I went to a lecture at our school this evening, by a Swiss scholar and landscape architect named Michael Jakob. Very nicely done, talking about the history of how we understand the natural landscape and how that plays into contemporary ideas and practices in landscape architecture. (800 years ago, people HATED nature. Nature had been spoiled twice before, once with the expulsion from Eden and again with the Flood, and wild land was seen as demonic and filled with crazy dragons and serpents. It wasn't until about 300 years ago that Europeans started to think of nature as beautiful, awe-inspiring places to seek out. In America, nature has always been seen as a nuisance, the thing that blocks our progress toward the next goal. Still is, too. Drill, baby, drill...)
Anyway, Jakob finished his talk by discussing some of the work that European designers are doing in China, and how a lot of it isn't very good because it isn't slow enough to be able to really understand the physical and cultural landscape. People are putting up massive buildings, and complexes of buildings, at lightning speed to be able to satisfy investment demands.
And that got me thinking. Nora and I have been talking about this way of understanding the local, and we're both deeply invested in Middletown Springs and its long-term health. But of course, she's from New York City, and I'm from Michigan-Texas-California-Wisconsin-California-North Carolina-Massachusetts. We don't have multiple generations in the same cemetery, as they say. So although we love the place, we're also changing it in some small ways. In a small community, every person there has some influence on the culture.
That's true of all ecosystems. There's the plants and animals and geology that "belong there," but of course that's changed gradually over time. Animals migrate a little differently every year, and they carry seeds and pollen with them, and all of that small, nearly random change very slowly shifts the "natural ecosystem" of the place. What's more jarring is when something from outside arrives all at once and in massive numbers. We call that an invasive species. Kudzu takes over the Southern forests; zebra mussels and alewives change the game fish populations of the Great Lakes; the elm bark beetle spread a fungus that claimed over 100,000,000 elm trees in the US and Canada in just forty years.
International design firms are an invasive species, in their own way, bringing Boston or Houston or Berlin to places where those ideas and forms have never been. The rest of the world has relatively unpleasant names for the way that we unwittingly influence local cultures: Coca-colonialization, for instance, or the McWorld. But ideas and money and people move unfettered now, able to relocate as freely as dandelion seeds, and the McWorld grows unabated. McDonalds operates in 119 countries, Starbucks in 61, and amazon.com operates everywhere and nowhere, existing only in electrons and cardboard UPS boxes.
As with the movement of plants and animals, it's not change that's harmful, but sudden and massive change. Back in the 1970s, the citizens of Oregon were concerned that growth could make Portland and Eugene into northern equivalents of Los Angeles and San Jose; the unofficial motto of the state as paraphrased from Governor Tom McCall was "Welcome to Oregon, now go home." I think we might say the same about massive architecture firms, or fast-food restaurants, or a flood of retirees colonizing a picturesque small town.
A friend of mine is losing her store. Audrey's Pet Supplies was Brittany's dream for years, a wonderful small retail store half a block from my office that sells high-quality pet supplies and also provides pet-sitting and dog-walking services. (Audrey, rest in peace, was once Brittany's bulldog.) She's committed to community-based commerce, to tending to the welfare of her neighborhood. And she's being forced out of her store by her landlord, who received an offer of almost 2.5 times the current rent by some California chain of frozen yogurt stores. Another invasive species, another local ecosystem disrupted, another fragile plant lost.
How do we tend to our own gardens? How do we understand the power we have over our places, and the power we inadvertently exercise when we stumble around in places we're new to? Nora and I are doing our best to bring out the best of Middletown Springs... but we're defining "best," aren't we, and in ways unlike the definition of some long-time residents. We try to be respectful, try not to disrupt, try to support existing habits and lifeways. But we have our own values and aspirations, and those are not a perfect fit with everyone else in town.
Nothing is stable or permanent. We cannot take an ideal time (which probably never existed) and capture it in a Thomas Kinkade painting over the fireplace. We can only be thoughtful about our influence and attentive to the well-being of the people around us. And that requires us to slow down.
Please visit the 3/50 Project, and think about how your spending changes the world in small ways. And thanks, Brittany, for being my bravery coach. You've done good, and will continue to do so.