Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Dear Pauline,

It’s me, Arrol, the kid who grew up next door to you back in the old neighborhood in Concord.  You used to babysit me, and in a way, over the years, you became the grandmother I never had.  

Anyway, I dreamed about the neighborhood last night, as I still do now and then, even though the whole place is of course long destroyed.  But there I was back home again, and in that aimless way that dreams develop, I thought I’d stop in next door and say hi to you.

I crunched my way down our long gravel driveway out to the sidewalk, past the hedge, then onto the narrow concrete walk between the twin green lawns and up the steps to your creaky old front porch. You weren’t sitting in your big green rocking chair--the one with the wicker seat--so I knocked on your screen door. 

The funny thing is, every detail on that porch was there as plain as day:  I  could feel the three slanting brass bars of the screen door grille through the screen, and the gray-painted porch floor, with the joints between the planks ridged up a little. Next to your rocking chair was the smaller wooden rocker where I used to sit and listen to your stories about the old days. There was the same old porch light with its frosted globe in the middle of the beadboard ceiling, strung with cobwebs and dead gnats, and of course your black ashtray full of stubbed-out Salems on top of the wide banister, the filter ends stained with bright fuschia lipstick.

As usual, I couldn’t really see into the dark front room through that big wooden screen door--just a glimmer of gold from the starburst-shaped clock on the back wall.  You came to the door, and in the dream I called you Pauline, which of course I never did as a child: You were always “Mrs. Meese”. You were glad to see me, and we talked a little bit about this and that, and I told you that we all missed you. Still, I had the feeling that you needed to get back to whatever it was you’d been doing.  

As I was turning to leave, you said “Love ya,” in that offhand Oklahoma way of yours.  “We love you too,” I said.  I don’t know why I said “We”; I suppose I was speaking for my family, although as good stolid Germans we never even said “I love you” to each other, let alone to the neighbors.  

We went out on the porch again, and I gave you a hug.  Something welled up in me, and over your shoulder, I began telling you how I missed the neighborhood, how everything had changed, how when I drove through town I didn’t even recognize what road I was on anymore.  And I felt tears welling up in my eyes.  That’s when I began to wake up--not all of a sudden, but little by little, the familiar surroundings seeming to slip further and further away without my having budged from that spot.  I remember staying very still for a while after I awoke, afraid I’d break the spell of having just stood there with you, Mrs. Meese--Pauline--on that comfortable old porch, in that long-vanished old neighborhood.

Anyway, I had a nice visit, and I guess I just wanted to tell you about it.  I know that we can never really go home again, but it seems I can’t help but try it now and then, in spite of myself. 

Monday, May 7, 2012


Near my office there’s a stretch of sidewalk that typifies what passes for urban landscaping these days.  It’s a laser beam-straight ribbon of concrete almost a quarter-mile long. Trees--all of the same species and all spaced exactly the same distance apart--  march rigidly along one side, seemingly poked into the ground like so many Tootsie-Pops.

Granted, it’s a fine thing that developers and public works departments have begun cooperating to guarantee our city streets some kind of natural relief.  But it’s also appararent that we could do a lot better, at the price of little more than a bit of careful thinking.

It’s been said that the essence of beauty is a recognizable pattern brought to life by unexpected variations.  In other words, the human mind is comfortable with basic patterns that are familiar and easily grasped, but it also gets bored when it doesn’t come across a surprise or a challenge in these patterns now and then.  

Nowhere is this more true than in landscape design.  The human brain is not at all used to seeing mind-numbing sameness in nature--and why should it be?  There’s no such thing to be found there.  In even the most outwardly uniform forest or expanse of desert, Mother Nature is nevertheless teeming with variation.  Hence, when we see a line of trees rigidly arrayed and spaced equidistantly like points on a number line, our minds rebell.  Well, mine does, anyway.

What’s most puzzling about this sort of rote design is that making it less oppressive costs next to nothing when it’s done in the design stage.  There are plenty of simple and inexpensive ways to relieve the usual row-of-lollipops landscaping scheme, for example.  Tree spacing can be varied--oh, the shock!-- a few yards this way or that.  A different species can be introduced now and then as an accent, and the sidewalk inflected a bit to acknowledge it.  And once the streetscape is a little less daunting, a simple bench here and there might be welcome for people to sit down and enjoy it.

In landscaping, as in so many other facets of architecture, blind habit, laziness, and hurry are the archenemies of good design.  Especially with today’s computer drafting programs, it’s much easier to fire off a perfect row of identical trees on a landscape plan and call it good, than it is to introduce the sort of small variations that are the hallmark of all human endeavor.  And while precision can be a wonderful thing, it can also stultify the spirit.  Our world, like ourselves, is always a little bit off-center, unpredictable, and imprecise, and I suspect that most of us like it that way.  At least, we’d like it even less if it were otherwise.

In an era increasingly running at the pace of electrons, we have to be especially wary of what we stand to lose in worshipping speed and precision above all else.  Urban landscapes aren’t printed circuits, and planners ought not treat them as such.  It’s ironic that despite--or perhaps because of--our technical wizardry, we have to try even harder to do what Mother Nature does with ease.