Landscapes of Retreat

Landscapes of Retreat are portraits of climate adaptation. Retreat is found in the land that is left behind as settlement patterns shift due to a changing climate. The term landscape refers to the earth animated by the aliveness of creatures and organisms, and the term retreat suggests that human patterns are not fixed but might also be enlivened. Taken together, the stories in this book suggest that communities are more likely to adapt to change when the landscape is appreciated, so that retreat can be valued. The results cutacross history, fieldwork, citizenship, and geography in order to rethink and rework “change” as a means toward shared climate futures.

Landscape—The earth animated by multispecies activity, including layers of habitat from foundations to footprints.

Retreat—Habitation patterns that meaningfully engage processes of the landscape from climate dynamics to coastal erosion.

Rosetta S. Elkin is associate professor and academic director of landscape architecture at Pratt Institute, principal of Practice Landscape, and research associate at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. She is author of Plant Life: The Entangled Politics of Afforestation and Tiny Taxonomy: Individual Plants in Landscape Architecture.


The deepest motive for writing this book comes from a commitment to developing amendatory relations. Retreat is a catalyst because it unsettles, and thus begins a process of recovering broken relations—amending connections. To write about retreat is to defend the discomfort it inevitably raises, to use it to heal our relationship with other species, and the lands, waters, and soils that sustain us. We cannot escape from our past, but we can value change as a means to amend our future relations.

Our Shared Climate

We have told ourselves that we could live in isolation from other species, not perceiving our connections to the larger world, thinking that we do not have responsibilities, and that we are not connected to each other. In the end, time tells us that we cannot escape from our past, that indeed we must use our knowledge to reconcile ourselves with our history and with each other.

— Winona LaDuke

This book is dedicated to a reading of how the climate emergency lands in real places across time by paying close attention to adaptation charged with intimate, local memory. The response does not always signify clarity or tranquility, but it does articulate a relation between material (tools, wood, stone) and non-material culture (values, beliefs, morals, language). The stories collected in this book chronicle adaptations; that is, the emergent relations that occur in the acknowledgement of environmental risk. In turn, land-based modifications and adjustments to settlement patterns emerge as novel practices. When living with risk, some communities knowingly choose to not build back because they cultivate a respect for the landscape and the changes it undergoes. By bringing some of these stories together, Landscapes of Retreat relays some of the creative evidence that shows humankind can adapt to a changing climate when informed by the environment and freed from regulatory policy. In our times, fixed settlement is beginning to seem like a maladaptive response. The results suggest that retreat is consistently defined by a firm respect for the land that is “left behind.” Furthermore, because the collective decision to resettle away from risk and vulnerability is not the same as being forced to move, in this book the term “retreat” is only applied to the former, while the term “relocation” is used only to describe involuntary processes of resettlement.

To value retreat as an amendatory practice, it is first necessary to understand what retreat is not. It is not nostalgia for a prior condition, and it is not a return to a previous ecological state. Retreat is not leaving in defeat, nor is it giving up hope. Instead, acknowledging retreat creates hope by giving up our false assumptions of human mastery over the environment. Giving up on mastery is not abandoning our relationships to land or place but reinforcing relations by redefining them anew.The fact that so many relationships between humans and the natural world have become largely exploitative and extractionist might be hard to accept, as is the recognition of any relationship that becomes toxic for one or more of its members. Yet, the fear of recognizing this condition does not address its urgency. As James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The assumption of human mastery over nature must be confronted, courageously, to make way for other practices to emerge.

The failure of human mastery over nature is everywhere in evi- dence. It was tallied in July 2019 when meteorologists recorded the Earth’s hottest month, and I began writing this book. As I finish this introduction, June 2022 emerged as the hottest month ever, shatter- ing all previous records. This kind of planetary change is not simply dissipated as the temperatures cool back down; nor is it distributed evenly around the globe. Instead, these records land somewhere; climate change takes place. Warmer degrees mean damper monsoons, torrential storms, liquescent ice cover, waterless soils, oceanic hurricanes, and bomb cyclones. But statistics about these weather events are not helping us amend practices of recovery. Rather, the collective experience of change is beginning to draw some people nearer to one another in recognition of their common struggle. Collective practices also produce shared memory. Memory is open access, an efficient means of passing on knowledge that expands as it mingles with the present. With respect to climate change, shared memory is also found in the change that is under our feet. Thus, the plurality of crises that turn difficult experiences into amendatory practices seem to break statistics apart.

