It’s better to do than to judge, to produce than to evaluate. Or, rather, it’s in mining coal that one learns if it is gray or black. It’s better to create than to criticize, to invent than to classify copies.
— Michael Serres 1
We are riding bikes in the early morning on the northern arm of the Great Salt Lake, the mud-ringed Gunnison Bay. Our wheels sink as we get farther from shore, but we keep pedaling until the bikes start to tip, and then we hop off and push. For a long while, there is no discernible change in the consistency of mud. Then the wheel-tracks grow shallower again, and the ground begins to crunch. Salt crusts appear on the surface — strange, elemental patterns that record the ongoing cycles of saturation and evaporation. Our cameras click quietly as we collect scraps of evidence: animal tracks, sun on the horizon, salt piling up around a dead grasshopper far from the nearest grass.
The mud goes on for miles. We ride our bikes where the ground is solid and walk where it is not. We had planned to map salinity gradients from the mountains to the lake, but we can see now there is no point; the mud hides gradients within gradients. Ahead, the heat warps small stones into shimmering boulders, and microbes paint the surface with bright salmon-colored streaks. Eventually, the salt mounds grow larger, and we reach a shallow stretch of water.
It’s calm and quiet at the edge of the lake, but we work quickly, with a sense of urgency. Soon it will be midday, and the forecast calls for temperatures well over 100 degrees. We take our measurements and perform our scripted operations. One person’s shovel chips away at the pink, salty substrate, while the other flies a drone overhead, surveying patterns inscribed in the ever-changing mud: tire tracks, evaporation rings, shifting coastlines. It is impossible to tell how long any of these traces have been here, impossible to sort out the various timelines, from the geologic to the immediate. When we have completed our improvisations, we begin our return, following the wobbly bike tracks to a rock outcrop where our car is parked.
We are glad to have a shade tent in the trunk, and we set it up on a point overlooking the mud. We’ve been told the tent was used by the art dealer Virginia Dwan on her desert adventures with the artist Nancy Holt. That might be a tall tale, but we’re willing to believe it, willing to imagine ourselves trading stories with the elegant New Yorker in her leather jacket, discussing work in progress by Holt or Robert Smithson. Some landscapes have a way of normalizing legends. We remain at our observation posts for the next four hours, drawing in notebooks, arguing a bit, speculating about our next moves.
We are two landscape architecture professors on a fellowship from the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a nonprofit research organization that tracks “how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived.” 2 When CLUI was founded more than two decades ago, few people were engaged in this kind of work. Today there are countless artists and researchers documenting the far corners of the globe, armed with quadcopter drones and boom mics, writing postcolonial field guides. 3 But for what? Field projects like ours can be tricky, testing the line between serious inquiry and affectation, particularly in isolated corners of the heavily mythologized American West. One wonders how the revelatory land art of the 1960s and ’70s would be received today, when the Salt Lake Desert is the backdrop of GoPro videos and energy drink commercials.
We didn’t come here to extract meaning but to ask questions. We came to meet the mud.
Nevertheless, it’s important for us to push past those stereotypes to recover the value in open-ended, ground-level exploration, or what we call curious methods. We didn’t come here to extract meaning but to ask questions, to probe the environment. We came to meet the mud, not as a thing, but as a material condition. Like so many other design fields, landscape architecture is increasingly mediated by digital tools and data layers, and its practitioners often struggle to stay in touch with material realities. The more we rely on maps and satellite images, the harder it is to see past generalizations about the site. As designers and educators interested in coastal landscapes that are sensitive to change, we came to Gunnison Bay to recalibrate our practice, to better understand the dynamic nature of landscapes in flux. Mud is the perfect field for our investigation.
One aim of that investigation is to resist the market pressures that reduce design to a mere act of “problem-solving.” 4 Reacting to the solutionism rampant in his own field, the ecologist Gregory Bateson argued that, “Science never proves anything … it probes.” 5 Proving glorifies a finite “truth” and shuts down the process of inquiry by which knowledge grows deeper and changes over time. Probing, on the other hand, involves active engagement with ambiguity and instability. It implies both a curiosity and a situated context for that curiosity. It requires engagement and experience. The question is how we devise a method of probing landscape.
History of the Mud
The Salt Lake basin was first probed by Euro-Americans in 1849. Howard Stansbury of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers led a team of geologists, biologists, artists, and surveyors who embedded themselves in the area for two years. They traveled by foot and camped where they could find fresh water. Each beholden to their own disciplinary perspectives, their own tools and lines of inquiry, they scanned the land, recorded their findings, and generated a dense mix of experiential observations and quantitative measurements. In their published reports, they shifted attention from the vast horizon to the particularities of the ground.
