Katrina The Shepherd

A friend was show­ing me the new Leg­end of Zel­da game, at my request – I like to keep up with where the land­scapes of video games are mov­ing. Going in excit­ed, I went away most­ly dis­ap­point­ed: that the inter­face should be so full of bric-à-brac, that the cliff­sides should be so samey, that Link should have a cell phone. Most­ly, I felt dis­ap­point­ed at his lev­el of pow­er – a few days in, and my friend could make Link zip through rocks, tele­port miles at will, car­ry six dif­fer­ent out­fits and twen­ty or so dis­tinct weapons on his per­son. Hav­ing sat out most of the last twen­ty years of blue-chip games, I can’t say that my take is very informed. But as an out­sider, I can pay atten­tion to the feel­ing I come away with, the anx­i­ety in the enter­prise: the sense of need­ing a heavy tool­box to cope with the land­scape you’re in. The free­dom to sky­dive, or climb rocks, seems tied up in amass­ing things; the same under­cur­rent of wor­ry you find in places from Batman’s util­i­ty belt to the Ham­mach­er Schlem­mer catalog.

What seems inter­est­ing instead? An old detail, one not all that influ­en­tial, in the game Ulti­ma IV. Each of your com­pan­ions rep­re­sents a virtue; one, a shep­herd named Kat­ri­na, embod­ies humil­i­ty. If the oth­er com­pan­ions are good in a fight, Kat­ri­na is plain­ly not. Well, she’s a shep­herd, not a knight or a wiz­ard; she can whack a wolf with a stick if need be, but it’s not her spe­cial­ty. Kat­ri­na is not a hand­i­cap, or an added chal­lenge; she is a vol­un­tary reminder of the larg­er web of oblig­a­tions that the adven­tur­ers are fight­ing within.

As lazy a habit as because cap­i­tal­ism” can be, it is nice to see so many peo­ple ques­tion­ing the dog­ma that a world of entre­pre­neur­ial agents, busi­ly com­pet­ing each oth­er, is the best-case sce­nario. A shep­herd is a good fig­ure to think humil­i­ty with, beyond the Christly asso­ci­a­tions; a fig­ure who active­ly stretch­es between the desires of the herd, the capac­i­ties of the land­scape, the needs of their peo­ple. They man­age the sit­u­a­tion, here lis­ten­ing and here dic­tat­ing, here defend­ing and here defer­ring. They leave a trace, but do not draw. 

Humil­i­ty is exceed­ing­ly dif­fi­cult for the land­scape archi­tect, for the default mod­el of being an archi­tect at all is being prompt­ed to do some­thing, to do some­thing, to make a change. You are being eval­u­at­ed less on the results – how could you be held to account there? – but on the pow­er of the change you pro­pose. Ideas, in such a sit­u­a­tion, get sift­ed out of the stream, out of the silt they come hid­den in. They are judged as mag­ic bul­lets, ways of tran­scend­ing the cur­rent situation.

Here, I keep com­ing back to the spe­cial charm of land­scape archi­tec­ture: it makes it dif­fi­cult to tell this sto­ry, because man­i­fest­ly there are no land­scape ideas but in rela­tion­ships. An idea in this set­ting is not good in of itself, not a wor­thy state­ment to be added in the world; it is the least-wrong idea for par­tic­u­lar place, typ­i­cal­ly with a heavy weight built in of acknowl­edg­ing and build­ing on what already makes the place spe­cial. The state­ment on record for this in land­scape archi­tec­ture is Cather­ine Dee’s 2010 piece Form, Util­i­ty, and the Aes­thet­ics of Thrift in Design Edu­ca­tion.” Dee reproves the can­dy-store aes­thet­ics” still pre­vail­ing at the time, a mess of dig­i­tal assets that seem to cre­ate a sense of land­scape as an inter­change­able, ran­dom palette of parts.” In its place, she advo­cates for an eco­log­i­cal eth­i­cal response of lim­it­ed inter­ven­tion and econ­o­my of means,” man­i­fest­ed in places as dis­parate as Duis­burg-Nord, Crissy Field, the Water Mir­ror, and – yes! – Derek Jarman’s gar­den in Dungeness.

It is prob­a­bly inevitable that she puts the case neg­a­tive­ly: that design, as it is found in the schools, is excess, an excess that should be pared away. In an ide­al world, though, you would not see humil­i­ty in terms of renun­ci­a­tion, but as a desir­able con­di­tion in of itself. After all, the whole rhetoric of virtue is to mag­ni­fy the imme­di­ate attrac­tions of what is oth­er­wise a less appeal­ing course of action. Dee assumes that the inher­ent val­ue of land­scapes is there wait­ing when all of the oth­er bric-à-brac is swept away. My expe­ri­ence sug­gests that the land­scape that can­not be spo­ken of in terms of its oth­er­ness, its abil­i­ty to hold a dis­tinct niche in the mar­ket, is one that will find it more dif­fi­cult to defend itself, to attract lovers. To uphold a plain land­scape, a land­scape more felt than seen, is to ded­i­cate your­self over the long term to that land­scape, with your com­mit­ment man­i­fest­ed through your bod­i­ly pres­ence. Your typ­i­cal sub­ur­ban gar­den has this over the cor­po­rate estate, or sig­na­ture park, or state pre­serve; the gar­den­er is out there vis­i­bly adven­tur­ing with the land.

It would espe­cial­ly betray the point of humil­i­ty to hold up, in this case, the restrained care of land­scapes in terms of a some high­er, more hid­den pow­er over the sit­u­a­tion. As with many dis­cus­sions of humil­i­ty as a virtue, the dan­ger is in being disin­gen­u­ous; you would only be con­tin­u­ing, in a back­hand­ed way, the usu­al def­er­ence paid to pow­er. At the oth­er extreme, of course, humil­i­ty falls into qui­etism: the notion that it is not worth tak­ing arms against what­ev­er wave is deter­mined to sweep over you. How to nav­i­gate between?

One promis­ing way, I think, is to take up the empha­sis on rela­tion­ships found in Indige­nous thought. I’ve been read­ing Braid­ing Sweet­grass like any­one else, and have been tak­en with Kimmerer’s account of reci­procity. In part, it is promis­ing as a moral prompt to its audi­ence because instead of demand­ing total self-abne­ga­tion or self-real­iza­tion, an eth­i­cal rela­tion­ship active­ly bal­ances your needs with the needs of the oth­er – peo­ple nar­row­ly or inclu­sive­ly defined.

Most designed land­scapes are built on a basic mis­un­der­stand­ing of Arca­di­an life, pro­vid­ing hard, arti­fi­cial frames to act at being free and easy inside. To fore­ground rela­tion­ships, as being con­duct­ed in a bet­ter or worse fash­ion, seems one way out of this. It seems to me to have the par­tic­u­lar ben­e­fit of read­ing against the grain: not only that a land­scape archi­tect is man­ag­ing rela­tion­ships with clients and mate­ri­als, but that gar­den­ers, resource man­agers, and the like make dis­tinct places. Kim­mer­er insists (and doesn’t care what you think) that she is in a lov­ing rela­tion­ship with her gar­den – that the gar­den loves her back. To this end, it seems sen­si­ble to think in terms of pub­lic spaces that have rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion­ships with the pub­lic – not pas­sive sim­u­la­tions to step in and out of, but places that expect active, engaged care.

(June 2023)