Sign up to our newsletter:

Regional Interpretation: Linking our Natural and Cultural Diversity

Cotributed by Gary Schwetz, Delaware Center for Horticulture, 1810 North Dupont Street, Wilmington, Delaware 19806-3308, USA

Introduction

The social value of interpreting regions has come to the fore recently. Regional awareness is being advocated by people from a wide range of disciplines, such as agriculture, ecology, economics, geography, history, landscape architecture, philosophy and politics. I would like to begin with a personal view of the theoretical basis for regional interpretation found in my literature research of those various fields. Then I will follow with the findings of Regional Interpretation motives and methods at my three case-study institutions.

Having spent my formative years in an agricultural landscape, I was emotionally torn recently when reading Wes Jackson’s Becoming Native to This Place. He spoke of the utility and the beauty of plant adaptations coming together through the minds of farmers to fill the regional niche their land occupied. Jackson theorized that a loss of rootedness in, and appreciation for, the land equates with environmental disregard, homogenization of the landscape and, a loss of natural and cultural diversity.

I felt a sense of fulfillment in myself for having experienced the lessons of the land, understanding what it means to read the climate, the soil, the physical character of a region. Not realizing it at the time, I had obtained a foundation in ecology that no amount of academic training could supply. At the same time, I was moved to guilt at having broken my tie with the place, deserting my family’s home ground after three generations of indoctrination to the land.

My point is that our land intelligence has been undermined by modern priorities and by our mobility; even by the mere speed with which we move across the land. Let me demonstrate with an example from ecologist David Orr. Consider the plant exploration trip taken by William Bartram in the eighteenth century, from Pennsylvania to Florida. Imagine the level of stimulation felt by Bartram over the weeks and months as he enthusiastically recorded the many wonders he had experienced. Compare that to a trip by the interstate highway system or jet airliner over the same route. Modern travelers experience only a succession of homogenized images and sounds moving through an engineered landscape tailored to speed and convenience.

A Need to Reconstruct the Land

Human perception of the land has become increasingly abstract, measured as lapsed time and experienced as the dull exhaustion that accompanies close confinement. We have subconsciously developed a sentiment of indifference to the land, the region, to the place we live – it has become more and more irrelevant to our existence. This statement by Liberty Hyde Bailey is as relevant today as it was eighty years ago:

It is incumbent on us to take special pains . . . that all the people, or as many of them as possible, shall have contact with the earth and the earth’s righteousness shall be abundantly taught.

I propose that the appreciation of land and place is at the root of our survival. While we may not depend on the knowledge and familiarity with place that agrarian societies had, land is crucial as a part of our civic conscience. If society forgets or no longer cares where it lives, then anyone with the political power and the will to do so can manipulate the landscape to conform to their own social ideals or nostalgic visions. People may hardly notice that anything has happened or assume that whatever happens – if a mountain is stripped of timber and soil is eroded into its creeks – is for the common good. The more superficial a society’s knowledge of the real dimensions of the land it occupies, the more vulnerable the land is to exploitation, to manipulation for short-term gain.

As visual and site-specific institutions, public gardens have a perfect opportunity to help to overcome the visual and locational indifference Americans tend to exhibit. Gardens are perfectly equipped to promote the uniqueness of their regions. As a bonus, education about a region’s physical and cultural aspects will help a society relearn the stewardship of that region. If we can help people to be aware of what is around them, maybe they will be more likely to act to preserve it.

Regionalism Defined through Case Studies

Because region can mean so many different things to different people, I will not get bogged down in the definition and delineation of regions. For the purposes of this article, regionalism is defined as intuitive recognition of the distinct natural features, inhabitants, and history of the region, with an obligation to live within the physical, ecological, and cultural boundaries determined by these criteria. This flows from Webster’s definition of regionalism: “devotion to one’s own geographical region”. The intention of my study was to investigate institutions that focus their mission on conserving and teaching regional culture through regional interpretation. The purpose of these investigations was to: examine the issues and motivations behind developing regionally-oriented programs; illustrate the methods and processes of regional interpretation in museums, especially public gardens; and demonstrate roles for public gardens and museums in regional interpretation, so as to provide a greater social purpose for those organizations.

Based on preliminary literature research, I looked at efforts in the following areas of regional interpretation to select three case-study institutions:

  • promoting the uniqueness of the horticulture, ecology, geology, and aesthetics of a region
  • using vernacular materials and crafts, involvement of local craftspeople and artists
  • recognising human history on-site
  • collaborating with resident institutions
  • involving the community in programs and planning
  • emphasising location-appropriate plants, processes, and techniques
  • implementing formal educational activities related to local nature and culture.

