A Land Ethic for the Residential Landscape

In his work “Emotion, Movement & Psychological Space: A Sketching Out of the Emotions in terms of Temporality, Spatiality, Embodiment, Being-with, and Language” Brent Dean Robbins wrote “…emotion involves a movement within interpersonal, psychological, lived space in such a way that how others matter is disclosed.”  Reading this it became clear that, in order to effect change in terms of landscape design, we need to find ways to make the ‘other’ inclusive not only of person, but of place.  The most direct route would be to make the physical space live, in literal terms; not merely be lived in, but to come alive for the residential landscaper or homeowner.  There is no better example of this than the Yeats poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree:

I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

I have never been to Innisfree, but because Yeats had such a deep and abiding love of place, I can see it.  This is no generic spot; no hybridized, developed, self-conscious space; it is the heather that casts the noonday glow.  In the absence of the heather that created this stunning visual, the lake would doubtless still be beautiful, but it would not be Yeats’ lake; it would not be Innisfree.  Indeed, it would not be Scotland, just as Maine would not be Maine without mile after mile of white pine.

Here the summer noons are Atlantic blue, sharp as glass everywhere you look.  Everywhere but the estuaries, where the cat-o-nine-tails stand and the reed grass falls.  Farther down, into the dunes, there’s bayberry and beach rose, fabulously unglamorous, rugged as the day is long with a combined scent as heady as French perfume.  What is a tea rose to this?  What is a P. J. M. Rhodie?  What is a Colorado spruce to a old white pine?  Handsome, surely; grand, elegant, lacy, no.  The more we root out our place things, the less rooted we ourselves become.  When Aldo Leopold was developing his Land Ethic, he wrote:

“There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations. The extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is, if I read the evidence correctly, an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity. It is the third step in a sequence. The first two have already been taken. Individual thinkers since the days of Ezekiel and Isaiah have asserted that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong. Society, however, has not yet affirmed their belief. I regard the present conservation movement as the embryo of such an affirmation.”

It has been nearly seventy years since that ethic was written, and in that time society has affirmed conservation on the large scale but is still in the embryo stage with regard to conservation of the small.  It seems time for a land ethic of the ordinary, of the native plants and trees that surround all the residential lots in all the neighborhoods, of the things that weave the common visual.  Lest another seventy years pass before this aspect of land ethic takes hold, it’s important to understand how that hold comes about.  Leopold said:

“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, of course, I mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense. Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it…”

To become truly effective this new ethic will need to build those vital relationships again; fortunately, the route to connectedness is still there, even if bit obscured by weeds.  This route has two rutted grooves along which others have followed, seemingly without realizing the parallel track.  The first track is the lived Earth; its followers include Leopold, Henry David Thoreau and Rachel Carson, all of whom shared an enviable and luxurious intimacy with the world around them.  It also includes the geomancers, mystics and spiritualists, who view the earth as a partner in the endeavors of life.

The second track is walked by artists and designers who see in terms of size and shape, of line and form, of positive and negative space.  Like bankers to gold they cleave to the golden mean and will sacrifice everything for the pure execution of vision.  This can for some, like le Corbusier, put them at odds with the specific environment in which they are designing.  For others, like Rose and Eckbo, it can simply be that they are talking to audiences solely of peers, because the language of design does not easily translate to common speech.  Their intent, however, is the same as those who approach site design from the bottom up, the ground to the page, rather than the artistic way of top down, the design to the ground.

Because these tracks are running in tandem, and because they are heading toward the same place — that being an engaging and visually balanced environment — there must be a way of connecting the two, and of allowing back and forth of people and ideas.  Stephen Skinner, in his book The Living Earth Manual of Feng-Shui, did a remarkable job of both simplifying and modernizing the art of geomancy, and of separating the practical from the ritual and the spiritual.  In stressing its application as a design tool, Skinner writes:

“Although China is a predominantly agricultural country, the Chinese art of living within the rhythms of the land and the seasons is just asapplicable to life in the Western world.  Although the system of feng-shui is intrinsically linked to the traditional Chinese Taoist philosophy, the practical tenets are universal.”

Geomancy arose from Taoism, but it is not, in itself, a philosophy.  Rather, it is a method of achieving balance between the three elements of any occupied landscape:  earth, heaven, and human.  For the Taoist, as for mystics and seekers in general, this balance is essential and the maintenance of an intimate connection with the land lies at the heart of both thought and deed.  The desire for that connection, however, is common to humans of any philosophical bent; since geomantic principle is applied to the land and not to the person, it can aid in the realization of that desire by creating a physical environment in which bonding becomes possible.

Uncoupling the practice from the philosophy will allow it to disperse, and to float into other terrains where it might be used by those not of like mind.  People who haven’t a ‘new age’ bone in their bodies may well be attracted to a method of design that is, unencumbered, both practical and logical.  Since that is by far the broader audience, it becomes doubly important to achieve the degree of separation that will facilitate the crossover.  You don’t need to be a chef in order to cook a great meal; you just need to have a good appetite and a little experience with the tools.

