In the fall of 1993, I went to Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky on a college class trip. We barely knew each other: young design students immersing ourselves in the nuance of the landscape for a week or so. This was the first of what would be four years of design studios together; the first overnights of a fall tradition that continues to this day. Yes, we still reconvene, now with families in tow, every year in the fall, to reminisce about college and time since, to talk about our careers, some of which have remained firmly anchored in design, some of which have transformed over the years.
The trip included a single overnight expedition (that’s perhaps too grand a term for it) down into one of the deep river-cut valleys that lace that part of Kentucky. We set off in the morning mist on a flat trail, which soon began to descend beneath the plateau. It got cooler as we dropped into the valley and soon we could hear the limpid trickle of the fall-docile creek.
You know what this essay is about, since you’ve presumably read the title, and if you know anything about Wendell Berry, you know where this is going. These wooded cuts are his place.
Finally from the crease of the ravine I am following there begins to come the trickling and splashing of water. There is a great restfulness in the sounds these small streams make; they are going down as fast as they can, but their sounds seem leisurely and idle, as if produced like gemstones with the greatest patience and care.
That’s from “Entrance to the Woods,” a 1971 essay that chronicles a weekend hike. Berry published his first book of nonfiction two years earlier (The Long-Legged House) and has had perhaps the most prolific and consistent career of any of the writers profiled in this series. Some book of Wendell Berry nonfiction has come out almost every two years over the past 40. In recognition of that, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2011.
His topics: agriculture, war, coal mining, nuclear power. His stance (simplified here, of course): love the land, be of the land, love each other. Berry, to me, feels like a conglomeration of his peers. He has Carson’s mastery of fact and research, Krutch’s fascination with the evocative moments nature provides, Hoagland’s gentle and non-judgemental observations, and, yes, wrapped in the same bundle, Abbey’s radical streak. Just a year ago, in February, 2011, at age 76, Berry participated in a sit-in to protest mountaintop removal coal mining in his native Kentucky.
Native Kentucky. Native to Kentucky. Above all else, Berry writes of becoming native to a place, of knowing it well, so well that doing harm to that place would be like doing harm to a loved one.
A man might own a whole country and be a stranger in it. If I belonged in this place it was because I belonged to it. And I began to understand that so long as I did not know the place fully, or even adequately, I belonged to it only partially. That summer I began to see, however dimly, that one of my ambitions, perhaps my governing ambition, was to belong fully to this place, to belong as the thrushes and the herons and the muskrats belonged, to be altogether at home here….
The title essay in The Long-Legged House, from which that excerpt comes, is an introduction of Berry himself, in the context of a small cabin (“the camp”) close by a Kentucky river. He goes on:
But now I have come to see that [belonging] proposes an enormous labor. It is a spiritual ambition, like goodness. The wild creatures belong to the place by nature, but as a man I can belong to it only by understanding and by virtue.
When I walked down into that Kentucky ravine so many years ago with my friends, I was not of that place. I was from the Chicago suburbs—a vast non-place—and attending college in east central Indiana. My family were Scandinavians and Irish who settled in the farm country of northern and central Illinois. After graduating college, I worked in western Pennsylvania (coal country), returned to Chicago, then resettled in Minnesota, where I have now lived for more than a dozen years. I do not have the deep (“long-legged”) tenure on the land Berry has accomplished.
To write, as I do now, of being “of a place” is hardly new ground. Many authors and critics have considered the topic, and many have made it the central tenet of their writing (Scott Russell Sanders and Terry Tempest Williams jump to mind, but there are others). My modest addition to the dialog is this: in that Kentucky ravine, I was learning to learn about place—to examine landscape closely, to discern its ways, to capture its essence, in order that I might create new (or restore former) landscapes.
Landscape architecture is often misunderstood, so let me describe it simply. Architects design buildings; landscape architects design everything else: cities, parks, preserves, roads, trails, and (now that I think about it) buildings—where they sit on the land, how they interact with the land, how people move from outdoors to indoors and back again.
