Land Matters: Should Arid Regions Be Landscaped?

Kim Sorvig, this month’s Landscape Architecture magazine guest columnist, contemplates land versus landscape.

If you need convincing that land does fundamentally matter, visit Earth’s arid regions. Better yet, live there awhile. You will be reminded how dependent human survival is upon the services land offers—or, in the desert, withholds. Perhaps more important is the reminder that our construction, our cultures, and our theories all rely deeply on the more-than-human world.

Modern humans readily believe that only human culture matters, but philosopher Hannah Arendt once observed that “the reality and reliability of the human world rests primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which [our works] were produced.” Most permanent, surrounding, and essential to human reality is the land itself.

The American West is an ideal (but far from simple) place to contemplate land’s importance and relationship to humans. Land in the West is primal and mythic. Western land is scary enough that Western culture has both revered human ruggedness and insisted on re-creating Elsewhere to make these stark lands palatable.

These matters are not just history: Tension between land as land and landscape as human creation recurs constantly in landscape architectural thinking. Our hopes (and pretensions) of sustainability have amplified questions long part of Western debate: Who (and what species) belongs or is native? How much reshaping of the land is legitimate?

Both thoughtful and glib answers abound. In the world’s harsher landscapes, though, dogmatism about man and nature soon grows dusty, sun bleached, and weatherworn.

Rachel Hill’s discussion of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve outside Phoenix (see “Gateways to the Desert,” page 100) observes people moving to the desert to “get away,” but bringing development with them. These “amenity migrants” (for a growing literature, Google the phrase) are sometimes in conflict with those who consider themselves Western “natives.” Nonetheless, they can create strong economies based on the value of place (rather than extractive resources)—aided by landscape architects, among others. Yet even “sustainable sites” or “green buildings” in quantity add up to land depletion and disruption. Our works are bounded by the land’s carrying capacity. And that’s a concept, starkly visible in arid areas, that even sustainable developers fear to confront.

Should we then leave arid lands alone? Hill’s praise for the Preserve appearing “as if nothing were ever altered” contrasts with Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s reprinted column (see “Don’t Sweat the Invasion,” page 132), which questions conservation of native vegetation. Tuhus-Dubrow usually reports on social issues and squeezes the invasive species issue into sociological terms. The widely respected Precautionary Principle (err on the side of caution where ecological impact is unknown) becomes “guilty until proven innocent” and a prejudicial “white list” of allowable species. In this view, humans have an absolute right to reshape all lands, and respect for existing landscapes is merely romanticism.

Muddling social and ecological dynamics won’t help solve the tamarisk (salt cedar) dilemma raised by Tuhus-Dubrow. This horticultural import threatens to homogenize desert riverbanks, not because it is inherently evil or the victim of prejudice against “aliens,” but because these rivers, dammed for irrigation and hydropower, no longer flood and thus cannot support cottonwood forests. The real culprit is land economics. By exporting water, humans changed the land. Tamarisk survives: a botanical Rugged Individual, a cowboy displacing the natives. Bad guy or good guy? Ecology might have a chance of answering; sociological metaphor just obscures things here.

Chief Seattle reminded our colonizing forefathers that we belong to the earth, not the other way around. As place shapers we are still debating what this means in practice. Especially in arid places, we cannot afford to forget that the living land, itself, matters.

Kim Sorvig
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Contributor, Building to Endure: Design Lessons of Arid Lands

One thought on “Land Matters: Should Arid Regions Be Landscaped?

  1. June Scott 02/25/2010 / 10:41 pm

    A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece–thank you.

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