About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Looking Past the Primitive Hut


For the last couple of centuries, a great deal of theoretical architectural discourse has revolved around the concept of the Primitive Hut.  Although this concept has existed since the time of Vitruvius, it entered into serious academic discussion after Laugier used it as the frontispiece of his Essai sur l'Architecture.  It is a fundamental mythologization of architecture.

Although there is absolutely no archeological record of a hut of the type that Laugier described, nor any evidence that anyone prior to the Imperial Romans even theorized the elements of the hut in the manner theorists think about them, it is still an essential key to understanding architectural form.  The ideas that the column is emblematic of the tree and the pediment shed water like the leafy branches above.

However, this is not the only way to mythologize fundamental architectural forms.  Ching, for example, discusses patterns of organization and mathematical proportions.  According to Simon Unwin, there are four fundamental architectural elements; The Bower, the Hearth, The Altar and the Performance Space.  These are then housed in enclosures to create the basic architectural forms of the House, the Temple and the Theatre. 

But it is Unwin's fundamental elements that I am particularly interested in here.  Unwin looks at these from a purely pragmatic, formal analysis in much the same way the architects who have followed Laugier used the Primitive Hut as a formal derivation to explain the Orders, and ultimately even Le Corbusier's Five Points.  But looking at these fundamental elements as formal only completely ignores the cultural context, and what these elements tell us about ourselves.

Before I begin exploring this, I want to discard one of Unwin's elements, the performance space.  If we wish to go back to the most ancient roots, the hearth in it's broader context was the prototypical performance space, where tales were told around the fire.  In their most primitive forms, the Bower, the Hearth and the Altar were the three fundamentals, the performance space followed behind these three as social structure evolved.

I also want to point out, in the beginning, these fundamental elements would not have been "architecture" in the way we currently describe it.  However, if you want to state that architecture is any alteration of the natural environment for human use, then these elements, even in their most primitive state would be architecture. 

I should note here, that I don't personally restrict architecture to purely human actions on the environment.  I consider beaver dams, termite mounds and birds nests to be architecture.  In fact, any modification of the environment by deliberate action for the purpose of habitation could be considered architecture.  Similarly, any alteration of the environment for non-functional purposes could be considered art.  And yes, animals do make art, from Bower Birds lavishly decorating their nests to dogs that deliberately place their toys in specific geometric patterns.

To return to the point, we would probably not see the most primitive of these elements as architecture; a pile of branches for sleeping, a ring of stones to protect a fire, a specific mark on a tree or in a cave, these are what would have been the original forms of these elements.

However, it is not the physical that interests me, it is the significance of them that begins to tell us about the societies.  As I have stated before, architecture is a pure cultural container.  How it is arranged, what it is made out of, even the relationships between uses in proximity tell us volumes about what a society valued, how they viewed the world, what sort of social structure existed.  In terms of pre and proto literate societies, or for ones for which we cannot decipher the written language, it is the only key to understanding them.

But these fundamental elements are also the fundamental elements of mythologization of built form.   Myth the ties of man to man, man to God and man to himself.   Then, in a more meta-analysis, when you examine the role of all the myths aggregated, you discover the overarching understanding of the relationship man to nature, which can be expanded to describe man's place in the cosmos.  For example, a broad reading of Greek Mythology indicates a view that Man is at the mercy of a very capricious an unpredictable universe, whereas Egyptian Mythology shows a very hierarchical, ordered worldview.

Each one of these roles of myth can be tied into the fundamental architectural forms.  

First, we will look at the hearth.  The hearth is the gathering place for the band. (And the period we are talking about would have been band level societies which are the most primitive.)  This form facilities the role of the relationship of man to man.  Around the hearth, the rules of conduct for the band are laid down.  Whether or not they are explicitly stated, children in the fire circle learn from their elders appropriate behavior in relationship to each other.  Adults who violate the behavioral norms are sanctioned.  Problems are addressed and plans are made.  Social hierarchies are established, maintained and sometimes even overthrown.  Around the hearth, all aspects of how one member of society relates to any other are established.

