This book documents a shared journey, a dialogue with many other beings, but my reflections on the sites are not the end of a project; they are the beginning. But every beginning also carries its share of endings; for me, the most abrupt was the loss of my dear friend and collaborator, Heather Marie Morgan, to whose memory I dedicate this book. In what follows, I have included several of her last messages that I received before her untimely passing as a way to weave her wisdom, beauty, and courage into this beginning, and as an acknowledgement of the profound influence of her life of my own. Her love of landscape echoes across every page of this book.
So, even while I focus on the land, it is impossible not to think landscape along with the memories of the human lives, both those that have passed and those that endure, which enliven each case. Land-based practices are collaborative, which means that the work is never complete; perhaps these are practices that are not meant to be completed, but enriched and eventually relayed to the next generations. I have tried to find meaning in collective sufferings that, at the time they occur, seem to have no purpose. In these last pages, I do not offer a definitive conclusion, but instead return to some of the most lasting impressions from my research and suggest a few ways that we may treat land and design landscape differently, especially given the accelerating climate emergency and its unequal effects on humankind.
I feel sometimes I am in a moving current in a river.
I am not in charge of my time, my pain, or my energy.
In Nepal, I experienced physical difficulties and was unsure if
I would even reach Langtang Village. I was sick and feverish for three days, but on the morning of the fourth day I could walk again. I emerged from my small, dark room and saw Nepal anew. It was an especially beautiful dawn and I was suddenly reminded that we were walking through winter; even in their dormancy, each plant was so lush and magnificent I don’t know if I would have managed to take it all in during the spring, let alone in full bloom. It was a garden tumbling around me on all sides, even though every plant looked familiar and strange at the same time. A rhododendron forest with its dark red bark shiny with dew, laid still and leafless around us, while pines towered overhead drooping with lush needles. I was keenly aware of the elaborate silhouettes, severe spines, thick bark, waxy coatings, and arching stems even though I could not identify a single species. To simply say we were walking up and down along a trek is misleading. Around every corner of the winding pathway one saw some new loveliness, and Jamaica Kincaid’s words—which I have long admired—made perfect sense to me:
Left to ourselves, we would have been lost in this sea of rocks and boulders, for this landscape was as familiar to me as the one on Mars […] And my difficulties were these: I found each plant, each new turn in the road, each new turn in the weather, from cold to hot and then back again, each new set of boulders so absorbing, so new, and the newness so absorbing, and I was so in need of an explanation for each thing, that I was often in tears, troubling myself with questions, such as what am I and what is the thing in front of me?1
Jamaica Kincaid, Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya (London: Picador, 2020), 135.
I am endlessly in pursuit of satisfying descriptions of the dynamic we call landscape. So, Kincaid’s question, “what am I and what is the thing in front of me?” resonates deeply with another question
of my own: “What is landscape?”As a landscape architect, I draw inspiration from references that touch on both intentional design
and unintended mystery. Consider landscape historian J.B. Jackson’s suggestions that landscape is “the speeding up or slowing down of time.”2From another perspective, the geographer Donald W. Meinig memorably contended, “Landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads.”
In his philosophy of landscape, Jackson argues for the inclusion of time in any definition of landscape, which is
a major theme in one of his last publica- tions. See J.B. Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).3Finally, anthropologist Anna Tsing has offered a more practical description of landscape as “the configuration of humans and nonhumans across a terrain,”
D.W. Meinig, “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene,” Landscape Architecture 66.1 (1976): 47–54.a sentiment that resonates with Aldo Leopold’s definition that “landscape is all the things on, over, or in the earth.” D.W. Meinig, “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene,” Landscape Architecture 66.1 (1976): 47–54.4In Leopold’s terms, the meaning includes those aspects of the landscape that are constructed because the world is not reducible to the binaries of human and nonhuman. When considering landscape as a process, rather than product, we are afforded a perception of change that Jackson calls time. When you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing, or that they can change.
Aldo Leopold et al., Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), 22.
