Saturday, December 02, 2023

Default Landscapes That Lack the Touch of a Human Hand

Much of the land in central Jersey has been highly traumatized, first by agriculture, then by suburbanization and invasive species. During the agricultural era, plowing erased the land's memory of what it once had been, not altogether unlike the erasure of Native American culture through forced assimilation. On this traumatized land now live many people who have lost connection to the land around them. Land that long ago lost its memory--its seedbank of native species that once flourished upon it--has now lost the touch of a human hand. 

Tended only by machines, this landscape of turf and tiny cannonball shrubs is what can be called a cultural default landscape, with closely mowed and trimmed plants kept in an eternal infantile state. The values expressed here are neatness and simplicity. Nature, being neither neat nor simple, becomes the tacit enemy of the suburban landscape. Subdivisions like this remind me of the motels we would plop down on the Monopoly board.

Heightening the sense of disconnection, this development, with houses dropped on the land as if they were spaceships from another planet, also lacks any clear physical connection to other developments around it. West Windsor at some point becomes East Windsor, their names suggesting they are west or east of something, and yet Windsor itself--once called Centerville because it is located at the center of the state--has barely 300 residents. 

In Princeton, there is more sense of connection, with a downtown nearby, and a few trees have grown up, but otherwise the default anti-nature landscape of house plus sterile lawn tended by machines is the same.

Here is another cultural default landscape, and by that I mean a landscape whose relative sterility is enforced by engrained cultural expectations. This is perhaps the largest detention basin I have ever seen, meant to capture runoff next to a public school. My guess is that the school cannot use the area for sports, and no one will think to turn it into a meadow, so it is destined to remain a barren mowed lawn in perpetuity.
Surprisingly, this large field across the street from the mansions has been left to grow up in broomsedge--a native grass. Not a high quality grassland by any stretch, but the less frequent (probably annual) mowing at least allows the grasses to reach sexual maturity.
Over near the hospital in Plainsboro, a vacant field demonstrates another kind of default landscape, where engrained cultural imperatives of farm or turfgrass have ceded control to invasive species. Cultural abandonment allowed three classic weeds to move in: mugwort, Chinese bushclover, and late flowering thoroughwort. Those first two are nonnative, with the mugwort being crowned "most likely to succeed" in abandoned fields. 

It is astonishing to witness the hegemony that mugwort can achieve. Monocultural stands of mugwort stretch for miles along roadsides in the Plainsboro area. This can be called an invasive species default, in which aggressive nonnative species fill the void left by past agricultural trauma followed by neglect. 

Chinese bushclover appears to be newer on the scene in NJ. In the North Carolina piedmont, where I used to live, this highly aggressive species was planted by the Dept. of Transportation to reduce erosion along roadsides. Solving one problem, the DOT created another, as Chinese bushclover has since invaded native grasslands across the eastern U.S., and is now displacing other species along rights of way and on vacant lots in the Princeton area.

How does one counter the cultural and invasive species defaults in our area? One approach is to knock out the worst of the invasive species--the mugwort, Phragmitis, and Chinese bushclover--and then plant deer-resistant natives like late flowering thoroughwort and wild senna. These in turn will produce seeds that can start shifting the seed bank back from nonnative to native. It's all we've had time for thus far, in this field next to Herrontown Woods, preserved but otherwise forgotten. Maybe one day it can be a shining example of a native grassland, that, unlike so many others, has received the steady, ongoing, healing touch of a human hand.

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