The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Making Landscapes

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This is an essay I wrote for college many years ago–it was winter, hence the references to wearing gloves for warmth. I’m posting it here for three reasons. First, I’m pleased with it as a piece of writing and wanted to share. Second, I’m going through one of my periodic spots of depression and finding it very difficult to work. For those of you who either don’t understand how a bad mood can make writing difficult, or don’t know how to explain this fact to your friends and relatives, please check out Boggle the Owl. The author is wonderfully compassionate. Anyway, the third reason I’m posting this today is that yesterday was Earth Day and this article talks about the connections between the outer environment and the one between the ears. While the piece doesn’t mention climate change specifically, this interconnection is very relevant to how and why we care as we do.


This morning I was depressed when I woke up. I know, I know, you didn’t pick this up to hear about the black fog inside my skull, you want to hear about something in the world you can relate to, but this is where the story starts, and anyway, I know sometimes you wake up with the black fog, too. It curls up on your chest in exactly the way warm cats don’t and nothing seems worth getting up for, but you know this is an illusion. You knew there was something worth getting up for last night because you wrote a to-do list, and if you can just get out of bed long enough to start in on it everything will be alright.

To-do lists; I am not talking about the long mental list of anxieties, the things undone that keep me up in the dark pretending they’re the real issue. No, I’m talking about a well-crafted to-do list that will help me sort out exactly what I got out of bed to do. It’s picking the first thing that’s rough. After that, the others all go one right after the other like penguins from an ice floe. First on the list today, after prayer, mediation, and breakfast, is landscaping.

I do free-lance landscaping, trimming my neighbors’ hedges and related labors for about 15 dollars an hour. Today’s client is a woman I’ve never met, since she lives most of the year at her other house, but a mutual friend ferries money and instructions between us and through her, this woman has requested that I cut her hedges “way down, and if they die it’s ok.” Reasoning that death is not actually the aim of the mission, I grab my clippers, a handsaw and a soda bottle full of water and head out to have some serious discussions with the growth patterns of shrubs.

The day is clear and blue, with white, streaky clouds, not too cold, but I’m glad I’ve got my gloves. It isn’t too far of a walk, and it’s not entirely possible to be depressed when outside in the sunshine; there’s a relationship between the interior landscape and the exterior one, a kind of feedback or bleeding of experience. If I felt better as a psychological baseline today, I might better connect with the real sky, but since the sky is real, the day can be happy, and I, embedded in the day, can partake.

I have decided to begin at the back, with a pair of hollies—the kind with small blue berries and pinkie-nail-sized leaves, not the spiky American holly that grows wild here—and I remember that last year she wanted them lower than the windows. Unfortunately there is an absolute limit to how small I can cut something because the visual solidity of a hedge-type shrub is created by a shell of tightly packed tiny leaves, and that shell is only a few inches deep. Cut lower than that and the whole thing turns out skeletal and twisted. Death my client can deal with, but I’m guessing she’d rather not have to deal with ugly. I had the same problem last year, of course, and compromised by cutting windows in the shell so the few interior leaves could reach some sun. I see now my strategy worked, and the old, muscular armature of the bush is covered by little green shoots. Another year and they’ll be up nicely and I can cut the older branches back. The plant is still not going to get lower than that window, and the life of this plant and a small corner of my reputation may be riding on my ability to pull off a suitable degree of “way back.” Hmmmmm. Something large, a fox, say, crashes through the underbrush on the other side of the house. If I were myself more wild I’d find out what it is, make sure it isn’t a dangerous predator, but let’s pretend can only be carried so far and there are no bears or wolves here. I cut the top off the bush, make it into a bowl shape, open at the top but perfectly civilized from the side view. We’ll hope that flies. I move on to the other holly and there do the same thing.

Hours have passed. The moon, waxed almost exactly to the half, stands high in the noon sky the color and visual texture of cloud. Midday is bright and silent, and I have the street to myself as I work around from one shrub to the next. A folk song called “What are you at?” burbles its way cheerfully through my mind. I’m not thinking about anything in particular. I’m not depressed anymore.

I hear honking and look up in time to see a flock of geese break formation, turn, and reassemble briefly into a V, then into a line heading southwest. They’re flying low, a local commute, but I can’t tell whether they’re Canada geese or snowies. I’m not good with geese at a distance yet. All I can tell is that their bodies reflect the sunlight, a bright, coppery color, but their wings are dark. Also, their honking ceased as soon as they completed their turn. Was it an auditory turn signal? I think about the last time I saw geese up close, this past summer, when I worked at a landscaping company. We did some properties out along the Chesapeake Bay, where the geese, the ducks, the herons are as common as squirrels and, in some cases, about as well received. That’s where I learned to prune a hedge properly; set your clippers at an angle and work around, shaving off the past year’s growth. You can use power shears also but I never got trained for that and, anyway, don’t like the noise.