My search for exemplary regional institutions led me to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, the Crosby Arboretum in Picayune, Mississippi, and Red Butte Garden and Arboretum in Salt Lake City, Utah. First I would like to give you a feel for the characteristics that make these three regions distinct, and go a little more in-depth into how the third institution carries out the interpretation of its region.

Case Studies Previewed

The Crosby Arboretum encompasses a portion of a biological system known as the Piney Woods, in a region defined in the institution’s mission as the Pearl River Basin. From the mission, one can easily deduce that the Arboretum is strongly focused on ecological interpretation. It is also evident that the Arboretum was founded by supporters avid about preserving the regional culture. Pinecote, the main site of the Crosby Arboretum, was designed to interpret the plant communities of the region: savanna, woodland, and freshwater wetland, with thematic journeys choreographed into the mosaic. This site is a 64 acre former strawberry farm and pine plantation. Ed Blake, master-planner and first Director of the Arboretum , through months and years of observation, was able to harmonize the human features of the site with the recovering natural communities in a fashion that he humbly describes as “stepping back and letting nature do her thing”. As you can imagine, the interpretation at the Arboretum is wholly oriented to the region and its ecology.

The Adirondack Museum is surrounded by a landscape of natural beauty that strikes you with a powerful impact when you enter the region. At six million acres, the Adirondack Park is the largest park in the continental United States; approximately three million acres were designated “forever wild” by a New York State constitutional amendment in 1892. The Museum is located on the site of a former ‘gilded-age’ resort hotel overlooking Blue Mountain Lake. The immediate region of the Museum is well known for a high density of early resort hotels and summer camps established around the turn of the century. Vast tracts of land were once held as recreational ‘Great Camps’ by wealthy individuals, with an entire service industry growing up around them. This recreational phenomenon was a major historical factor in the settlement patterns and culture of the region. George Hochschild, the founder of the Adirondack Museum, was a wealthy and environmentally-minded industrialist, who saw fit to preserve that history by personally collecting its artefacts. His collections have developed into a highly-acclaimed regional museum.

My third site is located in Salt Lake City, Utah, in a region known as the Intermountain West. The Red Butte Garden and Arboretum publicize their location as “where the Great Basin Desert meets the Rocky Mountains”. They also claim to be one of the most urbanized locations in the country, with nearly 2 million people within a 40-minute drive. The Garden and Natural Areas consist of a 160-acre site perched on a shelf in the foothills, at the mouth of the Red Butte Canyon. The Garden and Arboretum were dedicated in 1983 to serve as a regional botanic garden. Garden personnel make it a point to tell visitors that this canyon contains one of the few remaining undisturbed riparian ecosystems in the Intermountain West.

The Garden flowed from the vision of a Professor of Botany at the University of Utah, Dr. Walter Pace Cottam. He recognized early what the Rocky Mountain-Great Basin transitional zone meant to ecological diversity. Dr Cottam devoted his entire life to the study and preservation of the natural resources of the Intermountain West, specifically this canyon. As it relates to my definition of ‘regional’, the organization’s mission directs it to promote interest in regional horticulture, to teach regional ecology, and to provide a cultural resource for the community. The Garden overlooks the University and Salt Lake City; therefore, is well situated to serve its audience.

Red Butte Garden is also ideally situated to help connect visitors to the geology of the region. From the foothill vantage-point, one can see the shoreline and beaches of ancient Lake Bonneville at the foot of the far mountain range across the Valley. You can also see the existing Great Salt Lake, a mere shadow of the former lake. The Garden is sited on the beach of the eastern shore of Lake Bonneville. Picture the 1000-foot-deep lake completely submerging Salt Lake City. A geological fault shifts, causing a gap in a ridge to the north, through which thunders enough water to have carved out Hell’s Canyon of the Snake River as it drained. As a docent told this story to a tour group, I realized that this was a dramatic way to help visitors understand the awesome forces which physically shaped this region.

The Garden is divided into the natural areas and the formal gardens. The site includes a diversity of plant communities and habitats considered as living components of the ecological collections – for example sagebrush-grassland, riparian, and oakbrush ecosystems. While the semi-arid environment might not evoke an impression of biological diversity, the Garden does an excellent job of relaying the special nature of the flora. The Garden promotes the regions’ flora as the “fifth most diverse in the United States.” As you stroll through the Garden displays, you also notice many vernacular materials, largely constructed and installed by local craftspeople. This is a functionally and aesthetically important aspect of being responsive to your place.

