the small voice of landscape

One of the Hart’s tongue ferns, showing some stress.

So the socio-horticultural experiment of the North Kelvin Meadow fern transplant continues, though, sad to say, this overly wet Scottish winter has not been kind to our transplants – most of which are displaying some degree of stress and some of have lost most or all their fronds to the excessive damp. These are wall ferns not bog ferns, after all. In any case, there are many new fronds waiting to emerge and we remain hopeful; in the meantime my colleague Ruth is in the process of developing a way of subtly but artfully marking the fact (if not the details) of their journey to the meadow. The problem has been to find the right balance between allowing the ferns to remain a bit mysterious (for those who have not read about them on the North Kelvin Meadow’s campaign website) and helping people to notice them at all. Ruth, who is a landscape architect, is taking the lead here, and it is interesting for me to learn (secondhand), something about the artist’s, as opposed to the academic’s or the activist’s, touch.

One thing I do know about from an academic perspective, is the dangers of prioritizing legibility in landscape, especially as a means to particular social or political ends. This is the strategy on which the notion of ‘natural surveillance‘ is based: the idea that if you make a landscape’s ‘proper’ use clear, then not only will ‘desirable’ users find it more welcoming,  ‘undesirable’ users (who always have improper use in mind) will be all the more visible. This will in turn either make them easier to catch (whether by security personnel, or on camera), or discourage their presence at all. The most politically perfect (i.e., morally defensible, economically sustainable) control of bodies is thus environmental, not physical. Even when (or perhaps especially when) such design is utopic in its aspirations (as was Ebenezer Howard’s ‘garden city’ concept, for example), it can end up serving totalitarian ends. Attempts to design social change end up having a lot in common with the enforcement of social order.

At the same time, and as the name of this blog attests, I believe the communicative power of landscape is important to understand, and I do hope that can be exploited for positive – which is to say, inclusive and creative – social change. I guess my question these days has to do with thinking about communication in terms other than those of reading, or at least, in terms of a more open-ended kind of reading. When it comes to landscape intervention, as opposed to design, maybe a starting point is to think in terms of the kinds of effects interventions may produce. That is, effects other than beauty or productivity (which is what we normally notice or care about when it comes to plants in the city).

There was a garden I was reminded of while thinking about these things: a small garden planted at the front of a low-rise apartment building in Ottawa. This was a space otherwise planted only with juniper bushes and heavily shaded by street trees. In the small patches of soil between the juniper bushes – even behind them – one of the residents had planted a variety of salvaged annuals and vegetable plants. There were few flowers (it was too dark) but climbing beans had been trained in surprising directions along fishing wire with large colourful beads, and small figurines and objects were positioned among the plants. It was not in any way a spectacular sight, but it was surprising. It made the little patch of lawn and junipers appear a much larger landscape, as if the little figurines inhabited another world, one accidentally contained within my own. It gave me all kinds of ideas, and I have planted many improvised gardens of my own since.

It seems a straightforward thing to say that a landscape, or a particular intervention in landscape, can be inspiring. And for artists and designers, perhaps it is not so complicated–that’s what they are always looking for, and their skills make execution of a large range of effects perfectly conceivable. But what does it mean, or what does it take for a landscape intervention, to give ordinary people ideas? For me – a mere gardener, without a garden of her own – being led to see the urban landscape as open  to intervention was not such a small feat. In this case, it was a question of being shown that aesthetic effects could be created that were not particularly beautiful, and not merely visual – effects that were imaginative and, in a way, social. As a lonely, somewhat shy young woman living in what felt like a big city, that garden spoke both to and for me: even you can do something wonderful. Well, at a least a little bit wonderful. Which was enough for me then. Is it enough now? I’m not sure. With this transplant of ferns I/we risk operating in the same, somewhat diminutive register. Sure, we have our reasons, but can anyone hear us?

Wild strawberry, also a transplant from the Graving Docks

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