Pruned properly, an artificial landscape might remain consistent in appearance for a generation, I suppose, and that must be part of the appeal. Similarly, people find it appealing to plant non-native species in artificial-looking groupings marooned in the middle of generous ovals of bare mulch. Real landscapes grow and change and die, real places include diseases and parasites and little nibbled edges, but last summer we seemed to be in the lucrative business of forcing real plants to do a credible imitation of plastic. I wonder how and when real life became unfashionable. What is going on in these people’s interior landscapes, cause and result of their living in plastic?

Landscaping, as a commercial art, exists to stimulate thoughts and feelings on the part of the homeowner, their neighbors, and their guests. Since I never was in on the design component of the business last summer, I don’t know precisely what our clients wanted to stimulate, but I can make an educated guess based on the work we did. Certainly prettiness was part of it; most of the plants we cared for flowered, and many had interesting textures and shapes. Even I, by no means an ardent fan of the genre, could appreciate many of the beds in full bloom. Part of what we did was justifiably a concentration of that simple prettiness, for the plants were arranged in such a way that, at any given season, attractive plant parts were well spaced along the beds, the bygone heads and foliage of yestermonth pruned and trimmed out the way of possible distraction. Yet most of the beds were not really designed to be seen much by their owners. With a few notable exceptions, they faced out on the roads and front walks, at a height and spacing that made them almost invisible from the windows. The lawns generally had no picnic tables, no patio chairs, no swings, no jungle gyms, no charcoal grills, and no trampolines. There were no facilities that might give the family any comfortable or interesting context from which to enjoy their absurdly expensive gardens. By their orientation, these beds indicated that their target audience was in fact the general public, who would be informed, in no uncertain horticultural terms, that here lives the rich and fashionable.

This is the same principle that drives the development, in some cultures, of completely impractical clothing and body modification; a person obviously incapable of seeing to her own upkeep must equally obviously be rich enough and powerful enough to be cared for by servants. Just so, a manicured garden is as freakishly un-natural as levitation; things want to grow, to change, and to hold a place in stasis, permitting no growth and admitting no decay (which is also a kind of growth), requires an enormous amount of work. I suppose these people, who do not even want to touch their own soil or water their own plants (a hesitancy I cannot relate to), get a light feeling in their step knowing that their power is in evidence to passersby.

I suppose there are those who would call me a kind of middle-class elitist at this point; these people got rich by their own no doubt mighty efforts; they are pillars of the economy, and they can do with their money as they like. To this I reply that no person’s influence stops at his or her property line, and all that fertilizer and pesticide and mulch washes right into the Chesapeake Bay, where even on a good day visibility is less than ten feet, an estuarine smog that smothers the shellfish and the water plants. The carbon footprint of these kinds of activities is such that many of these properties will likely be underwater before the century is out, and they’ll be uninhabitable with storm-surges and floods long before that. I don’t understand how anyone could be anything other than depressed in this kind of situation, and indeed depression rates are skyrocketing in this country; I bet most of our clients are in therapy, and that some of them take antidepressant medication. The landscapes they make bleed back into their minds, and they bleed into mine, too, plastic, static, and lonely.

I suppose there are some who might point out that my job at the landscaping company, and hence the fashions for land-use on the part of the rich, paid a good many of my bills. Before you yourself say that, I would like to explain that I quit last August and don’t intend to go back. I’m grateful for the money, yes, and the experience in pruning even more, but I don’t like making plastic places. No one there did, I think, although I doubt any of them could have articulated the problem; I’ve never worked anywhere that had more collective misery.

The difference between me and my former coworkers, if there is one, is that they were content to be miserable if it permitted them to be personally secure. I am not. That is why I quit, and why I am making ends meet with small dribbles of money like this until I get a worthwhile job instead of signing up for a different job where everyone is miserable and contentedly so. And it is also why, when I wake up miserable, I have my list, my prayers, my something to do.

The inner and outer landscapes bleed into each other, after all, and while I truly believe that the outer world has enough intrinsic value to render my personal depression and its remedies entirely boring by comparison, I expect I’ll make better outer landscapes if I take some care for the inner one—and the inner landscape is absolutely dependent on having a living place outdoors to go.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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