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 [1] Liste des images

Natural Catastrophes and Sublime Landscapes.
The Case of the 1998 Ice Storm.

Bruno Gadrat - 2001labash-conference.html - rev. 03 mars 2001 - Conférence

Résumé et courte biographie

[2] The freezing rain continues falling, a frightening beauty, astonishing beyond measure, wild. In this wilderness that immobilizes you, frozen in the scare of being engulfed, crushed, [3] are you ready to appreciate and create sublime landscapes?


What are we talking about?

[4] Landscape
I will use the word landscape in its most usual signification, that is to say an entity formed between an expanse of country and one or many observers, and the relationship of this observer with the country. These three elements intervene in the shaping of the sublime landscape. Thus, we must explore them.
[5] Taken together, they allow us to make a distinction between landscape architects and those who focus their knowledge and their actions around only one of those elements, such as : geographers, ecologists, economists, vision specialists, sociologists, psychologists, artists, politicians, advertisers selling the relationship between individuals and the countryside.
But what does sublime mean?

[6] Fashionable words
When I was in school, I loved putting big words on my projects. It's going to be very, very beautiful, 'magnifique', extraordinary, sublime, it's subliiiime!
'Sublime' is good, try it.
[7] You'll see how much it boosts projects, especially the projects done in a hurry, the ones where we've thrown something incoherent on a page at the last minute. We all love big words. [8] It's very picturesque. Ouch?! Is this an insult ? [9] [10] [11] Urban, rustic, we can manage, but isn't bucolic an incurable disease? [12] And Arcadian, it is an itch?
Teachers seem to know what they are talking about.
[13] Have you ever heard extraterrestrials talking together? We never know if they have a problem with their spaceship's turbosynchronizers or if they are planning to eat us as an exotic dish.
[14] In these cases we have to try to be friends. We use a few words that make us look good.
They are easily noticeable on a teacher's face when we pronounce them. Try : 'This will increase biodiversity' or
[15] 'It's very literal'. The benefit of this method is that we don't have to know what it means. Subliiiime. We better use words that have blurry meanings. [16] If not, the drawing immediately contradicts the intentions. 'Biodiversity there? Are you kidding?'

A usual signification of the sublime
The dictionary is always very useful.
[17] Sublime (adjective): noble, majestic; lofty or exalted; perfect or supreme. With such a definition we can really use the word whenever we want. It's sublime.
[18] Try Arcadian in your dictionary : Arcadian : From Arcadia, idyllic, champÍtre. Its finally not too bad, maybe a bit too rural for certain urban projects. [19] But, try to put more conviction into it : Arcaaadian, Arcadiiiian.

Reference to the aesthetic of the Romantic period.
[20] A good part of the vocabulary used to qualify our projects is linked to aesthetics carried by society. These aesthetics have often sprouted from artistic movements. [21] At the end of the eighteenth century in France, an aesthetic of the sublime was developed (Edmund Burke, 1756). It was active and present at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a bit before and after the French revolution. [22] It was a period marked by its logical and intuitive aspects that oppose each other in neo-classicism and romanticism.
[23] For the romantics, nature and the natural become rules of life. Landscape is revered. The individual becomes interesting for his sensitivity, his intuition, his soul. This ideal is not isolated in history. We also find it, for example, in the gothic. Its still seems current. [24] What is interesting is that the sublime is associated with the exaltation of nature at its finest, in its most subtle state.

An aesthetic definition of the sublime
[25] The sublime contributes to beauty in adding an admirable and grandiose side, as well as being frightening. [26] The 'Pass of the Saint-Gothard' from J.M.W. Turner, 1803-1804, (eighteen o three to eighteen o four) corresponds perfectly with the early nineteenth century concept of the sublime. Through accounts and paintings, we learn the main characteristics of this way of appreciating the world. [27] For example, its massive beauty, out of our control, [28] or its troubling atmosphere laden with extreme beauty. These are a few images that correspond to that period:

[29] [30] [31] [32]

Today, the sublime is no longer present in this initial form.

[33] What used to be sublime is not anymore.
These images seem out of sync with the terms used in the definition of the sublime.
[34] You probably found them to be beautiful. The words 'admirable' and 'grandiose' seem a little exaggerated. [35] Were you scared? Did you feel distressed? Probably not. [36] What was sublime at the beginning of the nineteenth century has become ordinary. Our relation with the land has changed, [37] particularly in our relationship with nature, the prime ingredient of the sublime.

