October 6, 2006 at 6:27 pm (Environment, Random)

I am taking a landscape architecture course this quarter, and every week we have a reading response essay we have to write. Don’t worry, it’s short. As an extension of my existential blatherings, I thought I would post this one. Even though you haven;t likely read the articles I am talking about, hopefully it still makes sense. Enjoy:

I had no idea that Niagara Falls was so heavily altered by humans. Admittedly I have never been there, but I always assumed that this quintessential symbol of the majestic power of nature had been untouched by man. In retrospect it makes perfect sense that its flow was once diverted for industry. Until reading Spirn’s piece, however, the idea that the river was once dammed and people walked across the bottom in order to create a scale model that would guide restoration was unfathomable to me. I had a similar revelation about Central Park recently, a place I have visited many times. As a city park, I assumed it was substantially engineered, but until I took a guided tour of the park this summer, I did not realize that every aspect of the park was constructed from the bedrock up. I had assumed that the design was limited to working with the existing conditions; such is my bias against 19th Century technology.

If Olmsted’s intent was to create a scene that mimics or at least works with nature, then these can be considered great successes. At what point does such a landscape, Biltmore is a great example, cease to become a human creation and revert to something natural? Human control can only extend so far, and even in the most contrived gardens, the landscape architect must work within the rules that nature provides. But what is nature? Smithson asks this question pointedly when he says “Once a student told me that ‘nature is anything that is not manmade.’ For that student man was outside the natural order of things.” This is a concept I have struggled with for some time now. When I look at freeways, airports, and strip mines, my impulse is to say “That’s not natural.” But how arrogant we human must be, to assume that we are “outside the natural order of things.” To take a religious approach, we are all part of God’s creation, God who remains in control, and therefore all that we do (including altering or destroying ecosystems) is part of the Grand Plan. To take a scientific approach, our time on this earth is an eyeblink in geologic time, and in a few million years there may be little evidence that we ever existed. What we do to the earth really only affects our own existence, and we will quickly be forgotten.

Neither of these arguments can de empirically disproved. God’s will (and existence) is certainly a debatable point. We do not live in geologic time, so that argument is not really relevant to a discussion of how we live today and tomorrow. What, then, is “natural?” I don’t personally believe that everything humans do is ok because we are embedded with nature; we have been blessed (cursed?) with the ability to think, plan, and contemplate the consequences of our actions. Conversely, I don’t think all development translates to a rape and pillage of the land. There is no clear line that can be drawn between “natural” and “unnatural.” Some people will give the human race much more leeway than others, but short of reverting to a hunter-gatherer society, everyone will consume non-renewable resources and have a marginal negative impact on the environment. Even solar power impacts the environment: silicon must be mined, refined, shipped, and manufactured into cells.

As a discipline, I think landscape architecture is actually quite benign in its overall impact on the environment. Contours designed to direct water flow are slaves to gravity. Lakes and streams will ultimately find their own course, barring constant vigilance by the landscaper. Plants will grow or not in a certain area, and there is little we can do to change that (will palm trees like NW Flanders St?) And what of so-called “invasive species?” True, blackberry may significantly alter established ecosystems, but is it not a defining characteristic of life to adapt to ever-changing conditions? We are simply accelerating a natural process. We praise controlled alterations to the landscape, and lament those we have caused but over which we seem to have no control. Therein lies the problem: by placing ourselves “outside the natural order of things” we humans greatly overestimate our importance and level of control over nature. This invokes the McHargian concept of Designing With Nature, in which we should strive to accept our role as within the natural order of things, and work with natural systems, rather than attempt to subdue them. We will ultimately lose that battle. This idea would serve humanity well if applied broadly, not only to landscape architects but also to civil engineering, federal energy policy, and everyday consumption.


1 Comment

  1. BIg Sexy said,

    This is the smartest thing you have ever written (just because it follows a bunch of my own Idealistic views)

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