23 November 2009

Sewing the Landscape

Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) at a hydrant on Kings Plaza Station, New York

Christina Maile

Nature is the secret order of things, which requires only the essence of our pure and rational thought to make itself truly understood. We believe our survival depends on the success of this search for order. However, every supposed revelation of pattern has become for us, in turn, a compelling pattern for remaking the world around us. In the end we have been conditioned by the conditions we have created.

Our cities and buildings have come to reflect a perception of nature, as it should be — symmetrical, inflexible, ordered, and predictable. To be uncivilized is to live illegibly in the cluttered wilderness of nature, dressed in the skins of animals, the ragged remnants of manmade cloth hanging like the tattered ends of rationality. Against this, the vast cities we have created cover the earth like a fabric, an unwavering, unending fabrication. It is an intelligence of hard, opaque disjunctive pieces in tight, complex displays of designs and motifs, encased in grids. The metaphor is obvious. The manmade environment is a Cartesian quilt of surfaces.

Upon it, the scissored, precise, regulated landscape (no longer nature) is serrated to the geometries of architecture and artifact. Trees are the green’pieces’ of landscape sewn between the grey and blue ’pieces’ of concrete and asphalt. Any foundation planting, including the largest - city parks - are sentimental appliques of pastoral art, neatly stitched into the grid of the city. Like the scenic curtains from which our current view of landscape is taken, the grass is never long, the trees never too large, and the shrubs always clean, tight and numerical. Maintenance-free and as real as the flowers of the city which are never picked, but purchased — the urban landscape is scentless, nameless and ultimately rootless.

There is no here, no site specificity in the landscape of the city. We stand in the snow and stare through the glass at the pieces of gigantic palm trees sewn (at great environmental cost) into a mid Atlantic skyline and never say,’Isn’t that sad.’ We hurry by oaks buttonholed into tiny concrete boxes and never cry bitter tears. There are no roots in the urban landscape because there is no origination. Like fabric, the landscape exists on the surface, gridded, denatured, sterile. Seeding, fruiting, growth and decay all denied, the urban landscape takes on the properties of a commemorative urn, a sputtering eternal flame kind of presence, fed by petroleum, more’4ever green’ than green, more funereal than real. In the city, landscape is the death of nature, and the death of our perception of it. Save for one spark of beauty.

For like a quilt, the surfaces of the city, its structural pieces, are not seamless. They must all meet in adjacencies. No material melts into another continuously. Old concrete against new, asphalt against steel curb against stone, there remains a void, a space, a joint, an interstice between the two materials. These joints, as do the materials they buffer, eventually open as the result of successive waves of weathering. Form follows tempo. Asphalt unravels, concrete frays, metal shrinks, and glass tumbles. Edges are created. And into these small openings, the hereness of the city, the wild and crazy roots and shoots of nature break forth, ripping open ever-larger seams. The bed has assaulted the quilt. (Innuendo intended).

Sex, sex, sex, rampant seeding, fruiting, pushing, shoving, thrashing, tumbling, clasping, unclasping, bursting forth. The edges of the city that are everywhere are alive with a voracious beauty, possessed only by the wind, the sun, and the rain. Enemies of good design and moral order, they are not the right plant in the right place. Instead they boldly and promiscuously push themselves outside of, inside of, on top of, and all around the gates of paradise (the walled Garden of Eden). They are called many names - mulleins, lambsquarters, eleusine indica, mugwort, goosefoot, and soldago, to name a few. But the name everyone knows them by is …weeds.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a weed as an economically useless plant of wild, obnoxious growth and unsightly appearance whose presence either excludes the growth of more valuable plants or contributes to the disfigurement of the place. That is the landscape definition of a weed. But not mine. Rather these incredible beings, these shimmering threads of stubborn desire are the city’s true connections to the fertile, chaotic bed of organic creativity lying just beneath us. The fabrication of the mind, this urban fabric is, in fact, rent by a deeper fabrication. An earthy, prowling subconscious whose initial manifestation — a bumpy rosette of tough knotted stems — represents the continuing presence of nature’s irrational behavior. And our failure to destroy it. To weed: to free from something noxious, offensive or superfluous. It is not surprising, then, that weeds are described as growing in disturbed areas. For we are greatly disturbed. They dare invade our gridded neighborhoods, unthread the brocade of our tidy streets and gardens. Hanging around at all hours of the night they just , it seems, appear overnight. And now in broad daylight, there they go, strutting their berries, wiggling their tiny flowers, their erect panicles indiscriminately casting seeds to the winds. They colonize every raveled edge, every joint, rooting themselves in, uprooting our stuff out. It’s criminal. Call the cops. Weeds should be charged with disturbance of the ’piece’.

To ‘wear weeds’ at one time referred to a fabric especially woven (wede - to weave) and worn to indicate an occupation, a situation or a position. Now it defines only mourning. And while that meaning may resonate visually in the somber straight lines of the urban landscape, the key word is weaving. For what we see in the homonymous weeds is a testimony to their occupation as healers, as weavers of green and fulsome blankets which spread stitch by stitch, warp by woof to cover the beaten and broken remains of the natural world. They mend, no, they amend all that is missing in our geometries — spontaneity, authenticity, growth. Whether we come up on them as small gestures of grassy stems with fuzzy ends, or bold sweeps of branches coruscating against stony skies, what we truly come upon, long hidden and obscured by culture, is the genius of the place. The absolute hereness of weeds. Not the here denoted, or the here designed. Not the here of utility, or of property. But that inexhaustible, nimble hereness which arises from a particular, fortuitous swirl of sun, rain, wind and edge. The hereness that creates place. It is the here whose center is not I-standing-here. It is the here where our carefully-hemmed natural order is undone, where unloosened the knots which keep us bound to the things we have created disappear. And it for this reason we fear this or that place where weeds grow, and grind back into dust or concrete their unbidden, heedless therapy. The oak in its box, the palm tree in its glass. That’s how nature should be, forever indebted, grateful to us for life, no matter how mean, brutal, shallow, sterile and short.

Yet here where weeds grow, what nascent beauty is endlessly being embroidered beneath the curling edges of asphalt at our feet; what forests contained beneath the mantle of these small tough leaves; what sudden valley, what shadowed stream? Weeds are the memories of earth. It is their presences, furtive, unwanted and denigrated which connect us, tie us to the natural world, and undo in endless filagree the hard edges of chaos we have created. The cracks of the city are the furrows for their lessons; weeds, persistently ‘weaving the weeds’ of exquisite permutation, of place, of immortality.

We are proletarians subjugated to the opiate of rational order, delirious with geometry, forever coming apart at the seams. Weeds are the warnings against the catastrophe of perception which continues to generate the monoculture known as the man-made environment. If we continue to see them as destroyers of our order, if we fail to recognize in them the fate of our own shining beauty, the darkness will continue to descend over our wounded eyes.

Maile, Christina. 'Sewing the Landscape' On Site review, no. 8 Fall 2002
©Christina Maile and On Site review

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