the view from stockton house

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Nov 2003 / the view from stockton house :: email this story to a friend

Indigenous Landscapes
By David Laslie and Frederick Medler

Whatever events in progress shall go to disgust men with cities, and infuse into them the passion for country life, and country pleasures, will render a service to the whole face of this continent, and will further the most poetic of all the occupations of real life, the bringing out by art the native but hidden graces of the landscape.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Young American"

When Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke these words to an audience on February 7, 1844 at the Mercantile Library Association of Boston, both he and his urban audience were keenly aware of a general malaise developing amongst people in regards to the declining quality of life in not only American cities but also cities around the world. A few months later, Friedrich Engels illustrated this decline in his description of the black river, murky sky, and degraded lives of the working class in Manchester, England. In the decades leading up to today, despite certain social advances made on behalf of the worker, little (aside from token attempts) has been done on behalf of the Earth. As a new society in a new land, we distanced ourselves early on from Nature and have since been drifting further and further away from her, instead of settling into our stolen landscape and becoming native. Perhaps it was because it was stolen that most did not decry the abuses to the land; perhaps it was because most were too busy trying to make ends meet to notice the effects. Regardless, the Industrial Age in America has been dead for years now, much to the chagrin of those workers who skill sets are tailored to this sort of work, and with the questions of how we can all survive in an economy that, at the behest of the gurus of the New World Order, lacks a manufacturing sector, we must also answer the question of how to correct the overwhelming damage wrought on our land. Perhaps by understanding our indigenous landscapes, we will find ways in which to correct these old abuses and in the process create employment opportunities for those whom the proponents of the managerial-based economy have forgotten. But before we together arrive at these solutions, we must understand the Nature of our indigenous landscapes, why they are important, and how they can be restored.

As one travels throughout the Saint Louis region, one may find it difficult to see past the manmade development in order to experience the original native habitats and fauna that once characterized the spirit of this place. So thoroughly have our landscapes been altered that many of us could hardly imagine them ever having been anything than what they are today. The vast flat farmlands above the palisade bluffs to the east in Illinois no longer feature endless vistas of vast golden prairie grasses and multi-colored wildflowers. Most of our original primordial forests were long ago leveled to feed the great Industrial Age lumber mills. What we now call forests feature only small third generation groves compared to the thousand-year-old specimens that majestically preceded them. The great river bottom flood plains that once criss-crossed our region no longer feature meandering river branches, oxbows, backwater bayous, and wetland habitats teeming with life. The flood plains have been drained, controlled, and channeled such that sprawl may thrive where once an endless diversity of species flourished, and within our many subdivisions and communities, our landscapes and built environments seem totally at distance from each other in both time and space. Rarely do our gardens feature trees once common to this place because of their hardiness and drought resistance; because of these qualities, these species were vastly superior in comparison to contemporary nursery stocks. And thus, for every Blue Spruce we plant, much as with every stream that we divert, we impose an artificial landscape upon this place, and in turn create something so out of place and wanting, and in doing so, we fail to recognize that we are accumulating damage and are ultimately forcing contingencies upon ourselves and particularly upon future generations. If we seek to create and restore indigenous landscapes, this is a future we do not have to experience. Saint Louis' unique setting of hills, flat plains, deep hollows and breathtaking valleys and floodplains must be seen and respected for what they are. Flood plains should flood, and hilly landscapes should only be developed with buildings that honor these sites. To level such breathtaking topography simply to create large flat tracts upon which to build arrays of subdivision houses is sacrilegious.