Moving on, we have the Altar.  In primitive societies, this would have been a sacred tree, pool or cave, or some other object in the environment that would have housed the spirit of the supernatural.  In other words, the altar would have been the band's fetish object.  (Remember, a fetish has no relationship to how we use the word today, but described an object that literally houses a God.)  This fundamental element describes the relationship of man to God.  The forms and ceremonies related to worship, even the very nature of that relationship is addressed at the altar.  For example, does the shaman hold dominion over the God, commanding and summoning it, or is the shaman the supplicant begging for intercession?  Is the ritual highly formal or is it more casual?  These are the relationships laid out by the altar and form the second purpose of myth.

The final relationship that is described by myth is the most esoteric, man to himself, and it is given form by the Bower.  It can be said that dreams are how we understand ourselves and how we process the experiences of our lives, and the Bower is the space given over to dreams.  Whereas the first two elements look outwards and upwards, this final element looks inwards.  Sleep is an absolute universal, but how we sleep tells us about our relationships to ourselves, i.e. how we care for our bodies when we cannot consciously protect ourselves.   As such, the location of the Bower begins to tell us where the danger is, on the ground, in the sky, in the earth. 

And this then begins the pivot to the final role of myth in architecture, which is found in the aggregate of understanding all three elements taken together, how man relates to nature or in broader terms, how man is placed in the cosmos.  Does the society view itself as secure or in peril?  Do they dominate or are they dominated?  Are they a part of a greater nature, or are the separate from it?  When we examine Hearth, Altar and Bower we can build a larger image of how the society views their place. 

As societies evolve, these fundamental forms also evolve.  The Hearth becomes the Hall, developing into the Court, the Capitol, the Forum, and through separation from the fire and union with the Altar, the it transforms into the Theatre.  (This is because ancient theatre was a scared rite)  The Altar becomes the Temple, the Church the Cathedral.  The Bower becomes the House, the Castle, the Palace.   But even when this happens, the fundamental forms are maintained, even if abstracted beyond recognition. 

And these fundamental elements dictate the architectural forms of even modern buildings.  How man relates to man dictates whether the administrative spaces place all people on the same level, or if it reinforces a strict hierarchy.   How man relates to God determines the ritual space that surrounds the altar, if it is centered on ritual and procession, or if it is a gathering of a congregation.  The Bower defines the house, as the purpose of the home is for rest and refreshment.

By looking at the basics, and their mythological purpose, we can begin to analyze all societies, even modern ones, through their built form.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

OK World, It is time to Admit you have a Problem


I think it is time to be blunt: the world is as addicted to oil like the way Amy Winehouse was addicted to meth.  And like Amy Winehouse, if we do not get help and rehab for our addiction, we will all die a horrible and painful death.

This is especially important to me, as a Coloradoan, given that under the world's largest oil reserve sits under my state.  In fact, bound up in the Green River Formation is an oil reserve equal to double all of the worlds proven oil reserves, if we could find out how to tap it.  It's called Oil Shale, and it holds approximately 3 trillion barrels of oil.  Just for comparison, throughout all human history of oil production, we have used approximately 1 trillion barrels.  In other words, there is enough oil in Oil Shale to fuel the world at current consumption rates for probably 200 years.

There's just one problem with this.  It would require basically removing most of Western Colorado and Eastern Utah's mountains.  Basically, Oil shale has to be heated to 5,000 degrees to extract the oil.  It also would require most of the water that the Western  United States consumes for life.

You would think permanently ruining some of the most beautiful lands in the world, and basically taking all of the West's water would make this an non-viable solution. 

And you would be wrong.

And this is where the addiction thing comes in.  Addicts do not make rational choices.  Period.  For an example of this horror, look at the what is happening in Alberta, arguably it was as beautiful of an unspoiled wilderness as Western Colorado.  Now it is a smoking pit from the depths of Hell.

