I’ve never wanted an apocalypse.
As a kid, I was told that the end of the world was something to watch with joy. The fundamentalist teachings that my parents enjoyed portrayed the apocalypse as a triumph - destruction of humanity and life as we know it was an opportunity for the elect to be proven right once and for all. Apocalypse would yield those righteous few an opportunity to start over in perfection without having to deal with the messiness of the world and all the rest of us. If you didn’t like it, well, you were damned anyway.
That way of thinking didn’t work for me.
I liked the world. Oak trees and sunsets and mud puddles and chocolate ice cream all seemed pretty great. Even when the world was scary or threatening, I didn’t want it to end. There was so much to see and discover and learn.
When I went to college, I chose landscape architecture as my discipline. This wasn’t because I was impressed with the legacy of landscape architecture or with the (limited amount of) built work that I had encountered. Instead, I was fascinated with the world - specifically with exterior environments and systems. Landscape architecture seemed to offer a wide range of practices for investigating and understanding the earth.
Landscape architects have wrestled the relationship between humans and everything else since the inception of the discipline. Practitioners have often gotten things wrong. Pruitt-Igoe, Robert Moses’ neighborhood destruction, the Make It Right Foundation’s Ninth Ward homes, are all examples of projects where landscape architects and designers have failed. Some times we’ve gotten things right. This summer, at UPenn, the Design With Nature Now exhibit showcases 25 projects that boldly explore the political, ecological and economic aspects of landscape architecture practice. Weller, Hoch and Huang’s Atlas for the End of the World is another fantastic example of our discipline’s potential to address concerns at a planetary scale.
Five years out of school and into practice, I’ve been thinking seriously about how I - as a landscape architect - practice a relationship with landscape and place. As David Cain from Raptitude would say, I need to “care deeply, not passionately”. I like an interesting mess. But I need my action to be informed. How do I measure the worth of my work?
Other people have been studying and thinking about this relationship between humans and the earth since long before I was alive. I’ve been spending time with Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene recently. That phrase, “staying with the trouble”, really resonates with me. Haraway explains, “Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, and meanings.” I like it as a way of thinking, but I haven’t quite placed how to make it real.
The closest practical design approach that I’ve encountered is the discussion of practice in Jinny Blom’s The Thoughtful Gardener. The whole book reflects Ms Blom’s ethos of making-with place, making-with clients. She references Thomas Church and the goal to “make drawings conversational”. The grounded and conversational process laid out in The Thoughtful Gardener offers the opportunity - not only for the landscape to be transformed through the design process - for the client and designer to be transformed as well.
To declare an apocalypse is easy. The world isn’t perfect? Give up now.
But to live in the world and try to make it better? That’s hard. You get to the end of the day, then have to wake up and do it again.
I’m currently working with a panel of other design and landscape professionals to develop an ecosystems component of a ten-year plan for our metro area. The following manifesto and strategies are a first draft of my personal ecological vision for Chattanooga over the next decade. The plan is necessarily limited by my knowledge and experience - I welcome objections, additions, and pointing-out-of-gaps. Dig in and let me know how you’d frame this conversation in your own city or town.
In Chattanooga, we know that land is the foundation for human prosperity. The myth of Chattanooga is based in our natural landscapes - our mountains, forests, waterfalls & streams. Our reputation rests on the land and our relationship to it. However, our municipal policies and personal practices have failed to protect the land we inhabit. We acknowledge that the history of development and land management in our region has primarily been one of destruction. The land on which Chattanooga is built was stolen from its first peoples (who were killed and forcibly removed), developed with resources based on the labor of enslaved people, and continues to be a site of legalized inequity. With that history in mind, we picture a future where shared systems and resources build prosperity and foster community for all Chattanoogans. We are looking for opportunities to distribute, layer, and design landscape’s value and benefits so that the sum is greater than any specific part. We operate in an iterative and prophetic way: the city is an open experiment where interventions and effects are measured, reported, assessed and adjusted.
In Chattanooga, we believe:
In Chattanooga, we are committed to:
In Chattanooga, we know that we have inherited a rich evolutionary legacy of biodiversity. We acknowledge that historical land management and development practices have destroyed habitat and systems. We picture a future where we repair and regenerate in a non-innocent process of healing with our cohabitant species. In Chattanooga, we seek to grow a stable biological infrastructure that supports native (and productive) animal, bird, amphibian, and invertebrate populations. Our endangered and threatened species populations have long-term protection and population redundancy. Visitors and residents have a culture of respect for biodiversity. Our city and our region are known throughout the country as innovators in promoting multi-species thriving.