An indigenous landscape is exactly what it sounds like: a garden, park, or forest that is comprised exclusively of plant specimens (whether trees, shrubs, vascular under-story plants, groundcovers, etc.) that are native to the particular region in which the garden, park, or forest is located. Over time, plant species have adapted themselves to any major or minor fluctuation in their particular ecosystem, and in so doing, have evolved in order to survive. Note that for every year there is an increase in overall pollution levels, plant output of pollen also increases in order to create new plants to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. At times, as has been the case with animals, plants have changed enough to serve as the progenitors of entirely new species. Thus, despite the fact that all plants originally evolved from a single point source, the fern carpets the forest floor as the cactus nestles among the rocks of the desert. They are both products of their environments; a fern in the desert would burn up in less than a day, and a cactus would suck up enough of the forest floor's moisture until it began to experience root rot or would freeze and shrivel up during the first frost. How far a species spreads within a particular climatic zone (in the United States there are ten zones; the City of Saint Louis is in zone six) depends upon elevation above sea levels, rainfall, soil conditions, etc. This being said, it may surprise some to find a few plants that have evolved to grow in many different climates, for example, one is bound to find one species of cactus in the Saint Louis area, namely the prickly pear, which grows conspicuously at Castlewood State Park and in a few other locations. Aside from the obvious contributions of climate-based disbursement of plants, the disbursement of species is also dependant upon the types of animals that find the fruit of these plants particularly appetizing. It would be improbable to discover any native ficus trees in the Saint Louis area, as there would be no native fauna that would retrieve the fruit of the tree and bring the species here (aside from the obvious notion that the climate would not support the tree's survival). Plant and animal species evolve in symbiotic relationships, and yet the animal role in these relationships seems to have stopped short in recent centuries when it comes to human beings, especially in First World Cultures, as those of us who live in these cultures usually do not live off the land, and therefore do not spread seed around, save in landfills. And as we shall soon see, in cases when we do spread seed around, we usually bring home non-native species thanks to our efforts in globalized commerce.

The consequences of globalized commerce are only beginning to be recognized, such as alien species that increasingly invade after they are brought from abroad to choke our waters and much of our landscapes. In the latter half of Twentieth Century, the invasive alien Kudzu vine wreaked havoc across primarily the American South within a few years. Added to this plight is the decreasing quality of our soils, which lose their natural fertility due to poor agricultural practices such as in the continued farming of soybeans and other non-native species, in the stripping of topsoils through repeated tilling of our fields into dust; and in our floodplain farms which grow increasingly more dependant upon chemical fertilizers since our leveed, cataracted rivers can no longer flood and naturally re-enrich the land with silt. Of course for many thousands of years, this place has known the touch of humankind. The Native American tribes of this region, over the course of centuries, imposed a form of control in the form of burning to thin underbrush in forests and grasslands to aid in the hunting of meandering deer and other game, yet their impact as a whole was minimal when compared to how we Americans have so drastically altered the landscape of this region in just the past 200 years. With the arrival of the white man, and consequently, his alien "European" customs, mores, and agricultural and hunting practices, it was not long before he began to have quite a profound, and mostly negative impact. At first, the scope of change was small and overall still within the appearance of a balance. But as population boomed, hunting, agricultural clearings, wetland draining, clear cutting, etc. began to change the landscape dramatically. It should be noted that not all changes in the landscape are necessarily bad; far from it. But today, so much of what we have done has not been because we were trying to live here, but because we desired to exploit this place for profit. Western culture has developed a unique, perhaps perverted, perspective on the nature of land and landscape. Instead of seeing ourselves as part of nature and the landscape, we have developed the mindset that land/ landscape is merely a commodity to be bought, sold, and exploited, and that we as humans are above animals and no longer need an interdependent relationship. To remediate the issues noted above, and to redevelop a semblance of symbiosis, it would behoove us to begin to think outside of the box, for so much of our current thinking in regard to landscapes, whether natural or man-made, is based on the cultural mores brought here from somewhere else, and yet these values, as opposed to a value for innovation, seem to be the entire focus of what all of us have been and are still being taught.

With rare exception, the education our children receive today is primarily generic, trite, and unrelated to the notion of place. It is instead more focused upon a production/ consumption model with little regard for localized approaches to considerations of how we fit into the natural scheme of things. In addition, our religious and cultural biases continuously taint and retard our ability to see things around us more intimately. Essentially, there exists a profound lack of moral value for what makes our region and localized landscapes especially unique and like nothing else in the world. In many ways we are so preoccupied with issues of politics, race, religion, inherited cultural traditions, etc. that we fail to endeavor to look beyond these and see the true Nature and character of this place we call home and how we may strive to truly belong here. Only by respecting the region for what it truly is, by respecting its diversity of native plant life and the workings of its natural ecosystems, and by focusing our efforts to find value in these processes will we even have the faint beginnings of a truly native culture that is in harmony with this region. Once we have mandated some degree of this morality within our cultural mores and expressions, our local and indigenous landscapes will once again flower and flourish.

