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Choreographing Desire

Ecological processes are not without order. They have desires, striking lines in landscapes as well as any human can. Some linear, others meandering, but almost always related to energy: consumption or production, conservation or transmission. A river unobstructed desires to follow the path of least resistance. So does a wildfire, which will grow hotter and move faster towards energy-producing potential, seeking the driest and most combustible fuels. A sheep will almost always tend towards the sweetest grass (sugar = energy).

Ecological desire lines – influenced by climate, topography, hydrology and other forces – have creatively shaped every inch of Earth’s surface. By creative, I mean novelty – new configurations of plants, soils, landforms – is always a potential, and even probable, outcome.

HUMANS HAVE BEEN MEDDLING in ecological desires as long as we’ve been around. While pre-colonial communities have a rich history of doing so successfully – to the benefit of both the landscape and themselves – the legacy of post-colonial humans tells an entirely different story. Almost all large American landscapes – rivers, forests, coasts or rangelands – have been through the wringer. It’s complicated to pinpoint exactly where and when this ethic of action originated, but let’s begin around the turn of the 20th century – the start of the era of progressive conservation.

Progressive conservation framed a national response to the vast territory settlers encountered as they pushed further and further into the western American landscape. The mindset understood landscapes not as ecological systems (we didn’t know about those yet), but as extractable resources waiting to be optimised in pursuit of the growth and prosperity of the relatively young nation. Look, for example, at the Mississippi River, whose denuding was foretold by this ideology. Miles and miles of channelisation, levees and revetment mats line its banks, intending to freeze its dynamic tendencies in time and space. This attitude towards landscapes and their desires effectively transformed the nation’s largest, most dynamic watershed into a static machine with inputs and outputs, optimised for navigation and transportation. Our coasts were similarly wrapped with seawalls and bulkheads, which all but removed the ability of shorelines to respond to changes in sea level or other dynamic coastal processes. In our forests, the incredibly potent Smokey the Bear campaign waged war against naturally occurring fire, convincing nearly all Americans that it was a sinister national threat. As a result, fire – a critical ecological process – was (and continues to be) all but eradicated.

Inherding at Alderspring Ranch, Idaho. Photo: Melanie Elzinga.

AS YOU CROSS the hundredth meridian moving west, the American landscape drastically shifts. Rainfall drops to twenty inches a year – sometimes much less. The characteristic forested landscapes of the east transition to grass or shrubdominated desert, and relatively small private landholdings give way to large swathes of public land. The majority of these arid lands, 330 million acres worth, are managed as public grazing land. Rangelands are an intriguing landscape type, defined by some as any landscape that isn’t something else. While this definition may technically be true – they aren’t well suited for intensive agricultural production or dense settlement – such a definition is deeply reductive of these beautifully rich desert landscapes.

Before they were forcibly removed, large populations of bison, informally managed by local Indigenous communities, roamed these landscapes. Now, and for the large part of the last few centuries, rangelands have been primarily used to graze livestock.

Rangelands are not cultivated like other landscapes devoted to agriculture; arid lands ranchers depend heavily upon the native landscape and its regenerative capacity to support their livelihood. Reciprocally, the landscape requires occasional disturbance to maintain its existing state. These working landscapes are not marked or inscribed by the regimented geometries of the irrigator, plough or combine harvester – instead, they are the physical record of hundreds of years of interaction between animal and terrain.

Though less perceptible, rangelands also bear the marks of progressive conservation’s rigid impositions, such as formulaic strategies determining how many animals could graze a particular landscape without causing degradation. At first glance these may seem well conceived, but a closer evaluation reveals the formulas neglect to consider both the wildly diverse landscape types that are managed as public range and the fluctuation and uncertainty inherent to ranching in the desert – frost, rain, drought, invasive species. Intense management regimes blanketed the western region using science to put a chokehold on a landscape and its complex and fluctuating desires.

We’ve paid dearly for our heavy-handed desire for control; for the reduction of rich, complex and generative ecological processes to their dullest and simplest selves.

