Let’s face it: there’s no such thing as a ‘natural’ line on a developed property. No matter how hard we try to simulate nature, how careful we are to preserve the aesthetic, the moment we inhabit a place we interfere with the natural order. We have to; there’s no way to achieve habitation without occupying some portion of the site. However gently we arrange that occupation, however limited our footprint, the best we can have is nature lite.
That said, the lines we draw needn’t be the sad and silly curvilinear things that have become so popular in today’s landscaping; the trick is to follow, to emphasize, the lines that are already there. For example, on a property I manage in Scarborough, Maine, the owner and I decided to create a walkable path through the wet meadow. Looking at the tree line from a distance, it’s hard to see where the natural breaks are occurring within that line. Those breaks aren’t always immediately apparent, as you can see from the photo. Come for a walk with me, though, and you’ll begin to get an understanding of the patterns within. The more you walk, the more you’ll see. The more you see, the clearer the line for the new trail will become.
By allowing the trail to become apparent, almost of its own volition, we can finesse a pathway through the meadow rather than carve one. This has multiple benefits: it’s better for the property, in that it will disturb the habitat as little as possible, but it will also be easier and cost less.
This technique works across the board, and is especially useful in determining the size and shape of the ‘envelope’ when building a new house. More and more, people are deciding to clear only as much land as is absolutely necessary to allow for the structure and the equipment, but often they take the concept of envelope far too literally. The building envelope needs to be small, yes, but it doesn’t need to be square. Following the tree line in these cases is just as beneficial as using the tree line to establish our path through the meadow. It will give the site a more natural appearance and will save money in the long run; felling trees before construction begins is a lot cheaper than removing them individually after the house is in place. In addition, leaving a clean and natural tree line eliminates the rather sad and sorry stragglers which are merely remnants of the grouping that existed in front of that natural break. If there won’t be enough of that original stand left to give the remaining trees visual, if not literal, support, it’s usually best to let them go. Allowing the line to follow its own course, however, may give you enough plasticity to maneuver around other tree groups, saving both the trees and the aesthetic. The Roman philosopher Seneca said that all art is an imitation of nature; I couldn’t agree more.
To achieve an artful landscape, just watch what nature does and follow along.