María Elvira Escallón (1954 - )

Sin título (Nuevas Floras Series) (2003)
Untitled (New Floras Series)

C-print on cold laminated photographic paper
height: 80cm
width: 120cm

Donated by María Elvira Escallón 2003


María Elvira Escallón has created photographs of trees that inhabit space that is both wild and domesticated. Branches and trunks of these Nuevas Floras trees have been carved by craftsmen using motifs from traditional and colonial wooden furniture. The trees are living, and so over time they will grow and change. The carved wood will weather, insects will chew, birds will search for food and bore holes, and deer will graze to add to the work of the craftsmen. In this way, the wild and managed will come closer together over time.

It has long been assumed that non-agricultural societies represent an earlier stage of cultural evolution: cultures progress from hunter-gatherer to agricultural to industrial. Hobbes observed in 1651 that the life of ‘natural man’ was “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short”, and since then cultural evolutionary views distinguishing between ‘natural’ and ‘civilised’ peoples have persisted.

In 1968, Richard Lee and Irven DeVore’s landmark Man the Hunter conference and book showed hunter-gatherers to be knowledgeable, sophisticated, and above all different from one another. There is no single stage of human development, just different adaptations to ecological and social circumstances. Now we know that farmers are cultivators of the wild; and that hunters and gatherers are active managers of what appears to be the wild. Culture and nature are thus bound together.

Many cultures and groups directly manage trees on and off. The forest islands of Amazonia emerged as a result of Kayapo directly planting-up mounds. In the lower Amazon, smallholder farmers enrich the forests with desirable fruit, timber and medicinal trees, often broadcasting seeds when cutting timber. In dryland Kenya, Acacia tree recruitment occurs on the sites of abandoned pastoralist corrals: Acacia seedpods are a favoured fodder, and some pass through the animals to germinate in the next season, and the result is circular woodlands. In China, there is widespread use of wild trees in integrated systems of land management, and wild plants and animals are gathered from a variety of microenvironments, such as dykes, woods, ponds, and irrigation ditches.

To many cultures, the idea of wilderness remains problematic. The term wild is commonly used today to refer to ecosystems and situations where people have not interfered, yet we know that people influence and manage most if not all ecosystems and their plants and animals. In Papua New Guinea, wild pigs are hunted and managed: boars and sows are brought together to breed, females are followed to their nests, litters and piglets removed for raising, and wild pigs are fed with sago and roots. Some groups raise extra gardens of sweet potatoes just for pigs. Similar merging of the wild and raised occurs in reindeer herding and hunting communities of Siberia.

What is common in all cases is that people pay close attention to what the land is telling them. Such knowledge and understanding is then encoded into stories with norms and rules, and thus form the basis for continued adaptive management over generations.

Yet today, much conservation centres on the creation of ‘protected areas (PAs)’ from which people are excluded or in which their actions are severely limited. Nature is thus protected from people in what we call parks, wildernesses, reserves: there are 30,000 PAs worldwide, and people are excluded from a half of this area (some 7 million square kilometres).

Reason and evidence have not compelled us to care enough for nature. A good future will not be a return to something solely rooted in the past: we need medical, farm and transport technology, certainly computers and modern communications. But hybrid vigour might be created through both-and practices rather than either-or. A new green economy in which material goods have not harmed the planet would be a good economy: even better if production processes could improve nature. If we wish to convince people to manage the planet sustainably and consume in different ways, then we will have to embed twenty first-century lifeways in a new texture of beliefs, emotions and experience. We will need moral teachings and wisdom about the environment and our duties as individuals. Through a different kind of consciousness of the world, perhaps our impact can be changed.

Myths which evolve in sympathy with nature are different from myths that compete with it. María Elvira Escallón has given us new myths with these evolving carved trees.

(Text commissioned by ESCALA for the exhibition Connecting through Collecting: 20 Years of Art from Latin America at the University of Essex, 2014)

Jules Pretty, 2014

browse the collection

artist a-z > work type > advanced search >