How the landscape around us affects who we are and how we see the world
If you live close to the beach you probably like the sound of the sea and the humidity of the air, and maybe you even go surfing every now and then. If you are from a high latitude country and live close to mountains and rivers you probably like hiking – or tramping as we call it here in New Zealand – and maybe pay visits to ski fields in colder seasons. Beaches are usually associated with heat and lively seasons while snow seems to enhance the perception of peaceful environments. But how does this shape local cultures and people’s perceptions? And what does this say about people that live in these regions?
Several years ago I came across a book called ‘The aesthetics of the cold’ (in Portuguese ‘A Estética do Frio’) by Vitor Ramil. Ramil is a musician and writer from Pelotas, my hometown, in the south of Brazil. In the early years of his career he moved to Rio de Janeiro to pursue a successful career. In this short book, Ramil describes his surprise while watching the TV news, when the journalist showed images of the heat in the northeast of Brazil as ‘normal’, and demonstrated surprise with the very low temperatures and possibility of snow in the extreme south. Ramil describes two Junes and associates his observations with the aesthetics of life and the music in the south of Brazil. The quote below was translated from an extract of the book, you can find the original here.
I waited all afternoon for a wind storm coming from Porto Alegre. The night arrives. A drizzle starts to fall again over Satolep*. The moisture makes the floor tiles and books sweat; damages discs, softens book covers. It’s June. I go to the window, clean the glass and look at the street. Regular paving stones are lit by the light of the posts where we can see at first the dense fog coming, slowly descending to the ground and transforming this planned city into an infinite one. Nothing and no one can find Satolep at night in these conditions. The wind storm will not come. I return to my desk and sit down. I stare at the photo of Edgar Allan Poe, but I cannot see it.
I’m in another June. I’m in my apartment in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, in shorts and jandals, watching the National News on TV. I watch a story about a popular street festival in Bahia. The images: an electric trio on a truck dragging thousands of semi-naked people, jumping, sweating, drinking and singing under an angry sky. I cannot imagine myself behind that bandwagon. I cannot feel close to the spirit of that party, although I am also half-naked and hot and the news is being presented in a tone of absolute normality, as if it was part of my daily life. Following that I watch a story about the arrival of cold weather in the south. I see Rio Grande do Sul, I see the fields covered by white frost under the morning light, I see children writing on the car glasses with their fingers, I see men in their ponchos riding bikes, I see frozen water, I see people rubbing their hands, people with red noses, I see the expectation of snow in the mountains, I see the ‘mate’ fuming. Half-naked and hot I immediately recognize that as my universe. But the images are presented in a tone of abnormality, of curiosity, almost incredulity, as if coming from another country, there is talk about an “European feel ” – which makes me feel strangely isolated, more than physically apart. I have the uncomfortable feeling of being in exile and at the same time see Rio Grande do Sul near, within and beyond the images. I realize then how much I feel separated from Brazil. (…)
This separation that Ramil describes is nothing but the geographical – physical and cultural – differences. These differences emerge from a daily life in different climates with their winter and summer landscapes.
Last month I visited Uruguay, one of my favourite places in South America. An admirable little country that carries the best quality of life in the continent, including security. I went there with my fiancé. He is from New Zealand and while walking in the Rambla by the River Plate he mumbled a thought aloud: “it is impressive how the landscape shapes the culture isn’t it?” Right, he might be a bit biased because he has been listening to me talking about this subject for the past three years – being with a PhD candidate comes with a price. Looking at all those people enjoying the public space in their own way… It is almost like that mate, the drink everyone has in their hands, brings in the sense of belonging: ‘people here drink it, people meet for drinking mate together’. That is how we describe our favourite social function: ‘anything really, as long as it happens around the mate’.
The idea that ‘we just do it’ applies to life in many different aspects. Here in New Zealand people like to be outside of the city, ‘because that is how kiwis are’. The spectacular and safe landscape with no poisonous animals promotes it, it is part of who they are. The idea of landscape, no matter if it is the physical or the cultural, expressed in mountains and skylines or in drinks and social protocols, makes us who we are. Different places will offer different possibilities for activities and social interaction, this will shape our cultural background, and consequently how we see the world.
How is your landscape? How does the landscape shape your life?
*Satolep: word created by Vitor Ramil to describe an imagined city within a city. Satolep is Vitor Ramil’s hometown full of memories and poetry. His idea of Satolep has been more deeply described in his recent book with the same name. Satolep is the word Pelotas backwards. ‘Pelotas’ is the real name of his – and my – hometown.