosity and openness are fundamental ways of doing; yet indispensable are also the ethics of environmental justice that acknowledges the right of/to land and self-determination of communities and Indigenous peoples, gender justice, stopping violence, and last yet far from least, understanding, and healing, intergenerational trauma. Its delay perpetuates the cycles of exploitation, production and consumption that give rise to the same crisis we aim to approach, adapt to and mitigate. These issues are relevant in the ways they relate to the climate crisis, and essential for a perspective that does not romanticise nature – not as separated from ourselves -, and is not exceedingly focused on solutions, such as those provided by technology. Even though these play a role, they are not the essence of the systemic change we need for our future.
The core shift occurs with the reintegration of this relational meaning, in aim and processes, by both a radical turn and an integral continuum, re-establishing the idea of care. If a significant part, if not most, of the climate challenge we are facing depends on us to change our relationship with Earth, beyond abstract conceptualisations that limit the issue to an environmental crisis, this really means how we relate to each other, both humans and more than humans; to the land, and significantly, to its materiality and to the sacredness in it. To the issue, and its complexity, at hand; to change from a power stance into a companionship; as Whyte refers, to a kinship with Earth. If the overdrive of colonialism and capitalism are a reactive posture on unresolved issues, these can equally be acknowledged and addressed by changing priorities, beliefs, and behaviours.
The base of a relational approach is the body, thus it is imperative to reconsider notions of “human scale” beyond quantitative measurements and into a deeper consideration of feelings and emotions, integrated into robust belief systems. Being the body the place where these are felt, the landscape is the seat of emotion and sensation. Not all is misunderstood: the word “emotion” comes from the Latin movere, to move. Between the slow movement of changing phenomena, of land and its elements and beings, us, too, included, there are natural rhythms that arise. These have been observed for thousands of years, since the time we had no question to be part of nature. Emotion, eventually, through the sense of the body, allows us to be in touch with ourselves and our surroundings; to be aware. And through that same body, through the same touch, to be in relationship with our surroundings. All of which is easily recovered, albeit lightly due to ingrained habits, when people find themselves in pleasant, calm places and relax: they begin to breathe, sense, smell, feel, touch, to embrace; to recover a sense of being beyond the doing, away from the sinful, limited body view imposed by centuries of dogma. Sensation, on the other hand, roots in sentire; to perceive, and to know. We know ourselves through our sensations – the bodily senses, from which we perceive the world around us; and through these sensations, we also comprehend our inner emotional landscapes. Sennett has written on the sensory deprivation of cities in Western civilisation, throughout the centuries; on the interaction between body and built environment. Contemporary Western cities are filled with a very particular emotional appeal, the one of aggressive consumerism that constantly says: you’re not enough and you need this, now. Natural landscapes are where the connection to land remains clearer, contrary to “cityscapes” – an erroneous definition that configures construction as if it occurred outside of the land, but it does not. Natural places can also be where the differentiation and separation imposed by consumerism are more easily relieved by contentment. Thus, a significant part of our work is to re-place the body in landscape, and that means: understanding that beyond rural and urban, there is land; finding ways of relating to land, through the body – its senses, and particularly, its emotional inner landscapes and sensory flows, by which we perceive, understand and adapt. And finding our way into community, so shared meanings, experiences, and our own place in the world can be reconfigured into an expanded sense of self, of relatedness and interconnection. To both processes and outcomes, culture – the overall architectural, design and artistic disciplines, play a key role.
