Nature Photographer Art Wolfe has seen it all, including remote villages where people have what he calls a “green builder’s ethic.”
By Green Builder Staff
GB: Talk to our readers. What does your experience chronicling world cultures have to teach ?
AW: After 40 years of world travel, I’ve accrued a lot of wisdom about how people around the world live. I’ve seen glaciers recede; I’ve seen remote cultures influenced by the creep of Western civilization; I’ve seen the most stunning wildlife on every continent. A lot of the remote cultures I’ve visited over the last few years have basically been living a green builder’s ethic. Long before Western civilization caught on, they were living well within their means, largely for survival.
GB: So what are some examples of this “green builder’s ethic”?
AW: I’ve been so fortunate to have traveled to Yanomami villages in the most remote areas of the Amazon. In one, the entire village—probably 12 to 15 families—lives in one structure. I bring this to our attention because these families are hunter-gatherers, and they’re constantly relocating their village. They’ll live in one place for five or six years and hunt the forest. When they sense that they’ve put a stress to the environment, they’ll simply relocate across the forest and allow the environment to grow back and the animals to return. It’s a great example of how people have adapted to the environment.
GB: How threatened is this culture?
AW: The Yanomami tribe is one of the few hunting-gathering cultures left intact on the planet. They’re protected by the Columbian, Venezuelan and Brazilian governments, because their range extends over the borders of these three countries. You’d have to have special permission to go into a culture like this. The governments are realizing the value of having these intact indigenous cultures. They’re very, very vulnerable to Western civilization and the illnesses that Western people can bring in.
GB: Let’s talk about their built environment. Obviously they have finite resources and materials. Do they take these materials to the next location, or do they start from scratch with every new village?
AW: I would suspect, given the distance they would travel to their next environment, they physically would just let go of this, let it rot. In a rainforest environment, the forest reclaims the structure quickly. They bring their belongings, but I’m nearly certain they would let the building disintegrate and go back into the forest.
GB: So they’re driven mostly by a search for food and fuel for their fires?
AW: Exactly. Fuel for the fire is easy, but food is more of a challenge. They have little hunting dogs. The hunters go out and the dogs circle small, wild game that live in the forest and herd them back towards the hunters, who use bows and arrows. Again, this is a culture that’s unique in the rainforest. A lot of the other cultures have become almost agriculturalists, but hunter-gatherers are wiry and fierce and fight with other tribes. They’re hunting pretty much anything in the forest for food. There’s a lot of attachment to shamans and spirits. They revere the animals that they hunt. They view themselves as parts of nature, and nothing separate.
AW: A very different environment is the Mongolian Steppe. It’s a large, open landscape in one of the least populated countries on the planet. Most of the people who live in Mongolia live in the capital, Ulan Bator. So you have this open steppe without fences, very few roads, and the people who live out there live on their horses. Genghis Khan cultivated wild horses, and this tradition survives. People out there live in yurts, which is a structure of very thin wood, and fabric and skins that envelope the building. Again, it’s a transitory life—they’ll move for forage for their goats and yaks. The structure is easily broken down and relocated as they follow the grassland and forage.
GB: Did you find them to be friendly?
AW: As we travel across this vast land and approach a yurt, the people are more than likely going to invite us in for a cup of tea and food, and for a little money they will allow us to stay with them and sleep on the mattresses on the floor. They have a fire in the middle of the room that goes up through an opening in the yurt, and they can close that off if it’s pouring rain or snowing. They even have a chimney they can construct. It can be blowing wind outside, but inside, it’s nice and warm
GB: And their fuel of choice?
AW: They’ll burn yak dung or any other dung. There are very few forests there. They’ll make yak butter tea and meat from the goats they butcher. It’s pretty self-sustaining.
GB: What is the home range for a group of these people?
AW:It’s vast. There are only a few thousand herders across Mongolia, and they’re very spread out. A range for a family could be 20 square miles. I’ve encountered some Montanan people who like to visit Mongolia because they love to ride horses. There are no fences, so that free spirit is very reminiscent of what the American West would have been like prior to Western civilization.
GB: In terms of the changing ecosystems, do you have concerns for people like these?
AW: My main drive is to document as many cultures and as much wildlife as I can while they’re there. There are a lot of great organizations working on behalf of indigenous cultures and their environments, but I think it’s inevitable that many of these cultures will be eroded with Western civilization. People like TV, radio, and cell phones. I’m stunned at how fast they’re adopted by these remote cultures. I can be anywhere in China or India and they’ll take out a cell phone. But they’re also proud of their traditions. For example, Bhutan was converted into a democratic country about four years ago, but is still very influenced by the former king. The king put a great emphasis on the natural environment and traditional culture. They believe they can adapt the best of Western civilization while retaining their core beliefs in traditional values.
GB: You probably see a lot of the things we can only read about.
AW: I do see changes. I see glaciers disappearing at alarming rate. I could go crazy worrying about the future, or I can contribute what I can. Nobody knows where exactly the planet is heading in terms of the climate, but I can tell you there will be great changes within our lifetime due to the warming of the Earth. I have hope that humans have the capacity to adapt and change. I’ve seen great advancements around the world in terms of reclaiming water that’s been damaged by bad practices. I’ve seen solar panels in places I would have never expected them. I think that people are making the changes that they can and I think there are more on the way.
GB: I hope so.
AW: When I travel by horse into the remote mountains that separate Siberia and Northern Mongolia, we encounter the Tsaatan people. Tsaatan means reindeer. They live in homes that resemble that of the Plains Nations in North America. Everyone realizes that most of the First Nations people came to North America through a variety of ways, many of them by the Bering land bridge. When you look backwards into Asia, you see many of the connections to North America, one of which is the teepees that the Tsaatan people live in.
GB: Interesting. Is climate change affecting them?
