• 74040036
    A fallowed wooded wetland at Memorial Park in Houston. - photo by Aaron Seward

A clearing in the forest. The boardwalk has brought you here, as if to show it to you. But why? What is there to see? Clearly, something dreadful happened here. So many of the trees are dead, skeletal boughs and broken stumps slanting in the bright air, sagging with vines. The ground is a riot of grasses and shrubs, trickling streams and murky puddles, decaying trunks sinking in the mud. The sun glints from leaves and water and insects, suffusing your eyes with silvery flashes of light. 

The scene is mesmerizing. Is this landscape living or dying? It is both. It is in the middle of a process. It is becoming something else. 

The point of the boardwalk winding this way is not to show you this scene. The point is to show you this place, over time, as it transitions into what it will be next. 

The place is the recently opened Eastern Glades of Memorial Park in Houston, which has been undergoing a redevelopment — really a resuscitation — based on a master plan designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW). The exact place within this 1,500-acre urban forest is a stand of woods and wetland between the newly constructed Hines Lake and the old golf course, where a fault line creates a catchment for rain. This zone has intentionally been left in its wild condition — or, more accurately, it has been fallowed.

The truth, it seems, is that Memorial Park has not been thoroughly wild for a very long time. For centuries before European settlers arrived and altered the landscape, it was managed by pre-Colombian peoples, such as the Karankawa, who conducted periodic controlled burns to make the landscape a predominately grassy savannah, the better to plant their crops and to attract grazing herds of bison and other ungulate game, which they hunted. 

Subsequently, it has been ranched, farmed, logged, made the site of a brick factory, and turned into a military base — Camp Logan — where soldiers mustered and trained for World War I. Since 1924, it has been a public park. Hare & Hare designed a master plan, of which only a fragment was built: a ring road, the golf course, and a few ballparks. By the 1950s, the undeveloped portions, which were open grassland when Camp Logan was in operation, had become thickly wooded. In 2011, a severe drought killed half of the trees. 

The fallowed wooded wetland looks wild enough, but it has felt the touch of human hands. As part of NBW’s plan, invasive species of plants have been removed, native ones planted. The result will be an increase in biodiversity. It has been an empathetic, healing touch — a touch that acknowledges that the improvement of this habitat will improve the city (the human habitat); that humankind and nature are interdependent; and that we can be friends on an equal footing, instead of trapped in a disheartening master-slave relationship, what Gökhan Kodalak and Sanford Kwinter refer to in Log 49 as “an unholy bifurcation of nature and culture.” 

The healing of this bifurcation is the project of the 21st century. It starts with thinking. The thought that we humans stand above nature as part of a chain of hierarchy that starts way up top with a heavenly father and then leads down through humans to animals and plants and finally to the lowly rocks in the ground has given us the rationale for exploiting the planet in the name of quick gain. The outcome of this millennia-old thought is total environmental collapse. To think of ourselves instead as ontological equals with nature presents the potential to change our way of negotiating our relationship with the environment into something more supportive and sustainable. 

The fallowed wooded wetland at Memorial Park shows this sort of thinking in action — humans working to bring out the emergent properties in nature, as opposed to plundering it or imposing a vision upon it. The French landscape architect Gilles Clément suggests that zones like this — the neglected in-between places that have been ignored by human development and production — offer harbors for biodiversity in a time of mass extinction. His manifesto, “The Third Landscape: Undecided Fragment of the Planetary Garden,” likens these passed-over places to the Third Estate, which, in the French Revolution, represented everyone who was not a noble or a member of the clergy. He quotes the Abbé Sieyès: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something.”

Leave a Comment