Culture and innovation are crucial for social transformation. Culture mediates the relationship between land and body in obvious ways, through use of local materials for architecture and objects, in the process by which a dialogue between humans and territory occurs, like other species do, as well. Culture is also essential for democracy, in the expression of values, identities, ways of living, traditions, knowledge, and history. Disciplines within the creative fields make the objects people use and the places where people live, socialise, work and play. Our disciplines conduct imagination and change; we are skilled at understanding and interpreting collective beliefs, and in being of service to those. The history of architecture, design and the arts is made of these individual and collective intentions and movements; and the way history is written in itself is a constant reconsideration of values. The symbolic dimension is particularly powerful in the way meanings are indirectly conveyed. Through suggestion and metaphor, they may relate to people in ways that transcend their immediate form, materials, visuals and can establish a connection to the sacred – understood here as a non-religious concept, that relates to feeling elevation, integration and awe, and largely inhabits the tangible of everyday life: what arises through the senses, related to places, people, more than humans; to ritual activities (repetitive acts towards meaning and bond), and to some interconnection aspect, that may be part of belonging, myth and experiences and extends knowledge, reconfiguring the previous understanding of the self. We have a keen eye for knowing the rhythms of nature, its patterns and geometry, melodies and silences, and to transmit those in a language of beauty.
Inevitably, our work mediates our bodies with others and landscapes: this relationship exists even when architecture aims to solely serve a practical need (protection from weather, for example), conforming communities within a specific territory; its overall processes and outcomes reveal relational intentions, within the symbolic. These might be of status, harmony, inclusion. But in these examples, housing is not only shelter from the elements, complying with social hierarchy within the community in its choices, but sets a specific form of boundary with nature, too; and how that boundary is established – the design choices, processes, overall end – matters greatly. This dialogue with nature, whether we acknowledge it or not, is deeply present within our practices. Perhaps the first human cultural manifestations had this same relational intention, with a clear kinship aim: to bond with life – other species, the elements themselves. To honour, celebrate, and to make clear our interconnection and interdependence with the ecosystem; the mundane mystery of existence. Architecture, design, art, are embedded with a practical and a relational need – within our species, with more than humans, the elements, etcetera; cultural disciplines are how the language of care and connection is affirmed.
With the ways by which the mundane is integrated with the sacred, the material with the symbolic, our disciplines can contribute to accelerate the indispensable behavioural changes, by fostering the connection between people and nature. This can be achieved through process and outcome; across the project phase, and as an end in itself. In a way, these are the same. By direct experiential practices and through the inquiry into other’s ways of doing, it is relevant to highlight the processes beyond the final form and overall aesthetics. The relevance of this knowledge lays significantly within a context of investigation and unfolding: through phenomenological practices of observation, and by incorporating research as the goal, expanding and reconsidering the notion of the finished project into ongoing, collaborative and adaptive practices. By re-examining the body as the locus of awareness – emotion, beliefs, senses – and its relationship to the landscape – Earth, land, aliveness, place of belonging; where culture, be it a building, object, either way, a narrative, is how this bond is established. This relational quality, process and/or outcome can be direct or can use a metaphor – a leap beyond the rational that connects and transforms preconceived meanings. Individually, in processes and outcomes, practices that are grounded in the direct experience of places and the self, through a phenomenological approach that is sensuous, but also, indicative of the emotions we perceive in relation to places, streets, buildings, interiors, gardens, objects, provide relevant information on our values, biographies and cultural norms. An expanded notion of land, body, and how they relate that teaches to do less: to be precise, and intentional.
Of the many guidelines possible, one summarises it with aim: the uses of time, how it includes different measures of deadlines and climate change, embracing the present, the future and the past, and moving through those with flexibility and awareness. The projects of the future will also become past; how do we want those to degrade, transform? Beyond their materiality, what do they bring? Land speaks of these changes; the smallest rock holds a different time from our clocks, a geological time. How would it be to consider projects with a 500-year time frame, and to design looking back from there? While wondering, does the project address the issues of now, the future, and how does it relate to the past – and to what historical past, exactly? Does it stress a lineage of power and control, or does it reconfigure a way of being into care? All of this contains how we manage our own time – the time for our work, the speed at which we labour. Cultivating relational practices with the body and the landscape, inserted in an expanded view of time, coherently links values and outcomes. Understanding if and how we are aligned with those depends on a daily practice of paying attention; a phenomenological-based approach to living, and to its inputs, namely, to a sense of interconnection – an expanded view of more than humans, and explorations on how to relate to them, and analytically and reflexively work with that data.