Naturalizing a Region’s Inhabitants

As I investigated these three institutions, some overriding themes and motivations took form. Firstly, each institution recognizes and masterfully celebrates its distinct cultural and natural heritage in an effort to reacquaint inhabitants with their region. Hopefully you have gotten that idea from the examples just discussed. A second and unmistakable motivation is the desire to instill ecological literacy and environmental stewardship. The third and fourth motivations are related, in that the reason for involvement is to catalyze dialogue and improvement in the region. The following section will discuss examples of regional interpretations that serve to accomplish the aims of connecting to the community and teaching ecology.

The typical first-time visitor to Red Butte Garden tends to think of the surrounding canyon as pristine and undisturbed. In the spirit of ecological enlightenment, the Garden makes an effort to shatter that illusion by showcasing the human impressions on the site. Docents point to the residual signs: the open face of a quarry on the near mountain and the stone ruin at its base are evidence of Salt Lake City’s closest source of the building stone found in many buildings throughout the city. The Garden is researching the history and plans to use this building in future interpretations. The old quarry trails used to haul the stone have been restored for use as hiking trails.

A wildflower meadow is planted on the site of a former rail yard and turntable. With plantings such as these, the Garden is trying to convey a new sense of stewardship in the proper use of water for a desert region. The fragile, semi-arid environment of the Great Basin is one of the least likely places to support turfgrass, yet the Garden needs to work hard at countering the massively intensive lawn ethic that pervades the region. The Garden demonstrates, through example, many drought-tolerant alternatives to lawns. In the State of Utah a majority of the water needs to be imported, yet over 80 percent of the water drawn is used for irrigation. Grass is used in a minor role in the Garden and where grass does exist, water conservation is accomplished by a weather-driven computerized irrigation system.

Human Signatures in the Piney Woods

Traveling to the state of Mississippi, in the Deep South, the Crosby Arboretum expresses the ecological interconnection of humans and nature through the physical planning of the Pinecote site. In the words of the “Pinecote Master Plan”:

The organic architecture and location demonstrate how human needs of shelter, comfort, and privacy find their expression in Pinecote’s ecology . . . this interplay between man and the land organizes the thematic composition of Pinecote’s landscape exhibits.

 

Ed Blake explains that this desire to interpret the interconnection is the reason that they have put something as symmetrical as the pavilion in nature. Blake says “Pinecote is an example of how we don’t deny our rational side. Human impact is superimposed on nature.” He goes on to describe how the building’s architect, E. Fay Jones, spent days “communing” with the site, to best capture the essence of the human and natural aspects in his structure. The location he chose, adjacent to a remarkable grove of longleaf pine trees (Pinus palustris), is reflected in elements of the building’s form.

These world-acclaimed organic aspects of Fay’s design help the structure create a truly harmonious composition with nature. In the format of a walking ecology lesson, Blake relates theory on edge structure, canopy layers, companion plants, and succession. Blake explains that “they haven’t come to terms with succession of the site yet”. The original idea was to let the pond follow its natural course back to a meadow. If you compare early photographs of the Pavilion with more recent ones from a similar angle, a dramatic change in the pond surface is evident.

The lesson of how nature sustains and regenerates itself is a prevalent theme throughout the activities of the Crosby Arboretum. Curator Bob Brzuszek tells of how the organization’s aesthetics have evolved “to accept what the land has to offer”. They have not only accepted man’s impact, but in a way have actually elevated the human disturbance of the land to an artistic form of instruction. For example, Brzuszek uses fire to “transform and maintain spatial patterns in greater diversity”, in effect forestalling the forces of succession. Through practices perfected in working with their fire ecologist, Cecil Frost from Louisiana State University, a broad range of vegetation ‘ecotones’ or habitats are differentiated by a distinct burning regimen. The plants that are sustained by this process of rebirth, including an extraordinary array of carnivorous plants, not only tell a story but are incredibly beautiful. I think of Bob Brzuszek as an artist of the land. He will tell you that he has realized, through management of the Pinecote site, that there are “a million ways” human actions create special signatures in the landscape. Each of the management techniques they use at the Pinecote interpretive center are site- (and region ) specific. According to Brzuszek, this is the critical message the Arboretum offers:

“How man and culture fit into the Piney Woods landscape. We are trying to, not so much simulate, but emulate what occurs in nature. Understanding the processes that form it, what the sustainability and regenerative possibilities are. Though our lands are disturbed, they have potential and it’s very valuable to learn how we can regenerate with the help of ecological processes.”

Program Design for Community Participation

The theme of involving the local community was a significant priority among these regional institutions. Each attempts to balance education and entertainment to meet the aims of both attracting an adequate audience and altruistically serving the community and improving quality-of-life factors.

