NEAR NATURE: The Role of Native Botany in the Geography of Everyday Life

Every physical structure, everything that occupies space in the arena of everyday life, is contextual. It exists, certainly, but since it does not exist in a vacuum, we appreciate it in relation to its surrounds. A fabulous piece of modern architecture plunked down in the middle of a boulevard of classic New England homes is jarring because it does not fit inside the context of its locale. The house itself may be smashing and a clear beacon of individuality ~ very much a New England characteristic ~ but our eye still struggles with the collision of two such distinct worlds.

Buildings that do appear connected to both their immediate sites and the broader locale, whether new construction or renovation, have sufficient reference points to their specific geography that we perceive them as part of a unified whole. In other words, they speak the architectural vernacular of the region. Whether there is a formula, a definitive percentage that constitutes sufficiency, is debatable, but no doubt lies somewhere between all and nothing.

The same holds true for the structural botany of a site, the trees and shrubs that constitute the ‘bones’ of a landscape design; only by speaking the botanical vernacular of a region do we move that landscape beyond mere occupation of space into the creation of place. To effect place, the landscape design must have sufficient botanical relevance to the broader locale, and that sufficiency lies somewhere between all hybrid or all native. The condition of ‘all’ exists only on a pristine parcel; the moment we begin to build, the moment we insert the human element into the natural landscape, we have an equation, we have some of the built environment woven into some of the natural environment. For those of us who create place, the job is to weave as seamlessly as possible.

Admittedly, the construct of place has a metaphysical quality, but the primary threads are wholly tangible and identifiable. The warp and weft of the fabric of place are vernacular architecture and vernacular botany, plants which are either true natives or which have been part of the communal landscape for so long they are fully integrated into both the visual aesthetic and wildlife habitat. The coast of southern Maine, for example, is cloaked in Rosa rugosa, commonly called beach rose and though technically not native, is so long established that it’s hard to imagine the coastline without it. Every locale has its own version of this, making the purist stance of ‘native only’ not just futile, but foolish. The ephemeral quality that we call ‘spirit of place’ is, in part, psychological, and keyed by emotional attachment and memory. There’s often a plant at the core of that attachment, so whether or not the plant is native in the strict sense, we are wise to use it, to allow the attachment to flow into the place we are creating.

 

In this paper, as in others, I equate botany with architecture for good reason: alongside their value as structural design elements, both are evocative of specific geographical place and being eradicated at alarming rates. In his brilliant work The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler chronicled the architectural demise of Main Street and with it, the perpetual blight afflicting small cities and towns across the country. Poor planning, apathy and a shocking lack of foresight all seem to have played a role in what he calls ”…the immersive ugliness of the built environment.” These are the very forces at work today in the botanical realm.

The advantage we have when considering how to stop the loss of vernacular botany is the evidentiary trail of damage left by the loss of vernacular architecture and the data we already have concerning the psychological weight of botanical loss post-Hurricane Hugo. A research team conducting a study in Charlotte, South Carolina, came up with some startling figures: a full thirty percent of survey respondents “identified something natural as the most special [place] feature damaged or destroyed.” That figure is a composite of two categories (parks and gardens 13%, street and yard trees 17%) and I mention them separately because it helps us understand the ranked importance of the individual elements which comprise a region’s botanic array.

 

There’s one more intriguing statistic from the research: the category of home garnered the same thirteen percent as parks and gardens, a comparison that I confess surprised even me. What’s the takeaway from this study? If people place greater value on trees than on every other significant element in their physical world, then botanical considerations are deservedly on par at minimum with architectural considerations in site planning and development. The vernacular array is a design feature that can be used to effect connection, person to place.

“On balance, it appears that residents value their environment for much more than purely functional and economic reasons. Part of this value seems wrapped up in the meanings symbolized by place features and the contribution this mean- ing makes to place identity. This quality of the environment exists in an intangible transaction between people and place. It is not easily seen by officials or professionals concerned with community renewal, reconstruction, and/or development efforts. Hence, it is easily ignored, resulting in the production of sterile, identity-less environments that may further disassociate residents from their place-based communities.”

