Saturday, December 15, 2012

Landscapes of Little Meaning

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scattered beds with modest native plantings and sculpture--they too often succumb to the same old boring, outdated 19th century English blind lunacy of American landscape design.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.


Desert Dweller said...

I think you're correct - environment influences the local culture. I see it as an LA, and I see why some places are turned onto their place and how they interact, compared to other places.

Of course, good design is as crucial in this, as is getting the real powers on-board - the maintenance people. The latter will have to be addressed much more in all our landscapes.

Anonymous said...

I think Michael Pollen said something like "Lawns are the totalitarians of the natural world."

Benjamin Vogt said...

Good points, of course. Good design though? Can we improve on prairie, on a 40lb bag of seed? I suppose we need to trick viewers, don't we--ease them from the detrimental way our landscapes are designed to a more sustainable one. But I'm terribly impatient. Give me a rototiller and let me get 'er done.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Anon--Who was that whose dad wrote a swear word in the lawn with his lawnmower, so under pressure he was to keep it mowed? Was that Pollan or Lacy?

L. Conkey Shaw said...

Having just completed a Master Naturalist Course, your post struck a few chords. I have learned how to see the world with natural eyes but mostly I have seen how the world we see helps the real world within me unfold and connect with others.
I particularly like how this post draws attention to the little things that we can do to make the world more environmental friendly.
Maintenance wouldn't complain if the space were used as Rain Garden.
We definitely need to rethink our landscaping designs and how they impact our lives on so many different levels.

James Golden said...

I think many have "plant blindness" largely because they see so much of this easy, complacent kind of "landscaping." Lay some sod. End of problem. Something as simply as letting the weeds grow would be more interesting. Such landscapes are a kind of death of thought, creativity, opportunity.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Well said, LCS. "unfold and connect with others." And this space is such a little thing, but so big, too. I just don't understand how we insist on denying who we are and where we are ecologically / ecosystem wise.

James, a small prairie planting can be easy. It IS easy. I know it is. I agree, death of thought and creativity--the antithesis to a place of learning. Which is why ALL school from k-college should be awash in gardens.