Archive for June, 2010

People, ecology, place

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

“How strange it is that a bird, under the form of a woodpecker, should have been created to prey on insects on the ground; that upland geese, which never or rarely swim, should have been created with webbed feet; that a thrush should have been created to dive and feed on sub-aquatic insects; and that a petrel should have been created with habits and structure fitting it for the life of an auk or grebe! and so on in endless other cases. But on the view of each species constantly trying to increase in number, with natural selection always ready to adapt the slowly varying descendants of each to any unoccupied or ill-occupied place in nature, these facts cease to be strange, or perhaps might even have been anticipated.”Charles Darwin (1859), ‘On the Origin of Species’  

As an educational proposition, cultural ecology deals with the relationships between people, ecology and place.  It encompasses the comprehensive interlocking role of ecology in human life and culture, which brings together people with nature to manage our interactions with the man-made environment.  The aim of cultural ecology is to generate respect for both the natural and the built environment so that people act in a way that conserves environmental resources and their cultural and aesthetic values. In particular there is a comprehensive role for arts and architecture as material and spiritual expressions of the cultural values of a society and the need to preserve these expressions for the benefit of future generations.  

Three practical routes to achieve this end are the management of consumerism to reduce social inequalities; management of resources to improve livelihoods; and management of resources for environmental sustainability .   These routes may be expressed at all levels of landscape: the natural landscape, which is not always as “natural” as it appears; the built landscape, which humans have modified to fulfill their physical needs or desires; and the designed landscape, which is the result of conscious effort to produce meaning. Meaning in all categories of landscape ranges from the divine to the humble and practical.  

Meaning and value are created together in our material and spiritual experiences of landscape, not in the landscape itself.  They derive from the ways people perceive environment, not only real-world landscapes but depictions of landscapes in writing, painting, maps, photography, and other forms of art.  These experiences combine the physical aspects of architecture and land use of the everyday environment here and now with individual memories, shared meanings, lived history, and expectations of the how it will or should be in the future. 

Culture and niche 

Darwin’s idea of the evolution of life proceeding from adaptations to environment by natural selection rests on each species being defined by a specific position in nature.  The term niche expresses the idea that this ‘place’ is the sum total of adaptations to the environment possessed by the species in question.  Niche was first used by the naturalist Joseph Grinnell in 1917, in his ornithological paper “The niche relationships of the California Thrasher.”.  A niche refers to the way in which an organism fits into an ecological community or ecosystem.  It is the evolutionary outcome of the sum total of morphological physiological, and behavioural adaptations by which a species genetically adapts to its surroundings. The word “niche” is derived from the Middle French word nicher, meaning to nest. However, it was not until 1927 that Charles Elton gave the first working definition of the niche concept. He is credited with saying: “When an ecologist says ‘there goes a badger,’ he should include in his thoughts some definite idea of the animal’s place in the community to which it belongs, just as if he had said, ‘there goes the vicar.’ The ecological niche has also been termed by G.E. Hutchinson a “hypervolume.” This term defines the multi-dimensional space of resources (e.g., light, nutrients, structure, etc.) available to, and specifically used by, each species.  

It has long been known that many animals extensively modify their immediate surroundings. Numerous ‘animals without hands’ manufacture nests, burrows, holes, webs and pupal cases; plants and micro organisms change levels of atmospheric gases and modify nutrient cycles. The defining characteristic of niche construction is not organism-driven modification of the environment, but rather the specific modification of the relationship between an organism and its environment.  Hence niche construction involves habitat selection, dispersal and migration. Advocates of the niche-construction perspective within evolutionary biology stress the active role that organisms play in driving evolutionary and coevolutionary events. They seek to explain the adaptive complementarity of organism and environment.  This is done in terms of dynamic, reciprocal interactions between the processes of natural selection and niche construction. Evolution thus entails networks of causation and feedback in which previously selected organisms drive environmental changes. Organism-modified environments subsequently select for changes in organisms.  Thus, niche construction is the very general dynamic process whereby species, including humans, modify their own and/or each others’ niches, through their metabolism, their activities, and their behavioural choices. This trend is carried to its extreme in humans, for whom culture has, in fact, become its niche. 

It seems this perspective of cultural ecology emerged in the mind of the American entrepreneur anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan at the time when Darwin was gathering his intellectual strength to publish the Origin of Species.  Morgan was researching the development of human social evolution from savagery to civilisation. He believed the drivers were ideas, passions and aspirations that ran parallel with the idea of ‘property and office’, which over millennia ‘was slowly formed in the human mind’.  Property and office are both the essence of social hierarchy.  Morgan’s full list of cultural processes, which determine the social human niche, is as follows: 1 Subsistence2 Government3 Language4 The Family5 Religion6 House Life and Architecture7 Property Cross discipline research, spanning anthropology and biology is now converging on the view that human evolution has been shaped by dynamic on-going gene/culture/ecology interactions. Theoretical biologists have used population genetic models to demonstrate that social processes that characterise the habitability of space can have a profound effect on human evolution, and anthropologists are investigating cultural practices that modify current selection.  Architectural design is central to habitability. 

