Letter to America: Cycling Through It

By Jolie Kaytes

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How to hold space for the landscape losses we perceive daily, how to imagine fiercely within the terrain of ongoing uncertainty?


Dear America,

I bike commute on a rail trail that links two rural college towns in the Inland Northwest. By mid-August, the wheat fields go blonde. Head-high stands of reed canary grass become tousled expanses, flaxen and feathery. The creek flows slowly and its exposed channel reveals deep and tawny soil. All around is rolling golden ground, sapphire sky.

The peaceful scene belies its complexity. The wheat, once harvested, gets loaded onto trucks then trains then barges to head overseas. The reed canary grass persists year after year, outcompeting native vegetation. The fertilizer-contaminated creek trickles into a tributary that empties into another tributary that merges with the Columbia River which converges with the Pacific. 

Amid billowy hills, industrial agriculture, invasive plants, and tainted ocean-bound waters, I pedal.

The university where I teach landscape architecture is eight miles away. Classes start in less than a week. Today, I spin into the wind with students on my mind.

Every semester, the students I teach envision and depict possible futures for a given scenario. Their projects might involve enlivening an abandoned town plaza or devising strategies to restore a dammed river or developing a master plan for a flood-prone city or visualizing food production in the era of climate change. For these projects, students conduct an inventory and analysis. They research a region’s ecology, history, and context. They learn about a community’s needs and hopes. They explore a locale’s limits and opportunities. From there, they endeavor to design places that awaken wonder, elevate experience, and help protect the systems that sustain life.

Over the last three years, students have watched our support systems grow more complicated, contested, vulnerable. Anxiety about fires, mudflows, storms, extinction, and displacement is now a part of students’ lived experiences. And indeed, disturbance of all sorts is something they consider as they design. As I pedal along the paved path, I consider how to help students grapple with the increasingly entangled environments they encounter, how to hold space for the landscape losses we perceive daily, how to imagine fiercely within the terrain of ongoing uncertainty.


Some contemporary design initiatives do try to accommodate the unpredictable, attenuate harm, and affirm life. In the Northwest, for instance, more and more roads are retrofitted to allow for extreme rains, sea-level rise, water treatment, and people-powered travel. These renovated avenues are flanked by fern, tree, and rush-filled swales that collect, filter, store, and slowly release what would otherwise be polluted waters. Transformed into verdant corridors, the modified thoroughfares help clean and brighten the air, too. The streets are further activated by the addition of designated bike lanes, wide sidewalks, and sheltered bus stops, providing practical solutions to interwoven issues, becoming thriving public spaces that entice people to walk, talk, roam, and ride.


On the trail, I ride past purpled bursts of ripening elderberries, crimson glimmers in feral apple trees. Concrete remains from a fallen bridge meld with the stream bed. Kingbirds, kingfishers, swallows, and starlings perch on power lines. A cloud of blackbirds erupts from a monoculture of grain. Ahead a great blue heron alights atop a lone ponderosa pine, an unusual landing pad for a wading bird. I speed up hoping to look more closely as the bird and the disparate elements of this landscape converge. For a moment it’s hard to differentiate the desirable from the derelict from the damaged. The heron takes flight.

Shifting gears, I ponder. What if I ask students to take inventory of the emotions elicited by a site, mapping locations of melancholy, longing, and joy? What if I say, let love and empathy inform design decisions? What if I encourage students to design by not designing and instead generate schemes to boldly wait and see? Would these directions invite reverence, concern, ingenuity? Could these cues lead students—citizens and future planners—to design with compassionate endurance, where acceptance, tenacity, and grace, along with thoughtful action, become essential features of placemaking?

Approaching the trail’s end, I pass a quarry flanked by gray gravel piles of basalt. The hillside beyond is a jade blur of what I know to be a bramble of hawthorn and wild rose. I arc toward campus, over remnants of railroad tracks, then come upon the loosely gridded community garden. At peak season, it’s a vivid jumble of yellows, reds, pinks, and greens, humming with people and bees.

Last half mile, I crank up the road to my building, attuned to the intricate landscapes that we all must navigate. They are messy landscapes, precarious, transitional, unresolved, contradictory, enmeshed, and also, beautiful.


Jolie Kaytes



Jolie KaytesJolie Kaytes is a professor and the program head for landscape architecture at Washington State University. Her teaching and scholarship explore how landscapes are represented and contemplate the importance of place. Jolie spent her formative years in South Florida, where she wandered along shorelines, slogged through sloughs, and conducted chaise lounge studies among subtropical flora and fauna. She currently lives in Moscow, Idaho.

Read “Drawing from the Blast Zone” and “Recommended Reads” by Jolie Kaytes also appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by alexmisu, courtesy Shutterstock.


Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.