It is relevant to ask, in our practices, what do they reveal about our culture? What are the beliefs they transmit, and how are these being carried out by the projects. And how did we lose these relational values as a structural approach to nature; and eventually, to each other? How are those embedded in our current relationships? Several disruptors can impact individual and collective behaviours: the inevitable traumatic nature of life, caused by nature and conduct; the lack of a culture of mending, individually and collectively, that contributes to recovery and prevents those impacts. Practices of care, by which formal laws, such as Rights of Nature, and culture: the narratives and storytelling of social construct, aiming to reshape structural issues of power and to highlight relational values, to land and beings.
If we are to recover our bond to nature, as a whole, we might reflect on how is a good relationship defined? Among others, guiding values might be: trust, respect, reciprocity, acceptance, and care. It may feel uncomfortable to consider these values when looking at a river, a rock, a fish or a tree; trust over land may feel overly opposite to the driving forces of consumerism, and respect towards a river may ask for more integrity in how we approach our work. Questions may include asking others – people, plants, mountains, seas. What do they need? The willingness towards curiosity and empathy matters: to question and to think critically. Questioning what would nature do – how would nature design? (explored by others, including Bianciardi et al.) not only as a final outcome, but as a process in itself.
Returning to the etymology of words: courage is related to the Latin cor, “heart”: as the symbol of emotions, it holds vital attributes in reframing the Western conceptualisation of the mind’s absolute power. Courage, after all, is also embodied: it holds reason, decision, values, care and even posture. Matter, from the Latin materia, is rooted in the substance from which things are made: the inner wood of a tree, and source, origin, mother. Converging mind with body, care with matter, while acknowledging our interconnection to land, as material and mother, process and outcome is fundamental in our times. Culture is the relational language by which this bond is nurtured: through regenerative relational practices that go beyond materiality and renew our commitment to nature. This addresses climate change, our relation to the environment, others and ourselves; it re-members who we are, recovers lost parts of our substance and in that process, our relationship to nature. Through practices such as phenomenology, we reconsider identity and the “other”: an expanded view of more than humans, an inquiry on how to relate to them. We observe, through the senses, our local context (listening); the knowledge of the global, what has been done, historically, to address local and global (reflect and research). These practices are slow, process-oriented, open and go beyond problem-solving: intentionally moving past the (performative) expectations of what our disciplines can be.
Lígia Oliveira is an artist, designer and researcher, whose work is centred on the relationship between humans and nature. Oliveira’s interdisciplinary, multi-scale work is rooted in research and in a phenomenological approach, and extends across the visual arts, essay, poetry, scientific investigation and design. Oliveira studied Product Design (Esad, Matosinhos) and holds a PhD in Public Space and Urban Regeneration from the University of Barcelona, where she was a researcher; and Professor at the University of Oporto. Lígia Oliveira is the author of several scientific papers and co-editor of the book “The Economy of the Artist”” (Braço de Ferro). Oliveira was awarded the 3rd prize in Urban Furniture by the Antwerp City Council & Havenhuis (co-author) and the 2nd prize in Illustration by the Matosinhos City Council. She is a member of the Design+Posthumanism Network and of Rise Up, and her work has been exhibited mostly in Europe.
 Damásio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Picador.
 Damásio, A. (2018). The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. Pantheon.
 Whyte, K. (2021). The Timing of Climate Change [Conference presentation]. The Mind, the Human-Earth Connection and the Climate Crisis. Mind & Life Summer Research Institute.
 Sennett, R. (1994). Flesh and Stone. The Body and the City in Western Civilisation. Norton.
 Bianciardi, A., Becattini, N. and Cascini, G. (2023). How would nature design and implement nature-based solutions? Nature-Based Solutions. Vol.3. 100047. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nbsj.2022.100047.
 These questions are important for the results, and for connecting to nature – which in itself, is associated with pro-environmental behaviours (Whitburn, J., Linklater, W. and Abrahamse, W. (2020). Meta‐analysis of human connection to nature and proenvironmental behavior. Conservation Biology. 34(1). pp. 180-193. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13381).