Nature is demystified.
[38] Our planet has been explored to its most remote corners. [39] It has been described, measured, analyzed, simulated by so much scientific research that nothing seems unknown. [40] It's now the captive of movies and television. If you want to see nature, turn on your TV. You will see it a lot better than for real, up close and with no delay. [41] You will know everything about nature. There will be no more mystery, no surprise.

[42] Wild nature has become virtual.
The wilderness that risked scaring us has become virtual.
[43] Wild nature is much too dangerous. It has slowly been eliminated from the reality of the land. [44] It still exists in our imaginary landscapes, in our illusions of landscapes and in our virtual landscapes. [45] All of these terms designate a landscape which does not exist in reality. [46] However, a simple detail of a real landscape can bring this virtual landscape to life.


 [47] It snows huge flakes all night, visibility is drastically reduced.

[48] The lynx which was biologically extinct from the Montreal region shows up in the snow-sculpted bark of the forked trunk of an Acer saccharinum in the heart of the city.

[49] The wildness of the landscape is there, visible to the initiated, perfectly safe, with no danger to the rare lynxes living elsewhere in the country.

Imagination transforms the sublime by mastering it through thought.
[50] Our imagination has kept the beauty of wild nature but not the savagery of beautiful nature. It remains admirable but is not sublime anymore. [51] The effect is produced by the logic of our thoughts, not by our feelings. Our brain masters the situation. The instinctive fear is no longer possible.

The drift towards the sensational.
[52] The emotions that nature used to be able to summon up are now controlled and exaggerated by special effects of cinema. Numerous movies stage natural scenes to conjure up emotions linked to anguish and fear. They are emotional effects. Pushed to their maximum, they become sensational. The essential basis of the sublime, that is, beauty, is missing. Permanent increase of the level of sensations has another disastrous effect. [53] It destroys our capacity to appreciate subtle variations of sensation. It makes us lose our sensitivity. [54] Too much noise makes one deaf.

[55] Desensitization of nature.
Movies have invaded our lives. In comparison, real nature seems pretty quiet, innocuous, harmless.
[56] Incidentally, it is quiet, innocuous and harmless, most of the time. Environmental design and exploration are constantly subjected to techniques of secure comfort. We will come back to this point later.

[57] The sublime is no longer in fashion.
Sublime landscapes are no longer in fashion.
[58] Each historical period favours a dominant type of landscape which hides all other landscapes. The hidden landscapes were dominant at another point in history, but they are no longer 'hot'. [59] They may appear when we forget the dominant landscape. Certain unusual aspects of the land allow them to advance and claim our attention. This is the case of the sublime landscape today.

[60] We are not ready for it.
The land of the dominant landscape shows us at every moment the 'correct' ways to see and act. This way of seeing and these actions control, in turn, the form that the landscape takes. We needn't even reflect on this.
[61] This is not the case with other landscapes. We need to have seen representations of them elsewhere in order to be able to identify them. But we cannot change these landscapes. Therefore, we don't know the 'correct' ways of creating or making them. Without being able to verify by doing, our seeing remains uncertain. We are not prepared to appreciate them.

The currently dominant landscape is comfortable and separated from nature.
[62] We no longer live with nature. We are protected from it by intermediaries. Have you ever tried to sleep outside in the cold or rain ? [63] Do you remember the last time you picked a fruit or vegetable and ate it? Did you die of hunger since then? You probably believe you drink real cow's milk every morning. [64] Survival has become easy because wild nature has disappeared from our real lives. We are constantly assisted in avoiding it. [65] Material comfort is the main principle of the industrialised world. It is essentially sustained by electricity which is invisible because we are surrounded by it and its effects. It conditions our ways of seeing and acting. When things are going normally, we can't escape it. Everything we do uses it, automatically.

