Stewardship by Design

One problem facing those who consider stewardship issues is the loss of habitat caused by residential building practices.  Even among those who ‘build within the envelope’ there still is an overwhelming tendency to strip that envelope of native vegetation, and to replace it with a collection of whatever plant materials are currently popular.  On occasion, those materials are indigenous but they are more often hybrids which have been developed solely for hardiness or size.  A prime example of this is a shrub called Burning Bush.

The chief argument in favor of Burning Bush, a variety of euonymous, is that it turns scarlet in the fall and is therefore visually appealing within the landscape.  The native Highbush Blueberry, though, also turns scarlet in fall; in addition, it produces flowers in spring and berries in early summer.  With similar branching structures and similar displays, both shrubs serve the same design purpose, but with very different aesthetic outcomes.  Persistent use of the hybrid over the native results in a loss of the visual integrity of the habitat, of which we humans are members.

Supplanting natives with hybrids causes a loss of vegetation and a consequent adverse effect on wildlife, but I propose that such a loss compromises the human element, as well.  Though my diet does not depend on my ability to find blueberries, their presence in the local landscape is a visual and cultural touchstone.  From a design standpoint, using Highbush Blueberry instead of Burning Bush preserves the indigenous aesthetic of Maine.  That preservation has significant personal relevance and finding relevance in the landscape is the act that connects us with the properties we inhabit.  We are otherwise merely perched atop a piece of land that never becomes home.

I study an ancient Taoist art called geomancy, which concerns itself with appropriately siting a home within a property.  To site a house (or a garden or a path) requires of me the same thing that is required by stewardship, and that is to find the balance between  human and nature.  Geomancy can be complex because there are two schools of thought:  form and compass.  The compass school uses a precise, fairly arcane methodology while the form school, which I practice, takes all its design cues directly from the land.

Because I am encouraged by this practice to take into account the whole property and not merely the ground as I create a design plan, I am simultaneously working within the realm of stewardship.  As a steward of both the vegetative and the visual, my goal is to disturb as little of the site as possible during development, allowing the land to retain its essential nature.  A geomancer would call that essential nature ‘chi’, which is energy, and would consider that energy an essential element of the design.

What I find, when I conform my design to the energy of a site, is a balance that suits all aspects of habitation for all members of the habitat.  In addition, that measure of conformity — and who would ever have thought I’d relish that word? — allows me to create designs that are unique because they are site-specific.  It’s as far from cookie-cutter as you can get, and in a time when there are cookies as far as the eye can see, that’s an attraction in and of itself.

Good for the land, and more fun in the process… I told you stewardship was cool!

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