Environments of happiness 

‘House architecture, which connects itself with the form of the family and the plan of domestic life, affords a tolerably complete illustration of progress from savagery to civilization.  Its growth can be traced from the hut of the savage, through the communal houses of the barbarians to the house of the single family of civilized nations, with all the successive links by which one extreme is connected with the other’ Lewis Henry Morgan (1877) ‘Ancient Society’ 

In 1725, in the small Suffolk village of Theberton,  James Kemp died prematurely, aged 38.  In his will he described himself as a carpenter architect.  The Kemp family are recorded as builders and timber merchants in the villages around Theberton for about three centuries, where they have been connected with new timber-framed houses and farmsteads. James Kemp’s death was a century after the word architect began to be applied to a particular person.  First used on the title-page of a book by John Shute of 1563, it next appears on the tombstone of Robert Smythson in 1614 and in the register of the death of Robert Lyminge at Blickling in 1628, where he is described as ‘the architect and builder of Blickling Hall (1616).  Lyminge is also recorded as the carpenter architect of Hatfield House begun in 1607.   Smythson began his working life as a mason and became joint head mason with Alan Maynard on Sir John Thynne’s project to rebuild Longleat House after a disastrous fire in the 1660s. He had also designed Woolaton Hall for Sir Francis Willoughby, which was begun in 1580. 

From the lives of Kemp, Smythson and Lyminge it appears that the turn of the 16th century marked the separation of craft from design. Named architects entered history!  Robert Smythson had also been in charge of the conversion of Wardour Castle for Sir Mathew Arundell, Sir Francis Willoughby’s brother-in-law.  Old Wardour Castle is an unusual stone tower house, built in a single-phase from 1393, when King Richard II granted the 5th Lord Lovel a licence to fortify his house at Wardour. The four storey hexagonal tower with its central courtyard that contains a well is actually only lightly fortified with two square towers flanking the entrance.  In the 1570s, Sir Matthew Arundell employed Robert Smythson to decoratively remodel the castle, by then his luxurious home.  He also rebuilt the embattled curtain wall of the huge hexagonal outer court. In May 1643 during the Civil War, the castle was attacked by the Parliamentarian Sir Edward Hungerford and after a short siege the castle was surrendered to him. In December, Henry, 3rd Baron Arundell led a Royalist counter-siege, which lasted until March 1644 when the garrison once again surrendered. Badly damaged by mining and cannon fire, the castle ceased to be occupied. It was replaced by New Wardour Castle in 1776, when the bailey of the old castle was laid out as a landscaped pleasure garden, a peacetime leisure ajunct to the new house. The ruined tower and curtain wall of the outer bailey survives at Old Wardour together with the remains of 17th century stables, an elaborate grotto, a miniature stone circle and a summerhouse. Smythson’s episode at Old Wardour is an illustration of the hold of the past on the imagination of sixteenth-century English landowners.

Architecturally this preoccupation with the past is not only manifest in certain features of new houses built at this time, but in the ways in which existing houses of earlier date, dismantled abbeys and abandoned castles were adapted and altered. Conversion and conservation were almost as great passions of the age as the designing of new houses. Sir William Sharington’s work at the Augustinian nunnery of Lacock is an outstanding instance of the sixteenth-century conversion of a major medieval building. He bought the intact property for £750 at the dissolution of the monastic estate in 1540.  At the same time, as the new lord of the village, he appropriated the north-east chapel in the parish church, where his fine monument, a richly decorated tomb-chest, instantly catches the eye. His character showed the disquieting duality of that of so many men of his century. His undeniable feeling for architecture was allied to a deplorable lack of scruple. Sir William was Vice-Treasurer of the Bristol Mint and he took advantage of his office to finance his activities at Lacock from the State coinage. He was found out and deprived of his property in 1549. His wife managed to obtain his release and buy back the estate in the following year and work at Lacock was immediately resumed. Like several of his contemporaries and like some remarkable landowners of succeeding ages Sir William was himself responsible for the plan and the picturesque aspect of the converted abbey. He kept the entire cloister of the medieval structure with its lierne vault and lively bosses, together with the chapter-house and warming-room which lead off from it, none of which provided practical living space but were simply conversation pieces of antiquarian interest.  In the east range he introduced a gallery with Italianate pilasters. He skilfully harmonized the fifteenth-century gatehouse with an outer courtyard built of stone but with half-timbered dormers and a pretty half-timbered clock turret and cupola, and concentrated his modernising interest in classical form on the south front of his house. This new Lacock facade for the first time stresses the import of continental Renaissance elements, which was an inseparable part of those Elizabethan times. The proportions of the design and the prominent balustraded parapet masking, yet emphasising, the roofline – an essentially classical convention – are completely novel and untraditional. The oriel windows are Gothic Revival additions by the later owner of the abbey, Fox Talbot, the pioneer photographer.

laycock3.jpgLaycock Abbey

The sharp discord between the balustraded, horizontal front and the medieval survivals preserved within the building is beautifully resolved by the corner tower, upon which the whole domestic ecology of Sharington’s conversion hinges. This is polygonal, with a Renaissance parapet, and the fenestration of the top room is absolutely regular. Yet the stair turret is crowned by a pepperpot dome and below the parapet, beast heads snarl and grimace like medieval gargoyles. Inside the tower in the two top rooms and contemporary with them, are two extraordinary stone tables as revealing of Sharington’s character and historical interests as the building itself. They are polygonal like the tower. One is supported by fauns carrying buckets of fruit, the other by four herms and four niches enclosing allegorical figures. Constructed within the tower room, they are immovable and provide today’s visitors with a direct mental connection with the mind of the designer.  But the Gothic past is not forgotten: the Renaissance-derived niches are provided with rib-vaults. The tower was built as a ‘safe deposit box’ with a view.  It also performed the essential service of drawing attention to Sharington’s dominance of the village across his private parkland. We can generalise from Laycock, that in the case of existing structures, alterations and modifications made by Elizabethans throughout the land, almost without exception, the designs exaggerate and glamorise the character of the previous buildings as well as transforming them by the introduction of classical themes. For example, shortly after 1580, the rambling aspect of Haddon Hall, which strikes us as so essentially medieval, was intensified by the addition of a long gallery, oriels and castellated bays and by the glorious terraced garden, which calls attention to the sloping nature of the site. 

