TOPOGRAPHIC LIVING

Topographic living is an ongoing research into the culture of living in place. The routines, rituals and habits that connect people and communities with their living environment. 

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looking for landscape as house, 2017

collage series investigating the notion of topographic living as the material culture of inhabiting landscape

essay 'on small and big fires', 2020

published in:
Robida Magazine Nr. 7, 2021
Learning to live with forest (again), 2021

 

ON SMALL AND BIG FIRES
Revealing connections between forest, house, routine and ritual in the Bregenzerwald.

I grew up in the mountainous valley of the Bregenzerwald, at the edge of the Northern Alps in Austria. Here, all villages are enclosed by forests that appear to be one continuous landscape but are actually a coherent mosaic of tiny private forest plots. They all once belonged to families of subsistence farmers that used the wood for building and warming their houses.

On small fires.

In the Bregenzerwald most houses still have a wood fired oven: it is usually situated so that it opens to the hallway or kitchen, and on the other side it has a tiled body warming the living room. This small wood fire burning at the heart of the house became essential to my personal notion of ‘home’ while growing up. Sitting with my back against the warm wall, gazing through the distant window, extending my view towards the forest edge, I hear the cracking force of fire behind me. This furniture of warmth asks for a steady supply of wood. Traditionally coming from one's own patch of forest, nowadays the wood is often delivered directly at home by a supplier. In both cases, the fire in the house always starts with stacking wood, creating a ‘Holzbiego’ — a woodstack. Freestanding in a meadow, against a wall outside of the house, in a storage shed, in the cellar or the garage, stacking wood is the one landscape-related task that has remained intact in nearly all households of the Bregenzerwald.

My grandfather’s household is no exception. The many small wood stacks and a whole barn filled with logs have been one of his main occupations recently. Feeling his body getting older and weaker, he has spent the last years preparing for the times when he will no longer be able to make his own wood stacks. His remaining years are now stacked into neat rows of small logs so that every square meter of the shed is filled with lifetime measured in wood. As he gets slower, year after year, many people have come to help him with this task. The first time I helped him storing some wood, together with my brother and my nephew, he explained his system: he demonstrated where to put the older, dryer wood and where he stores the younger wood, how to make sure to leave some space to be able to crawl back onto the stacks when one needs to get the ripe wood out again, and how to collect the small pieces of wood and bark in a paper bag so that they can be later used as fire starter. Finally, he grabbed a handful of the smallest pieces from the floor and threw them onto the two trails of the driveway covered in snow. Some weeks later, when the snow would melt, these remains would merge into the tractor trails, stabilizing the ground of the driveway.

Seeing this line of fine wood dust covering the frozen snow, I realized that in my grandfather's routine of harvesting wood everything has a place and purpose. Nothing goes to waste. To him, time spent stacking wood is time saved, time that will turn into logs, warmth and a sense of feeling at home. His wood stack is a dense web of relationships and entangled meanings connected to the landscape where he grew up. For my grandfather, being able to stack wood and give a purpose to every single part of his trees, is evidence for being alive. In his forest he does not only harvest wood but also humility, well-being, and gratefulness.

On big fires.
Every year, on the first Sunday after Ash-Wednesday, the valley's nights’ sky lights up with a soft, orange glow. Like dots of light on the dark canvas of the mountains, dozens of bonfires burn up for the whole night. This is the ancient tradition of the ‘Funken’, the fire that sends away winter to welcome spring with all its renewal and fertility. The ritual, still a very important one in the region, originated in the local farming culture as an auspicious rite for a good year to come. A new year with strong and healthy animals, gentle and regular rain, warm and fertile soil, and a healthy family to support the harvest. And perhaps a moment to say goodbye to a year that did not bring what was hoped for. The german word ‘Funken’ means ‘spark’ — a small, ephemeral light. The ‘Funken’ is a temporary construction, a heap of materials dissolving into flames, sparks and live coals surrounded by a community of people. This heap is a collection of the waste the inhabitants of the hamlet have accumulated over the past year. All their stuff that couldn’t be recycled, that could not become anew.

The chronicle of the materiality of the Funken heap can be read as a reflection of a societal shift of the inhabitant from local producer to global consumer. When I was a child, the Funken’s building material was rubbish wood from dismantled buildings, cardboard and paper, wrongly fermented hay, plant cuttings and excess sawdust, and even garbage like old sofas and broken tires. The day after, when the fire of the Funken was gone, only a smoking heap of coal, some nails and metal skeletons were left in the ashes. Today there are multiple regulations making sure the heap is safely constructed with homogenic material sourced from companies. The Funken has become a fully organized, safe and crowd-controlled event for the entertainment of the village people. It has become an empty simulation of the ritual that once was rooted in the agricultural landscape, the pastures and the forests, of the Bregenzerwald.

About 20 years ago my grandfather started to make his own little Funken. For a long time, I thought this was an opportunity for him to be the host of a family event and to enjoy the pyromaniac bliss of the bonfire in the peaceful company of his loved ones. Then, two years ago, while looking at my grandfather’s heap at his family-Funken, I discovered the paper bags of wood scraps and sawdust that we filled that day of collective wood stacking. The wood waste was burning up into green and purple flames among a broken bed frame, an old mattress, some broken woven baskets, big cardboard boxes and half rotten wood. It made me think of my own waste. What would I be burning in my Funken? What would it tell about my year, the way I live? My heap would be made of materials whose origin and composition is too complex to conceive. Material that has lost its connection to landscape through a multiplicity of extractive, commodifying forces. Things that I never got to care about, that are used shortly and unconsciously disposed of. As if it was a natural process.

There it hit me, that with the burning paper bags, for the first time a piece of my own lifetime got laid out in this burning heap as if it was a space. While stirring up the flames with a shovel I realized that this fire and our gathering was just the climax of a whole series of small routines and acts of maintenance carried out by my grandfather throughout the year. Maybe his Funken simply is a way for him to neglect the regulations, and maybe the social gathering and following tradition are merely a bycatch of getting rid of some stuff. But to my grandfather, like to the peasants of the past, the Funken is still not only the beginning of a new year of harvest, but also the ending to his yearly ‘taskscape’, the symbolic and physical conclusion of  all the activities he performs in his landscape.

That moment at the bonfire has shed new light on my understanding of the ritual of the Funken. For the first time, I saw it as the final stage of an interconnected chain of actions rooted in the landscape of the forest. All these routines belong to the material cycle of all the things we need for our households, once our livelihood, like the wood that we use to keep us warm. And the understanding that we are fully dependent on our environments for our survival and well-being is reinforced by this humble ritual — the big fire, that represents a way of living where our actions are involved in the whole lifespan of a landscape. From renewable resources, to reciprocal purposes, to fertile ashes. A life lived in cyclical time, where routine and ritual are deeply interconnected. The small fire of the house and the big fire of the Funken belong to a life lived topographically, with landscape as house.