September 18, 2011

A walk in the park (with spatial matters on the brain)

Over the past year or so I have been reading a lot more work that focuses on issues such as space, place, and nature.  More anthropologists have been looking into these issues in the past ten years.  Setha Low and Teresa Caldeira are two really good examples.  I have also been reading a lot of work by geographers--Neil Smith, Henri Lefebvre, Edward Soja, Doreen Massey, and others.  Soja argues that while many researchers in the social sciences and humanities take consideration of things like culture and history as fundamental, they often neglect concerns about space.  This is an important point.  Regardless, the more I read along these lines, the more it infects my thinking.  This is a good thing.  Take, for example, this set of images.  They were taken during a recent walk in a nearby park, when I was working on some geographical readings.  Parks are pretty fascinating places.  People go to them to experience "nature," but it's a very ordered, constructed, bounded, manicured, and ultimately human induced sort of nature.  We like to make "nature," in essence, with our gardens, walls, pathways, and such.  Anyway, here's a few of those images, with some captions for good measure.

This one is technically on the way to the park, but the strange spatial matters are already apparent.  Grass plays an interesting role in our landscaping and understanding of nature.  This is the theme that runs through all of these images.  Grass is everywhere, but it's very much shaped by our ideas and actions.  What I like most about this one is the fact that the grass is clearly creeping it's way back across the sidewalk.  Nature requires constant attention to keep it looking pretty and in check--otherwise it runs rampant and we might lose our way.

Here is where the flower garden ends, cut into an unmistakable corner to separate the planted area from the surrounding field of grass.  What is most striking is how geometric this is, and how it reflects an explicit way of thinking about and arranging space.  The flowers go here.  And the planter ends, here.  Notice, once again, the invading weeds that seek to undermine all of these great designs.

We often think about what we can see on the surface, not what exists below.  Imagine all of the roots and passageways that exist below places like this.  This image is particularly Deleuzian/Guattarian for me, and I am not trying to be obtuse.  Deleuze and Guattari talked a lot about rhizomes, and this image is a fascinating example of a human induced rhizomatic system that runs underneath the leisurely and "natural" park system.  These two metal covers are just a hint of what lies below.
Another curving pathway, with trees places in pleasing locations alongside the path.  Here is a clear division between where the pedestrian is supposed to walk and where most do not.  But some cross the threshold and march across the grass.  Why?  What makes someone want to wander around through the grass?  Better yet, what makes the vast majority of people follow the pre-planned asphalt path?  Why, when faced with this situation, do many of us simply go along with the order and routine of the space?

We often think that there are clear boundaries between nature and non-nature.  But look closely at the edge of this walkway--one bleeds into another, and the division isn't even static.  The grass keeps pushing and growing, and has to be beaten back by machines with spinning blades and such.  The battle to define and bound nature is endless, and violent.  No matter...the asphalt keeps cracking, and the grass will probably win out eventually.  Regardless, both are products of human intervention.

I am not going to say a lot about this one because if you look at it in a certain way it speaks for itself.  This is a clearly defined space for "being in nature."  Fascinating.  The concrete pad is the best part.  Sit here to view nature.

I am going to end with this one, which shows how intertwined humans are with the environments they produce.  These places reflect ideas about space and the so-called natural world, and they are also places full of memories.  Parks are often marked with memorials like this, so that new people who pass through can remember others who came before them.  Notice, once again, the role that the grass plays in all of this.  It not only frames the tree, it also rings the marker itself.  Gardeners have to work to maintain this aesthetic segregation.

Cross-Posted at Plurality Press.


Kai said...

sorry, i just want to make an annoying comment that rhizome is a concept for both deleuze and guattari, and if i'm not mistaken, was guattari's invention. dude just seems to get the short end of the stick most of the time.

Ryan Anderson said...

Ha. I KNEW I wouldn't get away with that one. Good call Kai. I was being lazy when I wrote this, and thought to myself that I should probably include Guattari as well. But then I didn't, out of sheer, terrible laziness. And look where that got me! Thanks for keeping me in line. You're definitely right on the money.

Conor said...

You had me at park! haha
You know, I was thinking about similar issues in Cambodia when the river flooded last week and forced new pathways throughout the city. Which, in turn, forced us people on motos and bicycles to move based on what nature decided instead of the other way around.

Ryan Anderson said...


See, there is something to be said about how environment shapes movement. I saw some pics on your site--was that during the same time? Anyway, I should have known that the geography-induced post would catch your eye. Watch out! We might all end up as geographers!

Mallory said...

I love discussion on how and why humans frame space, especially how we try to shape nature. As an archaeologist, it's an extremely helpful thought process as well. Thanks for sharing your walk in the park!

Conor said...

yeah, the flooding was from a couple weeks back. Unfortunately, it even created new wet pathways all throughout my house!