Wherever you go in Sri Lanka you get a feeling that people are getting on with their lives no matter how ugly the immediate environment. This un-prettiness takes some time for a westerner to get used to. Most of what we see is rough, dirty, corrugated, woven, falling apart, in the process of being built, muddy, dusty, concretized, weedy, rusty, broken or torn. Missing are the pristine expanses of shimmering paddy, gently swaying coconuts, or stately colonial arcades we’d “like” to see.
I write this not as a critique of the Sri Lankan landscape! At least, not in any negative sense. My impression, as I said, is that people are getting on with the business of life. This is a living place. Alive, vibrant, something you can grab a hold of and not lose heart, as you might on the sterile scenic streets, once the scene of great crimes now covered up and forgotten of, say, a European city.
Sri Lankans live in their landscape. More I think than we do in America. Our landscapes are repetitive and becoming more so. As we move to exurban places we bring with us the same road engineering, the same motel chains, the same big box stores. Meanwhile the place most of us inhabit is our big cars. These are our landscape.
Well speaking of exurban, in a recent proposal to the American Institute of Sri Lankan Studies (AISLS) which was, by the way rejected, I wrote that I wanted to study the peri-urban landscape of a place like Vavuniya, which topo maps indicate is being built out along its lakes. I wondered if this kind of quasi-urban form might be comparable with, say, Madison Wisconsin, which is built along the shores of several good-sized lakes.
So we set out, walking the bund road just past the railroad tracks, on the other side of town just west of Vavuniya. To our left was the tank, a profoundly disturbed environment, and to our right, the paddy fields
Why do I say the tank was disturbed? For one thing, most of its surface was covered with water hyacinths. At the far end of the tank, in what was once the gasgommana, a few huge kumbuk trees remained. Just passed them, lay a road. I had seen a hog grazing here earlier this morning. And I met the man who claimed to be its owner, and the owner of a large farm with 1,000 more. Strange to have seen my first swine in Sri Lanka. The road on which the farmer lived clearly bisected the catchment area of the tank. Probably the railroad track and perhaps still farther east, where the land still slopes upward, were the original catchment area. In a sense, it’s a wonder that the tank still persists, with most of its catchment area gone. And certainly, its biogeochemistry has been severely impacted by the built environment where once was the gasgommana and perahana.
What about ricefields on the other side of the bund road? At a glance, they are lovely. With the rains having started, many of the plots are flooded. Others are bright green and vibrant. The whole scene, replete with wading birds appears to be of wholeness and wholesomeness. A closer look reveals some other truths.
For example, the Kattakaduwa, the wild area just the other side of the bund (tank dam) is narrow and disturbed. For a tank this size, I estimate it should be about twice the width that we see now. People have built structures, especially houses, right in the basin of the Kattakaduwa. This area, through which water typically seeps and is purified, is functioning at much less capacity than in the “ideal” tank situation. My question about peri urban growth seems to be addressed here. Yes on and of the Kattakaduwa, a very large house, almost a mansion, has been built. Elsewhere much smaller places that resemble shacks have popped up.
So this is a little different from what we hear about ‘land hungry peasants’ ‘encroaching’ on the tank. Whether it’s squatting here or something more ‘legitimate’ it looks like peri urban development is part of the landscape, and that compromised tank structure and function is secondary.
How do people consider their tank? Something scenic? Something they live next to or with? An impediment to development?
Across rhe ricefield some distance to the north, we could see another kovil. Somewhere midway between the lower ricefields that originated from our tank and that kovil lay another line of trees, probably the remnants of a gasgommana belonging to the next tank below ours.
I mentioned before that aspect of this landscape are ‘difficult’ for westerners to appreciate. Maybe the key is in being able to ‘read’ the landscape. It was thrilling today to be able to read the larger tank landscape, both the built environment and the more natural part of the environment. As we continue to sensitize ourselves to landscapes here, and as we come to read their transitions in a clearer light; I hope is that our ideas will coalesce into a more coherent model that will provide some kind of baseline for interpreting landscape transitions in this quickly changing human environment.