The notion of a singular disaster is a fantasy, and despite the multiplicitous effects of climate change on people and places, I speculate that the effects of a warmer climate are by now so widespread that memory is charged by collective experience rather than crisis management or disaster prevention. Because of its vast scope and scale, climate change raises the question of adaptation and modifications in behavior that require an acknowldgement of the risk involved, across several registers. In this regard, naming retreat as an important adaptive measure is the first step towards defining it.

In the chapters that follow, I offer five case studies that speak to the vitality of defining retreat as amendatory practice: Nijinomatsubara Forest in Japan; Maule River in Chile; Niugtaq Village (Newtok) in Alaska, United States; Langtang Park in Nepal; and, the Gaspésie Peninsula in Québec, Canada. Each case was developed over the course of many years of academic research from conferences to papers, and personal inquiry including firsthand experiences and fieldwork. This is a project that requires drawing, walking, mapping, photographing, and digging. I started the project alone, but I have worked with incredible people along the way, all of whom have also been inspired to react differently to the times. Each time I collabo- rate, the project grows. And this is truly what motivates the book;
I am not alone in believing that there are other ways of living with the landscape, and thus designing, growing, and building with an augmented sense of responsibility. There are myriad stories embedded in each case; these stories inevitably include me, their narrator,
as well as my collaborators, and countless seen and unseen protagonists of all species, scales, and temporalities.The narrative emerged from my personal belief in acceptance, not as a neutral activity, but as a specific mode of attention. Thus, the defining features of the response to change lie in the details of acceptance. I hope that through these encounters Landscapes of Retreat can relay new meaning to what can all too often appear to be suffering without purpose; to those who aspire to live and thrive within an enlivened and animated world, I sincerely hope these stories inspire confidence in and commitment to our shared future.

In each case, to acknowledge risk is to recognize our relation to it. Perhaps adaptation is, at best, a way of paying attention to risk as an ally; that is, a compassionate acceptance of the iterant, living environment. This would suggest that our efforts to track, chart, and recover from the effects of a warmer climate are no longer as relevant as the collective effort to acknowledge that the consequences change how we live, where we settle, and what and when we build. This kind of acknowledgment rarely makes headlines and generally receives little attention, especially when compared to the spectacle of the disaster events that only apparently demarcate the unfolding crisis. But climate emergency is not merely a matter of disaster response and recovery from catastrophic events; climate change is—and must be understood as—the quotidian assumptions and activities that constitute the human settlement patterns contributing to rapid planetary warming. Thus, it often feels like we are suspended between two incommensurable worlds: the systematic regularity of the accelerating crisis and the irregularity of acknowledging it.

We are all familiar with what a crisis produces: quick-fix solutions that encourage a return to “normal,” an inundation of capital with an expiry date, a spike in often frivolous and spectacular media attention, and a series of policy amendments that tend to cover up more than they reveal or reform. Today all forms of crisis management pose as “community-driven,” when, in reality, they are all primarily market-oriented, with the main objectives being the expedited return to business as usual: accumulation of profit at the expense of the majority of people and the planet. The posture of capital is mirrored by countless academics and scholars endlessly reiterating the cost of inaction through various proprietary models in legions of pay-walled journals. Thus, the majority of crisis administrators are in the end tasked with keeping public anxiety under control and using various PR techniques to suggest the need for a dispassionate, objective approach. What I want to stress here, is that within the manufactured consent of the crisis, and as a result of the mutually-amplifying effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, and toxic pollution, most statistical procedures do not serve the communities they quantify after disaster events. The living environment does not concur with the fantasies of the regulatory environment, and much policy is rendered impotent by its own unfamiliarity with the living world.