In Chattanooga, we believe:
In Chattanooga, we are committed to:
To make these values real, in the next 10 years we will:
In Chattanooga, we know that food is a fundamental need that all humans share. We picture a future where the entire population of Chattanooga has access to opportunities to grow and enjoy food of their choice. Chattanoogans are excited about the food that they have available in their city. We are proud of our city’s history of food technology. There’s a central hub that showcases urban agriculture, while each neighborhood has community gardens.
In Chattanooga, we believe:
In Chattanooga, we are committed to:
To make these values real, in the next 10 years we will:
Did you grow up here?
No, I moved here about a year ago.
Oh, what brought you to Chattanooga?
I still have this conversation at least twice a week. My answers vary, depending on who’s asking: I moved for a job, I thought there were interesting design opportunities, I wanted to be able to go hiking in the mountains.
These answers are all a little bit correct.
I find the real answer embarrassing.
I moved here for a memory.
My old Rogue’s air conditioning had gone out half-way through Florida, when my brother and I stopped for lunch at a Caribbean cafe in Gainesville. We drove sweat-soaked through Georgia. Windows down. We had music blasting, but we couldn’t hear it over the highway noise.
I’d been living in south Florida for a year. Before that I spent five years on the Kansas prairies. I was accustomed to flat fire-dependent ecosystems.
Then we drove through Chattanooga. We wove through the forested hills, ribbon roads between the trees. We emerged into a city held in a bowl of hills. The Tennessee River flows through downtown. Ridges rise around. It’s a sheltered place. Lush. Green everywhere. I was in total awe at the little city.
It stuck in my mind.
So, when I’d spent my time in Little Rock and was looking for the next location - Chattanooga kept surfacing.
I’ve been here over a year now. I have a Hamilton County Driver’s License and a Tennessee license plate. (I’ll admit, I’m ridiculously over-conscientious and got those within a month of moving here.) I’ve been lucky to amass a phenomenal posse of local friends. I can now identify most of the common regional native plants. I’m on the Chattanooga 10-year Ecosystems Future Planning Committee (yes, that’s an In the Loop reference).
But moving here, to this place that I held as a fantastic memory, I’ve realized something about belonging and my relationship to place.
I’ve spent years searching for a place that felt like home. A place where I felt like I belonged. I felt a tinge of it the first time I went to Portland. In London. Later, on Bainbridge. Here in Chattanooga. Those were momentary experiences of physical environments where I felt safe and comfortable and motivated.
But now I’ve realized that home isn’t really about the physical place: it’s about my relationship to the place where I happen to find myself.
Home is somewhere that I make. It’s somewhere that I choose. Years ago, Dan Pearson gave a Sunday Sermon at the School of Life where he talked about commitment - how gardening, any act of landscape-making, is a practice of commitment to a place. To garden is to invest time and attention into a place. Whether it’s cutting back invading ivy or coaxing out the delicate twining tendrils of a jasmine vine, gardening is an act of commitment to place - devotion of time, attention, and effort. You make home, one humble act at a time. I watched the video of Dan’s lecture almost daily for two years, until it was taken down from both Youtube and Vimeo, and have been trying to track down a digital copy ever since.
I may never walk into a landscape, stumble into a place, and have it instantly feel like home.
But I’m here. Now. I can choose to live as an observer, keeping my hands clean, not getting involved. Or I can commit to this place. Get to know it closely, earn a sense of belonging. And that’s how I’ll find real home in this fantasy place.
A couple of years ago, a Sunday morning, in Little Rock, I remember going to an abandoned dance studio. It was a few blocks down from my apartment, crammed between an ice cream parlour and a novelty gift shop. It was dark inside, and cool. You could look out the big front windows and see the hot street, sweaty people under faded umbrellas at the cafe across the road, sunflowers and hibiscus hanging droop-headed in the sun. There were only six of us, maybe seven. We sat on squeaky metal folding chairs arranged in a circle.
We sat in the cool dark room. There were a few faltering songs, some words of invocation. In the light of truth and the warmth of love, we gather to seek, to sustain, and to share. Then a woman in a crisp white shirt stood and began to speak.
I don’t remember who she was or why she had been chosen. I don’t remember what personal experience compelled her testimony. But the core of her talk has stuck with me, surfacing in my mind when I’m feeling strained or overwhelmed.
She spoke about rest. Sometimes, she suggested, we need to retreat. We may be fighting a good fight, doing good work. Doing something important. Making the world wonderful. But, as individuals, we can’t be fighting all the time. We need to give ourselves space to heal and to transform.
In landscape terms, we need to take time to lie fallow. A fallow field is repairing itself. It’s not being broken or aggressively managed. It’s renewing its internal structure after being exhausted. To be fallow is to let yourself shift and settle. Avoid disturbance. Let the slow inner work happen.
Going fallow is a radical act. We’re used to proving that we deserve to exist. Internalized capitalism coerces us into measuring our worth through our productivity. Our cultural obsession with work as identity permeates even into children’s entertainment. Mindfulness, spirituality, and wellness are pushed forward as business tools for increasing employee productivity.
