gravity and grass

As humanity enters a period of intimate engagement with death, and as landscape architects and planners reach for the mantle of green saviors, it is more important than ever that we remember the fundamental dialectic at the core of landscape architecture: between black and green, between death and growth.[1]

Adolf Loos wrote that the primordial act of architecture is the silent burial mound in the woods; but of course, this intervention is simply cut-and-fill—that is, it is strictly speaking an act of landscape architecture. It is likely that humans have been planting bodies for far longer than we have been planting seeds; even before Homo sapiens, older humans were caching their loved ones in the earth, first in caves, then in graves.[2] A 14,000-year-old Levantine graveyard saw humans buried with fresh flowers and fragrant herbs; the black-green dialectic has old roots.[3]

Killing remains at the heart of landscape architecture, though today we may be guilty of trying to hide it. Jacqueline Rose pointed out this ambiguity in analyzing the writing of Elena Ferrante: “It is, Ferrante explains, the deep-rooted mistake of every city to lay claim to be a city of love without labyrinths.” This is why Ferrante’s idol was Medea, the mother who murdered her own child. If we weren’t killers, then we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs; we’d just go hiking on the weekends like all the other nature-lovers. Instead, we destroy: we uproot, poison, girdle and burn, oil eggs and eradicate “invasives”; we stroll through nurseries picking winners and losers like Schutzhaftlagerführers or slave auctioneers. And we lament the bleeding-heart public who object to shooting deer and poisoning cats; our claim to expertise rests on this dialectical awareness that growing requires killing.

The landscape architect who most directly embraced this dialectic was Robert Smithson, who heaped scorn upon the “wishy-washy transcendentalism” that tempts us into admiring the meadow without appreciating the violence of the windstorm (or the steam shovel) that necessarily preceded it.[4] Of course, Smithson practiced what he preached by dying young in a fiery explosion. So too did Andrew Jackson Downing; and similarly Charles Eliot, though his inflammation worked from the inside out. How much consideration should we give to the violent early demises of these most revolutionary landscape theorists—especially at a moment when our discipline seems stagnant, firmly in the grasp of old ideas and even older designers? What is the ideal lifespan for a landscape architect?

Following the annihilation of Pompeii by an earthquake in 62 CE, Seneca asked: “What can ever seem safe enough, if the very earth is violently shaken and its most stable segments start sliding around? What refuge will our bodies escape to when anxious, if our fear springs from the inmost regions and is drawn up from the depths?”[5] The ground beneath humanity’s feet has never been less stable. After Nietzsche proclaimed God’s demise, he asked, desperately: “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?”[6] Scarcely a century later, we’ve surpassed that murder—for the idea of nature is far older than the idea of God. Consequently, our festivals of atonement must be all the more profound. As humanity prepares to mourn the paradisal Holocene, landscape architects—the original undertakers—must lead the burial procession.

 

 

[1] That bleakest mystic, Simone Weil, identified the embodiment of this dialectic in plants themselves, which are rooted in the mundane darkness of the Earth but feed on the celestial spirit of the Sun. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, New York: Putnam, 1952.

[2] Paul Pettitt, “When Burial Begins,” British Archaeology, 66 (August 2002).

[3] Dani Nadel et al., “Floral lining from burials at Raqefet Cave,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 110, no. 29 (July 2013), 11774–11778.

[4] Robert Smithson, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” Artforum, vol. 11, no. 6 (1973).

[5] Seneca, Naturales quaestiones, Book VI: On earthquakes, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1974.

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