Land Matters: Owning the Land’s Future

Landscape architects with successful, far-flung practices shape places mostly at arm’s length. They fly in to client communities or project sites, do good work, and fly back to their offices to prepare the working drawings. At arm’s length, they change many places for the better. But when such a landscape architect decides to sink down deep roots in one spot on the planet, how does he or she shape that special place?
I found one answer to that question in August, when I joined a few landscape architects and planners in the remote Okanogan Valley in north-central Washington. There, Grant Jones, FASLA, pictured above, has bought an abandoned farm up near the Canadian border where (though he still puts in 30 hours a week at Jones & Jones in Seattle) he has begun spending more and more time. From what I can tell, he’s already fallen in love with this rugged northern valley hemmed in by dry, wrinkled mountains. The first morning, we hiked up Watch-Over-Us Hill (Grant, a poet, likes to put names to places), where he and his wife, Chong, have interred her mother’s ashes. There he read to us from one of his recent poems:
Standing now for hours on Watch-Over-Us Hill/I’m a compass pulled by the stars/Slowly spinning round this gneissic intrusion/Of weakly foliated, green hornblende./The words rise in my head/ Just like you said:/The land you stand on/And your body are one.
How has Grant begun to reshape this old farm, which he’s dubbed Coyote Springs? First, he shored up the collapsed barn. Then he and Chong fixed up the roughshod original farmhouse to make it livable, but make no mistake—this is no cushy villa for a city slicker’s weekend jaunts. He started a small tree nursery with the aim of reforesting the sagebrush hills above the farm. In the lower field he has broken ground for a garden with a “cosmic” theme—lots of nebula-like spirals—that he’ll build with a couple of hired hands and a vintage tractor.
Grant is connecting with the human landscape of the valley as well, and I was struck by the depth of connections that a landscape architect—a relative newcomer—can make in a relatively short time. For three days we crisscrossed the valley and up the highlands on either side, where Grant introduced us to activists in land trusts, the conservation-minded owner of a 2,200-acre ranch, and a “green building” contractor and his wife, who sculpts with welded steel. We visited families trying to start bootstrap businesses—crafting wines from a small vineyard or cheeses from a small herd of sheep and goats. We heard a farm laborer recite his own poems and an organic gardener preach the virtues of permaculture.
Having woven together these connections, what does Grant actually propose to accomplish in the valley, beyond transforming his own farm? I’m not sure even he knows yet, but the Okanogan, like so many unglamorous, working American landscapes, certainly needs the pro bono contributions of a landscape architect who knows its problems intimately. It has not yet felt the hot breath of development that has transformed the nearby Methow Valley, where a town with an “Old West”-themed main street and mountaintop villas testifies to the power of tourism to commercialize Western valleys. Such a fate may await the Okanogan once it is “discovered”—hence the need for a committed landscape architect to forge a more populist future.
In other watersheds, working rural landscapes, and urban neighborhoods across America, other landscape architects must be sinking deep roots and working pro bono with their communities to reshape their adopted places. Who and where are they?
J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
Editor /

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