[66] Is the sublime landscape possible now?
A project which would be uncomfortable would currently be poorly received. A project which is scary? A project for roughing it on the land? Not a merry-go-round. Would you accept to live in distress? Do you really think that this is the time to create the sublime?
[67] In fact, we must ask the question in the opposite manner. Can we afford to pass up an incredible opportunity to experience a sublime landscape at this time? Movies, video games and virtual reality are always seeking stronger sensations. Nature has come back into the forefront through ecology. The time is therefore ripe for the sublime. [68] The only problem is that the dominant landscape of comfort tends to relegate the sublime to the virtual world.

Searching for the sublime, here and now

Where to find the sublime?
This doesn't leave us much room to experience sublime places with our own senses.
[69] Great natural catastrophes like the 1998 (nineteen-ninety-eight) Quebec Ice Storm offer us the unique opportunity to move from 'knowledge', to 'seeing' in order to finally arrive at an understanding of what sublime landscape really is.

Natural catastrophe and the sublime landscape
[70] First we must define what a natural landscape catastrophe is. A catastrophe is a sudden, unusual change in nature. I am using the term 'nature' here in its broadest sense. What truly exists is not the fruit of our imagination. I include here Man and his most insane actions. In fact, catastrophes happen quite often on the planet. For a person living anywhere, it's a rare experience in his life. Rare but likely. If you haven't lived through a natural catastrophe yet, you probably will at some time in your life.

Sublime beaver
There are big and small catastrophes.
[71] In establishing its home, a beaver family makes a dam. All trees in the affected area die rapidly. It's a small catastrophe. We want to see the beaver, we admire his dam, his lodge, his ability to build. We see all the dead trees. It's unbelievable: over several acres, all the trees are dead. It's awesome. However, the land adapts rather well to these little valleys flooded by the beavers. Therefore, the landscape is sublime.
And if the beaver decided to set up shop in the little creek that runs by your place? Probably he would not merit your admiration. But, in this manner, you would have lost the potential for the sublime and simply maintained the catastrophe.

The 1998 Ice Storm
[72] The 1998 (nineteen ninety-eight) Ice Storm in Québec was a great catastrophe. It had nothing in common with the situation where a beaver family establishes its home in a new valley.
couches de glace accumulée[73] Freezing rain forms a layer of ice when it lands on very cold objects. Each winter we have freezing rain in Québec. Normally it lasts several hours and produces a layer of ice several millimetres (or sixteenths of an inch) thick.

[74] In January 1998 (nineteen ninety-eight), freezing rain continued to fall for several days. The area most affected by the storm was labelled the Triangle of Ice (or Triangle of Darkness).
Initially, the ice on the roads and highways caused several accidents. Then, downed electrical lines, fallen branches and broken utility poles blocked traffic. Outside of areas that were flooded, vehicular traffic was re-established within 48 (forty-eight) hours.
[75] Repairs to power lines began. The ice storm moved closer to Montreal, still causing the same problems. Montreal is, as you know, a heavily populated island. In terms of public safety, Montreal became the priority. [76] The 'Triangle of Darkness' just outside of Montreal would have to wait. Surrounding villages had to wait for one month for power to be restored. Some farmhouses had to wait two months.

[77] Without electricity, the country just doesn't work
Without electricity, the country can no longer function in the context of the dominant landscape. Forget about comfort! Most domestic appliances use electricity: television, refrigerator, toaster.
[78] The dominant landscape has so fashioned the country that it just doesn't work any more. Don't drink the tap water! The water treatment facilities work on electrical systems. Your house is no longer heated. You think you're lucky to have an oil-fired furnace, but the burner which mixes and lights the fuel is electric. Only houses which had wood stoves or which had portable gasoline or diesel generators could stay warm. Don't count on the hardware store to sell you a generator; their stock ran out quickly. During the ice storm the temperature hovered around zero degrees Celsius (thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit). The sump pump in the basement is electric.
After a few days the temperature fell to its seasonal normal of around minus twenty degrees Celsius (around five degrees below zero Fahrenheit). Showers, toilets, sinks, dishwashers, pipes? Everything was in danger of freezing. Emptied or filled with antifreeze, nothing could be used any longer.
If you leave the area at that point, you would miss out on the sublime landscape of the ice storm.

