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POV: Site visit leads to life lessons

At the first site we visit, hands fly up as everyone rushes to share what they see: “I see a large maple that looks diseased”; “I see a fence that has no point”; “the driveway comes too close to the house”; “there is a problem of proportion between barn and house.” But Walter is shaking his head. It appears that seeing what’s there is not as easy as we eager beavers thought.

“I want description, not judgment,” says Walter. “If you start with judgment – the fence has no point, the tree is diseased, the driveway’s too close, the path is nice – you will rush to solution before you know what you have to work with. Judgment has its time and place, but that time and place is not now!”

Then he delivers my favorite line of the day: “Preconceived notions are the enemy of good solutions.”

While the rest of the class struggles to supply him with observations stripped of judgment – “three white pines in a clump,” “clapboard house with wrap around porch,” “side lawn slopes down to stream” – I wonder if things might go better in my life if I had fewer preconceived notions when trying to solve a problem. What if I were to make an “inventory of the actual” before coming to judgments and designing solutions?

Walter has moved on. Now he is talking about feelings. He directs us back to our first impressions and asks us how we felt when we first saw the site. “Feelings are crucial,” he says, addressing us as would-be landscape designers. “If the driveway makes you anxious because it is too close to the house, you must honor this feeling and see where it leads. Chances are it makes your clients anxious too.”

We move on once again to explore solutions and he cautions us about proportion. “Use a level 5 solution for a level 5 problem. Don’t use a level 10 solution for a level 5 problem. You may need to move the driveway; you don’t need to move the house!”

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