Stansbury wrote with astonishing clarity:
The first part of the plain consisted simply of dried mud, with small crystals of salt scattered thickly over the surface. Crossing this, we came upon another portion of it, three miles in width where the ground was entirely covered with a thin layer of salt in a state of deliquescence, and of so soft a consistence that the feet of our mules sank at every step into the mud beneath, but soon we came upon a portion of the plain where the salt lay in a solid state, in one unbroken sheet, extending apparently to its western border. So firm and strong was this unique and snowy floor, that it sustained the weight of our entire train, without in the least giving way or cracking beneath the pressure. The whole field was crossed by a network of little ridges, projecting about half an inch as if the salt had expanded in the process of crystallization. 6
His powers of observation and elegant prose were almost beside the point, because the team did have something to “prove.” Their mission was to surveil the Mormons who had recently settled here, and to discover a new route through the Rocky Mountains. That mission skewed the methods and the findings of their expedition, and yet it did not curtail their curiosity. Stansbury’s grounded reports contain insights that cannot be found in other official narratives.
In contrast, the most accessible records of the area, the U.S. Geological Survey maps, generalize the landscape and freeze it in time, memorializing a gap between the generic label “mud” and the incredibly dynamic and distinct qualities of the terrain. Mud is a notation of ubiquity and predictability, and here it is applied too broadly, to a landscape that continually evades that definition. Some quad maps of the Salt Lake are so abstracted that they are practically blank. A similar problem afflicts systems of land-use classification and GIS-based assessment that distill and categorize landscapes into digestible orders. All too often, these abstractions are taken at face value, which degrades the material world.
Gunnison Bay is currently distinguished by a pervasive mud flat that stretches five miles wide, from the base of the mountains to the salty edge of the lake, which may be more or less accessible on any given day, depending on environmental conditions. Extreme temperatures, variable water levels, and high salinity make it hostile to most species. It is hydrologically separated from the rest of the lake by a railroad causeway, and it has few inflows, so the water level fluctuates with the weather. 7 In recent years, the mud has been expanding its domain, as the water evaporates more rapidly than it is replenished. But this was always a transitional landscape. On a return visit, Stansbury observed a wide channel of water, between Dolphin Island and the mainland, that had been “entirely dry” the year before, when “no appearance of the lake was discovered by any of the party.” 8
In the summer of 2016, the water is lower than at any time in recent history. 9 Looking out toward the lazy hump of Dolphin Island, now stuck in the mud, it’s hard to imagine it was ever otherwise. Maps and photographs and data tables record the change in water levels over time, but they don’t make an impression on the senses. Only by probing the mud do we begin to “see” change. That’s not an easy or automatic process — probing requires patience, repetition, perhaps a little bit of play — but it’s essential if we are to truly comprehend the landscape.
As the philosopher Henri Bergson wrote:
Change is fundamental, and because I believe that if one were convinced of the reality of change and if one made an effort to grasp it, everything would become simplified, philosophical difficulties, considered insurmountable, would fall away — I mean the impression things make upon us and the reaction of our intelligence, or sensibility and our will upon things — would perhaps be transformed and, as it were, transfigured. The point is that usually we look at change, but we do not see it. We speak of change, but we do not think about it. We say change exists, that everything changes, that change is the very law of things: yes we say it and we repeat it; but those are only words, and we reason and philosophize as though change did not exist. 10
Probing the Mud
Like Bergson, we are trying to see change through physical experience. William Connolly has argued that critical theorists who navigate a politically and environmentally “fragile” world must always be changing the subject of their focus and intensity of their engagement. They must adopt an orientation that pursues subjects up and down through scales as required, producing speculations and experiments that “reach beyond the dictates of established knowledge and that exceed our current capacity to completely grasp them.” 11 Similarly, the philosopher Paul Feyerabend defended the value of “counterinductions,” or inferences that run counter to inductive reasoning. 12 The world that seems tenuous to the political philosopher is naturally inhabited by artists and designers. As architect and educator Kyna Leski notes in The Storm of Creativity, “A creative process comes from displacing, disturbing, and destabilizing what you (think you) know. … Doubt, insecurity, questioning — these elements of uncertainty become critically important. The unburdening creates an opening.” 13
Probing is a mode of exploration that informs but does not limit. It is a creative process that involves asking and enacting questions.
At Gunnison Bay, we seek such “openings” in the landscape and we probe them, repeatedly moving in and out of hidden and unknown spaces. Probing is a mode of exploration that informs but does not limit. It is a creative process that involves asking and enacting questions. Hence, the biking and shoveling. Our methods are inspired in part by the designer Bruno Munari, whose work revealed the creative potential of asking a question physically. In Le Macchine di Munari (1942), he drew Rube Goldberg-style contraptions with absurd ends, such as “wagging the tails of lazy dogs” or “making sobs sounds musical,” and in another book he provided instructions for “Seeking Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair” (1944). The end was never the goal. Instead, these designs situated a series of steps to reinterpret functions and forms, and to produce novel relationships and contexts. 14
Probing, as we define it, is a non-linear operation, but it often involves three components: inquiry, the process of asking and enacting questions; insight, which is generated through that process; and impression, or the representation of those activities. While we don’t wish to offer prescriptions or pedagogy, here we provide a brief overview of our methods that might be useful to landscape thinkers who are looking for new ways to engage place creatively.