AW: The Tsaatan people raise reindeer and herd, but they’ve also developed the tradition of riding them. Reindeer are very curious animals—they’ll come right in to the teepees of the Tsaatan people, almost like a pet. They raise their reindeer above the “bug line”—in other words, above where mosquitoes live, in these cold temperatures. You wonder how they’re going to be able to survive, because as the temperature rises, mosquitoes go up the slope. They’re running out of habitat to raise these reindeer without the influence of mosquitoes, which torment the animals greatly. They may have to move out of Mongolia and go further and further north into Siberia and the Soviet Union.
GB: Can you talk a little more about different approaches to home construction?
AW:Wherever I go in the world, it’s interesting how people seem to have evolved to build homes that are perfectly suited for their environment. In the Himalayas, it’s interesting how the homes resemble those in the Alps. Very sturdy, well-built homes, often with rocks atop them to keep shingles in place—reminiscent to homes I’ve seen in Switzerland and Northern Italy. You can also see how the channel water, which they also do in Peru and in Inca cultures.
GB: So without the technology of steel and concrete, these are all locally sourced materials?
AW: Absolutely. Some of these structures are between 500 and 1000 years old. They build very strong structures because, of course, during the winter months, you’ve got snow. This is around 10,000-11,000 feet in the foothills of the Himalayas. The buildings are cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Again, the main source of fuel and heat would be burning yak dung or wood. By the way, it’s illegal to just cut a tree in Bhutan. You have to petition the government if you want to cut down a tree. That’s why the forests are very much intact in Bhutan. You see old-growth forests of fir, cedar, spruce—many of the trees you would see in the Cascades here in Washington State have close cousins in Bhutan.
GB: Another connection to North America.
AW: By contrast, in Namibia—these are the Himba people—their structures are much more primitive because there’s just so little around there. They have herds of goats, and the goats are really everything for them; they even use goat dung to plaster the roofs of the huts. They gather wood from around the few rivers, and that wood will be used again and again because it’s such a precious commodity.
GB: Do you know how long these people would occupy a particular spot?
AW: I think they’re going to be locked into this area forever, in this valley. They’re not very migratory. These people are very unique in the way they dress. They cover their skin in clay ochre from the river bank, so they’re very orange. They cover themselves in a mixture of oil from cooking meat and mud to protect themselves from the relentless sun. They’ll get into the hut in the heat of the day. .
GB: It’s amazing how people can adapt to such harsh environments.
AW: In the Saharan country of Mali, the material of choice is adobe, so the largest adobe structures on Earth are in Mali. The wood pieces coming out of the walls are basically ladders; they climb on the outside to reapply clay after the monsoon season. There’s beautiful architecture there. In that same country the Dogon people live in the mountains. Their structures have thatched roofs and adobe walls.
GB: I’m really struck by the fact that, despite the diversity of cultures represented here, there’s a common thread of resource management and stewardship.
AW: I think it’s based on survival. When you have limited resources, you evolve a culture that sustains you. When I was with the Yanomami tribe, I gave a Power Bar to a group of kids, and one child broke it into 11 different pieces so he could share with the other kids. When you live in a hunter-gatherer society, what the hunter catches, everybody shares, and that’s the survival of the village.
GB: What can we in the West learn from these indigenous cultures, in terms of resource use?
AW: I think it’s obvious: to live within our means. Twenty years ago we started talking about recycling. I think people feel good when they’re being careful about what they use. We’re “getting it,” though some parts of the country might be lagging behind. But climate change is going to make us better users of the natural resources around us.
GB: Let’s talk about your home, if you would.
AW: I grew up on the outskirts of Seattle in the wooden ravines in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Seattle is home base, and I live virtually one mile away from where I was born, though I travel about eight months a year.
GB: Which trips stick with you most?
AW: One place in Eastern China was absolutely transformational for me—this amazing landscape of granite rock and twisted pine trees. It made me want to build a rock garden attached to my old house. I bought this huge crane to place these 12-ton rocks throughout the garden. The neighbors saw the crane and thought, “My God, who’s moved into the neighborhood?” Over the years, the garden’s matured. I’ve brought over a hundred tons of granite and 15 old Japanese pines, which I work on every year. This is something I wanted to do for myself—because I spend an inordinate amount of time strapped into plane seats—to come back into the garden after traveling for 48 hours; to an environment filled with textures, patterns, water.
GB: Do you have any locations that you’ve photographed early and later in your career where you’ve noticed the changes over the years?
AW: I’ve had colleagues who have documented glaciers, using time lapse showing how they’re receding in Greenland. I haven’t been back to Lhasa, but you couldn’t get the pictures I took back in 1984 today—the Potala Palace, which is the heart of the Buddhist culture. At the time it was surrounded by cow pastures. Now it looks like a modern Chinese city. I can tell you it’s not all bad. Seattle in the ‘70s and ‘80s was very polluted, compared to today. Seattle in the ‘60s never had any eagles due to DDT—now you can see them in our city parks. Nature is resilient if given a fighting chance. It reclaims land if you don’t keep building on it.
GB: What do you think it will take for the United States to become better stewards to the environment, other than a cataclysmic climate event?
AW: I often wonder why we don’t listen to scientists who have been telling us these things for the last 30 years. Part of it is the scientists’ fault, because their voices are overshadowed by loud politicians. I’m waiting for the next Carl Sagan to come along—someone who’s charismatic and politically shrewd who’s got the knowledge. People are learning, but it seems inordinately slow. We listen to sound bites and people saying what we want to hear, which is often at odds with reality. Climate is changing, and it’s obvious to me that man has impacted that. How could we not, with billions of people on the planet?
Go to Alaska, Peru, Antarctica, India, Japan, Nepal, Madagascar, and 15 more beautiful locations.