Haddon HallHaddon Hall  

A century later, in 1687, Newton published his “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, often called the ‘Principia’.  The Principia states Newton’s laws of motion, forming the foundation of physical science, which includes Newton’s law of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.  It explained so many different things about the workings of the natural world with such precision, that this method became synonymous with physics, even as it is practiced almost over four centuries after its beginning.  In the same year, the architect William Talman was appointed by William Cavendish, later 1st Duke of Devonshire, to remodel the south-facing garden façade of Chatsworth House. For sheer splendour, the elevation was without precedent within the realms of country-house design. Conceived for Cavendish, an influential Whig nobleman on the eve of the Glorious Revolution, it reflected the Baroque magnificence of the contemporary royal residence at Greenwich, and the palaces of Paris and Rome. Talman’s professional pedigree was first recorded in compositions executed only during his thirties when he was working with Wren.   In the lives of Newton and Talman, two poles of culture and nature had come into equilibrium.  A mysterious and menacing universe had been transformed into a vast but comprehensible all embracing structure of mathematical precision and beautiful simplicity.  In this context, science and architecture are both attempts to recreate recognisable patterns of human emotional life.  They replicate and mirror aspects of the human condition by presenting conceptual cultural and environmental structures symbolised in numbers and objects. Science and art are come to common ground in a burst of human creativity.   

We can say that the lifetime period between 1670 and 1730 was a flash of light that expelled the murky world of medieval superstition, barbarism and ignorance.  These developments in science and architecture illuminated a contemporary sense of ‘living happy’ with which we are enveloped as soon as we step into the three-dimensional ‘pictures’ of buildings in 18th century landscape gardens.  Three centuries ago the owners were dominated by a noble zeal for building, for laying out gardens, planting avenues and improving their land and thereby achieving a deeply satisfying cultural equilibrium between family and environment. However, all of this costly building activity was backed by an increase in inequalities of wealth within the rural population who provided labour.  This division was at variance with the long-term aim of the property owner, which was to pass his family happiness associated with property and office to grandchildren yet to be conceived.  The other key words in relation to property were nature and the picturesque. In the vocabulary of eighteenth century landowners, nature stood for order proportion, authority, clarity and concord. Picturesque stood for the presence of something not inherent in the nature of the thing like ruggedness belonging to a mountain, or a deeper expression of it such as age or sorrow. This quest for the artistic qualities of people in nature and the picturesque is still evidently a powerful human cultural goal today.  It is expressed in membership of the National Trust, cosmopolitan events like the Chelsea Flower Show and the subject matter and style of pictures we like to hang on our walls and snap with our digital cameras. 

Cultural evolution of the country house 

‘The fact that buildings, particularly in pre-industrial cultures, do seem to develop through the testing and selection of discrete variations has added strength to the narrow analogy with evolution, but I would argue that buildings emerge in this sense from a host of intertwined mechanisms in which the forces of culture, and now media, are every bit as important as the narrow functional terms such as structural efficiency. In fact, looked at in this way, it seems remarkable that building forms or uses are at all stable when there are so many kinds of forces active’. William W. Braham (2002) ACSA Technology Conference  

The country house culture can be said to have begun in the 17th century when wealth began to accumulate widely beyond the aristocratic divide.  Mostly it derived from the perks of political office and the personal profits of entrepreneurship.   An example of the latter is the rise to social prominence of the Midlands Foley family. Richard Foley (1588-1657) was a prominent Midlands pioneer ironmaster.  His son Thomas took over his father’s business and made great profits from it in the 1650s and 1660s, which he used to buy estates. In the late 1660s, he founded a bluecoat school at Stourbridge known as Old Swinford Hospital, which he endowed in his will. On one of his properties in the village of Great Witley, in 1655 he erected two towers on the north side of the existing house and his grandson Thomas Foley, the 1st Lord Foley, added wings to enclose the entrance courtyard. This house became the ancestral home of the Foley family and the family continued to prosper. In 1735 the 2nd Lord Foley constructed a new parish church to the west of the courtyard, an undertaking begun by his father. The church was given a remarkable baroque interior in 1747 when he commissioned James Gibbs to incorporate paintings and furnishings acquired at the auction of the contents of Cannons House. This was the magnificent Middlesex home of the Duke of Chandos from where the artwork was shipped by canal to Great Witley.  During the second half of the 18th century the park at Great Witley was landscaped. This included relocating the village, which brought the lower orders, from which the first Thomas Foley had sprung, too close for comfort.  In about 1805 the 3rd lord employed John Nash to carry out a major reconstruction of the house, including the addition of huge ionic porticoes to the north and south fronts. The portico on the south front is probably the largest on any country house in England.   

The impecunious 4th Lord had to sell the estate in 1837 to the trustees of William, Lord Ward, who had inherited a great fortune from the coal and iron industries in the Black Country.  In the 1850s, Lord Ward (by then ennobled as the Earl of Dudley) engaged the architect Samuel Daukes, who had already altered his London house, Dudley House on Park Lane and the church at Great Witley, to remodel the house in Italianate style using ashlar stone cladding over the existing red brickwork. He also commissioned the leading garden designer William Andrews Nesfield to transform the gardens.  Much of his wealth was devoted to the restoration of Worcester Cathedral and as a major benefactor his magnificently decorated tomb is situated prominently in the retrochoir. 

