It’s a snow day in Arkansas. There’s a light skim of ice on the roads, maybe an inch of powder in my car. I actually had to zip up my coat as I ran from the warmth of my car to the (weak) warmth of my office. With all the frigidity outside, my thoughts turned back to my year on the gulf coast.
Thinking of south Florida, my mind instantly goes back to one of the landscapes that had the strongest influence on me. A place that embodies the lushness, determination, and pure absurdity that characterize the culture and landscape of this weird peninsula. The place that I have in mind is the Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, just north of Bonita Springs on Highway 41.
You’ve probably never heard of this place, unless you’re well familiar with southwest Florida. Or are interested in utopian cults of the early 20th century. It’s a weird spot that you’d zip past on your way to somewhere far more glamorous. There’s a “mobile village” (trailer park) to the north and a convenience store complex to the south. The buildings aren’t particularly interesting. The sequence of landscape spaces isn’t particularly well-thought out. But it’s a glorious mess - a living reminder of dreams that didn’t turn out as expected.
The Koreshan State Historic Site is what remains of the settlement built by the Koreshan Unity, a utopian cult established by Cyrus Reed Teed (AKA “Koresh”) in the 1870s (thanks, Wikipedia). After a remarkable vision of a “beautiful woman” (straight guy problems, I guess), Cyrus Teed changed his name to “Koresh” and fucked off to Florida, followed by 250 glassy-eyed devotees. They didn’t blink when he constructed a pier on Naples Beach which claimed to demonstrate that the horizon curved upwards every eight miles, thus “proving” that the habited surface of the earth was the interior of a vast sphere. They hacked through this mess of palmettos and pines along the Estero River to set up a utopian community.
As part of the community’s social structure, Koreshans established a hierarchy of three social classes. Those at the highest level of initiation, “The Pre-Eminent Unity”, lived in the main house and were committed to celibacy and religious purity. Those at the middle level of initiation, “the Department of Equitable Administration”, could marry and lived in smaller cottages throughout the site. The lowest level of participation, the common people, were called “Patrons of Equation” and could live and work within the community without being fully devoted to its religious and social duties. Residences and communal buildings are still preserved throughout the site.
For me, Koreshan wasn’t just about the story of the eccentric colonists who settled the area. The interesting bit was to see how different plants - both exotic introductions and native species - had settled in over the past 100 years to create a mesmerizing series of spaces and plant communities.
The plants still thriving on site aren’t limited to ornamentals. Like other colonial Floridians, the Koreshan Unity experimented with many exotic crops. Sour oranges hang off thorny trees around the settlers’ cottages, leaning nearly to the ground with their burden of fruit. Several giant mango trees flare with flower in the autumn and hang heavy with drooping fruit in the summer. As the site was about to close on one warm May evening, I recklessly hopped up and slapped Lychees hanging pendant from a mature tree. I cracked their warty red skins with my teeth and sucked out the sweet translucent fruit inside. Koreshan condemnation withstanding, stolen fruit is always sweet.
Down by the river, introduced bamboos swarm the soft ground. They tower overhead, culms clattering together. There are several introduced species here - Phyllostachys, Dendrocalamus, and Bambusa blending together in ongoing competition for light and sandy riverside soil.
The trees overhead and to every side are festooned with bromeliads. Patrick Blanc’s green walls seem unadventurous in comparison to these tortuous four-dimensional plant communities. There are native air plants in abundance, from festoons of dangling spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) to large spikes of giant airplant (Tillandsia utriculata). Non-native bromeliads are evident in abundance as well - Neoregelia, Aechmea, Billbergia clambering over every tree trunk.
There’s something intriguing to me that, after the human endeavor of the Koreshan Unity’s settlement has been forgotten, the plants they brought to this place, the spots where they intervened in the landscape, remain. “We Live Inside” was the motto that Koreshanites used to reinforce faith in the hollow earth. Literal interpretations of this motto have been disproven (hello moon landings). The kingdom of heaven may not be built on earth. But we live on this tiny blue ball, hurtling through the void of space, sheltered by a pale wash of atmosphere. We do live inside. What will the evidence of our lives look like a hundred years from now?
Rose garden, perennial garden, shade garden, kitchen garden. All of those spaces occur as part of a larger landscape that most of us would call, generically, the garden. Isn’t it absurd to use the same word for a conglomeration of things and a single thing that’s a part of the conglomeration?
Think about it - When it comes to buildings, an individual space is a “room” while a conglomeration of rooms is a “building” or “house”. Why don’t we have words to describe such distinctions in gardens? Just calling them “garden rooms” doesn’t count.
The language of landscape - especially words that describe physical features in agricultural landscapes - has received flickers of attention in recent years. Given the vast population shifts from rural subsistence farming to urban life over the past decade, it’s not surprising that language reflects such changes in human experience. Every few months, the old story resurfaces from the 2008 protests over removal of nature-related words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. This story in itself isn’t all that interesting, but it’s helped draw attention to the relationship between landscape and language.
As a result of that story, there have been a wonderful new crop of books - particularly in the UK - that catalogue names for landscape features which might otherwise be lost. I’m building a small stack of them in my own collection. Uncommon Ground: A Word-Lover’s Guide to the British Landscape by Dominick Tyler is a particularly beautiful example, with stunning photographs of the features given name in the book. Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane (one of the instigators of the Oxford Junior Dictionary kerfluffle) is a more literary approach to words of the same region. How to Read Water by Tristan Gooley is an incredibly joyful bit of writing that also contains an incredible number of terms relating to water in the landscape.
I don’t know of anyone who’s done such poetic studies of disappearing landscape language here in the US (please shoot me an email if you’re aware of someone whose work I’m missing). I have Barry Lopez & Debra Gwartney’s Home Ground, a doorstop of a book which does a quick glance over the landscape language of the entire United States. But we lack works that celebrate the landscape words of the Ozarks and Appalachians, Cajun country, Florida - to name just a few of the regions I know well.
Collecting regional words for landscape features isn’t enough. Garden design and landscape architecture are creative practices - they involve naming spaces, relationships and objects that we desire to create. So far, the language that we use in garden and landscape studies reflects the hybrid nature of our inquiry. The words we use derive from many different disciplines: art, architecture, anthropology, botany, ecology, geology, geography, are just a few.
But there’s still something missing. There’s no quick verbal distinction between a single flower bed (which we’ve all heard someone call their “flower garden”) and an immersive space where you walk in between and through masses of planting. The word garden still means “vegetable garden” to most people in the south and midwest. There’s no easy way to describe a garden’s relationship to its context within the landscape, whether it flows into its surroundings or is cut off and inward-focused. These are just spatial aspects - they don’t even address the social and ecological dynamics of gardens.
We lack language to adequately describe the physical and spatial qualities of landscapes. I’d argue that this lack is limiting our industry’s agency in society. If you can’t name something, that thing doesn’t matter. It’s time for those of us who care about gardens and landscapes to be both more creative and more intentional about the language we use. Once we can more clearly describe what makes the places we love valuable, we’ll be better able to bring others along to understand and appreciate them with us.