So far this year, I’ve been trying to go fallow. Do some deep work. Let things shift and settle. Take time to find myself again.
In the quiet, I’ve also been working on a new type of project that I’m excited to share with you soon. It’s not about landscape or design. Not even about plants, although they’ll push and jostle their way in as they do in the life of anyone who is primarily a gardener. (Yes, I know that’s a Beverly Nichols ripoff.)
These past four months, the focus of my creative practice (outside of my day job - yay for Asa Engineering where I’ll soon have exciting work to share) has been on an essay cycle, Memos to Myself. These memos reflect my experience as a queer kid growing up homeschooled in a large household in rural Missouri. My intent for the cycle is highly personal - to recognize the ideas about the world that I’ve been carrying around, name them, and dismiss or transform them. I hope that reading these essays will help other people - especially queer homeschooled kids - who are struggling to figure out how to deal with life. The essay cycle concept is an homage to Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a collection that was transformative for me in my early 20s. I’m expecting to release Memos to Myself by the end of summer - you’ll be able to purchase it digitally and in print through Amazon. You can read the introduction here.
For those of us who make and create and design and grow, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the inundation of great work that our peers are doing. I’m incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a cloud of friends and mentors who astonish and inspire me daily - whether they’re sewing 100s of beautifully crafted tarot bags or making incredible public gardens or training new generations of plantspeople or telling garden experts’ stories. Making good work matters. Being visible is important. We all want a mast year.
But to keep doing that work, to keep building the world with wonder and delight - you may need to retreat and rest for awhile. Let yourself be fallow.
I often write about the landscape where I grew up, there at the little hump of Missouri - right where the Ozarks tumble down to meet the beginning of the Mississippi Delta. As a child, and then as a teen, I was searching for knowledge about this specific landscape in which I lived. I was continually frustrated in trying to identify wild plants, understand how and where they grew, as well as any kind of horticultural knowledge about the cultivated plants I admired in books and garden magazines. Which form of wild hydrangea grew in our sinkholes? When should I prune the cherry trees in our orchard - and what varieties had any chance of fruiting with our surprise late-spring frosts? Should I plant mizuna?
People in books always seemed to have mentors - bearers of local knowledge who instructed them in the deep wisdom of place. Maybe a first nations neighbor, wise in the ways of forest and field. Maybe a grandparent. Maybe a local back-to-the-lander. Even Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies - though played for laughs - reflected a myth of deep knowledge about plants, their cultivation, their uses.
My grandparents weren’t much help. One gardened in northern Illinois with its flat plains and chocolate cake soil. The other set grew up in row houses in downtown city Saint Louis. No help there. And the country people around me didn’t know squat about the landscape in which they lived. They could tell you about growing the big three - corn, beans, wheat - which mostly involved large machinery, RoundUp and industrial quantities of nitrogen (unless the methmakers got to it first). They might have some tips for growing the biggest tomatoes (generous applications of Miracle Grow) or keeping racoons out of the sweetcorn (big guns).
The closest I came to finding about about the wild things to be found and foraged was on a spring day when we wandered down the road to take an elderly neighbor a strawberry rhubarb pie. Mary lived at the edge of the woods in a ruined trailer with her twenty-seven cats (we counted). My mother stepped gingerly up the splintered stairs, hoping they wouldn’t fail. She tapped on the door. Mary leaned out. “We brought you a pie,” my mother said. Mary looked down and considered it. “It’s a pie,” my mother said, “strawberry rhubarb. From the garden.” Mary looked confused. “It’s the time of year,” she shouted, “When I used to go out into the woods and harvest mushrooms.” I asked what kind of mushrooms, where we might find them, in what parts of the forest they might be found. But Mary’s mind had wandered on to other things. “Can’t go out anymore. Can’t even get down the steps.” She pointed to the blue tarp pulled over one side of the trailer’s roof. “Rusted through,” she shouted, “Tarp keeps the rain out.”
I never found out what kinds of mushrooms Mary used to harvest. No one in town or country had much use for knowledge about the wild things that grew. They preferred animals. Those, you could shoot, trap, or catch on a hook.
A few years later, during the mushrooming of hot takes that followed the removal of 50+ nature related words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, I found myself reacting with a shrug more than anything else. While they may have had more access to unstructured play in nature, the boomers and their parents that I grew up around didn’t have any richer knowledge of the landscapes where they lived than their iphone-toting grandchildren. And this within a highly rural community that hadn’t changed much for the past 120 years. Knowledge of local environments and plants had always been shallow in North America, after the colonizers killed off the people who lived here and knew the land. The shallow of knowledge retained during colonization was erased in the Industrial Revolution, not because of cell phones.
