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.