European Jungles

Bretagne France 2013
photo by author, Bretagne France 2013

As a child I fantasized about woodlands bigger than the ones that existed in my native – Dutch – country. Big canopy trees with widespread roots and branches to hold a treehouse or two. Hills and dales and mud and berries. Later I found these places either in the books I loved to read or the exotic places that passed beyond the one-eyed lens of television. Decades later, as a professional landscape designer I was struck by my forgetfulness of this long cherished desire for a European type of Jungle. There had been student biologists and foresters that spoke about the Białowieża forest in Poland. Some primeval anomaly within the cultivated lands of Europe. I never visited the place, but I did visit Mariposa Grove in Yosemite Valley and the California coastal Redwoods. Also the tropical jungle in Tikal, Guatemala and the highland woods at the Spanish side of the Pyrenees mountain-range and the Scandinavian endless blueberry pine and birch woods. So I did my best and will do in future attempts to do what fantasy bits me.

There are however a few projects (here and here) in which I managed to grow something familiar to my – in the meantime – idealized version of the European Jungle. One of them is a very simple walking path along a river that had become forgotten due to the rapid development of a rural village named Sint-Oedenrode, the resting place of the Scottish princess ‘Oda’ that fled her destiny and became a saint in the Netherlands, curing eye related diseases. My suggestion was to build a bridge and cross the river to gain access to the countryside, merely 5 minutes away from the commercial centre. The bridge was constructed, as well as a few boardwalks to help overcome the steepest passages. Nothing more. In a jungle, a landscape architect needs to be humble and not too much wanting in art or style. My main design strategy was to keep all the low hung branches, to be ducked underneath and to allow the river to wash the increasingly trampled path with a fresh layer of river sand, each winter and spring. Comfort is the enemy of jungle landscapes and so my design brought discomfort and embodied experiences that make you act primordial.

This type of ‘designed discomfort’ rang the cherished bell of my childhood. I was content, but also worried because it so obviously lacked the design-bling of my profession. This worry was confirmed by a continuously probing of visitors why this or that branch had to be so obnoxiously low. Or why the boardwalk did not fly over all the muddy parts in high water situations. Or why there had to be such deliberate holes in the boardwalk, referred to as ‘pitfalls’ by some visitors. I believe I have struck a larger bell here. One that reminds people of their embodied capacity to improvise and overcome obstacles. Like so many voyages by illusive predecessors, discovering their relationship with the landscape surrounding them. Odysseus, Goethe, Karen Blixen in Afrika and most memorably Klaus Kinsky in the Werner Herzog movies ‘Aguirre, The Wrath of God’ (1972) and ‘Fitzcarraldo’ (1982). I now know that European Jungles can exist and they need to be designed to remain uncomfortable. Despite how paradoxical that sounds.

For a long time I have envied filmmakers in their capacity to consciously present something without breaking it apart. To just being around and fix it in some celluloid footage, instead of bulldozing the place or adding tons of imported material. What in Bhuddism is referred to as ‘Suchness’ (Allan Watts page 85 in ’the Way of Zen‘ (1957). A being without interfering, or without taking anything personal. Without a human ego but with a soul. I believe that this is what struck me as a child. To be in a place where nothing is wrong because there is a childish absence of any form of judgement. That is what a Jungle is. An environment of absent judgement. And besides that, a real jungle is defined not by its green structures, but by its wild animals, in clear symbiosis with the place. In this respect a jungle is present in my home garden when the wasps are frightening my children with their lemonade. As well the jungle present where the branches grow too low for an average citizen that is stiff in the back; in the cities where the junkies roam and when the wolves return to domesticated areas – as is rumored in the Netherlands. If we do not heed such jungles, they will be eradicated before they can even grow.

Designers! Join and liberate the landscapes!