Designing from the top down presents its own problems, best illustrated by the Indian city of Chandigarh, as designed by le Corbusier.  The architectural style was conceived and put into place with little prior regard for the place itself.  The buildings were constructed with a latticework of bricks in what looked, on paper, like a fine method of screening out the sun.  Had le Corbusier utilized the knowledge of place, he would have seen that an older, better, method existed:  the locals used deep verandas to shield the house from rain and sun.  While le Corbusier’s sunbreakers trapped in the heat and dust, the verandas allowed the natural forces to move freely; the buildings, and their occupants, were shielded but not confined.  Call it geomancy, call it feng shui, call it what the Hindus call it, Vaastu Shastra, it means the same thing.  It is the art of living harmoniously within the land, of artfully inhabiting place.

The architects of the ancient world created their harmony mathematically using what came to be known as the golden section, or the Fibonacci sequence.  This is based on a proportion readily seen in the natural world, and it is used by all manner of professions except builders of residential landscapes.  It is one of the tools you can pick up on the artist/designer road; it helps create spaces that look ‘right’ to the human eye in the same way that the tool of geomancy helps create spaces the feel ‘right’ to the human spirit.  Since we are as a species expressive, and since one of our key forms of expression revolves around the spaces we inhabit, it makes sense to utilize both tools.

That utilizing both tools tends to promote better design, in terms of both the environment at large and the immediate habitat, is the bonus.  It is the difference between being settled into the land and perched atop it.  Settled in, we are relaxed; perched atop, we are at best uncomfortable, if not wary.  The goal is to inhabit the land, and to allow the land to inhabit us.

In this way, the very human desire to leave one’s mark does not come at the expense of the habitat at large, and the integrity of that habitat does not become the sole dictator of design.  When we inhabit we do both, and we do them simultaneously; this is the pathway that exists between the two old routes.  It is the middle way, the broad swath of meadow bounded left and right, through which we wander home.

Having said all that, what could there be in this new method of approaching the land that would appeal to those with less esoteric, more practical inclinations?  Money.  Native materials tend to do better in land they were bred to inhabit than hybrids, which are often raised in climates less arduous than our beloved Northeast.  I won’t say that the out-of-towners are weaklings, but native stock has a proven track record.

In addition, for those who are building on undeveloped land, there are measures that may be taken to preserve the material that the land already contains for reuse in the post-construction landscape.  If you own the land, you own the plants on the land, and it makes financial sense to reuse the ones you have rather than buy new.  The first step is to salvage what you can, to remove from the construction zone whatever might reasonably be transplanted, and to create a holding bed elsewhere on the property to keep those plants alive while they and you wait for the re-landscape phase to begin.

The second step is to pay close attention to that construction zone, to make certain that the ground around tree roots isn’t compacted by heavy equipment, as this will ultimately kill the tree.  Since mature trees add value to the property in both monetary and in personal ways, a little foresight can add a lot to the bottom line.

And what of those who simply fall in love with some gorgeous plant that they absolutely must have?  Use it.  Find out first if it’s invasive by calling your local Cooperative Extension Office, but otherwise plant it and enjoy it.  This isn’t an either/or situation; it’s merely a question of balance.  Retain enough of the native material that the habitat remains stable, and all members of the habitat will benefit.

What constitutes enough?  Let’s start with a fifty-fifty split, indigenous to hybrid.  Since there are also modern versions of native materials, the range of choice is expanded still and gives us the opportunity to be fully expressive in design while retaining the natural expression of the places we inhabit.

Whether you will or not
You are a King, Tristram, for you are one
Of the time-tested few that leave the world,
When they are gone, not the same place it was.
Mark what you leave. ~ Edward Arlington Robinson

Whether or not we wish it, we are the collective managers of these pieces of land, these little bits of Earth.  We are responsible for the way we use it, and for the way we leave it.  To that end here’s a new land ethic, one for the design and use of the common residential plot.

I BELIEVE that the native vegetation of any given area comprises more than just habitat for fauna; it creates a common visual narrative.

I BELIEVE that the common visual has value beyond price; it is what makes an area unique, and is one of the foundation stones for the concept of place.

I BELIEVE that the common visual deserves the same level of stewardship currently applied only to large tracts of land, and land conserved to the public trust.

I BELIEVE that the modern landscape practice of supplanting native vegetation with foreign varieties damages the visual habitat, in that the removal of flora associated with place identity neuters the landscape.

I BELIEVE that the spirit of place resides in the land: in the stone that forms it, in the soil that covers it, in the plants that grow from it.

I BELIEVE that when any one of those elements becomes depleted, the spirit is depleted in equal measure.

I BELIEVE that just as there are conservators of land and conservators of soil, conservators of art and music and architecture, there should be conservators of place.

I BELIEVE that we need to change the manner in which residential landscapes are designed and managed in order to conserve the common visual; and that in order to effect this change, we need a new paradigm.

I BELIEVE that the new paradigm is best achieved by weaving together ancient skills and modern practices, by combining art with science and mathematics.

I BELIEVE that this will result in harmony between the expression of design and the stewardship of land, and will restore balance to the habitat.

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