We already acknowledge the value of vernacular botany on the grand scale ~ it’s in every tract of land we preserve, every scenic overlook we enshrine ~ but on the scale of the ordinary, the landscape of everyday life, we treat any green thing as interchangeable with any other. This is akin to saying that a Cajun dish could be swapped for a Thai dish because they’re both spicy. The argument would be ludicrous on its face, and yet we continue to say that a tree is a tree.

The case for retention of botanical vernacular is usually made on behalf of local fauna, in the maintenance of habitat and food sources for these other, smaller members of the biotic community. Those arguments are well founded, and the logic of taking care of species on whom we ourselves depend is irrefutable. Environmental altruism alone, however, is insufficient, and only one element in a larger, more persuasive brief: the biotic community includes us. Putting a human value on the botanic array, recognizing its worth to us, makes the thesis personal. Ironically, making it personal broadens both the argument itself and the circle to whom the argument can be made.

The argument comes up against two forces: the inertia of common landscape practices and a long history of what Kunstler calls the ‘extreme individualism’ of American property ownership. When we think of home as the castle, landscape becomes the realm and we stamp our mark on every inch of the domain, often with all the heavy-handedness that phrase implies. These are landscapes conceived of possession and levied at will; such are not stewardship concepts and yet this land is as important a conservation issue as any other. We just don’t see it yet because we aren’t looking at the network they create in terms of its effect on the human populace.

The practice of considering property a ‘blank slate’ is, sadly, still around, and even those who build within the envelope often cling to the notion that private property is somehow visually private, and install whatever landscape confection catches their fancy. Here I can only echo Thomas Paine and say “…a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” To alter custom, we must first alter our concept of public space.

In the arena of design, with the exception of far-flung rural sites, every property has a civic interface. Any aspect of your site that is within your neighbor’s visual field becomes, in its own way, your neighbor’s. This common visual is the thread that weaves through neighborhoods, and towns, and cities; it will either frame what writer Jonah Lehrer calls “a world of form and space that we can understand,” or it will not. It will either create a sense of place, or it will not. It will either maintain the unique botanic vernacular of a region, or it will not.

Since place identity is an integral element of self-identity, fraying this common visual thread wears us thin. Designing in situ, using the botany of locale to maintain a sense of place even on the smallest, most ordinary residential lot, will do more than keep that individual owner connected to the land, it will add to the fabric for the rest of us. For all the talk in all the fields that concern themselves with sense of place and its inextricable link to rootedness, no one is discussing rootedness in its literal meaning, that of having actual, physical roots in the ground, nor contemplating the plants that arise from those roots. This poses the question: how much of place alienation results from stripping away vernacular botany and the opportunity for connectedness that unique botanical expression provides?

Said another way, the botany of locale is a tangible method of actualizing the ephemeral concept of genius loci. Those of us who design know that the maintenance of spirit of place is the ultimate achievement on any project; while some may insist that the quality is too transitory to be captured, I say that its roots are quite literally in the ground. Place, spirit and all, is an entirely plantable idea built, leaf by leaf, from the botany of locale. Those of us who design and build planned environments have, with every project, the opportunity to create places of meaning and matter.

You get to meaning by tying your site to the broader locale, using native botany as connective tissue; you get to matter by insinuating the built into the unbuilt. Whether urban planner, designer, architect or builder, all of us manipulate some aspect of the environment, so when I say insinuate I do in fact mean maneuver into a position of favor by artful methods. Not just any position, but a position of favor; not just any method, but an artful one. The better I do my job, the more artful, the more intuitive I am, the more favorable the outcome.

That said, neither the gentlest positioning nor the most artful construction will ever make a built property appear unbuilt; the goal is to render the finished site as whole as possible. If we understand that what makes us whole is connection to place, and we understand that botany is an element of that connection, then the logical step is to use the botany of locale to make the site appear whole, to put it into a position of favor in our mind’s eye.

