Pian Zhang

Healing the Haunted: Rituals of Mourning and Suture

The long history of human manipulation, displacement of, and extraction from the earth has led to both land and humans being haunted by tangible and hidden traumas. In order to soothe the wounded land and people, this thesis examines ways of healing man-land bonds alongside healing the land itself. By seeing the body as the medium between physical and psychic mending and reconstruction, Healing the Haunted proposes to reunite people and land through body-engaged interventions spatially and temporally. By employing walking and tending of land as a form of embodied stitching, the phased repairing process considers the landscape a mnemonic device inscribing man-land interactions. This will serve as the retrieval process of the past, the burial ritual of the loss, and a stitching process that associates people with land in a reciprocal and resilient way

The Haunted Land

Changing landscape and man-land relationships constantly shape our memory, sense of belonging, and identity. Though invisible and difficult to trace, one may not deny that the reason we become what we are partly contributed to the experience of being immersed in a particular place that nurtured us over time. Place means more than a portion of space associated with culture, stories, and the insurance of a specific relationship between self and land. It is the repository of collective and individual memories and the arena of events and encounters of people. “Topophilia” was raised to refer to that affective bond between people and a place or setting. That emotional connection is largely nurtured by abundant sensual experience interacting with the natural environment and cultural construction through symbols (language, story, etc.) towards a specific place. However, the deeper the connection between an individual with that land, the more vulnerable that affection is. That is where the discourse of trauma unfolds once the environment is “traumatized.”

“Every landscape is haunted by past ways of life”. To decipher the mystery of the haunted is to understand the relationship between a landscape's past, present, and future. Only with each moment being spatialized through the indelible inscription of a trace did time a relentless process acting on the material world. Every moment was specialized, forming the space layer by layer like a palimpsest. Every parcel of land can be seen as a manuscript paper with multiple layers of writing co-authored by nature and humans, endowing a depth of history with the transformation of land use. Every landscape is a text that can be read and deciphered. It's not hard to notice that because it is rewritten repeatedly, the hidden traces of the past loom, affecting the reading of the text written the most recent in an uncertain way.


Historical change about the boom of the oil industry and lasting risk of spillage in Santa Maria Valley

Behind the vernacular landscape, Santa Maria Valley has been a rich oil field for more than a century. The vast farmland and wild hill happen to make the excavation and extraction of the land more covert. The potential “toxication” of the soil, air, surface water, and groundwater is more hidden.

Embodied Healing

The systematic phased healing consists of two interactive parts, mourning and suture, which revisit the man-land relationship and bounce between the inner and outer. It aims to raise the public's awareness and empathy, let everyone and the land witness history and create collective memory, and establish reciprocity through mutual commitment and embodied actions.

The past emphasis on ecological techniques in land reclamation has neglected community needs, long-term human commitment, and broader impacts of environmental degradation, failing to address the source of land trauma deeply rooted in the separation between nature and humans and bereft stewardship of the land. While as the forms of one thing emerge from relations with others, land and body interact and shape each other in multiple ways, making landscape imprints with human traces and forming human lifestyles and memories of a place in turn. Suppose trauma can be seen as adding complexity and dimensionality to the man-land bond. In that case, the question is how we could call back the past intimacy along with ecological restoration rather than reclaiming a traumatized land by erasing the history of disturbance.

It's all about "aboutness": How does what happens to that land relate to us? How to address the vulnerability of the land and mend the" brokenness"? As argued in this thesis, healing serves as a two-way restoration process that repairs land and people simultaneously. It involves physically restoring the damaged land and a mental and emotional rejuvenation process that incorporates humanistic care for people living on that land. By incorporating humanistic care and involving the local community in the restoration process, we are supposed to witness and remember the land trauma and view the land as an extension of ourselves and vice versa. In this way, we breathe together, resonate together, and heal together.


"Toxication" is haunting the ground surface and subterrane.

The phased healing takes Orcutt Hill as a specific area to zoom in. The extraction of the land is turned into plant-growing processes that give back life, like a silent witness of the haunted. Community engagement by walking and tending is seen as the ritual of healing..


Phase one of the regional proposal


Phase two of the regional proposal


Phase three of the regional proposal


Trails are considered sutures, and walking and tending to the land are stitching processes


View of signs in the town (left) and from the bottom of the hill by the creek (right)


Phased healing by embodied intervention on each "pad"


Phased change made by the collaboration of local community and nature


Under the tree, after 40 years


RISD Grad ShowRISD Grad Show

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