These major investments in country living took place within a significant lifetime period between 1770 and 1830 during which profits from industrialism moulded the English country house culture.  Iron working in the 17th century had marked the first phase of industrial profitability. The next century saw the introduction of power spinning in the Lancashire cotton industry through the invention of the Hargreaves jenny and the Arkwright water frame.  In 1732 a few Stockport manufacturers acquired a mill and started the mass production of silk.  Their impulse came from the purchase by Parliament of Lombe’s silk-throwing machinery, when the British patent expired.  Pirated from Italy, the machine had 26,586 wheels and 97,746 movements driven by a 24 ft diameter water wheel.  The industry expanded rapidly and by 1770 there were a dozen silk mills in Stockport alone.  Its wholesale adoption marks an epoch in the rise of the British factory system.  The local uptake of ideas and inventions was becoming commonplace and produced wealth beyond imagining for those landowners, bankers, lawyers and businessmen who, one way or another, became engaged in mass production. Invariably, one of their first intentions was to consolidate their social status by devoting a significant portion of their newly found wealth to purchase or embellish a country estate. 

image1480.JPGDownton Castle

Between 1770 and 1830 the picturesque form of the country house was exemplified by Richard Payne Knight’s Downton Castle.  There is no doubt that Knight, who was born to a parson and his servant girl, owed his wealth to the fortunes of his grandfather, one of several wealthy pioneer ironmasters.   Downton Castle was a practical expression of the ideas of Knight, as an arbiter of the culture of the picturesque.  It led to a powerful architectural movement led by the building designer Anthony Salvin, who eventually produced the giant house of Harlaxton Manor for Gregory de Ligne Gregory in the 1830s; a drama of curves and pepperpot domes, oriels and strapwork and towers all in golden stone.   

harlaxton.jpgHarlaxton Manor

John Gregory, who was Mayor in 1571 and again in 1586, established the Gregory family in the highest levels of civic culture of Nottingham during the 16th century. His son, William, represented the town in Parliament and gave tenements to the town for the benefit of the poor. The family has always been very intimately associated with the public life of the town until almost modern times.  The source of Gregory Gregory’s wealth to build Harlaxton probably came from the rising prosperity of the family’s business interests in the town.   Nottingham’s industrial wealth sprang from Heathcote and Leavers numerous patents for machinery, which collectively revolutionised the mass manufacture of lace at the beginning of the 19th century.  Mass production of lace brought the lace industry to the fore in Nottingham, over and above that of the earlier textile industry, framework knitting.  

Thoresby Hall was Anthony Salvin’s last great commission.  He was building the house in his inimical Gothic revival style when Lewis Henry Morgan was publishing ‘Ancient Society’ in 1877.  Salvin had pioneered this Tudor/Jacobean confection when a young man.  Every building he designed was based on his own research into authentic medieval examples.  His objective the cultural fusion of domestic or castellated architecture of the Middle Ages, the Tudors, and the Jacobeans, with design techniques of the picturesque.  He used the past as a basis for creation, not copyism, in order to satisfy the needs of the early Victorian upper classes for a house to display their property and office. Two other houses in this by now outdated style were completed at just this time, Elvetham Hall, by S.S. Teulon and Ettington Park by John Prichard. All three houses are now preserved as luxury hotels.   Coincident with the Thoresby build, two of Salvin’s pupils, Norman Shaw and William Eden Nesfield, were building Leyswood and Kinmel respectively in a new English vernacular style, which drew on simple design elements inherent in aspects of Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean buildings, such as half-timbering and prominent gables.  Today, these features are still desirable features of mass-produced private housing. 

A vivid picture emerges from the professional lives of these architects of how people shape buildings and buildings shape people, as changing rules about the layout and uses of space have an impact on social relationships.  In this sense, we are dealing with the construction of new cultural niches, which mark the progress of rural social evolution. Landowners modify their own selective environment to such a degree that it changes the selection pressures acting on present and future generations as to how they will engage culturally with space.  

The cultural interaction of animals with space is a firm biological principle, which may be traced to Charles Darwin, who identified the variable dialects of bird songs as traditions of social learning.  To him they illustrated “that an instinctive tendency to acquire an art is not peculiar to man”.  Culture consists in behaviour patterns transmitted by imitation or tuition. Animals acquire behaviour complexes by the imitation of one another. Many instances of instruction of the young by animal parents have been authoritatively reported. For example, songs invented by certain birds and then acquired by other birds through association are conclusive evidence of the rudiments of culture in the strictest sense of the word. Domesticated animals acquire culture complexes from human beings.  The niche construction concept can be applied to all animals with culture.  In this respect it has been generalised as the ‘triple-inheritance model’ of cultural evolution because it builds on previous so-called dual-inheritance models, which cast genetic and social evolution as by and large independent evolutionary systems.  Through Morgan’s dictum that ‘property and office were the foundations upon which aristocracy planted itself’, the niche construction approach extends such models to human cultural ecology.  It incorporates the ecological domain rather than only addressing cultural traits learned by individuals. Genetic selection pressures are not discernable through the generations inhabiting different versions of the country house.  Nevertheless, in less opulent living spaces it is more obvious that our bodies are in constant dialogue with our surroundings. Interior space characterised by high mortality would favour those with genetic resistance to cold, smoke inhalation and diseases carried by insect vectors.  The lack of access to a domestic safe water supply, sanitation and hygiene is still the third most significant risk factor for poor health in developing countries with high mortality rates. Similarly, the risk of disease and death skyrockets when sick and hungry family members are crammed together in a leaky, smoke-filled hut.  This powerful genetic selection pressure of poor homelife, which is still with humanity in a global perspective, casts light on the situation in the village community surrounding Salvin’s Thoresby Hall in the 1870s.  In this respect, it is interesting to read General Sir Allan Shafto Adair’s comments on life in Flixton Hall, which Salvin had built for the Adair family in the mid 1840s.   ‘Flixton Hall was a vast, uncomfortable mausoleum still with no proper central heating…. It was bitterly cold there in winter that our children had to wear their overcoats when they went from room to room’. (A Guard’s General, 1986). 