Two Sisters, or, the
Art of Paying Attention

What we have been ordered to forget is not the capacity to pay attention, it is the art of paying attention. If there is an art, and not just a capacity, this is because it is a matter of learning and cultivating, that is to say, making ourselves pay attention. Making, in the sense that attention here is not related to that which is defined as a priori worthy of attention, but as something that creates an obligation to imagine, to check, to envisage, consequences that bring into play connections between what we are in the habit of keeping separate. In short, making ourselves pay attention in the sense that attention requires knowing how to resist the temptation to separate what must be taken into account and what may be neglected.

— Isabelle Stengers

In 2017, I turned my attention to barrier islands in Florida, home to some of the most imperiled human settlements in the United States. Barrier islands are both speculatively and physically on the front lines of change, since they are some of the youngest formations on the planet. Although absolute dates are hard to pin-down, the barrier islands that ring Florida’s coast are only about 5,000 years old, and are very dynamic, viscous landscapes. Despite years of fieldwork on urbanized coastal barriers, there were few occasions to discuss any acknowledgment of the risk and vulnerability with communities living across these young, moving lands. The barrier islands were fully platted, developed, and kept more or less in check by unreliable seawalls and costly beach renourishment projects that held the line for residents. I couldn’t find any cases where retreat was viably enacted, or where respect for the land had led to different relations. In fact, much of the landscape was barely visible as it was pacified by concrete, backfill, and asphalt, as well as lawns, sewers, and septic systems; where it did persist, the landscape was at the mercy of the tourist economy.

Then I found out about the so-called “two sisters” from Kristie Anders, a former park ranger and climate activist living on Sanibel Island, a barrier formation along the gulf coast of Florida. We boarded a boat heading to North Captiva, another island along the same chain, significantly less developed residentially than its south- ern neighbor because it is unencumbered by a causeway. In 1921, a hurricane separated North Captiva from the main island, creating a breach—or a change—in the landscape. The allotment of the two sisters is on the other side of the breach, and is therefore difficult to reach, and tough to develop because the force of the breach shaped a deep and dynamic canal only ninety meters wide. Because of this, the only way to get to North Captiva is by water, a geographic constraint that discourages builders and developers.

The story I heard described two sisters who loved the land, views, plants, and animals on the island, and wanted to be able to share this beauty with the next generations, namely, their children and grandchildren. In this sense, they understood themselves as ancestors to posterity, including their relations with the natural world would determine how they would be remembered as ancestors by those who would later inherit the land. Instead of rebuilding their home after it was pummeled by one of the storms that passed over the island, the sisters chose not to re-build. Instead, they constructed a modest dock on the bayside with a plaque that simply invited people to come, camp, and enjoy. The beauty of this gesture—opening the land to common, itinerant use through retreat—also advances as a more accurate representation of environmental risk. The sisters identified the meaning of place by allowing their deeply personal values, and their sense of responsibility as ancestors to the next generations, to guide their decision to retreat as a way of valuing the land.

The anecdote of the two sisters may sound like a local myth, a story that is known and traded, yet remains unauthenticated. While I don’t know if these sisters do indeed visit and camp on this parcel of land, the two sisters’ dock and plaque do exist. The beach is unencumbered by so-called “nourishment,” and the ecology includes introduced, spontaneous, and accidental plants such as towering Australian pine trees (Casuarina equisetifolia), planted by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the salt tolerant cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto) that lines the coastal plains of the Gulf, and tufts of suckering seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera). The island is fringed with the ancient shoreline silhouettes of mangrove species (Rhizophora sp., Laguncularia racemose, Avicennia germinans), while snakes, bald eagles, and dolphins enjoy the variety of microclimates and the absence of human residents. Is it possible to resist the desire for mastery and the craving for ownership—and to trust instead in the modesty of accepting and acknowledging environmental risk—in order to encourage the spread of open beaches, mangrove jungles, salt marshes, coastal scrubs, and tropical hammocks? The two sisters suggest that such a reparative relation with a formerly settled landscape is not only possible, but already happening. Surely, these sisters in Florida weren’t the only ones. I wondered what other stories we could begin to share about inhabiting the land otherwise.