“The Long-Legged House” (one of my all-time favorite essays) describes a careful process of landscape architecture, affected by and affecting each of Berry’s life moments up to the writing of the piece. Family history is there, etched on the land, and childhood exploration, and adolescent escapes, and work and marriage and worldly travel and coming home again. To suggest this is a design process, executed over a hundred years (or thousands, since the river and ravine themselves have been transforming over geological time), isn’t a stretch for me, nor, apparently, for Berry. The early sections of the essay deal with a relative’s construction of “the camp”:
As soon as he marked out the dimensions of his house on the ground the place would have begun to look different to him, would have begun to have an intimacy for him that it could never have had before. Earlier, any place he stood was more or less equal to any other place he stood; he would move on to another place. But once those boundaries were marked on the ground, there would have begun to be a permanent allegiance. Here was the tree that would stand by the door. This limb would reach across the porch. Looking out here would give a fine view of the water. Here was where the steppingstones must come down the slope.
Let me fast forward from that ravine in Kentucky. I’ll skip the design studios, the detailed site analysis graphics, my undergraduate thesis, my work in Pennsylvania remediating the environmental damage of acid coal mine drainage, and my relocation to the foreign “place” of Minnesota. Let me fast forward to early 2005, when I was asked to do something horrible.
At the time, I was working for a landscape architecture firm that designed suburban housing subdivisions. It was in the years of the housing boom and we had more work than we could handle. Things were moving very fast and the subdivision layout work, normally the bailiwick of a pair of designers in the office, began to spill over into my department. One day my boss came to me, dropped a roll of drawings on my desk and told me about a new 200-or-so-acre development. I knew my task: draw the roads, lots, and parks so the land could be transformed into a “neighborhood.” He told me there was no budget for a site visit—that I would design this land without ever setting eyes or foot upon it.
I hadn’t read much Wendell Berry at the time, but had I, these words (also from “The Long-Legged House”) might come to mind:
…perhaps the most important lesson that nature had to teach me: that I could not learn about her in a hurry. The most important learning, that of experience, can be neither summoned nor sought out…. The thing is to be attentively present. To sit and wait is as important as to move. Patience is as valuable as industry. What is to be known is always there. When it reveals itself to you, or when you come upon it, it is by chance. The only condition is your being there and being watchful.
That sentiment lies very close to my heart, and I realize now it is what motivated me to, over the following six months, plot an escape from that firm. At the time, I was pissed off. Memories of learning the landscapes of Kentucky ravines and southwestern deserts and Midwestern ag-lands flooded in. No wonder, I thought, all the suburbs look the same: they are not drawn on the land, but in offices.
These days, now on my own, I spend time on every site, usually a 24-hour period. Yes, I have camped out on residential lots, mountain-biked across a thousand acres of future vacation property, and snowshoed with an ecologist over Mississippi River valley parkland. Not a bad job, you say? I agree, and why not? Landscape architecture, should, at the very least, be based on intimate knowledge of the land.
Berry would say, I suspect, that 24 hours, a few hikes, and an overnight stay does not constitute intimate knowledge. And I agree, but it’s usually the best I can do, for now. I have land, though. A city lot in Minneapolis where we have, over the years, transformed the hard-packed urban soil into a fruitful garden. Two acres of northwoods within a neighborhood I designed, which we have not touched, yet, but will, once we understand how to. Illinois farmland (and here I sneak into Berry’s agrarian passions), always conventionally cropped, but soon farmer-less, a cousin retiring. Over time, I am beginning to belong, guided always by Wendell Berry’s simple statement:
The world is full of places. Why is it that I am here?
— Adam Regn Arvidson
Adam Regn Arvidson is a landscape architect and writer in Minneapolis. He has published numerous articles on design, planning, and landscape in a variety of magazines, including Landscape Architecture, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Planning, and Metropolis. He is founder of Treeline, a design/writing consultancy that assists public and private clients in telling the story of their land through landscape architecture and writing deeply rooted in place. In 2009 Adam won the Bradford Williams Medal, the nation’s highest award for landscape architectural writing, and he has a book forthcoming on environmental practices in the nursery and landscaping industry (W.W. Norton, 2012). This fall, Adam will be inducted as a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. He is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. This essay is the last in a series of explorations of nature writing. The whole “book” can be viewed here: Nature Writing in American.