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All the Green Things 

Gareth Doherty Presents an Ethnographic Account of Landscape in Bahrain 

Not every green is equally green. Case in point: While Bahraini date palms and golf courses are both green, the former have a grayish tint, the latter a verdant sheen. In our own ecologically sensitive time, we also frequently speak of the color in a different way—what’s good for the environment is “green.” In that sense of “greenness,” what the date palms lack in luminosity, they make up for in sustainability (as measured in water consumption). 

In his recent Mellon Midday Dialogue, Gareth Doherty, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, examined precisely these ambiguities within the spectrum of green. In content and style, the talk drew from his recent publication, “Paradoxes of Green: Landscape of a City-State.” 

Doherty, who trained as a landscape architect before completing his doctoral studies, had initially set out to study the landscape of Bahrain. But after arriving, he discovered that the concept of “landscape,” a word that entered English through the Middle Dutch landskip, has no strict equivalent in Arabic. Instead of “landscape,” the locals spoke of “greenery.” 

Thus, Doherty dropped the lens of landscape theory, and instead began to scrutinize the material stuff that made up the “greenery,” a readjustment that produced a new perspicuity in Doherty’s looking. For example, the lush lawns featured in advertisements for villa estates began to jar with the arid sand dunes that spread out across the island. This contrast, in Doherty’s eyes, underscores the mismatch between “greening” (essentially, planting greenery) in the name of ecological sustainability, and the unsustainable practice of watering lawns with energy-intensive, desalinated water.  

Expanding on the misplaced connection between greenery and sustainability, Doherty compared a set of satellite images from recent decades. Since the discovery of oil in the 1930s, the population of Bahrain has grown more than fifteenfold, resulting in the loss of more than 350,000 date palms, a native species that has symbolized Bahraini heritage for centuries. Lands that once stood in the cool shade of swaying palm leaves are now buried beneath roof tiles coated in bright green paint. 

Doherty supplemented these macroscopic views with minute, pedestrian-level observations drawn from a year of walking through the community he studied and talking to its residents. To better capture the views from the ground, Doherty even expanded his skill set to include sketching, photographing, and watercolor painting. What resulted was a reservoir of everyday vignettes that no satellite camera could capture.  

In one instance, Doherty poignantly recounted the gathering of a family of farmers whose house was slated for demolition. Though the house was more economically valuable, they didn’t gather to mourn its loss, but rather the loss of the date palm that had withstood the sandstorms of the previous two hundred years. In Bahrain, as Doherty pointed out, trees are such an intimate part of agrarian life that farmers often name them.   

Maybe it’s because green is such an elementary color that most people rarely think about all its manifestations. In a way, Doherty’s talk was aimed chiefly at counteracting this common view, arguing that, for all its ecological associations, “green” is not without its contradictions and connotations—that, depending on how you look at it, a lawn is both green and not green. 

 

Find out about other Mellon Midday Dialogues.

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