We Only Bond with Complex Landscapes

We Only Bond with Complex Landscapes
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A recent visit to the 40-year-old, 3.5-acre Ruth Bancroft Garden brought home the capacity of a mature stroll garden to serve up mystery and awe.

Here’s one of my beefs with lawns: where is the mystery? We live within this awe-inspiring natural world, teeming with diverse creatures and plants. We have a built-in fascination for other living things (1). Why would we construct our daily environments in such a way that we avoid being fascinated by them?

Instead, why not kindle this fascination in our everyday, ordinary experience? Research shows how important the experience of natural landscapes is for children’s healthy brain, body, and emotional development (2). Wouldn’t our adult lives be richer from these experiences as well?

As I gaze across a vast, unbroken sea of lawn, it practically shouts out a need to rein in wild nature’s unpredictability and mystery. Why would we want to do this?

Perhaps we are acting instinctively to create open spaces that give us an uninterrupted view, because that feels safer. But does it really? The groundbreaking work of architect Christopher Alexander, among others, shows we are more likely to feel safest with foliage at our backs, standing at the edge of a clearing (or, indoors, in a doorway or alcove surveying the room). That would mean we need, somewhere on our property, foliage substantial enough to provide us with shelter.

For many of us, especially those not used to spending time in wild places, too much “nature” in a place can prompt fears of getting lost, of encountering snakes or mountain lions, of being unsafe or uncomfortable. During the course of giving my talks about lawn alternatives, I’ve spoken with many a person who is reluctant to walk in ankle-deep turfgrass, much less ducking inside a thicket of head-high shrubs.

Does this picture of a bare foot partly obscured by ankle-length grass make you uncomfortable?

Avoiding any wildness does restrict our chances of contact with these perceived dangers. But in accepting denuded landscapes, shorn carpets stripped of life and diversity, what are we giving up? What potential experiences are we trading for our certain safety?

We are not only trading the satisfactions of exploring and observing other forms of life (3), but also the truly awe-inspiring experiences that nature can offer: of feeling tiny and inconsequential in the face of its grandeur and of feeling a splendid sense of belonging as part of its expansiveness.

I say this is an extremely poor trade.

When we explore a natural landscape, we get the satisfaction of solving small-m mysteries, such as “hmmm, I wonder what’s behind that hedge?” But that is just the beginning of our fascination. Spending time in such a landscape, opening ourselves to its surprises and unpredictability, we start to form connections with that place and its flora and fauna. We begin to learn their quirks and characters, and in knowing them, to see ourselves in relation to them. This fosters a sense of belonging, a certain possessiveness.

Now we are talking about big-m Mysteries, as in arcane knowledge of how the world works—including some knowledge about how we ourselves (being part of nature) work. This knowledge cannot necessarily come from scientific study, but from personal experiences that prompt a more emotional/spiritual understanding of the world’s patterns and lessons and our place in it.

So here’s my convoluted logic in a nutshell: we do not form attachments to simple, easily legible, overly familiar landscapes like lawn; it is the mysterious, diverse, complex landscapes—those we must expend effort to make familiar, and that may prompt some discomfort along with pleasure—that prompt us to send down our roots.

What do you think?

Someday I hope visitors will stroll through my garden (newly laid out with lawn paths and mulched islands) and wonder what’s around the bend.




  1. Famed ecologist E.O. Wilson termed this human affinity for other living things “biophilia”; learn more about his hypothesis.
  2. See, for instance, these extensive downloadable research summaries.
  3. Environmental psychologist Rachel Kaplan has studied the importance of mystery and legibility in our environments. She writes that we prefer landscapes that offer some chance for us to explore over those that hold no surprises, and that we favor complex landscapes over simple ones as long as they have a coherence that makes them navigable.

Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on December 4, 2013 at 2:04 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Lawn Reform.


