Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.
I returned to school as an adult while working full-time. I attended classes in the evenings and weekends, all with the purpose of earning a degree in landscape architecture. The program required a large amount of self-guided learning, and outside of class, I sought knowledge within the quiet aisles of bookstores.
More than any class or studio I took during school, books provided a multi-faceted depth to my understanding of the landscape. From field guides to novels, I’ve accumulated a library that now I can repeatedly dip into for inspiration and perspective. My own understanding of landscapes comes from logical, scientific, artistic, and emotional descriptions. I’ve divided some of my favorite books into these categories to share and recommend.
At the heart of my list is a very dog-eared copy of Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. This book resonated, evoking memories of my childhood love of nature. It was Louv’s words that inspired me to consider landscape architecture as a career. I’ve included this title in my stack of non-fiction “Landscape Analysis” books, which includes essays on natural systems and historic context. Each of these books touches upon a different angle of the human impact on landscapes. Another favorite, Trees in my Forest by Berndt Heinrich, describes the interconnectedness of trees with a scientific, yet personal perspective. John McPhee’s The Control of Nature thoroughly investigates a handful of landscapes, looking closely at how humans have attempted to impact them. Even more so, Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden proposes that nature has become just another human system. While I don’t necessarily agree with the outlook and opinions of these authors, they spark critical thoughts about how to interact with and design in our modern world.
In a similar category are the urban design books like Site Planning, Pattern Language, and Design with Nature – mainstays of landscape architecture school. I’ve kept these three books to refer to again and again when considering the built environment.
Taking a step back from analysis, my next stack is a series of field guides and indexes of birds, plants, wildlife, and how those systems function. I find comfort within the objective facts of science: a scrub jay is a scrub jay. I find studying bird guides and plant identification books extremely calming, but also helpful in navigating and integrating design with the natural world.
The final grouping of books in my library is based on subjective experiences of landscape. While a scrub jay is a scrub jay, everyone’s experience of its squawk is different. The novels, memoirs, essays, and poetry shown above all describe the human experience of a physical place. Willa Cather’s rugged Nebraska and Alice Munro’s descriptions of rural Canada help me understand the physical experience of place that influences the characters’ lives. Literary narratives can translate these visceral qualities in ways that blueprints cannot.
The ponds are uprisings from the water table, shallow and shape shifting as sand from the dunes blows into them, creating mass here, causing the water to spread in a generally southeast direction, away from the prevailing winter winds which day after day bite and rasp and shovel up the great weight of the sand. – Mary Oliver, Upstream
The most striking landscape narratives come from a combination of meditating on personal experience and an objective understanding of natural systems. There are so many varied perspectives to absorb and grasp, I love having them all mingling on my bedside table and bookshelves. I can only hope these books continue to guide my understanding of the world and design process.