To establish a cultural morality is a difficult task, but it a task that we must require ourselves to perform before someone else, say the federal government lays down blanket laws and restrictions that may not even apply to the peculiarities of our land. If one needs proof that something like this would happen, take a look at the work that the Army Corps of Engineers has performed on our rivers over the past few decades. And so how do we establish solidarity and reestablish the rule of Nature? To begin with, we need to develop a greater awareness and understanding of what makes the region especially unique. Through education we can begin to gain knowledge of native trees, bushes, perennials and wildflowers. These plants are especially hardy and adapted to this region and require far less care and maintenance. And when properly designed for within our gardens have distinct advantages and beauties all their own. By integrating native plantings into our landscape plans, we are not only preserving and enhancing what is unique to this place, but we are also helping to slowly, but surely, atone for our past indiscretions and become more culturally integrated with our land. Thus, as we develop a native awareness of our surroundings, our built living environments, including both our buildings and developed landscapes, will become more sensitive to our particular local climatic, geological, and ecological conditions. Our gardens and outdoor living spaces will merge more seamlessly with the natural order; our buildings will grow more attuned to their sites, more respectful of place, and more appropriate to a healthy, inspiring and ennobling way of life. We certainly cannot completely undo our presence here and/or our impact upon this region. But we can slowly, methodically, and diligently strive to restore our land to a state that is within the natural order of things and is beneficial to all living entities within that order.

You may be asking yourself, "How am I to accept this mantle of responsibility?" The kind of change in ethics and practice advocated herein comprise a major task that requires the contribution and cooperation of every member of the society, and yet each and every one of us can do our part to restore our indigenous landscapes. Gordon Geballe, associate dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University advocates what he calls the "Freedom Lawn," an approach to creating yards that feature native grasses and require little watering and no pesticides or herbicides. We propose taking this a step further by incorporating native trees, shrubs, vascular perennials, and groundcovers that could not only be enjoyed by the homeowner, but also by birds and other animal species as a restored mini-habitat. Much of the information one may require to plant a garden of indigenous species can easily be found in numerous books about Midwestern flora, many of which are specific to the Mississippi River valley, Southern Illinois, and Eastern Missouri, but the best first step for any budding native gardener is to contact the Missouri Botanical Garden (4344 Shaw Boulevard, 314.577.5100) or the Missouri Native Plant Society. Another resource would be the horticultural experts of any reliable nursery. We suggest that one avoid purchasing plants from the local hardware superstore despite the fact that their specimens may be cheaper, as these specimens have often been placed in close proximity with non-native plants that my have been grown in a far away region and may be infested with insects, blights, fungi, etc. that may take control of not only your garden, but your neighbors as well.

As you search for what you believe appropriate for your garden, the following proven species may suffice to get you started. Note that these specimens are native to the Lower Midwest and the Saint Louis region, so if you are in California, you may wish to research alternatives. We advise that despite the City of Saint Louis' location in Climate Zone Six, one select species suited for Zone Five, as the temperatures in outlying areas dip lower than in the City.


Sugarberry or Sugar Hackberry (Celtis laevigata)
With the installation of one Sugarberry tree, one makes a wise investment in providing shade for one's self, home, and garden. When mature, this species typically towers above many others at heights approaching eighty feet. It is hardy, drought resistant, and not susceptible to blight. Birds relish its sweet fruit, and gardeners find romantic qualities in its silver bark and pendulous branches. The foliage, dense in summer, turns golden in the autumn.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
The use of the Redbud to add spring color to the garden is a wonderful choice, however it should exclusively serve as an understory tree. When mature, this species may reach up to thirty feet in height. It is hardy, drought resistant (when placed in cool shady areas), and relatively blight free (occasionally, root rot may occur in urban areas, thus planting this species in areas that are not constantly wet is advised). Reddish purple to pink buds show in early spring after about the fourth year of growth. Avoid planting this species in full sun.


Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
This native viburnum grows to a height of up to fifteen feet in areas from New England and the Great Lakes down to Texas. Creamy white flowers emit a sweet intoxicating smell in the spring, and the dark green leaves turn red to purple and even bronze (depending on its genetics) in the autumn. Judd viburnums are the most common of the sweet smelling viburnum hybrids, and are an adequate substitute if the Blackhaw cannot be found.