Flooding, wildfires, coastal erosion and denuded rangelands are the result of our misplaced efforts. I don’t mean to suggest that the right way forward is to leave things be – that nature always knows best. While humans are wilful creatures, we’ve also proven ourselves to be endlessly creative. Might we begin to chart a new path in which we serve as sensitive interlocutors engaged in a balanced exchange, liberating latent desires instead of smothering them? And might this allow us to do the work of re-animating these vast landscapes, restoring the potential for novelty and chance?

Inherding at Alderspring Ranch, Idaho. Photo: Melanie Elzinga.

I SPENT THE SUMMER OF 2020 range riding for Alderspring Ranch in the Pahsimeroi Valley, carefully herding 400 head of cattle across nearly 50,000 acres of mountainous Idaho desert. Alderspring is beginning to take on legacies of control, in search of new ways of working within rangeland ecosystems. They manage their stock using a practice called inherding, which entangles them with the landscape more intricately than a traditional operation. During the summer growing season, Alderspring staff spend each day and night with the herd, carefully manoeuvring the animals through the landscape on horseback. At night, the cows and crew return to a series of transient camps, bedding down before beginning again the following day. My time on the range was spent witnessing a collective of creatures enacting their desires on a landscape. Those desires, namely to consume energy, manifest as the ecological process of disturbance.

Traditionally managed grazing is, by comparison, much less complicated. A herd of cows might be turned out onto the public range at the beginning of the growing season, in the month of May. The herd is mostly left to their own devices, grazing as they please until the fall chill sets in and the native grasses go dormant. They’re then rounded up and returned to an irrigated valley where they spend the winter months grazing on privately owned pastures and hay. More often than not, this practice leads to further landscape degradation. Of their own accord, a cow will rarely choose to climb a mountain. Instead, they will visit and revisit the most easily accessible forage in low-elevation grasslands, vulnerable creeks and springs. In those spots, grass quickly becomes overgrazed and soil compacted, making it difficult for water and organic matter to infiltrate the ground. After years of continuous disturbance, the grasses struggle to recover and shrubs, like sagebrush, encroach. This cycle has played out across the majority of American rangelands. Left undirected, the desires of the herd are, by most standards, destructive.

If carefully deployed, disturbance has the potential to become wonderfully generative. Our work as range riders at Alderspring was about just that – harnessing the generative potential of this fleet of animals and gently shaping the trajectory of their impact. Our movement through the landscape was an ultra-responsive reaction to conditions at that particular moment, designed in the field as each day progressed. We passed through drastically different landscapes each day: from ashy sagebrush foothills and low elevation grasses to the upper reaches of the national forest, populated with Douglas firs and cold-adapted grasses and forbs.

As the days went on, I began to think of our work as an act of design – of landscape choreography – syncing the desires of the herd with ephemeral tendencies like growing cycles and weather patterns.

A map of our daily routes makes legible things like topography and hydrology, but also much more nuanced conditions like grass density and species composition. Our work in orchestrating desire, in finding a balance between control and chance, was a tremendously fertile way to engage with the landscape at scale and across time.

Architects use the word ‘choreography’ to describe the bodily experience of moving through a carefully designed sequence of spaces. It’s a useful way to consider movement through space, but it does not engage the full breadth of the term. Positioning the designer as god, it gives all power to the space, denying the dancer agency in the world of the performance. The etymology of choreography – literally ‘dance-writing’ – reveals a much richer set of ideas. From this perspective, choreography is the act of design, not something that happens once the design is complete. The dancer – the cow, for instance – is an agent acting in response to, but also shaping the world around them; repeatedly returning and re-animating. The role of the choreographer, then – the designer, gardener or rancher – is not to impose their own will upon those agents, but to loosely bound what is possible within that territory: to create soft armatures for process and desire to react and bounce off. This requires the choreographer to release their grip, bestowing agency to the dancers who determine the details of the work. Individual performances aggregate over time to produce the constantly evolving scene. While a single cow is not much better than a single landscape architect, at the scale of a herd, the potential for landscape impact becomes powerful.

Inherding at Alderspring Ranch, Idaho. Photo: Melanie Elzinga.

