I went to back to Strawberry Island recently; what I was looking for I can’t exactly say, but I can say that I didn’t find it. The island of my childhood is all but gone. What remains is a spit of land built up by such tonnage of stone as to be unrecognizable to its former self. I don’t know if I’d be happier if it had been allowed to erode completely away, but seeing it buried under the weight of so much intervention made my heart ache.
At the end of that same road there’s an enormous sand dune — the ‘great hill’ of Great Hill Road — that people foolishly built on. A couple of the houses over the years developed a rather precarious perch and were hauled back to safer ground, but it’s a sand dune and it’s doing what sand dunes do despite the god-awful concrete wall that has been laid in at the base. I can’t say how different my opinion would be had I inherited one of those foolish houses, but I can say that those images, the island and the dune, formed my understanding of the world and its beautiful, achingly ephemeral nature.
Only the wind is permanent; we occupy a tiny bit of space, each of us, and the earth is constantly shifting under our feet. Oddly enough, that perception leaves me in good stead when it comes to landscape design because my job, first and foremost, is stewardship. I get hired to resolve problems of habitation; my clients are only half of the equation, and the second half at that. The first is the land, and what it is inclined to do, and what it needs from me in order to accommodate its human element.
That’s a far cry from the last century of design, which was almost entirely impositional. There were notable exceptions, but by and large the rights of ownership reigned. If you wanted your property to have a certain look you could, and to some schools of thought should, do it. Property considerations were confined to matters of zoning and code, to angle and curve, and ideas of stewardship applied only to large tracts of land.
I’m here to argue for stewardship of the small, the ordinary plot of land on which sits the ordinary house. Bound together, I believe that these ordinary plots are as valuable as large tracts to the ethos of place and to the common good.