First magical, then sublime
[79] There are usually six to eight ice storms annually in Québec. They last less than two days. Branches covered with ice glisten in the sun. [80] The ambience is sparkling, like a fairyland. The highways are quickly cleared of ice. [81] The landscape is marvellous.
[82] Freezing rain over a period of from four to six days was the 1998 (nineteen-ninety-eight) exception to the rule. The freezing rain produced a whole other landscape, overpowering infrastructural elements not able to withstand it. The land was as beautiful as in a typical ice storm, glittering in the sun. But the freezing rain has become wild and destructive. The landscape had the potential of becoming sublime.

A temporary sublime landscape
[83] In January 1998 (nineteen ninety-eight), the freezing rain phenomenon destroyed the materiality linked to the landscape of comfort. The country no longer worked as it had previously. It quickly re-organized itself around another way of seeing and doing. The true nature of each individual came out. Survival, courage, solidarity, relations with others took on greater value. [84] Nature's reality, with all its power and uncertainty, once again came to the country's and each individual's attention. It was perceptible at every moment. However, this sublime landscape did not endure; it ended when the power came back on.

[85] The challenge of landscape knowledge
The freezing rain doesn't exist any longer. It melted. You probably weren't here when it happened.
That the sublime landscape of the ice storm existed for me is not the question. The great challenge of landscape knowledge resides in assuring that this wild landscape may exist for you, now and in the future.

Constituer un paysage sublime accessible à tous

Appreciating a sublime landscape.
[86] To know it as indispensable for a landscape is minimal. It concerns the definitions of "landscape" and "sublime". Sublime belong to the real of sensations. We are intimidated by the beautiful. When applied to the countryside, these three elements form a whole.

The countryside must be incredibly beautiful as well as intimidating.
[87] From this premise we may search the countryside for a landscape that may correspond to these sensations. Then, we will have experienced a sublime landscape. Theoretically, these element should suffice for one to appreciate a sublime landscape. In practice, one has to accept these strong sensations. One has to accept that a landscape may induce a scary feeling ? How would you like to experience a scary landscape ? At first glance, this is not acceptable. To know it as useful is instrumental to accept it as scary.

The necessary logic to tame a landscape.
[88] A landscape complexity cannot be observed by the sum of its parts; even if it follows logical thematic concepts. The numerous possible descriptions that may result never do justice to a landscape. They only comfort us in the trust they convey for us to progressively take over.
Trying to understand a sublime landscape with the use of logic may seem absurd since it essentially deals with the senses. Yet it is essential as we may not be ready to have our reason be overtaken by our senses. Our well being depends on it.

[89] A thin layer of ice is glued to delicate branches in the first light of morning.

[90] Which branches? What ice? Betula, Forsythia, Spiraea, hoar frost, freezing rain.

[91] Botany or climatology?

[92] Two consecutive days of killer freezing rain.
The blur of glistening twigs becomes a design wettened and engorged by the gray warmth of day.

[93] How do we "catch" this subtle knowledge without destroying it in the depths of a data base?

[94] A precise knowledge is imperative for an ulterior usage. It is necessary to describe it in details. A lack of precision will compromise this subtle effect. The diversity found at early, bright, morning light does not make sense within the bounds of a data base.

[95] Do we have the right to ignore this potentially fundamental element of wildness: wildness first perceived in the company of a guide?

[96] Tracks, favourable conditions, then patient waiting to seize fleeting eternal moments.

[97] This wild untamedness in the landscape, does it belong to criminology, ecology or the science of patience?

[98] Wild nature is beautiful. It is only traces.

[99] To see, to see it again, then to return again perhaps to tame it.

[100] Freezing rain continues to fall, improbably, immoderately, wild. The savageness stops us short, frozen in fear of being devoured or mauled.

[101] Aesthetics of the sublime or social control of statistically probable panic?

[102] Trees snap, branches fall, trunks fail under the weight of built-up ice.

[103] What trees? Acer, Tilia, hydroelectricity pylons, television antennas.

[104] The nights of sodium-yellow clouds are dead. Night has come alive again, wild with the undisturbed shining of a million stars.

[105] The trees finally silent, moonlight pierces the luminescent mantles of the blades of yellowed grass.

[106] What grass? A Hosta's dried flower stalk, a Sedum spectabile's rounded head. Two millimetres of stem thickness and ten centimetres of companion ice.

[107] Optics, acoustics, strength of materials?

[108] Soldiers patrols within empty streets. They look after abandoned homes. The country side is silent, transfixed in ice. People have taken refuge in community centres or at relative's home. What are you doing here ?

