Everyone, regardless of where they grew up, has a “primal landscape.” This term was coined by Don Gayton, a writer from British Columbia, Canada, and it refers to the landscape a person most identifies with. At some point in every person’s life they bond with a landscape, whether it’s the forest where they grew up, or the mountains where they vacation each year. The land becomes known, familiar, and comforting.
Landscapes have always changed, and as such our memory of cherished places is perpetually different from their present condition. We remember the trees taller, the fields vaster, or the streams clearer than they are now. In the past, this change has been somewhat subtle. Generations see the same land, but identify different landscape characteristics than those that came before them. The concept of “landscape amnesia,” an idea defined by scientist and author Jared Diamond, refers to a phenomenon where people forget how different their surrounding landscape looked 50 years ago, because the change from year to year has been so gradual. Now, with the advent of climate change, these changes are happening more and more rapidly, within decades instead of generations. People are beginning to see their family homes, favorite destinations, and even the street on where they live transform under the pressure of a changing climate.
The feeling of familiarity and nostalgia when recalling a treasured landscape is referred to as “sense of place.” It is defined as:
“Shared values and symbols, when applied to a landscape, create common meanings. These symbols and meanings that comprise ‘landscape’ reflect what people in cultural groups define to be proper and improper relationships among themselves, and between themselves and the physical environment. This results in a sense of belonging and purpose.”
Climate change will affect our habitats, public spaces, and national monuments. Plant loss, species migration, and new invasive species and diseases have the potential to make our landscape unrecognizable. In our lifetimes, we will experience rapid landscape change on a global scale for the first time in human history. How will these changes affect our perception of the places we know, love, and call home?
There are things we can do today that may preserve the aesthetic of the places we love. Arborists are already researching which trees are most likely to do well as our world becomes hotter, more prone to droughts, and more volatile. Trees and other plants give significant identity to landscapes, and if we maintain the aesthetic of some of our nation’s iconic landscapes, we can continue to relate to these areas for generations to come.
Take, as an example, the Mall and Literary Walk in Central Park. This long stretch of American elms is a landmark within Central Park. The sinuous branches of the elms create dramatic shapes and shadows, while the canopy of the trees casts dense shade on park users. Imagine if these trees began to die, and over the course of a few days, were all removed by urban foresters. The change would be shocking — the beautiful forms of branches and trunks reduced to a bare lawn dotted with stumps and holes. The historic identity of the space would be forever changed. With planning and foresight, this kind of landscape tragedy could be avoided. Using just a couple key techniques we could save this landscape, and thousands like it. They are simple: diversity and adapt.
Currently, the Mall and Literary Walk is almost exclusively comprised of American elms. Any monoculture is perpetually at risk, as a single pest or disease can wipe out the entire landscape. Elms are especially vulnerable, ever since Dutch elm disease began claiming the lives of millions of elms all over the country. Additionally, there is no way to predict what new ailment may hit these majestic trees next. It could be a different disease or a currently unknown pest, and climate change’s effect on global temperatures means that diseases previously unable to survive in this region may soon be able to get a foothold. With diversity comes strength, and gradually replacing the elms with several different species of shade trees could maintain the aesthetic of this landscape for generations to come.
As climate change increases temperatures, lengthens droughts, and brings intense storms, plants that can survive these tough conditions will become increasingly important to maintaining healthy landscapes. In the case of the Mall and Literary Walk, if several tree species gradually replace the American elms to improve diversity, these species could also be chosen for toughness. Adapting the way we choose plants for our landscapes by selecting trees that are drought tolerant, the trees will be able to withstand the dramatic changes projected by climate scientists, and the park will be able to reduce its need for irrigation as usage as water becomes an even more precious resource. Trees can also be selected for this “new normal” by selecting species with habitat ranges spanning from New York City to the southern U.S. By utilizing trees from these southerly ecotypes, increasing temperatures become less threatening to important landscapes.
This simple notion of diversifying and adapting can be applied to any landscape, anywhere. We all have landscapes that are important to us, whether it is a national landmark or our own backyard. With planning and foresight, we can maintain the identity of these treasured places for years to come, for ourselves and for future generations.