The problem with sites that lack this connective ability is akin to a problem faced by robotics designers called the ‘uncanny valley,’ a phrase which describes the unease people feel the more closely a robot resembles a human. We seem to recognize that the humanoid robot is, in the words of David Rose, “…a human being in everything but the most important elements: heart, mind, soul.” I believe that same emotional construct is at work when people occupy sites which are mere facsimiles of place, sites which lack the elemental connection found in the botany of locale. We experience these sites with the same vague unease; although we may not be able to pinpoint the cause, we recognize that something is off. Consequently, as we interact with them, we’re never fully comfortable, never nestled within. To some, that may sound like an emotional or psychological issue; to me, it’s a simple matter of botany. Once the site is redesigned to reflect the botanical vernacular of the region, the landscape version of the uncanny valley dissipates.

In addition, creating sites with legitimate resonance, with their own zeitgeist, may obviate the need to install the coopted landscapes ~ English cottage, Tuscan, Zen ~ of other cultures. We desperately seek places of resound, but because the everyday landscape has been so neutered, so stripped of place identity, we grab any identity we can find. The desire is completely understandable, but the ‘cookie-cutter’ landscape that results is not, because the concept behind the concept garden is entirely mutable. English cottage is happy and carefree; Zen is ordered and tranquil. These sets of ideas, these feelings, are easily separated from their usual design schemes and translated into the regional vernacular. Using the botany of locale imbues the landscape with a place identity all its own; unique, but clearly and visibly part of the whole. In possession of the visual and emotional goals of the concept, but relevant and connected to its specific geography.

Cues from vernacular botany can be used in the selection of materials for both buildings and hardscaping, as well. When these surfaces are wrapped in colors that correspond to what the eye sees elsewhere in the locale, the constructed elements become visually integrated into the site. Since every built environment will, of necessity, lose a measure of visual integrity, the more connective cues we build into the new construct, the more unified the finished development will appear. Greater visual unity, which is a primary goal from the design standpoint, has a secondary benefit: it’s easier for the brain to process. Sites designed in this fashion have a more fluid read, which make them less stressful all around. Given the pressure and pace of daily life, any measure that might contribute to stress reduction ~ particularly in and around dwelling space ~ should be employed. To borrow from University of Montreal’s Peter Jacobs, “At issue are the imaginative, sensorial and experiential aspects of landscape…”

Additionally, there’s an easy case to be made for salvaging as much of the native botany from new development sites as is practicable, to be held aside and replanted within the new landscape design. It makes no sense to continue to salvage all the old milled wood we can get our hands on ~ doors, floors, mantles and beams ~ but bulldoze the living wood surrounding the structures we so carefully disassemble. Is it harder to cache plant materials and keep them alive during the interim construction period than it is to pop a door off its hinges and set it aside? Of course it is. Is it prohibitively harder? No, and the advantages are threefold.

You get the botany of locale, not just in theory but in fact; you get old-growth material, which is harder to source through nurseries and exponentially more expensive; and you get it for the price of the land itself. There will be costs associated with identifying, salvaging and harboring this material, but even so will be a fraction of the replacement cost. The site, when finished, will have some patina of age and appear more integrated, more a part of the broader locale than the typical new build. Lastly, older trees have a greater ability to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than young ones and I suggest that be a consideration when local boards review plans for site development. According to the Urban Forestry Network, “trees reach their most productive stage of carbon storage at about 10 years at which point they are estimated to absorb 48 pounds of CO2 per year. At that rate, they release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two human beings.” An advantageous design aesthetic and breathable air, all in one.

In the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, Wenche Dramstad and Wendy Fjellstad said, “We need to highlight how one person’s ‘mark on the landscape’ may affect the landscape for other members of society. We need to communicate the consequences of landscape change in a sustainability perspective, and we need to communicate to the right audience.” It’s the ‘right audience’ segment of their equation that requires amplification, because that audience needs to include the individual homeowner and the small developer. They, and the tradespeople they employ, must be brought into the fold for any initiative or policy endeavor to be effective. We can talk all we like about sustainability, but if the message doesn’t make it to the people who are on the ground, we accomplish nothing.

