Landscape as Mediated Nature
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I am on a path that meanders as if it to suggest that travelling in a straight line would go against the nature of the space. A thin layer of low-hanging gray clouds obscures the sun. Cold wind blows so fiercely that it finds its way through my gloves and bites at my fingertips. A blue spruce offers its sloping branches as refuge. I nestle between its branches, wondering how many other creatures have found solace here before me. Prickly needles defend themselves against my invasion, yet provide a soft bed for me to rest on while the storm approaches. Water rushes somewhere behind me – I cannot identify the source of the sound – and between the sound of water and the sound of wind, I cannot hear anything else. I am alone.
I look up at the brick building next to me and see a man through the window studiously concentrating on the contents of a beaker and discover that I am not alone. In fact, I am in the middle of a college campus, surrounded by people. The sound of rushing water is not a waterfall, but a high-tech water cooling system. My small refuge sits next to a lesser-traveled path that cuts between two science buildings. I am far removed from the wilderness, but I don’t feel this is an urban space either; I am in between places. These blue spruces, yew bushes, pinecones, dead leaves, deer scat, mulch, and twigs provide respite from the urban sprawl of Salt Lake City where one would normally find litter, concrete, and loud vehicles full of anxious passengers. Though curated by landscape architects, the path between the ASB and PAB offers a degree of naturalness that is absent from the efficient, sharp concrete walls of downtown.
Curation implies intention, and the differentiation of campus from downtown Salt Lake was certainly intentional. The University of Utah began campus construction in 1850 on a mountain slope above and apart from the city and since then has expanded farther and farther up the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. In 2009, the University of Utah set out to reevaluate their facility management, including campus landscaping. This effort produced a report that identified the University’s updated landscaping priorities for West Campus, the location of my site, as creating “stronger and intimate relationships between buildings and open spaces.” With this goal in mind, the University re-landscaped the path between the ASB and PAB, making it a small oasis set apart from the angular architecture of campus. According to the 2009 report, two “open space” corridors, whose purpose is to connect, bookend either side of my site. Now designated a peripheral path, my site connects the two corridors but is not named a connector. It became a place between two places, unnamed; landscaped and natural, curated and chaotic. Though regularly maintained by facilities managers, the area collects dead leaves from trees far from the site against the concrete wall and fallen spruce needles and pinecones randomly litter the plant bed, contrasting with the neatly arranged bushes that surround them.
Just as the path between the ASB and PAB appears natural but is not native, landscaping in American public spaces has a history of feigning natural. In the early 1800s, Americans sought refuge in cemeteries from smoggy, monochromatic urban life. With their romantic winding roads and grand trees, cemeteries presented a green alternative to a gray world and inspired public parks. In the 1850s, the design of Central Park introduced a naturalistic landscape and the concept became widely popular. The park was meant to be an island in the city, a place to escape, far from the clutches of humans and industrialization – but not geographically far. America is built on this pastoral ideal, as historian Karen Haltunnen describes, of “a middle landscape between technological progress and bucolic retreat.” Mirrored in the landscaping at the University of Utah, the pastoral ideal still persists as a refuge across America.
Greenery and growth, no matter its origin, implies some degree of naturalness. However, the definition of natural, “not made or caused by humankind,” puts the terms natural and landscaped at odds with one another. Differentiating between landscaping and nature threatens to prioritize certain interactions with the environment as purer than another that may be more mediated but possibly more meaningful. Is my blue spruce shelter on a college campus less authentic than a blue spruce providing shelter for mule deer in Dixie National Forest? Our vocabulary provides no way to differentiate between the two trees, and the characteristics of the tree remain the same no matter its location. Perhaps its essence changes when it loses its wildness.
Humans modify the landscape to conform to our ideals, or to direct attention to what we believe is important and beautiful. However, a modified experience does not always signify a compromised experience. Among the manipulation, we can create meaningful interactions with the environment that inform our sense of place and create connections to a place more meaningful than the urban mundane. One can expect some degree of manipulation of nature in public spaces. Construction often wipes out whatever nature originally existed and offers the opportunity to reimagine the landscape and create a curated experience with nature. One influential early landscape theorist, Willhelm Miller, advocated the “wild garden” method of landscaping in which one alters natural spaces with plants to make them more aesthetically interesting. The key to the wild garden is that manipulation should be imperceptible. Miller’s proposal for naturalistic landscaping became the basis for the design of National Parks and shaped America’s perception of wilderness. None of the plants at my site are native to Salt Lake Valley, yet the aggregate of these species reminds me of a generic American wilderness. Lauren McCrady, an environmental writer, argues against entrenched ideals of unmediated access to wilderness to posit that mediated experiences, though different from previous generations’ interactions with nature, are not inherently less valuable. Does curating nature by cutting down a few trees that block the view detract from our experience, or does it direct our attention to views we would not have appreciated otherwise? Curation of nature can grant the freedom to experience a natural space intimately, but it can also obscure alternative paths that may have led to somewhere else equally as moving.
I close my eyes and listen to the wind and water again. The sounds transport me to a place beyond the brick walls that confine this space. I am here, but I am not here. The tree that provides me shelter also offers a memory. With this memory, I am connected to this place and tree in a way that may not have been possible without this small path between two buildings on the University of Utah campus.
~ Lauren Hawkes Portillo (Spring 2019)
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For further reading:
Macfarlane, Robert. “The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape.” The Guardian. February 27, 2015. https://amp.theguardian.com/books/2015/ feb/27/robert-macfarlane-word-hoard-rewilding-landscape.
“The University of Utah Campus Master Plan,” Planning, Design, and Construction. September 2008.
McClelland, Linda Flint. Presenting Nature: The Historic Landscape Design of the National Park Service. Washington D.C.: National Park Service, 1993. https://www.nps.gov/ parkhistory/online_books/ mcclelland/mcclelland.htm.
McCrady, Lauren. “My Present is Not Your Tombstone.” In Coming of Age at the End of Nature, 98-111. Ed. Julie Dunlap and Susan A. Cohen. San Antonio: Trinity University Press.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1988.
Teaford, Jon C. “Landscaping America.” Reviews in American History 15, no. 4. December 1987: 656-671.
Karen Haltunnen, Karen. “Grounded Histories: Land and Landscape in Early America.” The William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 4. October 2011: 513-532.
Miller, Wilhelm. What England Can Teach Us About Gardening. Garden City, NY: Double Day Page and Company, 1911.