Regarding living space, we can contrast the one-up, one down, norm for a 19th century English labourer’s cottage with the multitude of interconnected rooms of the local lord, where, for example, it is known that in one country house, a cottage-spaced room was designated exclusively for ironing the daily newspapers! Paradoxically, we put this blatant social inequality on one side to follow architectural traces of the past in buildings designed to encase a family standard of living, which we still admire and willingly accept when we pay to be a guest of Thoresby Hall.  Despite this incongruity, by considering the cultural and biophysical interplay between our bodies and buildings, generalised insights can be gathered into the habitability of buildings and how they are occupied and understood spatially as cultural markers.  We take with us on this quest unrealistic ideas of habitation and comfort that we anticipate when responding to the external picturesque form of a building and associate with forthcoming interior experiences. Architecture, therefore provides a stage upon which everyday social life is enacted.  It thereby generates a “concept of history,” both individual and collective.  Our biological imperative is Georges Perec’s architectural mantra for stating the ordinary and everyday aspect of cultural evolution: ‘To live is to pass from one space to another’

thoresby.jpgThoresby Hall

Educational framework 
As an educational proposition, cultural ecology deals with the interactions between ‘’place and ‘people’ to produce material and spiritual values for the cultural management of:  

  • consumerism to reduce social inequalities;
  • material resources to improve livelihoods;
  • and biophysical resources to maintain environmental sustainability;

 and thereby ensure sustainable development of the natural environment, the built environment and the designed environment, which together with biological niches, categorise place. 

This proposition is set out in the following mindmap

Cultural ecology mindmap

The next mindmap develops the above concept of biological niches.  The proposition is that interactions between spaces and culture take place by organisms partitioning the environment to create biological niches.  Biological niches result from social and genetic selection, which are adaptations to environment that change human culture through processes of social inheritance and genetic inheritance.  Processes of social inheritance are family legacies of wealth and property and the adoption of status models of house life and architecture arising from historical scholarship and technological innovation.

Spaces and culture

Cultural maps of meaning

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Our ancestors of 4 Myr ago lived in a world as they found it and left it intact.  Since these primeval times it is through culture that we have irreversibly transformed our physical, biological, social and informational environments to define human ecology. Humans of one generation bequeath a constructed world to the next generation, who, on average, alter it further before transmitting it to their successors.  With the evolution of this new human ‘ecology of construction’, a transformation occurred in hominin morphology and life history. Humans are less sexually dimorphic than australopithecines, but we are larger, with relatively bigger brains. Our cortical regions, especially, have expanded and we pay the metabolic cost of these vital tissues and the long learning curve they promote.  But we are still part of nature in everything we do.

Mindmap of ‘ecology of construction’


Humankind now has to face managing the dynamics of being an indivisible part of nature from shopping to kissing.  This is the scope of cultural ecology, which developed at the interface between biology, geography and anthropology in the early 1970s.  It was a time when applied ecology emerged as a profession aimed at understanding how plants, animals, microbes and people coexist spatially. The aim was to discover how the environment can be constructed socially and organised technically and ethically for sustainable production of all species. This requires a major cultural change by adopting a progressive sense of space, where place is the intersection of sets of social relations over particular spaces and the connections they make to elsewhere.  

The first ecological models of the progressive relationship between environment and culture were native subsistence societies in Central America and Papua New Guinea.  They illustrated the shift from local cultural beliefs and practices, developed in a pristine environment, to encompass external economic relations.  New cultures were created based on commodity production with the adoption of wage labour and the pursuit of cash. Now that ancient cultures of self-sufficiency are extinct, all levels of education are increasingly focused on the ecology of construction expressed in the spatiality of human and other life forms.  Spatiality is the outcome of the act of dwelling in or living permanently in a place comprising the habitats of all living things.  Appropriate synomyms are inhabitancy, inhabitation; the hypernyms are occupancy, tenancy; and the hyponyms are cohabitation, living together.

 To illustrate the generality of this habitat dynamic I have taken two Western cultural entities, the East Anglian village of Flixton and the farm of Rhos Llawr Crwt in West Wales.  I came to know these places through a series of random geographical collisions in my work as an applied ecologist.  To me they present examples of what is called ‘third space’. These are spaces where two or more cultures have and are interacting with the production of place through a blending of historicality with sociality. They show that the study of ‘third space’ has to involve the perception of place, time, habitancy and ecological development as equal participants in the ecology of human existence.  Third space is produced by the incorporation of spatial awareness into social processes based on a deep cultural understanding that we are one among many species. It is a space for the imagination to link humanity across generational and temporal boundaries. 

Space is understood as ‘a creation’, ‘a site of production’ and ‘a site to be experienced and consumed’.  In order to define a space, first we locate objects; we relate them to other objects and make spatial patterns; then we see how the objects and relationships are established by social processes to become part of a local culture.  Finally, spaces become hybrids when it is realised that they are subject to contestation from different groups who want to redefine the meaning and boundaries. This blending occurs through socio-ecological management by people investing a place with social and spiritual power.  In so doing they produce a ‘cultural map of meaning’.  Such luminal islands of the spirit are used to make sense of the local environment in which natives and visitors are immersed practically and notionally. At any time, the primary factor changing a cultural map to deepen the spatiality of human life is the input of money beyond that which can be generated from the land itself.  In the simplest possible terms, money is anything that can be exchanged for goods and services.

