Every day I walk past the newly-expanded power plant at the University of Nebraska. After the sidewalk and street were torn up, the landscape needed mending. Although I'd have to say UNL's landscape is more progressive than most--including scattered beds with modest native plantings and sculpture--they too often succumb to the same old boring, outdated 19th century English blind lunacy of American landscape design.
This new sod--not even drought-tolerant buffalo grass--is wasted space. Every day thousands of people walk by and get nothing. No connection to place, environment, or nature. If anything, a power plant needs a good disguise, which means a nice little short grass prairie. No one will ever use this lawn, but it will be watered, fertilized, and mowed religiously, wasting resources, polluting the environment, et cetera. Plant it in a mix of wildflowers and grass and you only have to tend to it once a year for about ten minutes.
What the lawn says is that we value conformity and a lack of imagination or creativity. What the lawn says is that nature does not exist. What the lawn says is that freedom is a myth and self-determination is a pipe dream.
I can't tell you how many times I have a student read a "nature" poem or essay and they can't connect--they have no shared language, no genuine context. It's been beaten out of them. Their idea--our idea--of nature is a farm pond, corn fields, trees in a park, or just opening the door. It's not more than a human-made backdrop. When we go outside to write they seem genuinely uncomfortable. I think most of us do. But once they begin to let go the floodgates open--human thought and emotion intertwine with whatever nature is available at the moment and good writing blossoms. We have nature deficit disorder.
If the lawn in front of the power plant at UNL was 200 square feet of sweet-smelling prairie forbs alive with songbirds and butterflies, I think that would rub off on passing students--something would stick and switch in them the whole day; all of their perceptions, their whole approach to life would subtly change for the better. They'd be more creative and open. They'd feel more alive, connected, and like they belong. I can tell you, that sense of belonging is what's most at stake (especially for freshman), and why we so often resort to direct and indirect violence. Without genuine experience with nature we are lost.