Do you like sublime landscape ?

Producing sublime landscapes.
[109] Appreciating a landscape will not suffice to produce a sublime landscape. A landscape architect works with the land. His intervention is adjusted by controlling various effect on the landscape. Yet, what landscape are we talking about ? Do you believe that you can master the intricacies of an ice storm ? [110] Do you think that destroyed infrastructures is reason enough to rebuild elsewhere ? Do you believe that you can be demanding on quality control when everything has to be reconstructed ? Do you see yourself as being at the right place to influence decision making ?

[110] A wild return to comfort.
Following a catastrophe, everyone is acting on the land. In your humble opinion what will guide these people to act in the best interest ? Action is urgent. Fine tuning at the negotiating table is unthinkable. The dominant landscape returns in full force, out of control, wild. [110] Electricity returns with its black cloud &endash; more utility poles, wires in profusion, less trees. More comfort.

The landscape passes through the garden.
[112] It is not immediately after the ice storm that we can build a sublime landscape. Either we discover it spontaneously or we render it poetic in the garden. Will it ever become dominant. ?
A garden is a representation of the world. Countryside and wild nature can be easily represented. [113] Would you render a garden into a sublime landscape ? The garden is a virtual reality. For instance, plants constitute a virtual concept as well as being real. Therefore, an endless loop is created within our logical scheme and our perception. The garden become the privileged place where a landscape is defined and acted upon.


[114] Steps to undertake : know, see and recognize.
Only the knowledge of the sublime is interesting, for us, to create a garden. It is in this creative instance that we integrate subtleties and meaning. The accumulated knowledge about the sublime is a great factor to gain precious time. It will permit us to test our expertise that we have laboriously amassed with the passage of time. Everything must be checked. What was considered sublime in the past may not be anymore; only a sensible experience will reveal.

[115] Sensation as a requisite.
Catastrophes are unique events to create sublime landscapes - a experience in life like scale. The entire countryside is affected. Fear will be in us and we cannot escape it.
[116] Yet, shall we be filled with wonder ? If this not the case, the catastrophe will become unbearable.

[117] Is the destruction of the countryside necessary ?
Is it necessary to constitute a sublime landscape ? surely in part, otherwise the savage side of nature would loose credibility. Fear would disappear. [118] Seeing it on television is not sufficient, one must live it. Risk must be present and be experienced.
[119] A large Ice storm prior to the existence of electricity would not be spectacular nor would it produce a sublime landscape. The land would have suffered less. It would even have be perceived as a blessing to gather firewood. Once the signs of danger are felt &endash; fear instill. Destruction is no more obligatory.
[120] Many inhabitants, within the "ice triangle" are now anguished at each new icy rainfall. Fear does not necessarily destroy the beauty of a landscape. Certain are still fearful by the announcement of a storm. They are unable to appreciate the simple beauty. They will avoid at all cost any situation that reminds them of the lived catastrophe.

Sublime in each catastrophe.
Dans chaque catastrophe on retrouvera des valeurs de vie au pays qui sont celles du sublime. Le surgissement de la nature en chacune des victimes de la catastrophe sera là. Il y aura des scènes, des moments sublimes. Le paysage sublime n'est pas obligatoirement présent.


Catastrophe avec paysage sublime.
[121] Each excessive event in nature does not posses the same potential to create sublime landscape. A catastrophe may not compromise the beauty of the land. [122] By its luminous qualities, ice is always beautiful, even when it appears to be destructive. An earthquake, nor a landslide brings beauty to the landscape; maybe during the spontaneous moment of the event &endash; an experience that I have not lived. [123] Flooding has more meaning. How can you not be moved by the furious torrential flows or by the infinite mirror it creates.

[124] The sublime awaits awakening.
Fear can rise without being destructive. Numerous motives contribute to bring anguish : isolation, cold, silence, transgenic corn, electricity or a [125] tree rising from asphalt. Be reassured &endash; all is normal. There is no danger; everything is under control. [126] A tank truck &endash; sublime.


[127] Antidote.
Finally, I would like to share with you the fact that the romantics of the nineteenth century fought reason with passion. The inverse is equally possible. [128] This is eventually possible if your dominant landscape becomes too sublime.