In The Places We Live and Work

Even the environmentalists, committed to the rescue of wild places, have failed to address the problem of human ecology in the places we live and work. ~ James Howard Kunstler

One of the best and worst features of the landscape where we live and work is the shared visual — the parcel next door may not be your legal property, but it is your visual property.  If the visual is water or mountain or meadow, the borrowed landscape can be a stunning advantage; it is, more often, merely stunning in the same mind-numbing way as repeated blows to the head.

The first task in landscape design is to assess the terrain, but that task has two components, one physical and one visual.  The physical is an assessment of the ground itself, how it is shaped, how it moves, what it contains. Unfortunately, this is where most people stop; when they have the technical information they need to install a path or plant a few shrubs, that’s that.  With no thought to the visual beyond the little piece of territory they’re altering, they complete the installation and go straight to the next job on the list.

The missing component is the assessment of the visual terrain, which is broader, usually livelier and always, always more fun to play with.  That’s partly a matter of simple math — the visual space is larger, which means there’s more to inspire the imagination — and partly because in that larger space you find elements of the natural environment.  For me, here in southern Maine, that means stone beaches and beach roses, granite outcroppings and liquid fields.

These are the things that make Maine, Maine, and these are the things that we are losing at an alarming rate.  When we design only for our little patch of ground, we cut ourselves off not only from our neighbors, but from habitat as a whole.  We’re in the habitat, too, we humans, and we need the visual equivalent of pollen and nectar to be sustained.

There’s a move afoot to create habitat corridors for a variety of endangered or threatened wildlife, and there was interesting reference to vegetation corridors in a blurb describing a set of publications from the cooperative extension office of the University of Maine.  I share the reference with you because of one particular word:

“By landscaping with native plants, we can create vegetation corridors that link fragmented wild areas, providing food and shelter for the native wildlife.”

The word ‘fragmented’ is worth noting, because a similar fragmentation exists in the corridors of the visual landscape.  It has been caused by the same thing that caused the fragmentation of wild areas — the supplanting of native material with hybrid — and it has the same cure.  We don’t seem to be paying attention to the visual loss, yet it is equally as dramatic and, I would argue, equally as valuable to replace.

Fortunately, I needn’t argue that from an either/or stance, because in the salvage of one lies the salvage of both.  Practical altruism, that; good works with a healthy dose of self-preservation.

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