samples and experiments

If the maintenance of a landscape condition is understood as the sum collaboration of its components (birds, bees, flowers, trees, 2, 4-D), then a maintenance design practice understands these landscaping agents as the palette of instruments.  We’re all quite familiar with conventional maintenance techniques (mowing, hedging, spraying, cleaning…) and technology–to the point that we overlook their transformative potential– but if we are to break away from purely formal explorations of these tools (i.e. drawing with lawn mowers) we have to employ a broader range of instruments, and that means knowing what we are specifically working with on site.

One studies the rock, carefully assessing its weak and solid points, the cost of selecting one path over another, the safety concerns of workers, the availability of drill bits needed for specific tunneling methods, and other such factors. The engineer is not a free-floating mastermind of stockpile and calculation, as Heidegger imagines. Instead, the engineer must negotiate with the mountain at each stage of the project, testing to see where the rock resists and where it yields, and is quite often surprised by the behavior of the rock.„,

Nothing is pure calculation, nothing follows directly from anything else, nothing is a transparent intermediary. Everything is a mediator, demanding its share of reality as we pass through it toward our goal. Every medium must be negotiated, just as air and water strike back at the vehicles that traverse them.  

— Graham Harman, “Prince of Networks: the Metaphysics of Latour,” 18

While the transects at middle field are cute and all, even striking at times, their origin was entirely as an orientation device for population sampling, and their maintenance is entirely dependent on that activity.  Their orientation reflects the mower’s response to slope and they will continue to evolve as these plots are sampled.  The purpose of the sample is of course to understand and document the baseline conditions of the site — principally the palette of plants over several environmental gradients — but also to document the landscape response to various maintenance techniques.  The maintenance series is experimental not in the typical designer jargon of “let’s see what crazy shit I can do” but in the scientific, Latourian sense, requiring direct observation (sampling, experiment) to determine what is really happening.  And in the course of this sampling, I was rewarded with a confirmation of my intuition and the collapse of several assumptions that were gleaned from my original general survey of the site.

the circle is the simplest form of sample plot and therefore allows for the least sampling error; it is combined with the transect to document gradients.

As described previously, the point of mowing the shaded zones of middle field is not simply a formal exercise (although its figure did appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities), but based on the knowledge that a core organizing factor for grasses is the presence of sunlight.  Shaded areas not only limit particular species in favor of others, but their overall vigor is reduced, reducing their height (especially following a cut), and allowing for forbs and woody species to more easily invade.  The condition I discovered during my first visit was not a gradual fade from forest to shrub to grassland as is often idealized in environmental gradient sections, but an inversion of this representation where the sunniest interior of the meadow was the highest, gradually reducing in height to a stark, bush-hogged edge.

My hypothesis is that by maintaining the shaded areas at a low grass/high mow height (3-6″), you could maintain the integrity and diversity of this zone, while allowing the sunny meadow to further diversify with the warm-season grasses and forbs that are currently marginalized through summer mowing.  This could have practical implications for shrinking municipalities facing an increased vacant mowing obligation, or the aging suburbanite tired of mowing the entire lawn but still longing for some refuge to prospect from.  It explores emergent form by continually responding to an increase in canopy, and experiments with a hybrid, flowering/bushy/grassy/viney/hedge/lawn which reflects the biodiversity of this edge condition.

my college statistics finally coming in handy

The samples revealed the richness and complexity of this meadow under invasion from the forest reservoir and the striking correlation between sun, meadow height and population composition.  Also discussed previously, this is a landscape of weeds of primarily Euro/Asian origins, the most helpful resource being the Virginia Tech Weed Identification Guide.  There is a cultural and ecological history to each species, many attracting us through their aesthetic qualities.

Weed ecology is perhaps the clearest example that pre-modern aversions to wilderness never left, just changed rooms. It’s a strange and sloppy theory that weeds are somehow anti-environmental, that somehow evolutionary and ecological theory is suspended for these species that refuse to play fairly, taking on a life of their own after hitching a ride on the human vector.

Working with the genetic diversity of weed landscapes allows for far more ecological potential than the traditional restoration model in that it is the opposite of horticulture — the systematic narrowing of genetic traits for ornament, economical production, and installation tolerance. These pioneers are born out of the site, promiscuously reproducing and expanding their adaptability to the local, why shouldn’t these novel ecologies be eligible for inclusion in our plant palette as global climate change undermines all plant communities of the past?

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3 thoughts on “samples and experiments

  1. The diagrammatic drawings (the lawn-mower tool-path, this latest set in the above post) are really beautiful and helpful. Will your field hypothesis be tested in the spring?

    Your use of Harman here seems very fitting and reminds me of another western Virginia design project- the Heartland Corridor Project to raise all of the Norfolk Southern tunnels going through the Alleghany and Blue Ridge Mountains between the Huntington Tri-State Port and Norfolk.

    The conclusions about a weed-ecology, and future design implications, seem promising and make me wonder if some of these same conceptual tools might be applied to shaping the soil? Right now the drawings indicate a concern with surface and atmospheric conditions, but I wonder if you might be able to apply certain landscape fabrics (geotextiles, silt fences) in certain ways to limit or encourage erosion in specific spots over time, and if that might also then begin to inform the types of drawings being done? If you could come up with some really interesting uses of geotextiles, I bet Tencate would be interested in funding that work. Have you seen this little project by Karen McCloskey and Keith Van der Sys, or this one?

    • I’m hoping that by this spring I’ll be able to recognize a difference, especially by May when warm-season species begin to dominate, but the challenge in this type of project is that several years would really be needed to record changes in field population. Not too long in the terms of landscape or even research scales, but quite a while for the lowly student timeline. Hopefully there builds a momentum behind the project–and a level of economy in operations–so that it may continue.

      I love the Harman quote because it explicitly calls out the naivety of the large, general diagrams that landscape pedagogy celebrates: massive, speculative interventions that do not explore the diversity of landscape materials beyond icon OR the design opportunities in negotiating each place. While I was working on my proposal for Old River Control in S. Louisiana (to be posted on this site soon), I reached a humbling moment when developing my timeline of river management regimes where it became clear that these infrastructure projects are often the culmination of a previous generations dreams and particular individual’s life work. Hard to imagine the attention span or conviction required to complete these proposals long after their concept has become passé.

      While most of this project has revolved around the botanical implications of maintenance (with the associated influence of soil to come…) I absolutely am interested in exploring erosion control in the future. Project like this by the CCC, highlight how conserving (read, maintaining) soil resources has resulted in substantial modifications and additions to the landscape that can’t be confused with preservation–it’s an entirely new creature. It also highlights the tension that always lies within maintenance: it’s always about overcoming other forces, which is why I think it often gets associated with a fight against “nature,” or in conservation, a fight against “development.”

      I really appreciate the work by PEG, although I find myself more interested in felexible modularity and less on a continually evolving module that must be assembled in a certain order. Some of the things that Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec are able to do using a single form I find particularly compelling, especially considering the inevitable change in ground. Just might have to call up old Tencate and see if we can collaborate…

  2. Pingback: a note on clement | lndscpr

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