In Washington State, it has been over 200 years since indigenous peoples described where they lived as “the place where camas blooms” or “the place where wild onions nod.” In other parts of the country, it has been even longer.
Where Native Americans lived-and the plants and animals that lived there-determined if they lived. Survival required intimate contact with the natural world. Without guidebooks, maps or Internet access, they knew weather patterns, ocean tides, hydrology, topography, and the life cycles and habits of plant and animals in the places they lived. They had a very strong “sense of place.”
Now, most Americans are able to get through a day with little outside world contact. We may not prefer it that way, but it’s common for us to spend the greater part of our days in a built environment. Typically, our “sense of place” comes from the locations of our houses, offices, schools, gyms, restaurants, stores, libraries, or other buildings.
Can we even tell if we’re near the ocean, in a desert, on a plateau, or by a grassland prairie by looking out the window? Not always. In America, the natural landscape, with its millions of plants, animals, birds and insects, is disappearing at an alarming rate-220 acres per hour!-due to urban and suburban sprawl. And what isn’t street, parking lot, or edifice is apt to be an ornamental landscape meant to please the human eye rather than sustain biodiversity.
Ecologically, the plants in these landscapes are not the ones that thrived there before the land was changed by human activity. While North America is home to about 20,000 native plant species, most landscapes since the 1950s have been designed and planted with cultivars of a couple hundred plants and trees that lend themselves to mass production, marketing, and sale. So, a person traveling from Boston to Seattle or Atlanta to Los Angeles sees not only the same chain stores, restaurants, and housing developments, but also the same northern-or southern-palette of plant materials across the nation.
This “geography of nowhere” was identified by James Kunstler in his 1993 book of the same title. In essence, in today’s built environment, we can’t tell where we are when we look around.
We are losing our sense of place. We may not like it, but we accept it as the inevitable cost of progress.
The acceptance of the geography of nowhere is puzzling when one considers that so many of us, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, claim to be “outdoorsy” and go to great lengths to connect with nature. We hike, we camp, we go to the lake. We breathe, we relax, and we reconnect with ourselves. And then we drive home to jobs, school, housework, and other aspects of our busy lives. We have become a culture that “visits” nature and “lives” more and more in a built environment.
Many people have become dismayed or depressed by what is happening to our natural world. Others have become gardeners. Gardening, which includes landscaping, ranks as America’s number one leisure activity. Research indicates why. Studies have linked people’s proximity to nature-primarily plants-with stress relief, shortened hospital stays, increased mental acuity, lowered blood pressure, reduced domestic violence, and a host of other good things. We may not be highly conscious of it, but we feel and act better when we’re around plants.
Evidently, gardeners know the benefits of being among plants. It’s hard to find one who doesn’t spend much of his or her time tending to plant and soil needs, watching for the first new growth, waiting for bloom time, and so on. Gardeners must be in tune with the natural world, for it’s the sun or shade, the wet or dry, the hot or cold, that determines how their gardens grow. Gardeners have their sense of place in this world.
“Naturalized landscaping” is the fastest growing style of gardening. Naturalized landscaping can be loosely defined as landscaping with plants adapted to the places where we live. Naturalized landscapes use plant types and groupings that welcome the diversity of birds, animals, insects, and soil microbes that make for a healthy ecosystem. Natural landscapes welcome people to walk through them, sit in them, and do less maintenance in them. Think pine needle paths instead of edged walkways; natural plant shapes instead of sculptured hedges; drought-tolerant groundcovers instead of thirsty lawns.
Perhaps more important, landscapes that reflect the local natural surroundings give us that sense of where we really live.
Tonie Fitzgerald is a WSU/Spokane County extension agent in horticulture and author of Gardening in the Inland Northwest (Washington State University 2001).