We cannot help making each place we encounter distinctive.   Its part of our genetic endowment to embed ourselves in our immediate surroundings, often imposing idiosyncratic romantic and literary clichés on spaces with no claims to accuracy.   It is this evolved property of humankind that impels us endow every being and every place with a particular spirit, known from ancient times as a ‘genius loci’.  We cannot help giving beings and places a unique character.  These personal endowments, together with all other personal choices we make contribute to what has been defined as an individual’s ‘existential essence’.  Existential philosophy is interested in how human beings live, and make sense of where they live given the limitations of what it is to be human.


US Airforce personnel* at Flixton Hall circa 1943

 US Airmen at Flixton Hall

The above snapshot was taken by one of a group of off-duty American airmen stationed at an airfield constructed in the village of Flixton at the outbreak of World War 2.  They are posed in the deer park against a northern portion of the garden wall surrounding Flixton Hall.  In this position they are situated at one of the many social boundaries of the village, which gave everyone living in Flixton at that time, their human identity. Until the coming of the military, the population of Flixton, since records began, had remained stable at around 100 individuals.  The operation of the airfield increased its populace about thirty-fold.  The base was a temporary addition, which emptied after the War when the village returned to its pre-war size.  It was not until the 1960s that plans were imposed by the local authority to deliberately increase the housing stock to make space for incomers arising from an increase in the UK population. 

Sand and gravel to build the airfield was excavated from valley pastoral lands and this industrial activity continues to this day.  The current operations and the old abandoned flooded workings have created a new barren and derelict landscape of sand, gravel, flints and water along the northern boundary of the village with the River Waveney. Attempts are being made to beautify this legacy of wartime expediency through planting hedgerows.  These boundary features delineate a new space within the village but from which people are excluded. Although the airfield was vacated in 1956 the concrete runways and military infrastructure remained and attracted some new commercial investment and activities with jobs which employ people who live outside the village. 

The Second World War was therefore a turning point in compartmentation of the village.  Before the upheaval brought by the airfield. Flixton as a place was rooted and bounded by physical features of hill and water. It had a fixed set of economic and social characteristics that had equilibrated with the fortunes of the dominant landowning family, the Adairs.  As a third space its internal social skeleton was visible in the footpaths, roads, ponds, moats, woods, field boundaries, gates, farmsteads, and houses, all interwoven with the continuous metal fence of its large deer park.  The latter was a statement of the Adair’s economic and political power, which had lasted for over three hundred years.  During the Adair’s time and well before, Flixton’s social hierarchy was a steady state; a dynamic equilibrium where families came and went but the village was in thrall to a top-weighted manorial system.  At first the peak was represented by St Felix and his ecclesiastical mission to Christianise the pagan Angles, then there was the prioress of the local Augustinian nunnery.   The Tasburgh family acquired their power base by taking over the rights, privileges and properties of the nuns. 

In this long run of historicality the Adairs were the last to assume overlordship of the village.  Somewhere along this time line of sociality the common rights of the villagers were extinguished and tenant farms created, so shifting the third space duality of ‘observable’ to ‘hidden’, as the affairs of the village retreated into numerous spaces of private property.  This process was accelerated after the War by the breakup of the Adair’s vast estate to pay inheritance tax.  The neglected woods are currently the assets of distant bankers and the old deer pasture is a grass monoculture supporting an intensive dairy unit. Mechanisation of farming removed communal figures from the fields and the church lost its role as a social focus.  Now the parkland, which was one huge no-go area for the villagers, has been fragmented into numerous private places as barns and their outbuildings have been converted into middle-class homes. Society has become steadily more privatised with cars, computers, and shopping centres, so extinguishing the public component of village life.

 Flixton Hall today


Flixton Hall has a long history as a complex space given ideological meaning by male dominance in rural architectural form-making.  Since the 1950s it has been a forlorn ruin awaiting redevelopment.  Like all ruins, the few remains of carved stone, cracked floor tiles and cow-grazed curves of the ornamental garden are redolent of the dualities of past and present, growth and decay, myth and history.  They evoke deep emotional, philosophical, and literary responses against which modernity can be measured. In this respect, the Hall’s monumentality is key to Flixton as a third space because it immediately affects our notions of place, of self and the need to ensure ruins are kept ‘alive’.  Flixton Hall in the 18th century was at the forefront of expressing the English country house concept of ‘the picturesque’.  Its ruination reminds us that reason kills everything, that place and space are both social constructs which are culturally mediated and intermeshed.    The exclusion of ‘felt life’, by which we evaluate the spirit of place, strips away mystery, religion and even art.  Nowhere is this more evident that in one of Flixton’s latest social constructs, its aviation museum.  This is a thriving enterprise with free entry, supported by volunteers who come regularly from far and wide.  The annual visitor numbers are in the tens of thousands.  It is both a technical history of aviation and a memorial to those who flew the bombing missions from East Anglia’s military bases in World War 2.  To understand Flixton’s symbolic role in this conflict one has to walk from the museum in the valley to a flat treeless hilltop above the village; to a luminal island of the spirit where the old runways are lost to view each year in acres of vigorous crops of cereals.  Walking allows new spaces to be discovered, which are physical, in this case a concrete runway, and which are also epistemological, an understanding of the runway and the personal meaning it holds. A narrative with transcendental overtones emerges that might not have been uncovered in a stationary investigation. It is from the undistinguished hill top, in the space of three years, that hundreds of men took to the air with their deadly cargoes never to return.  This spot becomes a third space and is yet another reminder that we unthinkingly accept the premise that because of globalisation, all places are becoming the same, rather than assuming that all places are different.  

