Aristata Land Arts

outdoor design & installation

Outdoor design, installation, and garden care. Specializing in outdoor structures & xeriscape plants. Portland, OR.

I just held your hand on my manufactured pathway.

There is something so visceral and satisfying about a new pathway. Where you once walked across soil, a path has now been constructed to guide you to your destination. I feel so proud and my chest swells with satisfaction when I walk across a path that we have just completed. Underfoot, the solidness of it in time and space is so definitive. The sound of footsteps have changed, sometimes deeper and muffled or sometimes magnified by a new echo. The decision has been made, the materials have been laid and your body now takes you down the path without thinking. Your mind rests, there is no processing of which plant to walk around, rock to step over, or which part of the ground will lend you the most support.  Look up, and focus your eyes on the surroundings.

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Don't be mistaken, I do love the adventure and mental exercise of acute perception and graceful prowess that comes with cutting my own path. When I was a kid I spent countless hours behind our house discovering the magical woods. I began a solo game in pathfinding agility that became a habit that persists still today. While foraging around on trampled brush trails and creeksides, I imagined that I was in a competition to pick the best, most precise route. I was a highly skilled animal, sleek and agile, that knew which rocks would take my weight without shifting and could lightly jump over a stream without that clumsy slipping in the mud that leaves the telltale sneaker streak.  I fancied myself as quite a deft creature, and now, it’s my meditation because my brain won't be tamed into the quiet still kind of meditation practice. Unfortunately it hasn’t kept me from being heavy footed and prone to at least one spill on every hike. Hello nature, I have arrived and I am a loud and messy deer with 5 to 7 legs. This is not quite what I envisioned as a mud-stained tomboy mapping the urban backwoods of Missouri and Texas.

Photo by Gregory McManis

Photo by Gregory McManis

So now I build pathways over ground and through ground, corralling the unexpected obstacles, pushing them to the sides and organizing them in pleasing vignettes. Fancy footwork is a feather left to fall, hold the fanfare.

Contemplation rests on the landscape more easily when ankle-breaking obstacles disappear. I fear that I am trying to control one's experience, instead of magnifying it, but I re-assure myself that not everyone has an inclination to enjoy the harsh and unsteady terrain of the wilds. I will help them along in a safer, slightly manicured setting and not claim any master plan god-like status.

In the beginning days of Landscape Architecture the overarching goal was to show the superior human potential to control the wilderness. Rolling grassy meadows carpeted the land where once there was a deep unfettered forest of tangled trees and a wily, prickly understory. You were not to work with what was, but instead create a landscape bulldozed with your genius and powerful will. Not until later did this tide recede and appreciation was turned towards celebrating the natural gifts of the landscape and magnifying it’s beauty.

Finding this line between a gentle nudge and a heavy hand is crucial to the way I design. Pathways are a conveyor belt for exploration. All of the sudden I am there, walking a step ahead and holding your hand, but I'm invisible. Everyone chooses their own path ultimately, but when you make a path through a landscape for someone else, you are telling them that you know the best way, whether you really do or not.  This is quite a weighty thought for me, and the responsibility to manifest an experience is not something I take for granted.  The permanence of creating a path, changing the sound and the texture is a thrill to me, but I want it to feel seamless as if it was always there, and your feet never left.