THE FOREST: Design Origins? Forests are sources of calming inspiration for many people. Living in Ashfield, MA, Susan and I walk several times a week, often on wooded Bug Hill Road and similar neighborhood roads. We always return refreshed, full of healthy oxygen and with new observations. I regularly bring ideas back to the design and painting studios.
Healthy New England forests are diverse in species and appearance and occupy all “life zones” from ground cover, to low and high shrubs and understory trees to high canopy trees. This idea is strongly suggestive to the earth-conscious landscape designer and the conscious gardener. They, like all of us, may harbor an urge to create a felt sense of harmonious unity perceived particularly in our nearby forests. Unlike human manipulated objects and places, we look to nature generated forests with a non judging eye accepting what we observe.
It may be argued that many of the most persuasive and compelling principles of design—and, beyond that, of community living—are a heritage of human life in or near the “primeval forest”.
Some of the ways forests guide design are obvious. The straightness of tree trunks is imitated in the straight boards and timbers from which we build. Vertical and then rectangular forms are most easily achieved using the predominating verticality achieved from trees reaching for the sun. The vertical emphasis in buildings, churches and civic structures, has been inspiring their human occupants for centuries.
The tapering of tree trunks has also been noticed and imitated, whether in a cathedral or a New England barn or church. Most buildings move from a supportive, thick base to the roof, with the size of timbers diminishing at each level. The columns of the Parthenon—or, for that matter, the New England Greek revival porch—also taper, in part to appear “authentic or natural.”
Tree branching, not unlike the branches of river systems, shows division into smaller and smaller branches, a dendritic pattern and form that is predictable and has also been reflected in the structure of cathedrals and other buildings.
Moving from the single trees to the forest, we see that villages, towns and cities have many of the key elements of the forest: edges, corridors/roads, districts, nodes/rooms and landmarks.
As in design, edges allow us to recognize an element or feature as separate from its surroundings; in this case, the forest itself. In forests, edges are often biologically rich and visually complex. The edge is often where the action is!
The forests have within them, furthermore, special districts of a few or sometimes a single species of tree, always reflecting the influence of soil and water. Such forest districts (we might call them neighborhoods) are replicated in our civic and garden plantings at all scales. There are more subtle but, to the forester’s eye, richly complex nodes where different forest districts merge, sheltering animal and other life. We parallel these nodes in our town and city markets, town commons and urban squares. The node is again, where the most action is!
We all cherish the experience of a forest glade or outdoor room, and the experience is mimicked in designed landscapes from the humblest backyard to the grand estate or college campus quadrangle. Forests are, among other things, assemblées of rooms.
The path is another forests component that human buildings and communities have mimicked. Sometimes first made by animals, paths are enhanced and amended by humans. We then imitate them in our internal hallways, and, externally, in tree-lined allees of grand estates or paths through humble gardens. Canopied tree-lined streets are yet another example, none more grand than elm-lined streets, once common in New England and the Mid West before Dutch elm disease.
Forests also contain isolated trees standing alone, often an older tree, as in the wolf pine or parent oak or beech. Designers have imitated this by planting specimen trees that serve as a kind of monument, in our villages and yards. At longer distance viewing, a group of trees can serve as a specimen.
Another helpful design principle found in the New England forests is the power of “aggregating uniqueness.” Rather than scatter the anomalies of a forest, nature often concentrates them in a single location—the largest and youngest tree, more than one lighting condition, the rock outcrop and the small vernal pool. Imitating and aggregating similar combinations can add richness to landscape design and as with a painting, simultaneously assure focus and coherence.
The pattern of movement landing—such as a forest path as leading to an expanded open glade— is yet another principle that designers would best replicate both indoors and outdoors. Landings appear naturally along pathways, along streams, where we find large rocks, or fallen trunks. As landscape designers, we imitate and strengthen these visual and physical landings by offering benches, or widening a path, purposely interrupting predominating visual flow.
Forest lessons for human living appear limitless. In this age when pollution of all kinds is in the news; CO2, methane and hexafluorethane and more, we must recognize what the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has professed and now accomplished, community, municipal and state nature protecting laws are now adopted by some 200 cities and towns. These measures assure that life sustaining nature has rights.
We know that forests do largely unsung heroic work in sequestering C02 and perform dozens of life-enhancing tasks, such as erosion control, pollution diminishment, shading and cooling, wind protection, flood prevention, soil building and more. They are truly the lungs of the earth. In recent years, we have begun to understand more mysterious processes, that trees and plants have their own means of communication, warn against diseases and pests and live symbiotically as family and as community, modeling for us what we find in diminishing supply among ourselves.
We would do well by recognizing the true value and importance of forests. As with many subjects, they tend to be undervalued. We are better humans to the extent that we intimately know the forests as model, design guide, mentor, teacher, health sustainer, spiritual support, physical and recreational outlet, and muse.
High Meadow Farm Ashfield, MA March 2020