Rhos Llawr Cwrt 

Rhos Llawr Cwrt can be accurately described as an absolute distinct physical reality. Its topography can be traced back ten thousand years or more to when the Welsh ice sheet melted revealing the outcomes of climate change in a complex surface of permafrost depressions and moraine ridges. As a geographical space it consists of 25 ha of  wet, unimproved grassland, which goes under the generic name of ‘rhos pastures’.  This habitat is the outcome of a regional combination of high rainfall, thin soils, glacial topography and history of subsistence livestock-farming and was once abundant in the Ceredigion hills of West Wales. As the crow flies, the reserve is only about 10km from Cardigan Bay. The land rises steeply from the sea, and the dough-like folds of the hills, cut by the occasional ice-gouged valley, form an amphitheatre to the north and west.. The land which rises at the south-western end of the reserve is now bright green with improved grass swards, but it once belonged to the farm as seminatural rhos pasture.  

Rhos pasture below improved hill grazing


The reserve was singled out as a special place when it was notified as an SSSI in 1979 and declared a National Nature Reserve in 1986, Wales’ only grassland ecological treasure. Owned and managed by the Countryside Council for Wales, it is also the site of one of the most exciting experiments in habitat restoration in Wales, which has the aim of converting the surrounding 25 ha of semi-improved rushy grassland back to rhos pasture. Because of its carefully researched action plan the site is used widely for training conservation managers. It is a candidate Special Area of Conservation, designated under the EU Habitats Directive for its populations of Marsh Fritillary and Slender Green Feather-moss.  At the time of its discovery by a roving scientist it was a rare wildlife habitat, part of a 230 acre farm called Llawrcwrt.  Since 1983 it has been subjected to scientific study.  Now, with its huge population of butterflies Rhos Llawr Cwrt is a small ecological island and a superlative example of the biodiversity that subsistence farmers could produce without actually knowing it! The nature reserve, with its tracts of butterfly- and flower-rich wet meadows, and the evidence of glacial activity, feels timeless and ancient. With foreground of ancient banks and woods, the approaches to Llawrcwrt Farm yield only glimpses of the humps and bumps of the glacial landscape through which you are passing. Arrival at the farm itself is a moment to savour. Ancient stone built buildings, straddle a small rise in the valley floor.  This is where two cultures, the old self-sufficent family hill farm and the modern government-backed national conservation agency; the farmers and the applied ecologists, meet and blend.  History and natural history are deeply entwined at Rhos Llawr Cwrt. However, one glance at the surrounding hills destroys this sense of an unchanged landscape. They are bright green, gashed with plough lines and fences of intensive pastoral farming. The space of Rhos Llawr Cwrt reserve probes the hill in a tongue of textured browns and greens, an indication of what the surrounding hills would once have been like.   In theory, an understanding of ecology can help the historian to read the management history of a site like the pages of a book. Similarly, knowledge of a site’s management history can explain its ecology. The theory usually breaks down in practice, partly from a lack of information, and the need for interdisciplinary skills that can put history and ecology together, but also because the 20th century has so comprehensively torn and scribbled all over the pages of ecological information which plant and animal communities represent.   First mentioned in 1214 in a charter granted to the Cistercian monks of Whitland by King John, Llawrcwrt combines the word ‘court’, which was often attached to monastic lands, and ‘Llawr’, meaning ‘floor’, or in this case the flat valley bottom. Although the fortunes of the monks declined, the foundations of the 13th century farm economy, based on sheep and cattle, have remained to this day. The human population was almost completely dependent on farming, and on the natural resources available to them in the immediate area. Brown trout  and even the odd Atlantic salmon could be caught in the streams; wood provided furniture, fuel and footwear (clog-making was an important local industry); and rushes were gathered for bedding, to make ropes and for rush lights. Until the 19th century, much of the Clettwr valley and its surrounding hills was unenclosed. The reserve occupies what was originally the large ‘unenclosed’ part of the farm, although even this has been split into smaller compartments in recent times.  The pattern of farms and smallholdings, dotted along and above the valley and circled by small fields, has not changed all that much. However, the boundaries and methods of farming adapted to them have completely changed.  The first Ordnance Survey map of 1834 shows a great sweep of land to the east and west of the Clettwr valley free from roads, with only farm tracks for access. The track to Llawrcwrt also gave access to two further farms. These and other neighbouring farms appear on the 1844 tithe map in the midst of clusters of small, inbye fields, the boundaries of which have long since disappeared. These were mostly on gravel out-washes or had field drains, so they could be ploughed to grow ‘black oats’, barley and potatoes, or they were cut for hay or kept for lambing and calving. Surrounding these farms were large, unfenced areas, with tapers of land connecting these ‘wastes’ with the farms. These areas are now all fenced, drained and ploughed. Level land was ‘improved’ first, but much of the steeper, hilly land was not ploughed until as recently as the 1970s. Local people well remember the heathery hills, coconut-scented with the bright yellow blooms of gorse. Unless you take an imaginative leap back in time, and capture some sense of what life was like on farms like Llawrcwrt, it is hard to appreciate why the reserve is as it is. There were many people living off the land a century or more ago. Peat-cutting shaped the reserve in a direct, physical way. It continued on a part of the reserve known as Gors Las, or the ‘green bog’, as late as 1950. The peat here is many feet thick. Dragonflies circle the peaty pools where it was last cut, and here Crowberry is at the most southern edge of its range in Wales, a natural biological monitor of climate change.  The land around Llawrcwrt represents the last vestige of this ancient farming pattern. Most of the present field boundaries can be seen on the 1844 tithe map and also on the plan prepared for the sale of Llawrcwrt in 1875, when the farm and 285 acres were sold as one lot. The 1881 census shows 21 people living at the farm or other cottages, mostly described as labourers or farm servants.  