Probing begins with inquiry, which is the process of deriving questions from physical experience of the landscape. This is the start of any design project. As Leski writes, “questions have remarkable power to undo preconceived choices, disrupt assumptions and turn your attention away from the familiar.” 15 Sometimes inquiry assumes the form of a single, precise question, shot like an arrow; more often, it is revealed through the interrelation of multiple questions. We follow philosopher Peter Lipton in seeking the most useful information rather than the most likely information, which he described as seeking the “loveliest” explanation, as opposed to the “best” or the only. 16 The search for “lovely” questions frees us from the delusion that stability and correctness are the desired ends of inquiry.
In the second stage of inquiry, we develop methods for physically asking the question, or entangling it within the landscape.
In the second stage of inquiry, we develop methods for physically asking the question, or entangling it within the landscape. Here, too, methods are context-dependent. The questioner’s motivations may range from deadly serious to lighthearted. The philosopher Michael Serres, discussing his methods with Bruno Latour, contended that “one can work, think and discover without any strategy at all.” He explained further, “So, I never arrived at a beginning, an origin, a unique principle of interpretation, all of which are classically seen as making coherence, system, meaning. Instead, I arrived at a cluster of relations, differentiated but organized.” 17 An acceptance of this way of working, of seeking organization not through a classical sorting but through differentiation and change, leads to the discovery of new relationships and new questions.
Here we must heed the critique of “methodolatry” advanced by Shannon Mattern, who correctly observes that the “fetishization” of methods can obstruct meaning, “to the extent that it directs one’s research, perhaps even driving the questions one asks.” 18 Mattern argues that we have to “think harder about what we want it all to add up to — and select our tools to support larger epistemological and theoretical goals.” While we agree with the critique, we might insist less on hard, goal-oriented thinking and allow more freedom for absurd or random operations. Recognize that no one method is ideal and no tool is perfect. Rather, we rely on what Bateson calls “binocular vision,” multiple perspectives on a given problem. As he says, “two descriptions are better than one.” 19 Our methods of inquiry are pluralistic, driven by experience. Method becomes everything and nothing — fundamental and yet instantly sacrificial.
The second component of probing is insight, the feedback received when we ask questions of landscape, which is almost never what we expect it will be. For even as insight accretes, it is always eroding. It is thus aligned with Feyerabend’s notion of “knowledge”:
… the ever-increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives, each single theory, each fairytale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing via this process of competition to the development of our consciousness. Nothing is ever settled, no view can ever be omitted from a comprehensive account. 20
We believe in asking questions, sometimes serious, sometimes silly and illogical. Designers are trained to do this, yet we seldom exercise that freedom.
This way of thinking flips the design process on its head. We don’t look for truth but for trajectories. In their study of a California science laboratory, Latour and Steven Woolgar showed that what we perceive as “facts” are actually the product of socially derived “microprocesses.” 21 If we understand knowledge as constructed, then the design process is centered around the accrual of information. Serres identified two modes of knowledge, “one concerned with verification and the other involved in risk taking, the production of newness, the multiplicity of found objects, and inventiveness.” 22 Our notion of insight encompasses both.
Insight nearly always requires engagement. Sitting quietly in the forest leads not to transcendental knowledge, but to a romantic or nostalgic sense of place. We reject practices that turn landscapes into the equivalent of charismatic megafauna, easy to like and essential to preserve. We seek to understand not what we see but how we interact with it, and how it is changed through the process. Bergson would remind us to see the mud as nothing but change. Thus, our probing is continually recalibrated, sensitive to how the place is evolving in time.
Finally, our activities are recorded through impressions, such as drawing, collage, photography, the collection of materials, and more radical acts of expression or representation. These impressions are not regarded as truth but rather as the translation of a curated set of insights. Again, time and change are essential to the creative process and should be embraced. Our aim is not merely to document change, but to communicate the experience of change. For this reason, our impressions are relatively quick and disconnected, each one forging a new narrative, seeking to draw out the “characters” of the landscape in an attempt to understand how they could be re‑choreographed.
Toward a Theory of Mud
At the root of these operations is an expanding list of questions, which emerge from a profound respect and fascination for all that we will never know. We believe in asking questions, sometimes serious, sometimes silly and illogical. Designers are trained to do this, yet we seldom exercise that freedom. We focus on sites and projects that present a problem to be solved, and in that manner we pass up opportunities to ask anything additional of the world around us. Given the dire state of that world, it is difficult to resist the urge to fix what can (seemingly) be fixed. Yet, if we are to take Bateson seriously, we must acknowledge that every fix is only the enactment of a new question, which recharges the process of inquiry.
We must learn to see all landscapes as dynamic territories influenced by natural and anthropogenic systems across multiple time and spatial scales. When we accept that definition, we can conceive them as landscapes of “mud.” Mud has no digestible order. It is the glue, the essence, and the change that binds everything together. And it can never be proven or fixed, only probed.