Landing in a foreign cultural skeleton?

By Tibor Hartel

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Months before I read a book of Dawkins entitled ‘The extended phenotype’. In this book Dawkins argues that the extended phenotype goes beyond the phenotype (‘body’) produced by genes. It will include all the changes in the environment made by organism(s), which is more or less governed by genes. The beaver for example is able to modify landscapes by creating dams and ponds. These ponds will be there till the beavers will persist in that landscape.

The extended phenotype idea came back in my mind recently in a different context: while talking with my friend and colleague Joern Fischer about rural societies and the rich cultural-natural heritage produced by these – a heritage which easily seduces any conservationist.

Below the ‘cultural skeleton’ metaphor will be presented in a nutshell. It may look weird and not useful. And this is why it is shared!

Human societies produce culture and traditions. The culture and traditions are measurable things, for example songs, stories, traditional knowledge, dances and traditional costumes. Culture maniphest even beyond these: the structure of buildings (e.g. houses, church), the structure of the village, the way how people use the natural resources (land management, landscape management) can be all culturally driven. Together, these various cultural manifestations and landscape structure will give identity and uniqueness for that society and landscape.

What if the traditional society suddenly collapse (e.g. by massive emigration) and the cultural vacuum resulted from this is quickly filled by people with multiple and different cultural/ethnic origins? What will happen with the huge cultural and natural heritage produced and maintained by the previous society in the ‘new’ cultural-societal conditions?

This is how the term ‘cultural skeleton’ comes into the discussion.

Many conservationists are struggling to conserve the sharply deteriorating Saxon cultural and natural heritage of southern Transylvania. Since the society who produced and maintained this heritage (namely the Saxons) almost completely disappeared, one can wonder how efficient this conservation work can be in long term. The new society is a mixture of people with many cultural and ethnic origins (mostly Romanians, Hungarians and Rromas), some of them being ‘forced’ by a political context to immigrate in this area while others were already here but were mostly defavorised with respect to rights.This new mixture of culture doesn’t seem to truly fill and fit the ‘Saxon cultural skeleton’ (e.g. settlements, houses, landscape) left behind the Saxons. Moreover it seems that the group oriented behaviour (so characteristic to the Saxon society), and some traditional cultural behavioural maniphestations and knowledge (which are still present in the Szeklers from Eastern Transylvania) are completely absent in these new communities. And this has consequences.

Below some examples showing the transformation of cultural (Figure 1) and landscape (Figure 2) heritage under changed cultural-societal conditions in the Saxon area of Transylvania.

Figure 1. A massive change in the cultural heritage such are the buildings is visible in the Saxonarea. In many Saxon settlements, including Sighisoara there is a growing number of buildings restored in a way to have different shapes, colors and sizes. According to many local people, this may be due to the lack of community cohesion. Note that the picture series is not about the same house, just the overall trend is represented.

Figure 2. Wood pastures from Southern Transylvania were historically produced and maintained by the Saxon society. These lands were created by rearing the existing deciduous forests. Some oaks were maintained across the pasture and were used for shadow (for animals), timber and acorn production while the pasture was grazed. A massive deterioration of the old, scattered trees mostly due to lack of management and direct injuries caused by people are observable in the recent decades. Their fate goes hand in hand with the fate of the built heritage presented in Figure 1, due to the same reasons. According to some local expert opinions, if the current deterioration continues, most of ancient trees and wood pastures will completely disappear in the coming decades.

Cultural and landscape heritage undergo changes even without sharp cultural turnover, in the sense mentioned above (e.g. in the Szekler Land – although here it seem to be slower and not so drastic than in the Saxon area). I admit that lots of cultural and biodiversity values are lost due to these changes and these changes pose their own challenges to conservationists. The increased wealth of the developed western European countries certainly represents an ‘attractor’ for many traditional societies of Eastern Europe: many Eastern European people from rural areas after experiencing the ‘western lifestyle’ still tend to put more weight on messages like ‘How poor you are’ instead of ‘Look around how destroyed our nature is. Try to not repeat our mistakes’.

With all these in mind, I think that the sharp cultural turnover recently happening in past communist-socialist countries like Romania adds a further and important threat on internationally important landscapes, habitats, species and cultural heritage – and represent an extra challenge for conservationists.

To put it simply: it is better if people occupy their own cultural skeleton than one made by others.

Some questions related to sustainable development and heritage (cultural, natural) conservation:

i) How, what and how much to conserve in rural landscapes where the rapid cultural turnover produced tensions between society and cultural-natural heritage?

ii) How could we – conservationists – help these societies to build a bridge between cultural heritage and them?

iii) How to help societies with multiple cultural origins to form a real community (i.e. informal institution)?

iv) What is the fate of the architectural and cultural heritage of traditional rural societies which were not affected by sharp cultural turnover – for example those from the Szekler Land of Eastern Transylvania? What are the limits and possibilities of cultural and natural heritage conservation in those areas?


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