Historically, rhos pastures were grazed by livestock, and this has been central to conserving the habitat that we value today. Conservation management at Rhos Llawr Cwrt is based on a controlled grazing regime using cattle during the spring and summer. The grazing programme is designed to maintain the marshy grassland, wet-heath, neutral-grassland and mire communities that are present as a fine-scale mosaic over the majority of the site; this also maintains the habitat in the condition required by the Marsh Fritillary butterfly. The conservation and the livestock production objectives for vegetation structure are the same.  The target is best described as a patchwork of tall, often tussocky, grasses and rushes with a moderate amount of litter and areas of short turf with little or no litter. The foodplant of the butterfly, Devil’s-bit Scabious, will thrive in these conditions, in its prostrate form. The stock keeper does not have to monitor the visual outcome by counting species or measuring the average gap between tussocks; the pattern of vegetation either looks right or wrong.  Stocking rates to achieve this structure are normally within the recommended range of 0.3-0.5 livestock units per ha per annum, but it is sometimes necessary to raise or lower the level of grazing. The main reason for this dynamic is variation in the weather. A warm, wet summer will result in greater biomass production in the sward, necessitating higher stocking rates to achieve the required structure. The reverse is, of course, true for a cold, dry summer.  The stock keeper is an artist and the glacial topography of Rhos Lawr Cwrt is his studio. Currently, the majority of the grazing stock are Welsh Black cattle belonging to an adjacent farm.   The availability of farm-owned stock for grazing on what is in agricultural terms ‘poor-quality’ grassland is uncertain in the long term.    Stocking rates used on the reserve are too low to prevent scrub development, particularly of Common Gorse Ulex europaeus and Grey Willow Salix cinerea.  These are controlled by periodic cutting and use of selective herbicides. This raises the paradox of livestock management to maintain and extend the biodiversity of rhos pasture in that it partially follows the chemical path of extensive farming.  Nevertheless, walking through Rhos Lawr Crwt is to make contact with a living textured and coloured space that has not changed in centuries.

Like viewing an abstract work of art or a ruined monument the visual experience involves a spatial emotion of a ‘felt life’.  In this context, it is profitable to use synonyms with subjective attributes to describe the experience of depth as a penetration into layers of things more distant.  When we wish to express the experience of intensity of feeling for instance, we say ‘depth of feeling’ or ‘penetration into knowledge’ or ‘having a revelation’.  The mind is bringing a mental state of contemplation out of the depths of a partially seen phenomenon into a frontal understanding. The rhos pasture thus becomes a portrait of an idea. In contemporary parlance people increasingly speak of spirituality rather than religion when trying to express what moves them most deeply; and many consider the two to be distinctly different. Most of the characteristics associated with religion, however, are found whether people consider themselves spiritual or religious. Therefore, there is little analytical reason to assume these are different kinds of social phenomena. The two ways of forming a sense of  place can certainly come together when viewing rhos pasture.  It is important, however, to understand what most see the distinction to entail, especially because the term spirituality is more often than the term religion associated with nature and nature-loving.  Spirituality is often thought to be about personal growth and gaining a proper understanding of one’s place in the cosmos, and to be intertwined with environmentalist concern and action.  This contrasts markedly with the world’s predominant religions, which are generally concerned with escaping this world or obtaining divine rescue from it to enter a space that is out of this world. At Lawrcwrt the outcome resulting from a blending of management with ecology is raised to the same cultural level of intensity and emotion as music and poetry.   Walking through Flixton or Rhos Lawr Cwrt at the interface of ecology and culture we can let the unseen and the external govern our enthusiasm for the phenomenal and passing.  This perspective crosses continents and ethnicity.  The Indian poet and dramatist Rabindranath Tagore expressed this awareness of another way of thinking when raw logic fails in a word picture of his place in the streaming cosmic life process of his Bengali homeland.   

“No one realises that in his blood the waves of thy sea dance, the forest-restlessness trembles.  This thought fills my mind today, that I have come, from age to age dropping silently from form to form, from life to life.  I have come, using up in gift after gift, in song after song, whatever my hand has gained in night and morning”.

So we go our ways, drawn

“to the great stream, from the tumult of the past which lies behind, to the bottomless dark, to the shoreless light!

 Without this transcendent mode of cultural ecology we shall find ourselves unable sooner or later to make any sense of the full range of human self-awareness.  This was an important standpoint of the author, John Steinbeck.   To see nature with great clarity was important to Steinbeck. To see beyond the physical to an underlying cultural pattern and larger significance was equally essential. He wrote this in 1948: “There are good things to see in the tidepools and there are exciting and interesting thoughts to be generated from the seeing. Every new eye applied to the peep hole which looks out at the world may fish in some new beauty and some new pattern, and the world of the human mind must be enriched by such fishing”. (“Preface ,Between Pacific Tides) 

Steinbeck, in Sea of Cortez, asks his readers to shift perspective because Nature yields more than simple beauty.

 “[A] man looking at reality brings his own limitations to the world, if he has strength and energy of mind the tide pool stretches both ways, digs back to electrons and leaps space into the universe and fights out of the moment into non-conceptual time. Then ecology has a synonym which is ALL”.  

References and Acknowledgements

 *Men of Ordnance Section of the 705th Squadron, 446th Bomb Group.  Left to right: top row – Phil Schenker, Fred Mahnken, Leonard Mayer; bottom row Vincent DeAngeles, Alex Cote (Suffolk RO)

Reserve Focus: Rhos LLawr Cwrt (2002) James Robertson & David Wheeler, British Wildlife 13, 171-176

Google maps


Rhos Llawr Cwrt: