We Only Bond with Complex Landscapes

A recent visit to the 40-year-old, 3.5-acre Ruth Bancroft Garden brought home the capacity of a mature stroll garden to serve up mystery and awe.

Here’s one of my beefs with lawns: where is the mystery? We live within this awe-inspiring natural world, teeming with diverse creatures and plants. We have a built-in fascination for other living things (1). Why would we construct our daily environments in such a way that we avoid being fascinated by them?

Instead, why not kindle this fascination in our everyday, ordinary experience? Research shows how important the experience of natural landscapes is for children’s healthy brain, body, and emotional development (2). Wouldn’t our adult lives be richer from these experiences as well?

As I gaze across a vast, unbroken sea of lawn, it practically shouts out a need to rein in wild nature’s unpredictability and mystery. Why would we want to do this?

Perhaps we are acting instinctively to create open spaces that give us an uninterrupted view, because that feels safer. But does it really? The groundbreaking work of architect Christopher Alexander, among others, shows we are more likely to feel safest with foliage at our backs, standing at the edge of a clearing (or, indoors, in a doorway or alcove surveying the room). That would mean we need, somewhere on our property, foliage substantial enough to provide us with shelter.

For many of us, especially those not used to spending time in wild places, too much “nature” in a place can prompt fears of getting lost, of encountering snakes or mountain lions, of being unsafe or uncomfortable. During the course of giving my talks about lawn alternatives, I’ve spoken with many a person who is reluctant to walk in ankle-deep turfgrass, much less ducking inside a thicket of head-high shrubs.

Does this picture of a bare foot partly obscured by ankle-length grass make you uncomfortable?

Avoiding any wildness does restrict our chances of contact with these perceived dangers. But in accepting denuded landscapes, shorn carpets stripped of life and diversity, what are we giving up? What potential experiences are we trading for our certain safety?

We are not only trading the satisfactions of exploring and observing other forms of life (3), but also the truly awe-inspiring experiences that nature can offer: of feeling tiny and inconsequential in the face of its grandeur and of feeling a splendid sense of belonging as part of its expansiveness.

I say this is an extremely poor trade.

When we explore a natural landscape, we get the satisfaction of solving small-m mysteries, such as “hmmm, I wonder what’s behind that hedge?” But that is just the beginning of our fascination. Spending time in such a landscape, opening ourselves to its surprises and unpredictability, we start to form connections with that place and its flora and fauna. We begin to learn their quirks and characters, and in knowing them, to see ourselves in relation to them. This fosters a sense of belonging, a certain possessiveness.

Now we are talking about big-m Mysteries, as in arcane knowledge of how the world works—including some knowledge about how we ourselves (being part of nature) work. This knowledge cannot necessarily come from scientific study, but from personal experiences that prompt a more emotional/spiritual understanding of the world’s patterns and lessons and our place in it.

So here’s my convoluted logic in a nutshell: we do not form attachments to simple, easily legible, overly familiar landscapes like lawn; it is the mysterious, diverse, complex landscapes—those we must expend effort to make familiar, and that may prompt some discomfort along with pleasure—that prompt us to send down our roots.

What do you think?

Someday I hope visitors will stroll through my garden (newly laid out with lawn paths and mulched islands) and wonder what’s around the bend.




  1. Famed ecologist E.O. Wilson termed this human affinity for other living things “biophilia”; learn more about his hypothesis.
  2. See, for instance, these extensive downloadable research summaries.
  3. Environmental psychologist Rachel Kaplan has studied the importance of mystery and legibility in our environments. She writes that we prefer landscapes that offer some chance for us to explore over those that hold no surprises, and that we favor complex landscapes over simple ones as long as they have a coherence that makes them navigable.


  1. Re: pix…….the first, of the Bancroft garden, is a stunner; the second, bare foot in the thick grass, evokes the luxuriant feeling of walking in soft grass, which holds no scary images for me; and the third, of the garden “at rest” and filled with incipient mystery and glory, – well, the third is wonderful inspiration. Delightful article.

  2. This post reminds me of the work of the cultural geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan. One of my favorite observations from his great book Space and Place (hmm. won’t let me use italics) is “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.” Thanks for reminding me of “Space and Place” Evelyn. Great post!

  3. I’d like to second Marte’s note about Yi-Fu Tuan (also one of my heroes). I also thought of his writing–in “Landscapes of Fear”–when reading this post. To me, the prevalence of vast expanses of lawns flowing over undifferentiated house lots reflects the “turning inward” of the past few decades in American culture–away from the outdoors and toward the television, computer game, smart phone, etc. I love philosophical posts such as these.

    • Nice insight, Liz. Maybe we are so overwhelmed (or just distracted) by the many stimuli in our modern lives that we are reluctant to give any extra attention to developing a bond with our landscapes, or to doing other “soul-building” work. So we make it easier on ourselves by simplifying our outdoor environment.

  4. There are about a million pictures of the beach on my Facebook news feed that seem to indicate that people can bond with simple (non-complex) landscapes.

    • Hi skr – yes, if we all had a beach, we could bail on creating complexity in our gardens and allow the grandness to come from the ocean. I don’t think the beach is simple – and it especially connects with what Evelyn posts about here because the ocean is perhaps our DEEPEST (ha! pun intended!) mystery. I has such power, such beauty, it frightens many of us, and demands respect. We can be in that landscape for hours in the same kind of quests of discovery in complex gardens because the garden is not the beach, per se – it is the ocean itself – all concealed, only revealed in small, teasing waves that bring up tiny hints and treasures of everything that lies beneath. In fact, I think ocean as mystery garden is a pretty sound analogy!

      • Yes, the ocean is mysterious, but the beach is visually simple. There is sand, sea, and sky. Three simple bands. What we connect with is not complexity, it is the sublime. The ocean is simple and sublime. The sublime can be revealed by many different aesthetics from the simple to the complex and from the beautiful to the grotesque. That the suburban lawn is not sublime is not news. However, the Picturesque movement shows that even a relatively simple lawn can be sublime.

      • And then there is the Japanese rendering of the ocean as landscape, the dry garden. Visually rather simple with few elements carefully placed in a very sophisticated way, those gardens are not at all the complex ramble that seems to be suggested here as the solution to the suburban lawn. Considering people travel thousands of miles just to see these dry landscapes I would say they generate some sort of connection or bond with the viewer.

        Not everything has to be complex. Simple visuals can be profound. Just because a suburban lawn is simple and unappealing doesn’t mean the cause of the lack of appeal is simplicity. It could just as easily be banality and ubiquity instead of simplicity.

        • HAHA!

          I’m getting an ad for the Zen Landscapes book on my page next to the image of the Bancroft garden and the comparison between the simple and sublime Ryoan-ji in winter and the overstuffed Bancroft is startling.

          • I guess much comes down to taste – I value journey, discovery, exploration, and even a little bit of danger. Most of the gardens that I love are strolls – places for discovery and engagement. And they use LOTS of plants! I love a “rambunctious” garden (wink!)
            There are many different types of meditative garden experiences, and yes – the purpose of those is to get engaged, but I don’t think that is what Evelyn was talking about. She expressly speaks to the need to be a little uncomfortable, to not know what it around the corner, to maybe step on something unexpected, and that creates a very different type of engagement than the kind of zen, transcendental spaces you speak of in japanese rock gardens, wild dessert gardens, and beaches. I believe they connect with different parts of our “being-ness”.
            I have to say I was so surprised, when I went to Japan, how very complex the gardens are! But of course they would be – the culture is one almost obsessed with plants and plantings! The zen garden is often one small moment in a large, complexly planted garden.

          • I don’t know if I would say, “taste,” so much as culture. The sense of place is a product of human attribution and as such is culturally dependent and in a constant state of flux. A naturalistic landscape might be seen as meaningful to one person because it induces nostalgia of makes them feel connected with nature while another person sees dirt and danger causing them unease. Meaning is given to the landscape by people, not the other way around. You give a much different meaning to quaint little towns and their nostalgic bubble than I do. When I see Evelyn positing that we can ONLY bond with complex landscapes, I see her projecting her cultural biases upon the rest of us. When dealing with the subjective and idiosyncratic, we should be very careful about absolutes.

        • ‘ It could just as easily be banality and ubiquity instead of simplicity.”

          Ha! That’s it – the difference between most suburban lawns and the beach.

          …um, commercial sites excepted, of course. The “undeveloped” beach is more like a prairie than a lawn.

    • The comparison with a beach is an interesting example, skr. It brings to mind a couple of thoughts.

      First, consider that the beach is not just a stretch of sand/rock, but also includes the moving water (which generates sound and a varying pattern of waves), as well as the everchanging overlap between the two, presenting a continuum of wet to dry. That is a pretty rich feast for all the senses.

      Second, I agree that people can have an aesthetic reaction to a beach (or a lawn, for that matter), or to beaches or lawns in general; that is different from the type of bond I was describing, which is a deeper understanding of and attachment to a specific place. Not just any beach or lawn, but this particular one.

      • There is a complexity to the natural phenomena such as the braking waves and the play of light upon the surface of the water. But when you use the complexity of natural phenomena as criteria for determining whether a landscape is simple or complex, you render simplicity meaningless. Like water has riples and the dance of light, a lawn can have the complex play of light and shadow cast upon it from the clouds or the complex pattern created by falling leaves. Under that framework, even a concrete bock wall can be complex.

        I understand and in some ways even agree with the whole Norberg-Schulz “Genius Loci” argument but the attribution of meaning to space is just not reducible to this simple/complex dichotomy you have posited. There is a large body of work based on these ideas from Heidegger, Norberg-Schulz, and Tuan such as Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” or De Maria’s “Lightning Field” that use very simple landscape interventions in order to render the complexity of natural phenomena in a legible and meaningful way.

        • To me, ‘attributing meaning to a space’ is not quite the same as ‘bonding’ in the way I was trying to describe. A place can be legible, can be pleasant or otherwise interesting, can even prompt deep thoughts, without necessarily being ‘mine’ or ‘where I belong’ or ‘where I am at home’. Those are better descriptions of the bond I was talking about.

          Having a profound experience walking on a beach or sitting in a zenlike space, I would argue, isn’t sufficient to create that sense of belonging that ties you to that particular beach or space.

  5. Conceal/Reveal is one of the most important principles in exterior design, in my opinion. Complex landscapes with places to discover take us back to a time when every trip outside was a grand adventure, every stick was a sword, a treehouse was a castle. To make a garden “too easily consumable” is like choosing McDonalds over a locally sourced, lovingly and thoughtfully prepared meal that has variety – yes, the McDonalds offering are good and they are easy to get and eat, but in the end that’s all they are. A great garden, like a wonderful meal, should take us places, should hit different parts of our palates, should entice us and make us want to keep going, or maybe stop and linger.
    Thanks for this great post Evelyn! LOTS to chew on!

  6. Amen. We need to feel more uncomfortable, and we need to care and feel connected to place. I question how connected we are when so many towns look the same — McDonalds, WalMart, concrete, lawn. That’s not democracy in action, it’s totalitarianism. But we don’t like to feel uncomfortable, we don’t like to have to think, open up, be tested — I’m not sure if that’s a survival instinct or an American privilege thing going on. We lost the language that brings us home and makes us mentally and physically healthier and truly at peace and in control; the language of birds, caterpillars, dirt. I’m thinking here if Linda Hogan’s book Dwellings, and even The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.

    • I will have to investigate Linda Hogan, Benjamin. I hadn’t heard of her before. Yes, we don’t seem to be very connected; we move often and seem to prefer interchangeable environments. Yet I believe many of us yearn for that kind of connection with a particular place.

    • Totally Benjamin. I was up in Ojai, CA for the long Thanksgiving weekend – there isn’t a McDonalds or a Target or a Walmart ANYWHERE … it is a smallish town given over to preserving habitats, making beautiful outdoor spaces that merge park with wildland, spas, good food, and organic agriculture. There was SUCH a sense of place there that it almost threw me off when I couldn’t get a Starbux! What a dork! It was amazing, revelatory, and very very connecting. Trails take you to unknown spaces. Fallen trees are in your path. Things that are overgrown are allowed to be – nothing is manicured. I was seriously wanting to move. Gardens like the ones Evelyn writes about here dominate. Sigh. The Spell of the Sensuous!

  7. There’s a reason people are uncomfortable walking barefoot in ankle-high grasses: it’s snake habitat. I knew someone who planted bunchgrasses for the grandkids to play in, but it turned out that the snakes discovered the meadow first!

    • For those of us who work on spaces where people live close to the wild, the issue of tall grass and snakes is very present, always. The thing that is important to remember is that when we speak of building and preserving habitats for wildlife, snakes are PART of that wildlife! In most human habitable (verging on wild) landscapes there is a gradient of lawn that becomes taller at the outer edges, so that one can feel safe in a zone closer to the built structure (house) and then explore in tall grass should one choose. Most reasonable habitable landscapes of the type Evelyn is focusing on will utilize both mown grass and tall grass.

  8. You’re right. A well manicured lawn, a primped and preened tree lacks soul. The Bancroft Garden, for one, showcases nature at its wild and wonderful best.

  9. This is a wonderful essay on an important topic–thank you! I truly believe complex landscapes can make for rich, nourishing, interesting, fully-awake lives (both ours and our friends in nature). Not only do they provide delight, but education from observing the interaction of creatures large and small, flora and fauna. Great stuff.

  10. Mulched islands, and beds were my huge mistake upfront.

    Wish I had begun with groundcovers from first day.

    What are your groundcovers?

    Love what you are doing…..

    Been without a lawn for decades.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    • Hi, Tara. Fun question! I’m a groundcover (living mulch) lover too.

      When I plan a planted area, I think in terms of a vertically layered community. The mulched islands in the photo are being created in phases; I planted shrubs and trees into the lawn and piled leaves deeply around them to smother the grass. Later, when the grass is dead, I will be planting the understories.

      In a couple of islands where I’m using a tough, indefinitely spreading groundcover, I did plant it along with the taller woodies. There’s one island with sumac, cedar, and an understory of cuttings from my sister that are either cotoneaster or bearberry. Another has a pine tree, several shrubs, and an open area that will be filled with catmint.

      Then there are still other areas with a meadowy feel that will be mixed grasses, flowering perennials, and lower creepers. And a couple of partly shaded woodsy areas with patches of low, dense mounding plants including Heuchera, Bergenia, and Geranium. And in other areas, I’m trying out some colonies of self-sowers to see if I can make them self-sustaining.

      As you can probably tell, I’m just experimenting with different combinations and plants to see how they work in my new location. (And I could ramble on and on about it!)

      So what was your mistake? Keeping the plants mulched with wood chips/gravel instead of establishing living mulches?

  11. When I see a large manicured lawn, I have the same impulse from my childhood to run across it, do cartwheels, roll around, etc. which I think is a pretty normal impulse. The problem is, most manicured lawns are in places that don’t allow that kind of activity; they are part of formal corporate or industrial landscaping, or golf courses and so on (“Keep Off the Grass”). Thank goodness for parks! So I would make a plea for landscaping that is appropriate to the use of the land it sits on. Keep some lawns for running, playing and picnicking on!

    • Anne, to me, lawns that are used for play are in a different category. I am not suggesting that we not have them. (I like doing cartwheels too!)

      My focus is not on how to get rid of lawns so much as how to reconnect people with the rest of nature and how to help those that yearn to spend more meaningful, more rewarding time outdoors.

  12. I do think the way to encourage folks to choose alternatives to lawns in through inspired alternatives created in both the private or public domain. But frankly, one needs to seriously consider that grass lawns do create functional opportunities to be used for all manner of recreation and contemplation that more complex landscapes may inhibit. Besides the occasional cartwheel and all manner of sport…….. I have my own sweet memories of tumbling blissfully down hillsides, comfortably lying in the lawn with eyes skyward to watch passing clouds, or throwing down a tarp and slip’n’sliding with a sprinkler without worrying what bare feet will encounter. Adults use lawn areas to entertain large crowds, to do space-hogging home projects, comfortable sun-bathing. And at this stage of American cultural history, the nostalgia of what wonderful pleasure we’ve experienced with lawns underfoot is another strong motivator for maintaining the lawn’s preeminent place as the suburb landscape idiom of choice. Any argument that fails to acknowledge such usefulness of lawns will hardly help diminish their presence as a knee-jerk solution to open space.
    So better to lead by example, than to disparage!

    • Yes, nwphillygardener, I’m definitely not saying that we should replace all lawns. Some are used and loved. I’m advocating that we make, preserve, and enjoy more complex landscapes that, in addition to providing ecological services, give us experiences we cannot get from lawns.

  13. Evelyn, I am happy to see you mention that lawns can be a useful and fun area in the landscape. What you advocate are other outdoor experiences for people that do not include lawn. That I love, because it both allows a lawn and at the same time opens up opportunities to redefine how we use plants in the landscape. Though we are creatures of habit, becoming aware of others , in this case other versions of arranging plants, opens us up to what being human is all about: discovery and oneness.

  14. Bare feet in long grass bring to my mind slugs, leeches, and ticks; also sharp rocks, metal, and glass. To say nothing of the dog poop.

    • Sadly for those of us who love going barefoot, such deterrents can be found everywhere. I have encountered plenty of goose and dog poop on short-cropped grass. It is often necessary to look before you step, even in your own yard.

      There are trade-offs, but I really do enjoy the feel of grass (or other plants) brushing against my skin. For some people, the risk-benefit analysis may have a different outcome.

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