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)