The Alberta Tar Sands (After)

An addict will throw everything away for their next fix.  Spouse?  Forget it, the next hit is far more important than that.  Bank accounts?  Gone.  Irreplaceable family heirlooms, sold.  Roof over their head?  Nope.  Health?  Destroyed.  NOTHING, and I mean NOTHING is as important as that hit.

And that is how it will be with the environment.  As soon as the easy to get to oil is gone, we will move to the not easy to get oil.  Right now, thanks to our addiction, we are in the process of destroying the stability of Oklahoma.   In just the first six months of this year, Oklahoma has summered from 241 potentially damaging 3.0 quakes.  This is more than double all of the quakes for 2013, at 109 and almost equals the total for the last five years, which was 278.  And before you think a 3.0 is nothing, realize that in the type of rock of Oklahoma, a 3.0 can tear apart a foundation and cause lasting damage to a structure, even if there is no collapse.

And whether or not the extraction industry wants to admit it, it is most likely the result of fracking.  We should have learned this lesson in the sixties, when Colorado, normally a very stable state, suffered a swarm of earthquakes resulting from the Rocky Mountain Arsenal disposing of chemical wastes by pumping it underground.  The earthquakes started after they began the pumping and stopped shortly after the pumping ceased. 

The problem with things like fracking is that the earth is a far more complex system than we like to acknowledge.  We have far more potential for devastation than we are comfortable in admitting.  Further, we turn a blind eye on things that are correlated, because we dismiss them as a correlation does not equal causation fallacy.  That's not to say that fallacy is incorrect in terms of logical arguments.  However, falling back to that position means that we typically refuse to investigate whether things are just coincidental or actually a causal chain.  While vaccines causing Autism is a correlation, not causation, that does not mean that any similar thing is the same.  Also, before they actually proved it as a correlation not causation situation, they tested the potentiality extensively.

However, when something is as seemingly necessary as oil and gas, people want to stick their fingers in their ears and not hear any potential issues.  In other words, it is in their own self interest to refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem.

This is the same thing as with addicts, especially in the early stages of addiction, before the devastation to their life begins in earnest.   Getting drunk before going to bed every night is just "to help me unwind."  Taking a shot of vodka first thing in the morning is just a "hair of the dog."  Even a spouse leaving is, "they didn't understand me and support me."  It is only when the addiction has completely destroyed someone's life that they will acknowledge the problem.  Sadly, even then, they often won't do anything to cure it.  They fall into the, "I can't change so why try" trap.  You see hundreds of these people littering the streets of most American Cities.  And because we condemn addiction as a personal failing, the larger society does not have much inclination to help.  Worse we often enable that behavior.

And America is a nation of enablers in terms of our oil addiction.  Even people who take the steps of using mass transit, buying electric vehicles, putting PV on their roofs, etc either continue to elect the oil addicts to office, or just complain about them.  We do not hold their feet to the fire to actually do something.

I even see that enabling attitude in myself.  Sometimes I think, maybe we should just go ahead and do things like open up the Artic Wildlife Refuge to drilling now, when we can at least win significant concessions to protect the environment, rather than wait until our reserves are running out, when the drilling will just be a rape and scrape operation.

However, this is no different than me buying an addict a bottle of Vodka or a crack rock so that they don't sell their Grandfather's watch.  They are getting their addiction fed, and I'm delaying the point before they hit rock bottom.  Sooner or later, they will sell that watch, and sooner or later, we will rape the earth to satisfy our addiction.  All environmental protections do is delay the inevitable, because they don't attack the root problem, which is the addiction.

And getting over an addiction is not easy.  An intervention is not easy.  But an intervention is exactly what the world needs.

Before you think it is impossible, realize that even a sizable number of Republicans are admitting that Global Warming is real, and further that it is being caused by people.   However, getting them to turn against the extraction industry will be harder.  Even Democrats from Coal and Oil States can't stop their enabling ways.  Our own Governor, Hickenlooper, wants to develop compromises to allow the fracking to continue in the state.  This is no different than payoing for drugs for an addict so that they don't have to choose between drugs and life.