Moving through the thick landscapes of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, we certainly could not control each individual animal, nor would we want to. We could, however, begin to suggest the trajectories, speeds and intensities of the herd’s conversation with the landscape. Our relatively evenly paced movements through the mountains in the summer of 2020 responded to a typical year of precipitation and weather. The following year, however, the region experienced a severe drought, significantly impacting grass growth and water availability. In typical landscape management practice, that type of environmental flux is seen only as detrimental. But when viewed through the lens of choreography, it is simply a new condition to which the choreographer must respond. Trajectories and intensities were reconsidered: the pace of movement quickened, expanding, but lightening the territory of impact.

Choreography, then, is a design practice based in pushes and pulls, gives and takes – a dance with the landscape in intentional, but open-ended ways. As we run full speed towards climate change, in which environmental flux will become more frequent and more extreme, this type of responsive practice is not just desirable, but necessary.

Inherding, as practised at Alderspring, is based in the technical – rangeland ecology, animal science and land management. It requires massive amounts of labour and consideration. But the work at Alderspring is not only scientific – it is fundamentally creative and beautiful. This practice, this choreography, has caused visible shifts in the landscape. Diverse native grasses have emerged from the seedbank, and streams and creeks are once again lush and meandering. The emerging condition is not a relic of some imagined historic state: years of work have slowly created space for the landscape to reinvent, redesign, itself. The design is not manifesting in the typical ways, in which a foundation is laid or a tree planted, but through the repeated and intentional unfolding of process onto a landscape. Over time, those processes and desires accumulate, shaping the landscape incrementally with each pass.

I TEACH LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE at Auburn University in Alabama. When I asked a group of twelve graduate students to design a landscape through removal, only one student explored the deployment of process – grazing – as a tool. The others chose to mow. Why? It’s predictable, precise and repeatable. Students could draw a line on the page and imagine the respective line in the landscape with reasonable accuracy. You can read the designer’s intent in the crisp boundary between mown and unmown. The student who opted for grazing sheep was left to make predictions about the imaginary desires of her flock. What she achieved was certainly not accurate, crisp, or even repeatable. But it was compelling – relying instead on things like planted edges and fences to loosely suggest a trajectory of impact. This is what makes the desires of ecological processes both endlessly fascinating and terribly difficult to design with. There is something incalculable, but logical, about them.

Humans are stubborn, and designers may be the worst of all. We like to know that things will be built precisely as we imagined them. We’ve loosened up a bit over the last few decades, but when was the last time you saw a process like grazing or burning applied in a landscape architecture project? Though we are captivated by such processes, we can’t quite understand their logic, let alone predict them well enough to specify in a construction drawing.

But, if we have any intention of locating an alternative to the last century of stifling command-and-control, we’re going to have to learn to let go of those expectations, to ask a different set of questions.

The story I’ve told about design as choreography is a tidy example, growing directly from my work as a range rider. But the idea has endless applications for designers, engineers and gardeners alike. Processes like prescribed fire, sedimentation, and even growth and decay in an urban yard, may be transformed through this lens: processes unfold in all landscapes, at all scales. Choreography asks us to read landscapes as the result of those inherently creative processes, 115 to find ways to meddle within them, to shape trajectories, but not control or mandate. It prompts us to prioritise tendencies over absolutes, and to accept and encourage uncertainty, ambiguity and chance as a method of shaping places at large scales. At its core, choreography frames an ethic of action in the world, that favours care over control; that does not seek to achieve an imagined future fixed state, but creates space for being in long-term conversation with a place, returning again and again with fresh eyes. Our landscapes – rangelands, rivers, coasts and forests – are not better off without us. They need us. Because we’ve all but removed their naturally occurring processes, human practices like ranching are now one of the only mechanisms we’ve got to reanimate the landscapes we’ve spent centuries flattening. We’ve simply been looking through the wrong frame, asking the wrong questions. Again and again, we have asked about simplification, predictability and control. A different frame, like that of choreography, creates space to ask valuable questions: about enacting and supporting the inherent desires of landscapes, operating as humble co-writers of their endless making and un-making.