Vernal Witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis)
This native witchhazel reaches a height of up to ten feet in much of the southern Midwest. Yellow to red flowers emit a fragrance, and the dark green leaves of summer turn to golden in the autumn. The species is very blight resistant, and does well in moist soils. H. virginiana is a more accessible alternative.

Vascular Perennials

Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis)
A bright green fern with broad oblong fronds inconspicuously divided in such a way to almost look leaflike. At maturity, the fern "flowers" in a spike form reaching up to six feet in height.

Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Columbine is a shade plant reaching two feet in height with bluish gray-green leaves and reddish flowers with yellow petal tips that point with the open end down. Grows well in loamy soils, but will survive in clay based soils. Hearty and disease resistant, yet insects called leaf miners may occasionally burrow into the stems. In this case, simply remove the infected stems and discard.

Groundcovers and Ivy

Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata)
This species grows to around twelve inches in height, and features lavender colored flowers of five petals. Plantings usually double in density every year and may eventually need to be thinned out. Cultivars with blue and even white flowers are available. Plant in partial to full shade, preferably in eastern facing beds.

American Ivy 'Virginia Creeper' (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
A species of ivy that creeps along the ground and climbs structures, P. quinquefolia can be easily trained and does not cause damage to the climbing surface like other ivy types. It may grow very dense if maintained properly, and its sanguine leaf color in autumn makes an artful juxtaposition against a brick wall.


Purple Coneflower (Ehcinacea pallida)
Growing up to three feet in height, the coneflower's brilliant display of purple is most effective in small groupings. Blooming from late spring into mid-summer, the coneflower attracts butterflies.

Goldenrod (Solidago)
A late summer favorite for those who do not suffer from allergies, the goldenrod typically grows to four feet in height and is topped with a finial of tiny bright yellow to deep gold blossoms. Flowering from August through November, it may reach heights of eight feet, however plants this tall usually bend over during strong winds or under their own weight and often do not return to a completely upright position.

In conclusion, let us return to the American South and the Kudzu vines that blanket much of it. Much of the reason why Kudzu now reigns in the South, choking off the native species desperately attempting to survive, is because the Civilian Conservation Corps (as a part of Roosevelt's New Deal) was contracted to plant the vine throughout the South to prevent erosion. Perhaps the role the government should play in restoring our indigenous landscapes is to reestablish the Corps, perhaps as the Civilian Restoration Corps, to not only eradicate invasive alien species (whether or not they are because of the government's actions) and to plant, in conjunction with state governments, local non-governmental agencies, businesses, and groups like the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Missouri Native Plant Society, native species in areas such as brownfields, along streambeds, and aside highways. Not only could the unemployed find jobs with the Corps, but also those who join would learn the basics lessons of land management to pass on to friends and family. The unusable tracts of land in the loops of freeway cloverleaves could find use as new forests, much as in some areas they are used as wildflower meadows. The residents of the Compton Heights neighborhood of the City of Saint Louis allowed scrub brush to grow along the banks of the depressed section of Highway 44, and now, a couple decades later, these banks are developing into dense forests. Unfortunately, persuading governments and NGOs of what is in the best interest of the general public is a task not unlike trying to fit a square peg in a round hole — eventually enough gets shaved off in budget cuts and unrelated bill riders that the peg is no longer what it was by Nature intended to be. If we have succumbed to the malaise that Emerson spoke of over a century and a half ago, it is our responsibility as individuals to bring out through the art of our own innovation the hidden graces of the landscape before they are forgotten forever, and we discover it is too late to become native.

Urban Design Forum

Past articles:
What is Architecture?
Beyond the Seas of Asphalt
The Myths of New Urbanism and Sustainability
Leon Strauss' Vision of Modern Urban Living
Demolishing Only the Unsalvageable
A More Appropriate Plan for Grand Center
Architecture & Landscape: The Inseparable Pair
The Craftsperson of Today

David Laslie and Frederick Medler are designers and owners of Urban Design Forum, a small city-based design company specializing in fine architecture, master planning, and landscape design. For more information, call 314.533.7458 x3, or email us at

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