Our experiences, interactions, and knowing are filtered through narratives.
Therefore, knowledge, attained through research, is a type of narrative about the world. Research, as a process, however, is a form of discovery. Through this process, we re-discover what we already know but have forgotten as human beings.
The parameters that define research depend on who is the researcher.
For a common person, the word research is often simply used to describe the act of gathering information. For an organization, conducting research generally means to use a methodical process to find out new knowledge. Research in academia, however, despite following a methodical process, is typically not deemed valid until it has been documented, shared, and accepted by research peers. Therefore, research is constrained by the social context in which it lives.
If our social goal is to bring awareness and healing to the world, then research at the collective level involves going back to the roots of why we desire knowledge. The ultimate reason: to know more about who we are (as human beings) and why we exist in this world.
Therefore, at its core, re-search is the pursuit to re-discover what we already know but have forgotten as human beings.
Traditional research, particularly approaches based on the scientific method, assumes that knowledge is objective, and researchers must remain unbiased. But human experiences can never exist in physical or psychological vacuums. Therefore, in reality, research is inherently biased because human experience is biased.
We can communicate with each other and make sense of the world because we already have preconceptions of the world within us.
We all have existing biases about the world. To create new knowledge means to disturb the existing biases we have and re-establish new agreements of understanding (Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 1960).
Although you, I, and other people may share collective memories and knowledge that make up a shared worldview (i.e., a collective bias), nevertheless, we can never truly share our personal experiences (i.e., our personal bias/worldview) with each other. We can only learn about each other through the narratives of our experiences.
Thus, to learn about humanity, we go through a process of storytelling and storylistening.
To change the paradigm of who we are, we must disturb old collective narratives and re-establish new ones by adapting new narratives.
Doing research on the meaning of landscape is the opportunity to disturb existing narratives of our human existence.
While the word landscape is used to describe images of natural scenery in common language, in landscape architecture, planning, and geography, “landscape” is much more ambiguous. Landscape, beyond a simple image, is the proxy for humanity’s predicament in finding place in the world.
Exploring the meaning of landscape involves:
1. Evaluating the relationship between nature and culture
If landscape can be designed, planned, and studied in tandem with the history of human civilization, then landscape is the linkage between nature and culture. The narratives we have regarding landscapes reveal where culture (i.e., human activity) resides: as a subset of nature or in opposition to nature.
2. Considering the limitations of language
Beautiful landscapes can be enticing. Some of these landscapes can even leave us feeling spellbound. Inspiring the creative expressions of musicians, painters, and poets for centuries, the effect of landscapes can be greater than the words we have to describe them. Through landscapes, we understand that there is more to the world than human language.
3. Acknowledging the reciprocity of life
Landscapes have the capacity to move us to tears, calm our souls, or awake our sense of wonder. Landscapes can move us if we allow them to. Therefore, all that is landscape outside of us has the agency to create change within us. A reciprocity exists between us and other animals, organisms, things, and processes in the world.
4. Choosing how to participate in the world
The legacies of past landscapes show how humans have participated in the world ecologically, socially, and spiritually. When humans aligned well with their environment, a sense of belonging is felt in the present-day landscape. When humans mishandled their participatory roles in the environment, this legacy of placelessness persists—the memory of trauma lives on as part of the landscape, as part of the human psyche, and as part of our narratives.
Research with the intention towards collective flourishing means learning how to live and grow as part of the landscape.
If the world was metaphorically a garden, we would be the seeds, the plants, the designers, and the gardeners. We each play roles in all the processes of making the landscape a place we come to belong to. Our predicament: knowing when to take on a role, when to work with each other, and when to support another.
We can only clarify our ever-evolving roles by evaluating our past, present, and future participation in this landscape, individually and collectively. Our reflections are our stories: we can give space for more individual stories, especially our own, so that more of our collective narratives can be broken open.
Have a landscape or research project that needs a dose of eco-philosophy and/or participatory landscape storytelling? Contact me to discuss.
Projects and Publications
Nature, self, and being in the world: Revealing a flourishing ethics in landscape architecture through poignant landscape experiences (PhD dissertation), 2021
What do poignant landscapes mean to landscape architects? How do landscape architects envision their own flourishing? This is a self-reflexive research study that involved the analysis of 15+ professional association documents, 53 survey participants, and 14 interviews. Read the full document or a summary from my winning LACF grant submission.
The Romantic landscape: A Search for Material and Immaterial Truths through Scientific and Spiritual Representation of Nature, 2020
The interdependency between art, faith, and science in Romantic landscapes shapes our perceptions of landscapes today. The Romantics found Truth in Nature through religious and scientific interpretations of the world. The meaning of life was dependent on the search for revelation in the material and spiritual worlds, and landscape was a vehicle that allowed for this revelation. Read article
The landscape of the Void: truth and magic in Chinese landscape painting, 2016
Using Heideggerian hermeneutics and Chinese Daoism, landscapes can be seen as the literal and metaphorical Void between mortality and divinity, earth and sky. Disturbing what is subject and object, what is visible and invisible, I discover that the magic of landscape lies in the paradox: the in-between state where logic is inversed, Void is nothingness, truth is sought, and belief is magical. Read article