When I find myself thinking about the unofficial landscape that is usually concealed within colossal planning undertakings, coastal development projects, and case study analysis, I tend to ask: What is hiding in the landscape that endures through change? Perhaps change itself is less interesting than the ways in which lands persist across time. As my research continued, I was tracking down other clues in the archive and library, then through fieldwork, and finally by drawing and analyzing my findings; my ambition was to explain why settling (and resettling) on vulnerable or volatile land was a public injustice that was, in its own way, a type of climate change denial. I hadn’t anticipated how personal and emotional these considerations would become, but the two sisters proved that retreat was not only a viable form of climate adaptation, it was probably the most respectful practice of ancestry—to create ecologically sustainable and itinerantly habitable but unsettled land for the next generation to inherit and enjoy.

Approaching Landscapes of Retreat resonates with what philosopher Isabelle Stengers calls “the art of paying attention,” which she describes as something that “creates an obligation to imagine, to check, to envisage consequences that bring into play connections between what we are in the habit of keeping separate.” In her book In Catastrophic Times, Stengers also points out that while “…discussing details of a solution may be tolerated, meddling in which questions are formulated will not.” She reveals that the reasons for not paying attention stack up. In other words, the question I was being asked at the time was how to build back, not whether or not to rebuild, which is why I was perceived as meddling with the technocratic majority (what Stengers calls the grand narrative). Stengers’ philosophy activates the questions that arise from the moment in which we are living, and respects the subjective and emotional richness of research: “Making ourselves pay attention in the sense that attention requires knowing how to resist the temptation to separate what must be taken into account and what may be neglected.” Among the many concepts and concerns developed by Stengers, including her examinations of Gaia theory, capitalism, GMOs, and stupidity, “paying attention” is one of the most accessible and important because it is a practice of resistance to denial. Stengers demonstrates that the failure to pay attention is exactly what capitalism relies on, and encourages, in order to replace practical, collective experiences and widely shared beliefs with the desire for consumption, ownership, and mastery. Perhaps retreat is not a practice of denial, but just the kind of attention that might bring about an alternative.

During my second visit to the two sisters’ beach, I could take the time to make sense of the place, and I felt I was fully embracing the art of paying attention. What I remember is found in fragments and details, but accumulates as respect and care for the land itself. Such is the inspiration for this book, which is written with the hope that another kind of adaptation is not only possible, but that it is already latent in many of our stories, told across time by human characters that experience change as something fundamentally land-based. With the stories that I share in the book, I want to draw attention to the distance between much of humankind and the landscape while also suggesting some practical ways to close this gap through land-based research, teaching, and practice. The stories I’ve selected here also explore common conditions among geographically disparate experiences. Each experience suggests that landscape is substantiated by an awareness of risk, vulnerability, and change. In turn, this awareness creates an opportunity because accepting change means rejecting a static image of reality. Landscapes of Retreat calls attention to the fact that the planet has already warmed more than one degree Celsius since the pre-industrial era and warns that the failure to pay attention to this single degree of warmth might prove to be lethal for organized human civilization. Can we develop more compelling stories that relay site-sensitive memories of place as we—every one of us future ancestors, whether we have children of our own, or not—pass on to the next generations what we can to enrich their common inheritance?

Conditions of Retreat

I wish that those who take me for granite would once in a while treat me like mud.

          — Ursula K. Le Guin

The difference between relocation and retreat matters when signaling more inclusive futures. It matters because any discussion of relocation treats lively communities as a product, object, or asset. For instance, buildings can be relocated brick by brick, but asking a living, vibrant community to relocate is far more challenging because it breaks apart relations; if a church is relocated, the impact is felt by the congregation. The same is true for a school and its students, as well as homes and the generations of family that embed memory in that place. On the other hand, glaciers retreat; they cannot be relocated. Fish retreat to lower lake levels, seeking shelter. In military terms, an army retreats, not in defeat, but in order to secure a more strategic location. When humans and other creatures decide to retreat, they are usually informed by cues observed in their own environment (with observation here being the most general, non-scientific meaning). Retreat emerges as a unique form of adaptation that does not adhere to the same conditions as relocation, conditions as relocation, a regulatory procedure driven by fear, external agendas, and capital regimes. The difference matters because enlivened neighborhoods are not comparable to building materials; like a process or an ecology, their emergent characteristics are non-transferable. The failure to distinguish between relocation and retreat leads to inadequate policy, which not infrequently mandates that a community must rebuild in the same vulnerable place, thereby denying the land any agency or capacity for expression.

