Monday, March 23, 2009

Public Plantings: my village, part one

VP, of the lively blog of the same name (sort of), Veg Plotting, came up with a wonderful meme showcasing public plantings and invited us all to join in. (Check it out on the sidebar link called "Out on the Streets.") As soon as it was announced, I knew exactly the space I wanted to talk about: the campus where I work.

Because many of the faculty and staff live near the campus, we see each other for many hours of the week at work and then again in the neighborhood on our time away from work. At times, in fact, the spatial boundaries between workplace and home become blurred, and it all starts to seem like a small village. As a result I take more than a passing interest in how my "village" looks and, like any proud resident, want it to present the best possible face to the world.

And for the most part, it does. For one thing, the campus is spread out and sprawling, a space where you can swing your arms with abandon. We have the second largest land mass of any University in the United States, and so there is plenty of room for open, grassy spaces for playing a game of softball with friends, wide boulevards for walking, and cozy courtyards for sitting with friends or even (gasp!) studying. All this openness encourages our broad, normally sunny sky to reach right down and touch the ground around us, unhampered by tall buildings, or thick trees, or overly-shady mountains.

This last part, the lack of trees or mountains, is characteristic of the plains where we live and it is a hard thing for many newcomers to get used to. I know this for a fact, because many of them tell me so. This discomfort has been around for a long time, apparently, because many of the neighboring small towns bear names that reflect a poignant mix of humor and despair about this landscape: Plainview; No Trees; Levelland; Shallowater.

Maybe because of this, my campus seemed to have a bit of a problem with low self-esteem for awhile, at least where the landscaping was concerned. Instead of trying to look like ourselves--that is, a place on the prairie--we tried to look like another place, a sort of hybrid HarvardYaleOxfordTypicalNewEnglandCollegeCampus place. A place with lots and lots of trees and brightly colored flowers. A place that only existed in the imaginations of people trying to pretend like they were were living someplace else. The results have been less than satisfactory. Here is an example:

What is this strange melange in front of the Administration Building? What is the fevered reasoning behind mixing pampas grass, yellow pansies, red tulips, and purple ornamental kale? There is no organized aesthetic or cultural design here that I can discern. The colors don't even complement each other.

Here is another example of imagination, fueled by low self-esteem, gone awry:

Now, I have nothing against trees or hills. In fact, I think they are quite lovely, and this little spot on campus, unlike the previous photo, feels composed and calming to look at. I even go there to sit and draw trees sometimes. I run up the hill to strengthen my legs when I am in training. Whenever we get our annual Day of Snow, I drag out my cross country skis, waddle over to it and practice not falling down. I like it.

And I don't.

It represents, again, an attempt to be something this place is not. The trees are not native to here (few trees are, in fact), there are no flowing prairie grasses to remind us of the plains, and even the hill itself was trucked in at great cost and built up from the flatness (I kid you not--it is the highest topographic point in LBB).

This spot concerns me more than the bed in front of the admin building, though, since it doesn't just hide the natural landscape, it lies about it. Students have even told me that it is their favorite place on campus because it reminds them of west Texas. When they say this, I have to wonder, "Have you driven around the countryside? Were your eyes closed while you did so?"

I am tired of the fact that we hang our collective heads in shame about living on the prairie. Enough. Let's make a campus space that celebrates our unique landscape. Doing so not only makes sense in terms of sustainability (keeping a facisimile of HarvardOxfordYale etc. alive here takes a lot more water than we naturally have available), it acknowledges environmental and cultural diversity's place in the world.

Tomorrow I will show you some encouraging signs that this is happening.


  1. I used to think I wanted to live out east with the hills and forests. I do miss Minnesota, the water especially, but the Plains have so much diversity--subtle, elegant diversity. And they are a metaphor for who we were, are, and will be as a nation and species (physically, psycologically, spiritually). I like to see things coming so I can prepare, and I like the distance between me and everyone else. That's Kathleen Norris talking perhaps?

  2. Wow Susan, this has been worth waiting for and I can't wait for part 2! :)

    Also I'm most intrigued by your comment today - I hope tomorrow contains the reveal?

    So glad you understand what a verge aka shoulder is now ;)

  3. Cool idea. I will have to start looking around. Where i am at now they use lots of nice street plantings. Magnolias are lining the medians just down the road. Plus they use lots of wild flowers along the highways.

  4. Funny, there is no local place that springs to mind to write a similar post about. I'm going to have to be more observant, I'm sure they are there. Thanks for a very thought provoking post.

  5. Well, you would probably guess this one would be a big hit with me! :) I almost fell out of my chair laughing when I saw that first photo! Oh, the poor deluded gardeners. I mean, I am no master of garden design by any means, but geez. It's almost comical in its badness. I think gardeners are often guilty of trying to remake their landscapes in some form or with contents that are not appropriate for the site or climate. I guess the U is just guilty on a larger, more institutional scale. Perhaps you could lobby them and offer suggestions for some phased-in improvements that would be more naturalistic and appropriate? I hope they'd listen, if so!

  6. Yes, I laughed out loud at your first photo. This is a subject that's near and dear to me. I so want a sense of place, wherever I am. (Although I hope you'll excuse me for loving my succulents in a land where bayous are common; I have too much Texas in me still.) I remember the first blog from you that I read had a picture of grasses and a barbed-wire fence. I thought it was beautiful. I do hope your "village" can build its self-esteem (I understand what you are saying wrt that since I see it a lot here as well).

  7. Kudos to you. Prairies can be astonishingly beautiful and dry climate gardening can be extraordinary. Take a took at Scott and Lauren Springer Ogden's Plant-Driven Design. Send a copy to your college administration. Start a movement.

    I live in the wet, now muddy, east and am yearning to have a steppe planting, but recognize it's not appropriate to this place.

  8. Benjamin--I grew up in openness, so I've always had that feeling of "wanting to see what's coming so I can prepare." ;-)

    VP--thanks for starting the meme. It's a good one!

    fg1--yes, do take a look around and join the meme challenge.

    Michelle--glad you liked it!

    Karen and Jena--glad I could bring some laughter to your day. ;-)

    James--we're working on them. The landscape architect and I are presenting at a conference here on campus sustainability in a few weeks...

  9. Susan, that first picture pains my eyes. Sadly we have too many such plantings in and around the greater Houston aream including Katy. I'm eager to see and hear about the promising changes you've spotted.

  10. This is an interesting topic, especially for your part of the country, Susan. I look forward to reading more.

  11. Wahoo! It is about time somebody just said it outloud! We should be proud of our prarie landscape, embrace the openess and thumb our noses at pansies and tulips. Let our places be something that belongs, let them reflect what the prarie is - who we are.


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