“It may seem that biodiversity and cultural heritage values are more highly regarded by academic researchers and planning experts than by landowners and the general public. However, because both biodiversity and cultural heritage are so strongly linked to the landscape, it may be that placing these values in a landscape context can provide a better way of communicating about them. The gap between science and policy must be bridged and a dialogue established between researchers, policy makers and those actively changing the landscape ~ the planners, developers and landowners ~ with the common goal to generate sustainable landscapes. To achieve this, we may need to focus more effort on establishing such a dialogue…”

As we big-box our way across the landscape, we are stripping out the very botany that allows us to form and maintain connection not only to place, but to self. In his seminal work Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph said “To be inside a place is to belong to it and to identify with it, and the more profoundly inside you are the stronger is this identity with place.” When we lose the botanical vernacular, we lose the ability to be ‘profoundly inside’. If this place is indistinguishable from that place, we lose more than the individuated character of a space; we lose the ability to form attachment. When we strip a place botanically, we strip the visual, psychological, emotional and cultural elements of self-identity that are bound to those plants. The botanical vernacular is a living expression of place that we inherited from our ancestors and, if we have the sense to preserve it, will be passed on to our descendants. That language ~ living expression, ancestors, descendants ~ is precisely the tripart definition that UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) uses for ‘intangible cultural heritage.’ The use or reuse of vernacular botany in the creation of built environments is not only visually appropriate at the individual level but also acts as a safeguarding measure against loss of the intangible for the culture at large.

The Landscape Psychologist Rachel Kaplan tells us, “Many aspects of the natural environment are greatly preferred; ‘nature’ in this context does not need to be remote and pristine.” I propose that the far nature of national parks and land trusts is less important to our daily welfare than the near nature of the built environments which constitute the geography of everyday life.

Thus far, the argument in favor of sustainable building has been made largely by scientists and academics; outside that realm, it has been heard and forwarded only by those who either are predisposed to the cause or who can be persuaded by the evidence. Granted, the predisposed and persuadable segments of the market are increasing, but to become more inclusive, the argument needs to come down to the ground. The argument needs to come home if it is to effectively confront what Gertrude Jekyll called “a wearisome and irritating exposition of monotonous commonplace.” Before we bore ourselves to death, before we eradicate everything unique about any place we live, we need to find a new way of perceiving the common visual of our daily landscape. Seeing it ‘in common’ may be the first step.

Peter Jacobs offered new language for a more comprehensive definition of the very word landscape, suggesting that it is “an expression of who we are and what we value… for what we wish to become and how we wish to live within nature.” Jacobs wants the full wilderness experience brought to the table, that the data will not so overwhelm the research as to deaden it. I want bits of the wilderness experience to be available within the everyday, that modern life will not so overwhelm the landscape as to bury it. Fritz Steele writes that “all of us are at least latent place people, and that using our settings better and getting more joy out of them are learnable, practicable skills that can, in fact, be developed if we try.”

Maintaining the unique vernacular of regional botany is the key to producing built environments that are both sustainable and emotionally engaging. When we lose the vernacular, we lose meaning and import, we lose bond. Without bond we are, literally and figuratively, rootless.

How do we stay rooted, how do we achieve a sense of place within the everyday landscape? We plant it.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dramstad, Wenche E., Fjellstad, Wendy J. Landscape and Urban Planning 100 (2011) 330-332.

Jacobs, Peter. “Where have all the flowers gone?” Landscape and Urban Planning 100 (2011) 318-320

Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere. New York: Touchstone, 1993.

R. Bruce Hull IV, Mark Lamb, Gabriela Vigo, Place identity: symbols of self in the urban fabric, Landscape and Urban Planning, 28 ( 1994) 109-I 20.

Relph, Edward Place and Placelessness (London, Pion Ltd., 1976) 49. Steele, Fritz The Sense of Place (CBI Publishing Co., 1981) 50.