While conducting the research for this book, common conditions of retreat emerged in and from each case,, which also informed the decision not to study cases of top-down relocation. The narratives of retreat often celebrate change and remind us that while relocation initiatives tend to disrupt land-based relations, retreat processes can help to reestablish and repair them. Thus, from my research to date, the following are the conditions of retreat:

◦ A heightened perception of local environmental degradation or ongoing risk and its negative impact on human welfare;

◦ An established relationship to the past, within oral traditions, elders, other species, archaeological scholarship, or experience at a number of timescales;

◦ A degree of political organization within the community to facilitate effective management, and thus a reliance on relatively stable social organizations rather than outside intervention or assistance;

◦ A communal naming, ritual, or ceremony that begins life anew.

When I began this research project in 2014, I was writing in a post-Sandy world, trapped in superstorm rhetoric, replete with rebuild processes, resilience funding, and restoration protocols. The world of disaster management creatively invented the idea of a superstorm but failed to devise any creative response. Rather, the ritual procedures of planners, designers, and architects tended to treat the changing world in much the same way it always had; that is, without climate and without change. As federal coffers opened, designers were invited into project-making by agencies scrambling to help solve tangible, worldly problems. At the time, rebuilding, or “building back better,” was the main concern that drew policy into the muddled and mysterious world. I was part of an academic research team that wanted to talk about not building back, and instead turning many of the land parcels into verdant, public lands. The idea of intentional retreat—ceding land that had been used for human settlements back to various natural processes—came as an affront to the architects, planners, and engineers who were part of the project. It was clear that the aphorism “build back better” was invented to preserve existing by-laws, the invisible infrastructure that was not washed away by the storm. Architecturally, the opportunity lay in the number of towns, houses, subdivisions, malls, and parking lots that lay strewn across the coast in ruins. Ecologically, it was hard to imagine putting it all back into place because that would mean playing according to the rules of a game rigged against both residents and the climate.

Landscapes change. Changes tend to be the result of mingled biotic, geologic, ecologic, atmospheric, and anthropogenic processes. The speed of transformation across a territory varies significantly, but change is reliable. As Octavia Butler’s character Lauren Olamina repeats in Parable of the Talents, “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change.” As terrestrial animals, humans live with change as multidimensional processes are sped up and slowed down by anthropogenic factors that are usually exacerbated by policy, zoning, and political cycles. All living forces contribute to change; therefore a superstorm can be understood as either a threat or an indicator. As a threat, it upends concrete foundations and daily routines because it devastates both the proximity to a beach and a beach lifestyle, for instance. As an indicator, a superstorm reveals that the foundation is vulnerably located on a sandbar, a floodplain, or saltmarsh: an unyielding construction on iterant ground. From this perspective, the indicator can also point to how some fundamental social values are rooted in an extremely mutable landscape. I study the active, amendatory practices between humans and landscapes that emphasize acceptance, reciprocity, and care; in this sense, not building back seemed like an opportunity to reestablish land-based relations.

Memory & Place

Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up, and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting.

— Virginia Woolf

The fog of memory is kept thick by cycles of repair that count disaster events by years. In the United States (where I live) the most costly years are established by capital spending, with 2017 ($306 billion) and 2005 ($215 billion) ranking highest, while 2021 ranks highest for the number of separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, putting 2021 in second place for the most disasters in a calendar year, behind the record twenty-two discrete billion-dollar events of 2020. The results of these extraordinary expenses appear to transform complicity into action, as so-called “climate ready” policy materializes through planning, zoning, and rebuilding techniques. What Landscapes of Retreat proposes is that while predictions endure and statistics accumulate, we have the option to learn from the bold moves and creative acts of individuals and communities. Each case holds the power to change history, insinuating that current climate change narratives can be unsettled to awaken and enlarge our perspectives, our grasp of truth, and our capacity for beauty.