    • Will
    • 1st January 1970

    Re: pix…….the first, of the Bancroft garden, is a stunner; the second, bare foot in the thick grass, evokes the luxuriant feeling of walking in soft grass, which holds no scary images for me; and the third, of the garden “at rest” and filled with incipient mystery and glory, – well, the third is wonderful inspiration. Delightful article.

    • skr
    • 22nd April 1991

    Tuan’s whole “sense of place is static” argument is just ridiculous though.

    • Liz
    • 23rd July 1997

    I’d like to second Marte’s note about Yi-Fu Tuan (also one of my heroes). I also thought of his writing–in “Landscapes of Fear”–when reading this post. To me, the prevalence of vast expanses of lawns flowing over undifferentiated house lots reflects the “turning inward” of the past few decades in American culture–away from the outdoors and toward the television, computer game, smart phone, etc. I love philosophical posts such as these.

    • skr
    • 15th July 2003

    There are about a million pictures of the beach on my Facebook news feed that seem to indicate that people can bond with simple (non-complex) landscapes.

    • Ivette Soler
    • 22nd February 2014

    Hi skr – yes, if we all had a beach, we could bail on creating complexity in our gardens and allow the grandness to come from the ocean. I don’t think the beach is simple – and it especially connects with what Evelyn posts about here because the ocean is perhaps our DEEPEST (ha! pun intended!) mystery. I has such power, such beauty, it frightens many of us, and demands respect. We can be in that landscape for hours in the same kind of quests of discovery in complex gardens because the garden is not the beach, per se – it is the ocean itself – all concealed, only revealed in small, teasing waves that bring up tiny hints and treasures of everything that lies beneath. In fact, I think ocean as mystery garden is a pretty sound analogy!

    • skr
    • 19th April 2015

    Yes, the ocean is mysterious, but the beach is visually simple. There is sand, sea, and sky. Three simple bands. What we connect with is not complexity, it is the sublime. The ocean is simple and sublime. The sublime can be revealed by many different aesthetics from the simple to the complex and from the beautiful to the grotesque. That the suburban lawn is not sublime is not news. However, the Picturesque movement shows that even a relatively simple lawn can be sublime.

    • skr
    • 2nd June 2015

    And then there is the Japanese rendering of the ocean as landscape, the dry garden. Visually rather simple with few elements carefully placed in a very sophisticated way, those gardens are not at all the complex ramble that seems to be suggested here as the solution to the suburban lawn. Considering people travel thousands of miles just to see these dry landscapes I would say they generate some sort of connection or bond with the viewer.

    • skr
    • 11th January 2016
    • Ivette Soler
    • 23rd April 2016

    I guess much comes down to taste – I value journey, discovery, exploration, and even a little bit of danger. Most of the gardens that I love are strolls – places for discovery and engagement. And they use LOTS of plants! I love a “rambunctious” garden (wink!)
    There are many different types of meditative garden experiences, and yes – the purpose of those is to get engaged, but I don’t think that is what Evelyn was talking about. She expressly speaks to the need to be a little uncomfortable, to not know what it around the corner, to maybe step on something unexpected, and that creates a very different type of engagement than the kind of zen, transcendental spaces you speak of in japanese rock gardens, wild dessert gardens, and beaches. I believe they connect with different parts of our “being-ness”.
    I have to say I was so surprised, when I went to Japan, how very complex the gardens are! But of course they would be – the culture is one almost obsessed with plants and plantings! The zen garden is often one small moment in a large, complexly planted garden.

    • skr
    • 25th September 2016

    I don’t know if I would say, “taste,” so much as culture. The sense of place is a product of human attribution and as such is culturally dependent and in a constant state of flux. A naturalistic landscape might be seen as meaningful to one person because it induces nostalgia of makes them feel connected with nature while another person sees dirt and danger causing them unease. Meaning is given to the landscape by people, not the other way around. You give a much different meaning to quaint little towns and their nostalgic bubble than I do. When I see Evelyn positing that we can ONLY bond with complex landscapes, I see her projecting her cultural biases upon the rest of us. When dealing with the subjective and idiosyncratic, we should be very careful about absolutes.

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