At the Adirondack Museum, the human story of the region is told to children and adults through exhibits and programs with major focus on including people in the story. One story told by the ‘Boats and Boating’ exhibit is that of the indigenous Adirondack guideboat. This is a craft that has evolved explicitly for the unique conditions found in the contiguous lake and stream transportation-ways of the Adirondacks. The heritage behind this craft also serves as the theme of a special event for the community, the annual “No-octane Regatta” weekend. This event offers an opportunity for wooden boat aficionados and the local community to celebrate a regional craft. Children and adults get involved in light-hearted competitions racing the replicas of wooden craft.

The Museum has been able to involve all age levels. Junior high-school students enter bateau races in which one of the requirements is that the students build their wooden bateaux themselves. The youngest children are given a chance to participate in the model-boat building workshop. The next day they get the opportunity to compete in the Museum’s fountain pond with their own creations.

On a positive economic note, a cottage industry seems to have developed in this region around the hand-construction of museum-quality replicas of the wooden boats.

Each of the institutions make use of natural backdrops as aesthetic settings for cultural and community events. At Red Butte Gardens, concertgoers are exposed to beautiful plant collections when attending events held in the outdoor amphitheater. Use of regionally-appropriate plants and materials are also advocated at various events, including a native plant sale and a harvest festival.

Adult classes at the institutions serve to forge a tie with local inhabitants. The Pinecote Pavilion at the Crosby Arboretum provides another wonderful place for programming that can help to achieve an intimacy with, and appreciation of, the region.

Indoctrination Beginning with the Young

The theme of children’s education is prevalent in the goals and community influence of each of the case-study institutions. Administrators have consistently supported children’s programs to fill a perceived gap in the public education system. The calendar for one of the programs at the Adirondack Museum, called “Time and Time Again,” has activities every week from January through June. Students can come back every week for a program on a different topic. The Museum serves over 8,000 student contacts annually. The institutions also supply pre-visit materials for the program, to give teachers a better understanding of the region. Red Butte Gardens sends materials to 10,000 elementary school teachers across the State of Utah.

Red Butte Gardens has positioned itself as an outdoor classroom for the community. The Garden’s master-planning effort involving educators, students, public agencies and the community in general, revealed an important role for the Gardens to play in environmental education. The Garden worked with the Utah State Office of Education to develop science curricula for elementary and secondary schools.

Pam Poulsen, as manager of environmental education, has a refreshing philosophy of training young people to recognize healthy environments. It was invigorating to watch her in action: she does not recite rules on environmental responsibility, but rather has an amazing technique of stimulating awareness and observation skills. The visits to these institutions provide an unprecedented opportunity that is so unusual to the young, because it is teaching science (in situ) through settings that many have never seen or experienced before. It is becoming a rare occurrence today, when children can experience plants and animals in their habitat of choice. Gary Paul Nahban interviewed children recently in the Sonoran Desert and found that for the most part they were receiving their information about other organisms vicariously. Over 50% of the Mexican, Anglo, and Native American children told him that they had seen more animals on television than they had personally seen in the wild. This lack of contact with the natural world will become the norm, as more than 38% of the children born after the year 2000 are destined to live in cities of more than a million. For that reason alone, this type of experiential learning for children is so critical.

Working Together to Multiply Impact

Collaborations were a common theme among the case studies. The exhibit on display in the Red Butte Garden Visitor Center at the time of my visit comprised the winning entries of a program called ‘Celebrate Wildflowers’. In a collaborative effort with environmental education organizations from three states, elementary school students were asked to portray their version of regional wildflowers. M.P. Matheson, Director at RBG, pointed out they have a long way to go with children’s perception of nature – many of the children picture wildflowers in vases and pots removed from their local habitats. She said that next year they will strive to communicate “to the kids why we celebrate wildflowers, where they belong and what contributions they make.” Matheson said that they “hope to make it more interactive – whether it’s with a native hummingbird or bee or a human in the picture – to convey what that wildflower is doing out there where it lives.”

Red Butte Garden cooperates with other organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Center for Plant Conservation. Nature Conservancy members are given tours of natural areas adjacent to the Garden. These areas, owned by the U. S. Forest Service, are used for educational activities through a memorandum of understanding. Red Butte Garden is researching endangered plants in this area, and ecological collections are identified on field maps, including descriptions of individual plant communities. Publications and species checklists help visitors to appreciate the value of regional biological diversity.

