community garden, Berkeley, CA (toolshed by wowhaus, 1995)
“The older I grow and the longer I look at landscapes and seek to understand them, the more convinced I am that their beauty is not simply an aspect but their very essence and that that beauty derives from the human presence.” -John Brinckerhoff Jackson
As much as I admire John Muir and appreciate the profound heritage of our National Parks, I did not watch much of the recent Ken Burns documentary. It may just be that our laptop-scale TV screen is too tiny to do justice to the purple mountain’s majesty that consistently defined the visuals, but I also found the timbre of Peter Coyote’s voice to be too flatly mock-authoritative, reminding me of the sleep-inducing filmstrips of my youth. Ultimately, I fear I simply find depictions of Big Nature of the awe-inspiring sort to be boring, whether coming from Ansel Adams, National Geographic or Ken Burns.
Like many of my generation, my landscape sensibility is more informed by cultural geographers like J.B. Jackson and art historians like Lucy Lippard and Simon Schama. I prefer not to extract ‘nature’ as something above or outside of culture and can’t help but to find inherent hypocrisies in a romantic view that emphasizes the implied virtue of unspoiled nature, especially when it models a kind of divine order requiring the removal of native peoples from the equation.
Of course we all benefit from the preservation of land and resources, and should laud all who have fought to position conservation at this scale as a national priority. But it is equally important to acknowledge much smaller scale efforts, which often take the form of neighborhood parks, the usual venue for Ene and my collaborative work as wowhaus. If we expect to sustain any model of ecological balance, it needs to be cultivated in the collective imagination of people who lead ordinary lives in ordinary places, particularly among youth. However artificial in origin, a well considered neighborhood park can provide the framework for understanding how to interpret landscape, which I believe lays the foundation for any meaningful dialogue with nature.