Great Deeds

In the course of a hec­tic March, I put two things out into the world: the long-await­ed Source Report on the Kounkuey Design Ini­tia­tive and a review in Land­scape Archi­tec­ture Mag­a­zine of the new book Land­scape Fas­ci­na­tions and Provo­ca­tions: Read­ing Robert B. Riley. Both are defined by the cir­cuit around two poles, one that I am hap­py to think about and the sec­ond that I would rather leave out alto­geth­er. That first is the idea of pub­lic sto­ry­telling, which is a cheery and demo­c­ra­t­ic idea – that every­one has a tale to be told, and that such sto­ries are an impor­tant part of our com­mon cul­ture, and that such sto­ries are both illu­mi­nat­ing and valu­able in of them­selves. This is a pop­u­lar idea when it is car­ried through, from Studs Terkel to Ask Red­dit, and it is always inter­est­ing to me that it is so sel­dom met with. It seems gen­er­al­ly eas­i­er to start by choos­ing cer­tain peo­ple whose sto­ries can already be assumed to be of value.

This brings us to the sec­ond pole, which is that that sto­ries are most valu­able when they are about heroes, about spe­cial peo­ple dis­tin­guished from the rest of us by their deeds. The exam­ple of these heroes is a meant to lead us to be more than we are, to pull in front of the mass, to do the work of pulling the mass for­ward. I am think­ing of how, at my alma mater, Joseph Campbell’s office was in a lit­tle cot­tage in the mid­dle of the quad; how he was the most set apart, the most use­ful to the cul­ture he served, the most loathed by the rest of the fac­ul­ty; the only one of them liable to be remem­bered in fifty years. To hear his col­leagues tell it, Camp­bell sac­ri­ficed the present good of his own com­mu­ni­ty to do great deeds, to tell the gospel of great deeds.

The inter­est in look­ing at the archives of those who out­lived their own careers is par­tial­ly fla­vored by schaden­freude, but also the sim­ple inter­est in see­ing what hap­pens when hero­ism departs, and a dif­fer­ent sto­ry is left behind. In Land­scape Fas­ci­na­tions and Provo­ca­tions, M. Elen Dem­ing tells us that in the last ten years of his life, Robert Riley, through most of his career a lead­ing light in the lit­tle world of land­scape schol­ar­ship, was plagued by health issues, lone­li­ness, regret, and name­less oth­er chal­lenges” (p. 41). In this con­text, she says, the act of com­pil­ing his own best work into The Camaro in the Pasture was its own act of faith in what he had to offer; hero­ism, maybe but in a very dif­fer­ent key.

The Source Report, tak­en from a series of long inter­views, is one kind of attempt to rec­on­cile the two impuls­es; to spend time on the sto­ry of peo­ple who act in hero­ic ways as part of a mis­sion to rec­og­nize the com­mon. The sto­ries with­in the Source Report are of peo­ple prac­tic­ing land­scape archi­tec­ture, but doing so in a mis­sion of pub­lic ser­vice, and their sto­ries are intend­ed in an act of shar­ing – that by con­vey­ing how they do what they do oth­ers can bet­ter fol­low what they have man­aged to achieve. The idea being that in this case the hero­ic deed is to help peo­ple to tell their own stories.

(April 2024)