These are the most ordinary movements, enacted without a consideration of the ensuing agitation of a thousand odd, disconnected fragments as Virginia Woolf suggests. Woolf’s reflection emerges through a consideration of how memory is found in the changes her characters sustain: “Nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November, 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none?” Isn’t that precisely what memory is? A rhythm that is felt but still impossible to grasp because it is indifferent to time, bobbing and dipping between daily movements endorsed in the muddle and mystery of nature. Woolf separates nature from reason, and in so doing creates a more truthful representation of memory. She identifies its subjective qualities as a gathering of fragments that cut across time. She identifies memory as it is drawn to the land. I take a cue from her sensitivity to the connections between people and place.

Another Landscape is Possible

We will have to make our way toward an order that presently seems unimaginable: an order that is not necessarily human dominant.

— Dipesh Chakrabarty

Disaster recovery is entrenched in the landscape; lives are put at risk when land heaves, slides, or shakes, when it becomes inundated or succumbs to a tsunami. The practices of fast recovery are overwhelming our immutable, daily practices, enabling unrestrained development of vulnerable or young land formations, such as coastal areas. When the landscape communicates in muted tones, we rarely listen to those signals, sometimes assuming these are not a viable form of communication or leaning on structures of governance instead. Coastal regions are by nature vulnerable because they are littoral; that is, somewhere between land and water. Yet, coastal regions are home to the most concentrated settlements as they are primed, elevated, and concretized by capitalism. There are few exceptions to uneven coastal development, but climate change will call these choices into question with an unprecedented rigor, which is why the art of attention must be developed everywhere, relying on the texture and quality of local stories to form part of a global weave of transformation.

Meanwhile, the definition of landscape remains unwritten. While this might create a problem for academics and institutions who attempt to brand and conquer the design discourse, I am growing more comfortable with the idea that meaning is much more complicated than any definition, including my own. Landscape holds meaning, and in this sense, landscape shares a common ambiguity with other slippery terms like nature and art. Landscape is experienced: it is more a feeling of place than it is an object or set of objects. That feeling is relational, a host of relations in relation. Landscape is nature influenced and rearranged by many agents, including humans, from the soils under our feet that are now awash in toxic pesticides, to the warmer ocean currents crowded with microplastics, all the way up into the night sky, sparkling with countless galaxies and new Earth-observing satellites. In a time of planetary and political extremes, landscape is the opportunity to inhabit otherwise.

In this book, the term landscape refers to the earth animated by activity, and the term retreat suggests that settlement patterns are not fixed but might also be enlivened by removing permanent settlements. I turn to first-hand experiences embedded in fieldwork to lift up temporally rich, land-based practices rather than the phased standards of professionalization. In many cases, there are also significant emotional challenges related to the grieving of place; these processes of grieving remind us that retreat isn’t easy. Creating new, amendatory, and reparative relations to place also means challenging often long-held beliefs about our own place in the world, what we have a right to expect, and how we take into account our responsibility to the next generations, as well as our nonhuman kin and more-than-human neighbors. Grief requires the art of attention. As Leanne Betasomosake Simpson notes with respect to the politics of recognition
in Canada (by way of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women), “The politics of grief can also so easily become the politics of distraction,” and thereby “moves us away from the renewal of place-based practices by distracting us with politics that are designed to reinforce the status quo rather than deconstruct it.” Learning from Simpson’s compelling and courageous thinking with land, it is my objective, in what follows, to cut through the politics of distraction by addressing directly, with as much care, precision, attention, and empathy as I can, land-based practices that renew relations among people and place.

Methodologically, my aim is to bridge the increasing discrepancy between remote sensing and local knowledge by working on the ground and doing committed, patient fieldwork. As images of the changing planet become emblematic of our time, designers often respond with a scrutiny towards amplified scales that do little to describe the messy reality of everyday life. This has given rise to a growing interest in the materials or elements of transformation, and in particular, that category of evidence that can only be collected through first-hand engagement. All research, from the molecular to the continental, requires a scale of study. These scales are most often refined and corrected in the field. Landscapes of Retreat attempts to relay some of the work on the ground to the creative disciplines, thereby expanding and enhancing our repertoire of strategies for climate adaptation in collaboration with the changing landscape.