A prevailing theme deemed important, if not essential, is bodily engaging people in interpretation or programming. This is accomplished in different ways. Placing the subject in the context of something the visitor would be familiar with is one excellent technique. Another way is to perform the interpretation on a human scale in a personal context. A third is to involve the visitor in an experiential learning technique. Through these processes, regional interpretation can accomplish instruction in the art of simple observation. There is a concern that, with the increasing prevalence of other technologies, basic observation has become a disregarded skill. This provides greater justification for the application of experiential learning, putting the artifact back into the context of its place.

Regaining Environmental Literacy

In closing, I want say that I think it is more than just a romantic notion to become native to your place. It is to understand that both our physical and spiritual sustenance comes from the land. Interpreting a region’s cultural and physical aspects can serve to elevate the role of a public garden as a more respected community resource. Below are some general guidelines that public gardens and museums can use to aid our visiting public in becoming native to their place:

  • reintroduce inhabitants to the distinctiveness of the physical and social character of their place
  • enhance existing public respect for, and aesthetic appeal of, the land and nature
  • re-emphasize the dependence of humans on the land for sustenance and social well-being
  • underscore the indivisibility of the relationship between humans and the land
  • accentuate an understanding of ecology, how nature sustains and regenerates itself, and how our ecological literacy can positively impact the integrity of the landscape
  • optimize the combination of learning and entertainment through techniques which experientially engage the visitor
  • understand and enlist the motives of altruism and enlightened self-interest in establishing a commitment to the local community and
  • catalyze and facilitate dialogue and action on issues affecting the integrity of the region.

Land provides the identity of a society’s culture. By interpreting the regional landscape, we can provide the knowledge to reveal and thereafter, preserve that identity. R. Burton Litton, Jr. of the University of California, Berkeley voiced the recognition of regional character as one of the most important challenges to any professional discipline:

The conservation of the regional landscape provides an integrative fabric that we need so that all places are not reduced to some woefully deficient common denominator with the increasing prevalence of other technologies – deficient in identity, aesthetic quality, and rational responses to environmental influences

(Landscape Journal, 1994).

A certain sensitivity to region is already being implemented in many gardens and museums just through the course of good interpretive practices. By consciously celebrating the uniqueness of a region, promoting the site-specific ecological processes, and emphasizing the importance of responsiveness to the region, we can help to combat the homogeneity that attacks our cultural and biological diversity. At the same time, we will further the environmental literacy and ecological competence of the visiting public.

Bibliography

Bailey, Liberty Hyde (1915). The Holy Earth. MacMillan, New York, NY.

Berry, Wendell (1995). Health is membership, the community is the smallest unit of health. Utne Reader, 71: 60-63.

Berry, Wendell (1987). The Landscape of Harmony. Five Seasons. Madley, Hereford, UK.

Hiss, Tony (1990). The Experience of Place. Knopf. New York, NY.

Hough, Michael (1990). Out of Place. Yale Univ Press. New Haven, CN, USA.

Jackson, John Brinckerhoff (1994). A sense of place, a sense of time. Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn, USA.

Jackson, Wes (1994). Becoming native to this place. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Ky, USA.

Litton R. burton, Jr. Interpreting the Regional Landscape, Landscape Journal, January 1994

Lyle, John T (1994). Regenerative design for sustainable development. John Wiley. New York, N.Y., USA.

Maser, Chris (1992). Global imperative: harmonizing culture and nature. Stillpoint Publishing. Walpole, N.H., USA.

Meinig, Donald (1979). The interpretation of ordinary landscapes. Oxford University Press. New York:, N.Y., USA

National Park Service (1993). Guiding Principles for Sustainable Design. NPS, USA

Nozick, Marcia (1992). No place like home: building sustainable communities. Canadian Council on Social Development, Ottawa, Canada.

Orr, David W (1994). Earth in mind: on education, environment, and the human prospect. Island Press. Washington, DC, USA.

Orr, David W (1992). Ecological literacy: education and the transition to a postmodern world. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, USA

Robertson, Iain M (1996). Botanical gardens in the contemporary world. The Public Garden 11 (1), 16-21.

Rowe, J. Stan (1990). Home place.: NeWest Press, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Sauer, Peter (ed.) (1992). Finding home. Beacon Press, Boston, MA:, USA.

Tilden, Freeman (1977). Interpreting our heritage. (3rd. ed.) The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA.

Watts, May T (1975). Reading the landscape of America. Collier/Macmillan, New York, NY, USA.

Wilson, Alexander (1992). The culture of nature. Blackwell, Cambridge, MA, USA.

Worster, Donald (1993). The wealth of nature. Oxford University Press. New York, NY, USA.