Experiencing change comes from knowing landscape. This is an axis on which the climate rests with predictable steadiness, a lesson I learned while I was immersed in the pine forests at Nijinomatsubara, Japan. It takes courage to plan for future generations after a deadly disaster. The act of planting a forest in the land that is left behind transforms landscape into a ritual of care that embeds people into place. As we have seen, when humans respect change, they are closer to other species and tend towards an acceptance of risk. But, if these cases are to be real inspiration, they must be copied not in letter but in spirit.
I have moments when I don’t know who I am in this.
What could be a more common inheritance than landscape? Humans inhabit landscape; it is at once landform and view—an aesthetic depiction and a physical experience. Landscapes are biotically produced but also shaped by human societies. Landscape describes a physical medium, a professional field, and a practice that fuses nature and culture into a framework for living with change. At its best, this framework is also designed through respect, reciprocity, and responsibility, which is what makes landscape more a vocation than a set of techniques. A dictionary doesn’t provide any more clarity when it defines landscape as “a picture representing a view of natural inland scenery,” or “the landforms of a region in the aggregate.”5Such a generality of description actually defies definition as everything becomes landscape.
According to Websters Dictionary: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/landscape.
And yet we know landscape when we see it. Landscape is the emergence of culture and nature, a way to answer together the social question, “what am I?” alongside the contextual question, “what is the thing in front of me?” The research that led to this book taught me that there is no landscape—there are instead only innumerable landscapes. Consider the layers of history laminated into the ground in Chile—pines for pulp, pines for conservation, pines for planting. Soils imbued with water, pesticides, and tourist tracks. Geology at the precipice of a continent where waves smash into settlements. Water rights are bought and sold in a volcanic country plagued by drought. It is hard to imagine how claims of “zero emission,” “carbon neutrality,” or “a switch to renewables,” will do anything but add another layer to the already alarming mixture. But these terms are taking over the language of landscape and becoming even more commonplace than some of the most essential descriptions of the land. This leads inexorably to flat-site thinking, a persistent disease affecting architecture and development. Repairing our descriptive language of lively landscapes helps shift practices toward reconciling the mutually reinforcing arrangements between ecological degradation and social injustice, representing one of the most powerful ways landscape architects can exercise their political convictions.
I have to go back to the Kituwah Mound,
I once went there to ask mother earth to look over me,
and I need her help again.
An inquiry in any field requires a common language. Yet, what we have in common is a technologically-specific lexicon that buries the value of other organisms and the earth itself. As I write this, debates are again underway about opening the ground in Alaska for new drilling in order to lower the price of fuel at the pump. It is a story on repeat that divides communities as it cleaves into and poisons the earth. And yet, “offshore oil” and “gas drilling” evoke more familiar images than “denning habitat” or “pingos.” Why? Attending to the nuances of the language we use to describe landscape can help us ask the right questions about “what is in front of us?” when we are experiencing the living world. Language is our way into meaning, connection, healing, learning, and awareness. When we see land as a more-than-human com- munity that we, humans, also belong to, we begin to inhabit it differently, with love and respect. We might also begin to see retreat as a wild, radical design ethic that puts healing at the center of our practice.
There are myriad stories embedded in each case, just as there are many worlds in each ecology. These stories necessarily include me,
my collaborators, and the thoughts that churn around among us. In Ste-Flavie, on the Gaspésie Peninsula, where the community is learning to live with risk and design their life in turn, I recently learned that the Canadian government “awarded” an eight million dollar contract for beach renourishment. Tragically, this is landscape on life-support, where short term solutions are heaped upon systemic problems that they cannot and will not resolve. This creates an unfeeling for change and stands in opposition to the type of design that this moment de- mands from us. Learning firsthand, on the land, how to live with both acceptance of environmental change and gratitude for the relations that a land-based ethic provides, I believe that if we could collectively listen to the intertidal along the Gaspésie, together we could understand and accept the changes it is expressing and learn to adapt in turn.
When you asked me, what will I do in my lifetime?
I didn’t know how to answer because I am only one.
Landscapes of retreat are not abandoned land but amendatory practices of seeing, appreciating, and inhabiting change otherwise. 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.