I’ve recently been thinking about personal experience in relation to the landscape – not by my fellow humans, but by every other type of living thing around us: birds, bees, trees, coyotes, etc. This isn’t a completely new thought I’ve explored. Whether through photographing rabbit trails or observing how insects move in my own garden, I’ve long searched for perspectives and experiences in relation to the landscape outside our own as humans. Attempting to grasp non-human perspective of our world, whether it be animal, insect, bird, and even plants, can lead designers toward more empathetic solutions, and to think more critically about our impact on the larger environmental system.
My personal expectations in regards to wildlife is sometimes unrealistic, one shaped more by Beatrix Potter than scientific impartiality. I’ve long harbored a fascination with non-human life, attributed to a need to connect with something grander than myself.
When I was a kid, I would stalk fluttering butterflies, willing them to grace my hand with a moment of pause. I wanted birds to pin up my hair like Cinderella. Today, I hike with the hopes of crossing paths with an owl or coyote, their presence considered an otherworldly blessing.
Of course, I recognize this is all ridiculous. Animals don’t give a damn about me unless I am threatening them, which I most likely am if I am in their space. Most likely, they want nothing more than my absence.
But then something like this happens: A hummingbird at a nursery in the middle of Los Angeles a few weeks ago stays still enough to allow me to photograph him up close, and briefly permits me to pet his fluffy feathers. Even after I stopped harassing him, he stuck around on a low branch chirping. I was charmed.
“Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves. None of us see animals clearly. They’re too full of the stories we’ve given them. Encountering them is an encounter with everything you’ve ever learned about them from previous sightings, from books, images, conversations.” –Helen Macdonald for the New York Times Magazine
I admit, I was definitely imposing my own narrative onto my new hummingbird friend. Otherwise I couldn’t explain why this bird was acting so tame. I came to realize to him, the nursery was a landmark. Or according to Land Mosaics, a target – a “suitable patch containing food and shelter”. I happened to be co-existing in this landmark besides him. This overlap between wholly different species was thrilling to me. I’ll never know what it meant to him.
How a landscape is used or perceived by various creatures is fascinating to consider. Its consideration results in scientific, psychological, and artistic questions about how to move and where to go. The resulting abstract patterns reflect these choices, with the layered patterns of movement affecting our choices as designers.
The moments when the patterns connect – when we get to pet a hummingbird or lock eyes with a coyote – create a sense of crossing over into another realm. I am left wondering how these intersections affect our experiences and the context of how we design – or more importantly, how we’ll preserve the landscape?