The case study methodology is a well-established design and research tool, and was helpful in linking the stories in this book. Much of my research aims to reconcile the case-study approach from its foundations as a largely formal account to one that is a bit messier when it includes other times, species, and designers. Case studies are a primary form of education, innovation, and testing for the profession, as knowledge is advanced by studying plans, outlining form, and summarizing design as a commission. Case studies also increase and augment professionalization, standards, and best practices. But a site plan is static, and typically fails to embrace the dynamics of change, while best practices are evolving almost as rapidly as the climate. Thus, the case study method that I learned in design graduate school is failing to keep pace with the urgencies and complexities of our moment. Our self-important present seems to be providing few cues, thereby rendering our precedents, cases, and models obsolete. The cases in this book commit to an expanded reading of landscape change and attempt to renew and reframe the practice of fieldwork as landscape research. According to anthropologist Anna Tsing, “Landscape refers to the sedimentation of human and non-human activity, which together create places. Landscape is a busy intersection of contemporary action taking place across and entangled with the traces of previous action.” This is another configuration of the art of attention upon which any reparative relations to land will rely.  

Before turning the page, and by way of a conclusion, I ask my readers to bear in mind that each case can never be complete without the acknowledgment of the violence and persistence of settler colonial subjugation of Indigenous people, place, and knowledge. As a non-Native settler living and working in both the United States and Canada, I acknowledge that the pathway to learning begins when indicators of colonial conduct are called out. What this means is that because I am part of a settler society, it can be very hard to see another kind of culture. The abstractions of technology make it even more difficult to appreciate these patterns. In order to help change the terms of engagement, I seek to enlighten, not accuse. I seek to highlight how the territorial grabs of the past might be rectified in the future, without being forgotten. Perhaps memory is a process that needs to be agitated to be activated—chanted and danced in time with the earth, as N. Scott Momaday suggests:

When we dance the earth trembles. When our steps fall on the earth we feel the shudder of life beneath us, and the earth feels the beating of our hearts, and we become one with the earth. We shall not sever ourselves from the earth. We must chant our being, and we must dance in time with the rhythms of the earth. We must keep the earth.


I would like to thank the Harvard Climate Solutions Fund for their generous support, which gave me the opportunity to develop forms of optimistic storytelling about environmental risk, and the Harvard Asia Center, whose support allowed me to include Nepal among these narratives. I am also grateful to the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for funding the “Imagining Retreat” symposium prior to my fieldwork, and to my collaborators Professor Sharon Harper, for the journey, and Professor Joanna Lombard, for continuing to imagine with me. I am deeply indebted to the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation for the support to augment my research throughout our collaboration and our discussions of change in Florida.

Thanks also to everyone at my second home at the Harvard Arnold Arboretum, where I encounter endless inspiration from the living collections, and especially to Professor William (Ned) Freidman, for his vision and support. To Peter Del Tredici, who taught me to really see plants, thank you again.

A special thanks to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, especially the Master of Design Studies (MDes) students in Risk & Resilience for considering “retreat” a topic worthy of further consideration at a time when most design schools were trying to teach students how to “build back better.” This includes support and ideation with Justin Henceroth, Isaac Stein, Ashley C. Thompson, Maggie Tsang, and my colleague and co-conspirator Professor Diane Davis.  For those precious years of research, thanks also to Professor Pierre Belanger and Professor Kiel Moe, who led by example and offered continuing support.

Most meaningful enquiries cannot be pursued alone. The research that led to Landscapes of Retreat was a collaborative effort undertaken together every step of the way. I would like to thank Mariel A. Collard for her time, space, and modesty during our travels. Without Mariel, the research for this book would simply not have been possible. I am also grateful to everyone who worked alongside me over the years, with special thanks to Catherine Auger, Dane Carlson, Naoko Asano, Edith Jostol, Yannick Lay, and Malone Matson.

