Urban Sprawl Urban sprawl is not a new phenomenon, and the battle between environmentalists and developers is well-known. But perhaps the issue is not that the land is being utterly stripped of life and replaced by cookie cutter houses or factories, which has been a controversy for decades. Perhaps the fighting has exposed a deeper problem: the American acceptance of a false outside, seen through lawns that mimic interiors. People often perceive that any green space is nature. As Michael Ventura says, “America is form opposed to content” (216). Contractors leave some existing trees on lots not because it may be costly to remove them but because those trees also serve as a selling feature for the houses built between.
Most people would rather spend their weekends at an official, regulated and landscaped park rather than hiking through some un-named forest track. While there is the standard human desire for new experiences, people often are only willing to try pre-tested experiences. Even when one realizes the societal manipulation, it still seems difficult to jump over the railings and really cut a new path. So if people are aware that theyre being led by the nose through a sterile, pre-chewed and mocked-up environment, why dont they respond? Heres why: People are simply cannot deal with vast expanses of “nothing.” Afterall, it is more or less the American motto to “tame” the wilderness, to take what the land has to offer and use it to better the standard of human living. Just “being there,” a more Eastern philosophy, seems only a waste of both money and resources to American thinking. The court system has even ruled several times along the lines that a “loss of open space amounts to an insignificant impact” to dissuade new housing developments (“Preservation Groups Lose Favor”).
The planet alone has been deemed worthless without us, a belief which already ties in nicely with some Western religious rationalization, for “the ease of human interface, comfort of use, the accuracy of human perception” (Viola 226). Even the National Park Service doesn’t seem to seem to be championing the planet to simply safeguard natural ecospheres (“Mission Statement”). They state: Government has always had an interest in the development of [American] land in a beneficial, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing manner. Since these variables are highly subjective, land use law, which covers environmental takings and zoning issues, are among the most contentious issues facing local, state, and federal officials. They preserve the land as it is because it will serve them in some function, that of some obscure goal of outside recreation for the people.
Our “recreation” truely is based on “re-creation,” as Ventura points out (216). The noble act is revealed as a selfish one, something that will ensure their remembrance as “good ancestors.” They wish to please as many people as possible, marketing the land to satisfy expectations. However, “safe, clean and aesthetically-pleasing” is not natural nature. Powerful storms become”natural disasters” to our eyes, and weather is judged “inclement” based on our perceptions. And those perceptions are not just the normal range of senses dictated by species, but are directly affected by the environment. The senses are heightened or dulled depending on dangers encountered in daily life, and the more one is shielded from the environment, the less one is prepared to handle it when it changes suddenly.
A person living in a so-called under-developed country more easily accepts local phenomena – such as sand storms or tsunamis – than someone caught off-guard by an earthquake in a city. A resident of Florida posted desperate pleas on the Family Gardening message board, under the thread of “How do I get the sand out of my lawn? HELP!” after one particularly heavy rain (“Message Posting”). The trouble just seems to come with the territory, yet fifteen concerned replies did follow, explaining just how to remove the foreign matter from the sacred backyard. “What is real,” Viola suggests, “is what is psychologically meaningful” (229). People now look at the stripped-down ecospheres surrounding their dwellings as an extension of their property: something that is owned and must be used. Artificial images do not portray reality accurately, as “they aspire to be the image and not the object” (Viola 226).
We know that crabgrass and dandelions exist, but lawn-owners insist that such defects shouldnt. Lawns are worse than simply a photograph–which, if manipulated, is still an image. On the other hand, a lawn is actually a three-dimensional space that we can enter, observe from all angles, drive by and judge the proficiency of weed-whacking. The introduction to a lawn care website sums it up best: There’s nothing like a lawn. Large or small, lawns are the irreplaceable pieces of American life.
Our lawns are the welcome mats to our homes. They present our best face to visitors and neighbors, frame our houses, cradle our children, connect our property to our neighbor’s but also serve as friendly boundaries (“Site Entrance”). That opening alone can convey more patriotism than the monuments of the entire East Coast. The startling aspect of that passage, though, is that it functions on a much more personal level than official tourist attractions, putting the pressure on the home-owners. A good friend of mine for the past nine years comes from such a family.
At any time, I could find her deeply engaged in lawn care chores, ranging from the simple task of mowing to the raking of leaves to the fertilization of carefully arranged flowers. She did not enjoy wasting away her free time with such work, but she never complained, not even to me as I hung out in her room playing video games until she was eventually through. The reason for her lack of protest was that it was required and expected in her neighborhood to tend yards in a certain way, giving a uniform appearance to the blocks and blocks of expensive but uninspired homes. Im so grateful to have never have lived in a sub-division of any kind–though I can see what the housing developers had in mind when they implanted this brain-washing into their customers. Such regulations are needed to ensure a certain status quo; home-owners arent just buying a building to live in–theyre buying into the neighborhood. All you need is one spirited but artistically-untraditional individual–say for instance, someone like me–to lower the surrounding property values with a non-conventional treatment outside the house.
With the mass-production of subdivisions today, the neighborhoods “personality” must be pre-fabricated, and the neighbors depend on each other to upkeep the illusion. Instead of the residents individually defining their living space (as was the case before the 1950s), the community image is dictated by committee. Just as Michael Ventura argues that Americans have lost a sense of history to a vague nostalgia, maybe people have also have lost their connection to the real landscape, which leads toward that loss of history. Respect for the land is not wide-spread in America–perhaps because we have so much to spare. Conversely, the more Eastern philosophy probably derives from the fact that space is a commodity there.
Just as lawns speak for American views, bonzai can easily represent the opposite. The art of bonzai does not seek to contort nature into human perceptions. It’s main purpose is to thoughtfully imitate the larger theme. Instead of bringing the entire surrounding environment “down to our level,” bonzai helps the viewer realize the enormity of real nature. While the typical American scurries around trying to meet the least common denominator in their lawns appearance, there still remains some artistic expression in the world that can coincide nature without infringing upon it. Bill Viola, too, looks for the residual human presence in the vast expanses of nature, just as he finds the residue of nature in the urban non-places of parking lots.
Nature and civilization are not essentially oppositions to face off, one against the other, in predictable bouts of logic. Rather, one is contained within the other, sometimes hidden. However, Ventura also says that “we have stripped the very face of America of any content, and reality, concentrating only as its power as image” (216). Landscape, therefore, conceals as much as it shows. While most of us cannot install a self-sufficient forest preserve on the small plots of our”property,” it is up to us to ensure that the image is the only nature left in the end.
Good ancestors dont dictate what their descendants should see. Bibliography “Message Posting.” Family Gardening Web Site Forum. 22 Nov. 1999. 24 Nov. 1999 “Mission Statement.” National Park Service Webpage.
1 Dec. 1999 “Preservation Groups Lose Favor.” PAW Archives. 13 Jan. 1995. 29 Nov.
1999 “Site Entrance.” Meiyger Lawn Care & Products. 15 Aug. 1999. 29 Nov. 1999 Ventura, Michael.
“Report From El Dorado.” Vision and Revision: A Reader for Writers (Second Edition). Acton: Copley Custom Publishing Group, 1998. 211-23. Viola, Bill. “The Visionary Landscape of Perception.” Vision and Revision: A Reader for Writers (Second Edition). Acton: Copley Custom Publishing Group, 1998. 224-29.