Walking Dead Scenario

This has been a long and sleep­less night, and it won’t be the last one. It sur­pris­es me that the only thing that makes the anx­i­ety any bet­ter is to com­mu­ni­cate, to show care, and to dwell on my friends, fam­i­ly, and com­mu­ni­ty. This is some­thing very unfa­mil­iar to me; and over the years I have walled myself off from trou­bles, my own and oth­ers, through art, through iso­la­tion. It is entire­ly unex­pect­ed to me that as mat­ters get as worse as they ever have, I should find myself open­ing up. That is the only good I can find in any of this.

I am over­come by the good­ness of all of those around me who have gone day to day doing dif­fi­cult and try­ing work that match­es their ideals. I feel hon­ored to have met and to have befriend­ed such peo­ple. They teach me what can be done. Some of them are pro­fes­sion­als: mid­wives serv­ing immi­grants, plan­ners work­ing for clean water, lawyers fight­ing for civ­il lib­er­ties. Oth­ers, busy as they are, mak­ing the time in their days to show up in pub­lic and reg­is­ter their objec­tions and their sup­port. I am over­come, sud­den­ly, by the com­mit­ment of every­one who has been try­ing to sound the alarm through these years, who stayed pas­sion­ate and engaged when I checked out and ratio­nal­ized. When Leonard Cohen died, I had already been think­ing often of his ver­sion of the French Resis­tance song The Par­ti­san,” and how despite incred­i­ble loss­es “…I have many friends/​and some of them are with me.” I know those peo­ple will do what they can to stay the course, and that I am oblig­at­ed now, as I always was, to sup­port and join them.

I must reg­is­ter my hope that I am not the only one who sees the val­ue of my com­mu­ni­ty anew, who sees at once just how pre­cious shared ideals are. There are cer­tain­ly Amer­i­cans beyond per­sua­sion or dia­logue, and they are mixed in every­where. I hearti­ly hope that they are the minor­i­ty. I hearti­ly hope that the impend­ing actions of this admin­is­tra­tion does some­thing to dis­cred­it the moral­i­ty and effi­ca­cy of change with­out a clear notion of what we are chang­ing; of the grim dan­gers of get­ting things done with­out checks and bal­ances. But the virtue of hope is a virtue inso­far as it spurs action in the world. If we each active­ly work to rec­ti­fy this by show­ing our dis­sent through deeds and words, if we can sus­tain hope in the face of what will be real dan­gers and real fears, we can not only restore some of what will be bro­ken but make a stronger cul­ture of care and con­science in the wake.

The great­est dan­ger is in the long habit of dis­en­gage­ment and think­ing good enough” that peo­ple like me have indulged in. But I feel encour­aged because I feel I have been at least to some degree immu­nized through a life­time of sto­ries about injus­tice and tyran­ny, and how they can be dis­cerned and deterred. I know every­one else has been hear­ing these sto­ries as well. Their per­ti­nence has nev­er been clear­er; and in cer­tain sens­es we already know what to do. 

And this, par­en­thet­i­cal­ly, is where I redis­cov­er the val­ue of the human­i­ties, of all things. Where the future appears to march into a tech­no­crat­ic won­der­land where free­dom spreads auto­mat­i­cal­ly with the free mar­ket, his­to­ry, lit­er­a­ture, and phi­los­o­phy seems to be a set of pleas­ant and idle hob­bies. Where ethics are para­mount, where we must enrich our own stock of the past’s warn­ing signs and inspi­ra­tions, these pur­suits are revealed once more as absolute­ly nec­es­sary. Find­ing myself in a posi­tion where I can help to teach these things, I feel hope­ful and encour­aged again.

The sto­ry I have liked least, and tried hard­est to avoid over the last decade and more, is the zom­bie sto­ry — where a small group is penned in and picked off by mass­es of what used to be human and are now beyond help. This seemed to owe its pop­u­lar­i­ty in part to a bipar­ti­san appeal, when lit­tle else unit­ed the two sides — the notion that the old order was dis­card­ed, that peo­ple were no longer the same, that vio­lence was inces­sant, nor­mal, and nec­es­sary. One thing has not changed for me in the past week: I still dis­like, resent, and sus­pect this sto­ry. I can­not fault peo­ple who I care about and respect who see this sto­ry as the mod­el for where we are now. But I can­not be of any use to any­one, per­son­al­ly, if I live accord­ing to that sto­ry. Like­wise, I have come to also dis­like sto­ries about seces­sion, because I do not want to think of our dif­fer­ences as being irrec­on­cil­able on the lev­el of the coun­try, and because my view of his­to­ry seems to show that as bad as peo­ple are — and I am not say­ing flawed here, I am say­ing in some sens­es deeply bad — there are ways in which their lives and atti­tudes can be bet­tered as a whole. This coun­try, for all the evil it has per­pe­trat­ed, con­tains the mech­a­nisms to work toward that goal. Do we need to dis­man­tle it?

Final­ly, some­thing about the sub­ject of the site: land­scape. Like the rest of the pro­fes­sion­al class, we stand to take sub­stan­tial loss­es, the more so because they will often be dis­tant and masked by con­tin­u­ing nor­mal­cy. Design­ers, I imag­ine, will be able to do good and beau­ti­ful things in cer­tain cities and cer­tain states. What seems to have been swept off the table entire­ly is the pos­si­bil­i­ty of work­ing togeth­er as a coun­try to plan for envi­ron­men­tal trou­ble. I have often thought that the base objec­tion to the notion of cli­mate change is that to do any­thing about it we would have to make sub­stan­tial alter­ations to our way of life, and com­pro­mis­es with many oth­er peo­ple around the world. I have looked with some traces of envy at the abil­i­ty of Chi­na to plan — to pro­pose a sweep­ing ini­tia­tive and stick with it. As with so many oth­er idle fan­tasies about the incon­ve­nient oppo­si­tion dis­ap­pear­ing, the flaws appear in prac­tice — the lack of think­ing through, of answer­ing rea­son­able oppo­si­tion, of answer­ing to results instead of stat­ed inten­tions. If we ever get the chance to plan at giant scales, how will we answer all of this? How are we ever going to con­vince peo­ple that pri­vate enter­prise can­not solve piece­meal what con­fronts us all? 

The one work in the dis­ci­pline that has giv­en me com­fort in the past week is Eliz­a­beth Mey­er’s Sus­tain­ing Beau­ty.” Mey­er speaks to the role of land­scape design in speak­ing val­ues, and she says that the social worth of a gar­den or park is in part bound up in its abil­i­ty to con­vince the pub­lic of larg­er ideals, of the worth and won­der of a liv­ing world that often does not read­i­ly reveal itself. This is the val­ue that under­lies what I do, and I am grate­ful to her for artic­u­lat­ing it. As always, to me our dis­ci­pline pro­vides use­ful mod­els for how to see the larg­er world; and for my own part, while acknowl­edg­ing that my com­mu­ni­ty needs to show its dis­sent through anger, what I can real­is­ti­cal­ly con­tribute to the effort is love and care — know­ing from a healthy stock of past expe­ri­ence that this presents its own dan­ger of self-regard and iso­la­tion. Where this work becomes dif­fi­cult, and inter­est­ing, is in turn­ing its face to what seems like an emi­nent­ly hos­tile world. That is what I want to work on in the time ahead.

(November 2016)