It is up to each of us to hold our representative's feet to the fire.  Further, it is up to us to say, no to drilling, no to fracking, no to environmental devastation.  If we rise up, as in an intervention, and say, "You have gone this far, but no more," we stand a chance.  It is hard to get an addict to recognize the problem, even harder to get them to accept help.  However, we owe it to our children to try.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Pro-Life or Just Pro-Fetus?


It is a commonly held belief on the Left that the Right is all for rights for fetuses but once it is actually a baby, they could care less.  And unfortunately, this view is fairly accurate.  Conservatives want to outlaw abortion in all cases, even rape and incest, and even to save the life of the mother.  However, at the same time, they actively pursue policies that guarantee the perpetuation of abortion, by absolutely refusing to consider anything that would actually reduce the need for the procedure.

So, in light of the Hobby Lobby decision, which goes back to one of the specific root causes of abortion, I am writing this to call out the Right on it's hypocrisy.  If they want to actually limit the number of abortions, they need to begin to change positions on a number of things.

Before I continue, though, I just want to dispel one common myth, that women use abortion as birth control and that they do it lightly.  I have known a number of women who have had to have an abortion, and was one of the hardest decisions any of them ever made.  It is not something they did quickly, or without anguish.  However, in all of their cases, it was necessary, and they deserved to be treated respectfully for having to do what they did.  And in this, it is time to stop shaming women who chose to have an abortion.  It is their decision, and no one has a right to criticize or second guess them.  Period, end of story.

Also, we need to accept that abortion will always be a necessity.  When a woman is raped, she should not be forced to bear her rapist's baby.  If she chooses to, from her own belief system, that is also her decision.  But that must be her decision and hers alone.  To do otherwise is to essentially state that she was complicit in her own victimization, and that is absolutely unacceptable.  No woman (or man for that matter) deserves to be raped.

Also, when the woman's life is in danger, she should not be forced to continue a pregnancy that could kill her.  Many times, when a mother's life is threatened by a pregnancy, the fetus will not carry to term, or will suffer profound disability.  To forbid an abortion in this situation makes a clear statement that a woman's value is in her status as a walking womb.  No woman should  have to face her own death just for the possibility of giving birth.

Accepting that these types of abortions will always be a necessity, what could be done to reduce the others that don't fall into these categories?  First, we need to understand what situations cause the majority of abortions.

            1) Unplanned Pregnancy
            2) Financial instability
            3) A defective fetus (sorry to be so inconsiderate here, but I can't think of                                 any other way to describe this that isn't blunt) 
Often, it isn't even just one of these factors, often two or all three apply.  Like I said earlier, abortion is not something that isn't an anguishing decision for a woman, and often it takes several factors to put a woman in a spot where she chooses to terminate a pregnancy.

So how do you reduce the need for abortion?  Mitigate the circumstances that force it as the only rational choice.

First, make pregnancy something that is always a decision and never an occurrence.  This is where the Hobby Lobby decision really screws up.  In fact, I have seen a number of Right Wing bloggers say that contraception allows for consequence free sex, as if a baby was a punishment.  This attitude that if you screw around, you deserve to get pregnant is one of the most anti-child and anti-woman things I have ever heard.  Babies should always be a choice, never something imposed on you.  A baby in certain situation is basically an 18 year prison sentence that can ruin one (or two) people's lives.  I absolutely respect people who have an unplanned pregnancy and chose to have the baby, but that is their decision, no one forces them to.  However, outlawing abortion would turn an unplanned pregnancy into a prison sentence.

To mitigate this, two things are needed.  First easy and unrestricted access to effective and reliable contraception.  In all cases, at any age.  Coupled with that is the need for detailed and scientifically accurate sexual education that begins when people can potentially reproduce.  I know this will enflame a lot of people, but it is a simple fact.

