While doing a plant species inventory out here in Ecosystems Restorations Camp, Spain, we often stop by our lowlands to observe the small frogs living in the remaining water. While idling next to the reeds we discuss the terraforming that will eventually be needed for water and sediment retention, and how to broaden the distribution of moisture into the surrounding environs. What we imagine is a series of dug ponds with outlets that alternate distribution from one bank to the other. While this plan meets our sediment and moisture retention goals, it also will be a much more beautiful than the current state. This realization has spawned a question we have been discussing out here: What is the value of aesthetics in the landscape? Does making an area more beautiful intrinsically offer something to the system or does it merely anthropomorphise a system? Is there a positive correlation between beauty and ecological benefit?
Uphill from the lowlands is a young almond orchard. The soil is tilled and the trees are evenly distributed in rows. The other day we were discussing how we would redesign the orchard if it were up to us. We imagine planting trees more densely and having rows follow the contours of the land with wide gaps between rows in lowlands and small gaps between rows on slopes. In between the rows would be a succession, alternating between grains, legumes, fallow and grazing animals.
Certainly a farm designed considering the contours of the land and with greater diversity is more beautiful but, especially in terms of mechanization, it adds a lot more complexity and work to the system. If it turns out that our design is less efficient than monoculture is there still merit strictly considering aesthetics?
We think that there is good reason to consider aesthetics, even if it turns out the system is less efficient. A beautiful system is simply more inspirational. It invites people to bring a quality of care to it that otherwise would not be alive within them. This type of care invites a deeper relationship between people and the environment they steward. This means a greater likelihood to notice and address imbalances which may arise, resulting in a pre-emptive awareness: preparedness to address imbalances before they are severe. Furthermore, tending to something beautiful is more meaningful to people. Meaningful work has beneficial reverberations into other areas of society.
Commonland, an organization from which we draw inspiration, looks at agroecosystems from the 4 returns model: return of inspiration, of social capital, natural capital and finance. Aesthetic design addresses the first return-it brings back inspiration to people. Furthermore, attentive care brings life, diversity and resilience back to neglected landscapes.
Within the context of landscape restoration, aesthetics is important because it inspires sensitivity and continuous care. In Japan they have a philosophy called Wabi-Sabi which seeks to align beauty with the cycles of simplicity, creation and destruction. This philosophy is expressed in a number of arts and crafts including Kintsugi, the art of gold joinery in ceramics. The central idea of Kintsugi is that through the careful repair of a piece of pottery, it holds a beauty it previously did not possess. A broken bowl is mended with gold and resin, illuminating its once fractured state, yet bringing it back to a previously functional form. By tracing the fracture in gold, the bowl carries with it the powerful semiosis of destruction, fragility and impermanence. It, thus, invites its user to handle it with a new kind of reverence and consideration. It suggests a particular way of being necessary for its longevity.
I believe landscape restoration should carry with it a similar philosophy and aesthetic attention. By mending fractured ecosystems in a form that is particularly beautiful to humans, it invites people to reflect on ways of being which fractures and to discover the possibility of a sensitive existence. By tracing the contours of a fractured ecosystem with an aesthetically pleasing regenerative design plan, we create patterns of renewal that celebrate the intersection of mind and nature. From this synthesis, something even more elegant is invited and new ways of being are discovered, within ourselves, our relations and our environment.