Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post
The Brazilian modernist Roberto Burle Marx was a creative dynamo, as the 240,000 visitors to the New York Botanical Garden's major show this summer discovered. He was a landscape architect, a painter, a ceramist, a textile artist and more. But it was his other and lesser-known incarnations, as a plant explorer and conservationist, that came sharply into focus as the exhibition played out in the botanical garden's grounds, conservatories and galleries in the Bronx. The reason: The Amazon is on fire.
The show, which ended Sept. 29, was several years in the making but came together, poignantly and ironically, as the world learned that this year's clearing and burning of the Amazon rainforest was occurring at alarming levels.
The exhibition's character, thus, shifted somewhat in late summer, from principally a celebration of an artist's lust for life to a reminder that Burle Marx's love of the natural world fueled not only his garden designs and paintings, but also his rage at those who have considered the Amazon and other habitats a natural resource to be exploited.
Deforestation, he wrote, "represents an attack on humanity, an affront to the sources of life, and an assured means of destroying future generations." This was in 1969, long before greenhouse gases and climate change became the dominant ecological paradigm.
The heart of the botanical garden show was an outdoor garden paying homage to Burle Marx's design for Rio's Copacabana Beach and other commissions, with broad, patterned paths winding through groves of palm trees. But within the more subdued, indoor ecological displays, the curators added signs reflecting the current furor. One of them noted that by late August, the number of fires was its highest on record, more than 80 percent above last year's level, and that the "loss of forest to these fires will displace people and animals, negatively affect air quality in the region, change rain patterns on a continental scale and reduce the forest's capacity to clean air for the planet."
The issue came to a head in August, when the scale of this year's fires - reportedly as many as 70,000 - prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to refer to the conflagration as an international crisis.
The dry-season burning of the Brazilian Amazon between May and October is not new - early 19th-century explorers were horrified to see colonists and indigenous people alike setting the Amazon ablaze. A century later, large areas were cleared for roads and telegraph lines. The land since has been consistently deforested for farming, ranching, logging and mining.
But Burle Marx, who died in 1994 at 84, was instrumental in getting Brazilians to see the Amazon as a natural treasure to be protected, and new environmental laws and enforcement reduced the rate of fire-clearing for a while. It has picked up in recent years, and especially since January, when the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office. Critics say he has championed land-clearing while weakening environmental enforcement. The head of the country's National Institute for Space Research was fired after releasing data showing the surge in this year's forest fires.
Bolsonaro was in New York recently, but not to see the Burle Marx exhibition. He could be found in Manhattan, addressing the United Nations General Assembly. He defiantly asserted that the Amazon devastation had been hyped by the media and accused foreign critics of being "colonialist."
The show, "Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx," opened June 8 and seemed a good fit for the botanical garden. Scientists at the institution have been going to Brazil since the late 19th century to survey the country's flora. One big concern, said Douglas Daly, the garden's curator of Amazonian botany, is that "the rains will come at some point, and then people will lose interest and when the dry season comes again next year, it will be that much worse."
The current outcry recalls one 43 years ago, when Burle Marx spoke out against the then-military regime's policy of clearing swaths of the Amazon for infrastructure and agriculture as a way of cementing Brazil's territorial sovereignty. The regime gave tax incentives to multinational corporations to undertake agricultural ventures, resulting in some odd corporate roles. Volkswagen of Brazil acquired 540 square miles of Amazon forest as an experimental cattle ranch and was entitled to clear half of it for pasture.
The initial burning of Volkswagen's Fazenda Cristalino could be seen from space, prompting Burle Marx, in testimony to the Brazilian senate, to rail against the clearing but also to overstate its magnitude. VW asked him to correct the record. Instead, he wrote to the company's head, Wolfgang Sauer. His scathing response is recounted in the exhibition catalogue by Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, a landscape architect who teaches at the City College of New York.
"I will never make such a denial. ... In addition to 'weeds,' it is likely that the fire also burned 'noisy' macaws, 'filthy' armadillos, 'vicious' jaguars, 'venomous' snakes, certainly large trees and perhaps even some 'treacherous' Indian," Burle Marx wrote.
The argument against Amazon burning today is framed by climate change - burning releases carbon into the atmosphere that the trees captured over their lifetimes. Each tree that is felled diminishes the Amazon's role as a carbon sink.
What is not so obvious, perhaps, is that the clearing also reduces habitats that plant and animal species rely on. Burle Marx viewed this loss as "ecological genocide," Seavitt Nordenson writes.
Compounding the problem, Daly says, is that only a portion of the plants in the Amazon have been identified by scientists and many that have been described are now known to have been wrongly classified.
"There are relatively few ecologists for the size of the area," Daly says. "It's hard to know what we are losing."
Daly has studied Brazilian flora for more than 40 years and is also the director of the garden's Institute of Systematic Botany. Late last month, he traveled to Rondonia, the northern state where the fires are concentrated, to gauge the impact. He is also training local teams of biologists to improve the identification and inventory of plant species.
Seavitt Nordenson credits Burle Marx with getting his compatriots to understand the intrinsic value of the Amazon. Still, almost one-fifth of the rainforest has been cleared since the 1970s, and the fear of some scientists is that further loss will lead to a tipping point in which the entire ecosystem begins to collapse.
Global attention has been on the Amazon, but the exhibition and Burle Marx's attentions were also focused on the country's two other major biomes - the Atlantic Forest and the Cerrado. The Cerrado is a high savanna, with dry forests and shrub lands, and occupies a quarter of Brazil's land area. It looks rocky and barren, but Burle Marx did much of his plant collecting there, discovering close to 50 species. He championed the use of such native vegetation in his plant designs.
The Cerrado has undergone its own environmental losses, Daly says, as farmers tapped deep wells and amended the soil to negate the effects of toxic levels of aluminum. He wrote in the catalogue that "the natural vegetation of some 30 percent of the enormous state of Mato Grosso was converted to soybeans in the space of ten years in the early 2000s."
Historically, the Atlantic Forest, home to 70 percent of the Brazilian population, has seen the highest percentage of environmental degradation, Daly writes. Only 5 percent of its original vegetation remains.
"You look at the Atlantic Forest and you see what's coming up for the Amazon," he says.
Perhaps the greatest lesson from Burle Marx is that environmental destruction doesn't just lead to the loss of species or harm natural systems or affect global warming. It degrades our relationship with nature and our sense of place within it.
If Burle Marx were alive today, "he would make the most eloquent and passionate entreaties to anyone and everyone who would listen," says Todd Forrest, the botanical garden's vice president for horticulture and living collections.
Burle Marx, he adds, would remind people that climate change isn't just about how "we can somehow figure out how to live in a world of increased carbon and then all would be fine. He would argue all the other things that are lost. And the loss of that life profoundly erodes the joyfulness of human existence."
Feature Image: New York Botanical Garden's "Modern Garden" on a path inspired by Roberto Burle Marx's work. Image: Marlon Co/New York Botanical Garden