We have artificially extended childhood for at least a decade beyond sexual maturity, and then expected children to abstain from their biological urges.  The human body is at it's most fertile, and the sex drive is at it's strongest in the late teens, yet we expect our adolescents to ignore all of those urges.  We compound that by making masturbation equally sinful, so they can't even get relief that way.

This goes against biological law and historic traditions.  Until the last century or two, a woman was of marriageable age as soon as she began to have her period.  This changed in the Victorian Period, but then, they fought it by depicting sex as terribly unpleasant and a duty that a woman must submit to.  This worked then, but now the cat is out of the bag, teenagers today know sex is fun and feels good.  Pandora's box is open.  (I'm sorry I couldn't resist)

Therefore, the only way to combat teenage, and actually any unplanned  pregnancy is to give people proper sex ed and to make sure that they can obtain contraception without shame or judgment.  The reality is that they will have sex regardless, but at least we can make it safe.

This is in direct conflict with the Right's view that STD's and Pregnancy are punishment for sex outside of marriage.   If they were truly serious about reducing the number of abortions, they would be insisting that everyone have access to proper knowledge.

The second reason for abortion is that the parents cannot afford to raise a baby in their current financial situation.  This could be easily changed with a whole host of "Liberal" solutions that are dead on arrival.

First, there is the student loan problem.  Many adults are delaying or even forgoing having children because of their debt from college.  The latest numbers indicate that people with a high debt burden  delay both children and house purchases until they are well into their thirties just because of the crushing burden of student loans.   Returning to low cost or even free higher education would dramatically reduce the financial encumbrances that make people unwilling to start families.

Second, we need to be able to have people support families on one income, or provide a long term, paid family leave.  This would allow a parent (mother OR father) to remain home with the baby for that critical first year.  The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not provide this sort of paid time.  Some countries even pay for people to have babies, which actually incentivizes  reproduction.  Even something as simple as setting a minimum wage above poverty level and indexing it to inflation would create a cushion of stability that would make a child more financially possible.

Third, we need to provide free daycare for all children above the age when paid family leave ends, say one year old.  This would allow parents to return to work and not have to work just to pay for day care.  I have one friend who quit her job after realizing that her family would actually have more money if she didn't work and didn't have to pay for a daycare.  Combine this with vigorous after school and summer programs for kids and you remove a huge financial burden.

And before you claim that you are shifting burdens from individuals to society, and the taxpayer is subsidizing the children, realize we already do that with welfare, food stamps and other social safety net programs.  This is just a more pro-active and dignified way to provide the help.

Finally, there is the issue of the health of the child, and how much it costs to care for and raise a disable child.  Also, how much of a grinding burden it is.  These are also easy issues to solve.  Universal, single payer health care, that has no lifetime limits or throws the bulk of the care burden onto the parents would ameliorate this problem. If a national insurance program provided in-home and lifetime care for a disabled child, there would be less reason to abort. 

Right now, many parents with handicapped children fear what will happen to their child when they die.  That is a very valid concern.  They can make sure their offspring is well cared for while they are healthy and functioning, but what happens after the parents are gone.  Sometimes siblings or other family will step up, but often the reality is that they know when they are gone, their child will know nothing but suffering in some sort of nursing home.  I would not want to sentence a child to that future, and that is a very responsible attitude.

So, in the end, you can embrace a suite of Liberal Social programs that would drastically reduce abortion, or you can try to force people to have children they don't want or can't care for.  And before you claim, just put them up for adoption, remember, there are far more children in foster care than there are forever homes for them, and very few people want to take on a handicapped child.  Also, unfortunately, many people don't want to adopt outside of their race, or at least adopt African American babies.  Instead they adopt from Eastern Europe, and the brown American babies languish in foster care.  I hate to be this blunt, but it is a sad fact.

Basically, my challenge to the Anti-Abortion crowd is put up or shut up.  Be actually Pro-Life, for the entirety of the child's life, or remain simply Pro-Fetus, and acknowledge that you could care less about actual babies,  you only care about an abstract idea.  Believe me, if God is actually Pro-Life, He does not stop caring once the baby is born, unlike a lot of people in this country.