One of the best things about having a visitor is breaking out of my routine, I think, as Abby – slowly thawing after her plane flight from Nebraska – and I roam the Stanford campus.
Eventually, we find ourselves in the Papua New Guinea sculpture garden, a place that I’d somehow spent two and a half years running by without ever stopping. Now, though, I had my chance to explore alongside an outsider’s different perspective.
The sculpture garden, intended to unite artistic perspectives with a landscape half a world away, is the perfect place to reflect on the importance of divergent viewpoints. It’s also a microcosm that directly celebrates nature, both for its role in cultural traditions and for its importance as a medium for artistic expression. Here, the Papua New Guinean artists integrated foreign and local media, working in traditional styles with imported wood and regional stone and finishing with a display landscape that is undeniably North American.
There’s an intriguing irony underlying the art installation. It is at once a beautiful garden – both superficially and conceptually – and also a delicate reflection of the tension between old and new, fundamentally divergent and gently homogenized, the hidden treasures of the remote past and the widely broadcast media of the present.
The country of Papua New Guinea takes up half an island. On a land area a twentieth the size of the United States, its people developed more than 800 languages, forming countless small communities and more than 1,000 distinct cultural groups. Some of them became talented wood carvers, whose descendants crossed an ocean to design and install pieces at Stanford University.
This is hardly the first example of globe-trotting indigenous art – or artists. Everything from weaponry to ceremonial clothing has found its way into private and museum collections over centuries of trade and colonialism. Today, with technology that can bring us instantaneous glimpses of almost every part of our planet and increasing cultural sensitivity in the modern age, we have a deeper understanding of the significance of all these pieces.
Simultaneously, however, globalization erodes cultural individuality.
Although for the most part we’ve shed our old notions like the “White Man’s Burden” and salvation through religious conversion, we nonetheless continue to homogenize the planet. The process seems almost inevitable: an almost constant stream of technological innovation and social mores cross and erode international boundaries.
From both environmental and humanitarian perspectives, this can often be beneficial. Medical innovation reduces infant and childhood mortality rates, and new agricultural technologies stabilize crop volatility. This increased family and food security transforms the social potential of societies. And, as social values – particularly related to gender equality – transfer, women become increasingly educated and increasingly active in the work force. This generally results in reduced birth rates, putting the brakes on global population growth, which can only benefit our already overpopulated planet.
Yet it would be a terrible shame to turn the entire globe into a serial echo of the “Western World.” Not only are our rates of consumption – particularly of fossil fuels – unsustainable on a global scale, but the cultural losses would be unthinkable. And I don’t just mean the arts or languages.
Local knowledge continues to prove critical insights for sustainable living. On the one hand, it provides fundamental knowledge about a particular ecosystem. What crops grow best in these soils? How many people can this wedge of land and sea support? Additionally, it holds the results of hundreds – sometimes thousands – of years of creativity and innovation. What plant combinations thrive growing side-by-side? How hard can this reef be fished before it shows signs of wear?
Of course, the annals of history are filled with accounts of overexploitation and ecosystem collapse. Few, if any, societies seem to have established a true long-term balance between themselves and nature, though some were certainly far better at maintaining equilibrium than others. Yet acknowledging – and maintaining – the diversity of knowledge engrained in these cultures makes it easy to draw from a toolbox of working parts, rather than reinventing the wheel every time we encounter an unfamiliar (to us) situation.
And in the meantime, Abby and I can wander the gardens, enjoying a glimpse of far-flung tradition in a distinctive landscape.
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