Beauty isn’t optional. Living in a beautiful world is a requirement for human health and sanity.
The beauty of clean water, clean air and clean soil is undeniably necessary for good physical health. But, don’t we also need more than the bare minimum? Colour, harmony, surprise … all those abstract elements and principles of art are just as important.
So how is a place of beauty created? Can we trust the wild to spontaneously develop into something lovely? When is the human touch necessary; when does it become too much? The art of gardening and urban development is about finding that balance I suppose.
I have had the good fortune to witness the progress of two local restoration projects that embrace quite divergent philosophies. Today I think I’ll concentrate on the project at Willowbrook Reach which tends to rely on natural processes to guide aesthetic decisions.
The people involved use a light touch: invasive plants get removed by hand; indigenous plants are re-introduced in strategic locations. The community hosts regular creek clean-ups to remove any garbage finding its way to lower ground.
The project began several years ago when a number of creeks in Austin became eligible to participate in a riparian restoration project. As far as I know our creek was one of the first to join because it had some promising characteristics.
Unlike virtually every other creek in Austin, our creek bank was never paved. In the 1950s it did have a lawn but by the time I became acquainted with the area, wild trees and shrubs were growing in abundance along the water’s edge.
Alongside the trees are meadows! These plants are chaotic. Each year brings a completely different display. The more I get to know this area … the more I get to know.
Change is the rule even within the year. Forget the four seasons. In a meadow some seasons last for only a couple of weeks; some for months at a time. I mark each season by which flower happens to dominate the landscape. Sometimes the hillside is splashed with wild drifts of pink; sometimes blue; often yellow. For every new flower display there is a brand new supporting cast of wildlife.
Ever go to a party where the quiet person finally delivers a sentence so astonishing or meaningful it is the only thing you remember from the night? So it seems with native flowers. During the absolute worst weeks of this summer’s heat when everyone else lapsed into silence, the kidneywood decided to seize the moment. Though it only lasted a couple weeks, I still remember its fragrance and gentle white flowers.
I worry that these opportunities to join a conversation with the land are becoming something available only for the elite. In Austin many (though happily not all) of the best green spaces cannot be reached without a car. Some charge an admission fee.
Everyone ought to have equal opportunity to share the public green spaces. Not many know of this unintended exclusion because few people are aware of Austin’s hidden widespread poverty or the gross inadequacies of the public transit system. Austin looks wealthy on the surface but the terrible fact is that the -vast- majority of young families with children qualify for free and reduced cost lunch programs — the last I heard it was 75% and upwards.
So, for many Austin residents, ordinary interactions with green things and the creatures that need them typically comes from garden ‘installations’ which I call ‘human centred designs.’
These plantings are about as boring as they can get. They don’t have a loving gardener to take care of them — just a landscape company that arrives on a regular schedule to spray some kind of scary liquid, blow away any fallen leaves and trim as necessary.
These ‘plantings’ feel soul-less; they best resemble plastic. They lack dynamism because they are designed to be easy to care for rather than as an element of beauty or for creating/nurturing community.
Installations tend to include mass orderly plantings of annuals. In Austin those annuals can last three seasons so the unlucky residents will see the same coleus or begonia display from May through November. Sometimes the display will be replaced by a cool weather planting. If not, the community will be treated to a heap of coloured mulch. Some places avoid the flowers altogether and just stick to a patchy lawn with evergreen shrubs or succulents that never ever change. The guiding principles seem to be efficiency and doing the least amount of work possible. Whither joy and delight?
I suppose I ought to look on the bright side and think that at least there are living things present.
I think the ‘plant installation’ concept is another example of our crazy culture’s need to control nature. There is a logic behind the fact that these installations always begin with hard-scape. The hard-scape provides a kind of plant prison where everything can be put into its place — quarantined and controlled. Do we really need to live in a world where even the plants must be pushed into designated areas?
Maybe a little anarchy would be as Martha might say, “a good thing.”