I would like to thank my publisher, K. Verlag, for believing in this book, especially director Anna-Sophie Springer for coordinating its production, guest designer Ginny Davies for the beautiful execution of the layout, and editor Etienne Turpin for his support and dedication. I met Etienne early on in the project and since that time, we have worked together to develop a research symposium, lectures, project pitches, and course curricula in a spirit of radical collaboration. In 2020, he mobilized the grant enabling this book and choreographed its structure in response to our many walks in the field. Like his commitment towards Landscapes of Retreat, Etienne’s perspective on grassroots climate change adaptation and his editorial-curatorial vision are a lasting inspiration.

I want to extend some of my gratitude geographically:

in Chile, gracias Alejandro Hormazabal Garrido from Fundación Acercaredes, Daniela Alejandra from Arauco, Ruiz Gonzalez, Tova Katzman, Bernardo Reyes, and Joel Eliú Barrera Valdés;

— in Nepal, namaste & tashi delek Babu Tamang, our friend and guide, his whole family for their hospitality, and George Varughese and Mohandas Manandhar from the Niti Foundation;

— in Japan, arigatõgozaimashita to non-profit organizer Wakaki Fujita in Karatsu, our boat captain Kan Morita, Kyushu University researcher Akira Tanaka, and community historian and patient
teacher Yo Yamada;

— in Alaska, Quyana Professor John Koepke, relocation coordinator Sally Cox, and Michael Walleri, who serves as legal counsel to Niagtaq Village tribal leaders;

— in Québec, merci to the mayor of Sainte-Flavie Jean-François Fortin,  Laval University Professor Dr. Ladd Johnson, Les Jardins de Metis’s Director Alexander Reford, and biologist Guadalupe Fernandez at Parc de la rivière Mitis.

Last, but by no means least: thank you Ezra Andrade Lee, for everything.

To unsettle land as part of reparative practice is a way of residing otherwise, with a different rhythm of relation, care, expectation, and reciprocity. Without understanding how our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors work together with the land, it is almost impossible to find our ways back to ourselves and each other. I hope these stories have contributed to a language of change that affirms the love we feel for each other and for the planet.

1 Winona LaDuke, Recovering the Sacred (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 227.

2 My research for this book, as well as my teaching alongside it, have been greatly influenced by the writing of Winona LaDuke, especially All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life [1999] (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015).

3 James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” New York Times Book Review (14 January 1962), BR11.

4 In this regard, I am less interested in what was left than how it got there, because understanding the process of transformation is critical to developing the repertoire of practices needed for climate adaptation. Thus, the art of attention I aim to cultivate is more or less an inversion of the study of haphazardly abandoned buildings, lots, and lands. To understand this distinction, readers might consider Cal Flyn, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape (London: William Collins, 2021).

5 Matthew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown (London: Verso, 2021).

6 Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, trans. Andrew Goffey (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015), 62.

7 Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 62.

8 Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 54.

9 Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 62.

10 Ursula K. Le Guin, “On Being Taken for Granite,” in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essay on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Boulder: Shambhala, 2004), 8.

11 See, New York’s Build Back Better
Plan, “BRIEF: Bloomberg to Announce
Post Sandy Preparation Plans Tuesday,”
NewYork (6 December 2012);
-or-bloomberg-delivers-address-shaping-new-york-city-s-future-after-hurrican-sandy; critiques of the program presented by various scholars, including Liz Koslov et al., “When Rebuilding No Longer Means Recovery: The Stress of Staying Put After Hurricane Sandy,” Climatic Change 165/3–4, (2021),

12 Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Talents [1998] (London: Headline, 2019).

13 Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography [1928] (London: Penguin Classics, 2016), 55.

14 NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, US Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2022),

15 Woolf, Orlando, 55.

16 Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 195.

17 On the art of noticing, see also Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

18 Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2017), 240. See also Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

19 Anna Tsing, unpublished; this definition emerged in conversation during October 2018, in reference to a project entitled “The Arts of Noticing.”

20 N. Scott Momaday, Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land (New York: Harper, 2020). For readers unfamiliar with the colonial history of the United States and its effects on relations between Indigenous people and their lands, I would strongly recommend Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014).