As the cottage nurseries gave way to larger more commercial concerns, one way that such deep knowledge-building worked in the late 90s and early 00s was through personal websites and blogs. I built much of my knowledge through reading different individuals’ - some professional, some amateur - pet projects. Consider Paul Barden’s Old Garden Roses, which is now only available through the Way Back Machine. The amount of detailed information about different heritage rose varieties and Paul’s breeding experiments contained here are a phenomenal body of work that’s incredibly fragile.
A multitude of blogs emerged at this time. Miss Ruphius’ Rules (now Susan Cohan Gardens’ blog), Noel’s Gardens blog, Thomas Rainer’s Grounded Design, Deborah Silver’s Dirt Simple, and others blew up my bookmarks bar with hard-won advice. The comments on blogs like ThinkinGardens and James Golden’s View from Federal Twist brought together people and ideas who are at the forefront of planting design today.
There was also an array of other wilder online spaces. I spent hours on Baker Creek Seeds’ forums - now I DigMyGarden.com - as well as some time on GardenWeb (now part of Houzz). The information on these discussion boards varied significantly in quality. It was also a great introduction to the reality of human behavior online, before we were all on the internet all the time.
Social media offered another opportunity to build knowledge - more visually oriented, perhaps, but still offering some of those enlightening conversations. From the personal blogs, discussions shifted to special interest Facebook groups. Emergent: A Group for Growing Professionals gathered professionals, particularly from horticulture and public gardens. Tony Spencer’s Dutch Dreams has assembled a wealth of people and imagery of naturalistic planting. Both have resulted in many in-person meetings and assemblies, as well as deep online conversations. Instagram and Youtube have their own vast networks of plant enthusiasts and landscape lovers.
The popularity of shows like BBC’s Planet earth and Netflix’s You vs Wild demonstrate the very human need to learn about the places and ecosystems in which we live. Citizen Science projects like iNaturalist and Audubon’s Certified Backyard Habitat program show that contemporary humans are interested in ecology and want to actively engage with it.
The poor state of knowledge about landscape today doesn’t mean that modern humans aren’t interested. Instead, it reflects that our current knowledge infrastructure fails to foster learning and curiosity. There is so much room for individuals and organizations to fill this need. And if you’re a kid today living with people who can’t tell you what that plant is that’s growing in the ditch, why it’s there or what you can do with it - the answer is out there waiting for you. Go find it!
A week after I got a copy of Overgrown: Practices between Landscape Architecture and Gardening in the mail, special ordered from the Big Bad, I received a few Facebook messages from the phenomenal Ann Amato - “Have you read this book? It sounds great…” Great minds - at least those interested in phenomenology and place (and gardens) seem to run on parallel tracks.
I don’t know how I’d missed this book’s publication. Perhaps because I’m very bad about actually reading materials from ASLA, the landscape architects’ society?
But, once I got into it, I was very pleased with this book.
I hadn’t heard of Julian Raxworthy before reading this book. Despite my enthusiasm for subtropical landscapes, I don’t know that much about gardens in the southern hemisphere. Throughout my five years of landscape architecture school, my only instruction about about landscapes south of the equator was in summary discussions of the dandelion water features in Sydney (thanks to Jeannette Ciesyzkowski) and articles by James Corner (who is an honorary American at this point). I’m trying to learn more post-design school, but there seems to be a weird disconnect between subtropical horticulture in the United States and that of the rest of the world.
Overgrown attempts to tarmac over that knowledge gap by focusing on universal issues in landscape design. Raxworthy brings his experience as both hands-on-the-tool landscaper and hands-on-the-mouse designer to bear in this treatise. As someone with a similar range of professional experience, I see this book as a starting point for discussion and exploration rather than a definitive theoretical framework.
Raxworthy focuses on several issues in landscape. One of his primary foci is the gap between designers and gardeners. Raxworthy notes that landscape architects and planting designers are most accustomed to working with secondary forms of landscape representation - plans and perspectives. By contrast, landscapers and gardeners are accustomed to dealing with plants directly. They deal with living plants - not computer models and drawn simulations.
In Overgrown, Raxworthy examines six landscapes, situating them on a spectrum from the most architectural/designed to the most relaxed/informal. He introduces the concept of the “viridic”, a unique synthesis between the biologic growth of plants and the intentions of human designers/strategists. Reading these sections, I wished I’d had Raxworthy’s vocabulary to describe the concepts I was thinking about during my studies in planting design at Kansas State.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Overgrown, for me, was the breadth of citations and research referenced. I spent a significant time googling people and projects of interest. If you’re anything like me, you will, too. These are only a few of the significant ideas in Overgrown. Go get your own copy - give it a read and mark it up. Then shoot me an email with your thoughts. We’ll keep this viridic conversation growing...