Between the Natural and Built Environment

dead end

I grew up in a house not far from the elementary school that I attended, in a proper suburban neighborhood, on a wide street lined with single-family homes, each with a two-car garage and an ample green lawn. I would often walk to and from school with other children who lived nearby. Between the school and the neighborhood where we lived, there was a plot of land that had not yet been developed, a field of tall grass with a few trees and rocks scattered around. Through the middle of the field, there was a worn path which led up a hill, and down the other side. You could not see over the top of the hill; from the neighborhood, you could not see the school, and from the school, you could not see the neighborhood; only from the top of the hill could you see both. The field was an autonomous zone dividing two territories controlled by separate authoritative regimes, our parents and our teachers. On top of the hill, in that small patch of unclaimed land, we were temporarily free and in control, away from the world that had been created for us by adults.

The field was my first experience of what could modestly be considered the unspoiled wilderness, a place where I was not only free from the rule of authority, but also free from the structure of the built environment, the planned environment. Even parks are structured, deliberately planned and maintained; the field was a place that pertained to no one.

I began to ride my bicycle down less familiar streets, sometimes leading to a busy road, sometimes to a cul de sac, sometimes to a dead end. But, it was the dead ends that I was looking for. A dead end is not only an end; it is the end of the road, the end of the asphalt, but also the beginning of uncharted territory, the beginning of dirt.

I discovered a vast space between two dead ends. One was at the top of a hill, adjacent to a nearby quarry. Beyond the guardrail at the end of the road, there was a steep incline with a dirt path that zigzagged down between tall grass and thistles. The path connected with another dead end at the bottom. Near this dead end was a long ditch between two storm drain pipes with trees on either side. When it rained, the ditch would fill with water to form a stream. Beyond the far end of the ditch, there was a patch of trees and shrubs. This was the excavation site where I unearthed numerous bottles and cans. I liked to pretend I was an archaeologist recovering artifacts from a lost civilization, when really I knew it was just a spot where someone had dumped trash a few decades ago.

I have always been interested in intermediate spaces, whether between two dead ends, or between home and school, that feeling of being neither in one place nor the other. My grandparents lived in a house with a small wooded area in the backyard. On the other side of the wooded area was farmland. I saw the woods as a sort of enchanted forest, a magic threshold that transported me between two contrasting landscapes, a residential neighborhood and a farm. My other grandparents actually lived on farmland in rural Missouri. I remember running through their field as far back as I could, climbing every bale of hay that I crossed, the air thick with pollen and manure, the electric buzz of cicadas. I eventually reached the end of their lot, a forested area that was so dense, I was reluctant to explore. It is interesting how for a child growing up in the suburbs, even farmland can feel like something of a frontier, until he reaches the forest, and sees the border between a space that is regulated by humans, and a space that is not.

My parents have friends who own property around a lake in Northern Wisconsin. All the land around the lake is owned by one family, with only a few cabins clustered on one shore. I have visited the lake with my family nearly every summer since I was born. I continue to enjoy time spent on the lake with my family as an adult, but the moment I enjoy most is right before we arrive, when the pavement turns to gravel, and I know we are close. There is a sort of tension and release to driving down a rumbly gravel road in an air-conditioned car, and then stepping out of the car to only the sound of breeze in the trees and the distinct smell of the lake, a mineral freshness with a hint of decay. There is decay taking place all around the lake; leaves decay on the forest floor as insects tunnel through rotting logs; the lake is tea-colored, rich in tannins from rotten wood and vegetation.

As a child I was not always fond of the decay; I wanted a crystal blue lake with sand on the bottom, not slimy rocks and rotten twigs. I have now come to terms with the decay, knowing that it provides nutrients, creates habitats, and promotes growth. Still, for many people, this is a part of nature that they would rather conceal. Our level of comfort in a given environment is often contingent upon how in control we believe we are. Unfortunately, this often puts the natural environment and the built environment at odds with each other, with the natural environment being the one that must be controlled. I appreciated the tall grass on the hill where I grew up, the tall grass that had been eliminated everywhere else, to be replaced by sod, forming a crisp line where it met the sidewalk, and appearing again in an arbitrary strip between the sidewalk and the street.

Contrasted with the grace of nature, the built environment can often feel imposing, and even oppressive at times. Going forward, to avoid such severe juxtapositions, we must approach the built environment not as a force to conquer the natural environment, but as an integrated part of the natural environment. We must design and build with concern not only for humans, but for all living things in our ecosystems, assigning as much importance to the landscape as we do to the structures we build upon it.

Intermediate Spaces | 2015 | Editorial