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Design for Nondualistic Experiences

Eric Angell

Eric Angell completed a M.A. in Landscape Design at the Conway School of Landscape Design in Conway, Massachusetts. When he wrote this essay, he was an open-space and environmental planner for the Delaware County Planning Department, just outside of Phila­delphia. 


Dualistic thought is one aspect of Western epistemol­ogy that must change before there can be truly constructive changes in human behavior. The per­ceived dualism of human beings and nature, in some ways an extension of subject-object dualism, has led to an alienation and loss of context that threatens life. But how can epistemologies be changed?

     Rational information is often thought to be an effective method of changing people's world views, with scientific ecological information especially relevant to understanding the people-nature relation­ship. Often, however, there is a gap between infor­mation presented and the way a person's perceptions and values filter that information. A more powerful method to internalize the primary ecological lesson of interrelationships is through direct experience of our natural surroundings.

     Are there ways designers could facilitate experi­ences that transcend the people-nature dualism to impress a revelation of our interrelationships on the experiencer? Such an experience of nature could be nondualistic in two complementary ways. First, it could illustrate a relation of people to nature. Second, and more fundamentally, if one "loses oneself," the experience could get around the subject-object filter of consciousness and become transfor­mative.

     From my own environmental experiences and from frustrations with the design fields, I offer four design suggestions for potentially facilitating transfor­mative nondualistic experiences.


     For many individuals, protected wilderness areas provide spaces for rare connections to nature, but most people feel that genuine wilderness largely excludes human residence. To visit wilderness, therefore, is to leave everyday life. The result is that many people strive to protect wilderness while not changing daily habits of thought and action that are destructive, such as commuting long distances to work by private automobile or buying a five-acre lot in sprawling suburbia.

     To be most effective in changing perceptions and behaviors, a transformative experience is better connected to everyday life. The need, therefore, is to have these experiences take place in daily life or, at least, in proximity to home on an ongoing basis.

     This possibility points to the designer's role. The focus is not the nature preserve of several-million acres (although such places are critically important for other reasons) but, rather, the numerous small spaces near people's homes and work places. These are the transition spaces: not completely "tamed" like lawns or modern buildings, but not entirely "sepa­rate" like wilderness either.

     It seems to me that there is a fine line between too ordinary a place and one too removed from daily life. A transformative place might be one able to be experienced often, not requiring a long trip or special preparations, but one also just different enough to help people break out of a rut of obliviousness.

     Researchers are increasingly aware of children's psychological need for an ongoing connection with nature. Here also the proximity of wild spaces is important, for children have limited mobility.

     In suburbia and cities, the best spots for children's exploration are often some out-of-the-way place down the block, if a child is lucky enough to have such a place. Clare Cooper Marcus writes that eighty to ninety percent of her university students' favorite childhood spaces were "wild or leftover places...that were never specifically designed.... If they grew up in a developing suburb they remember the one lot at the end of the street that wasn't yet built on, where they constructed caps and dug tunnels and lit fires" (cited in Arendt, 1994, p.5).


     The degree of complexity is often a telling differ­ence between designed and wild landscapes. Even if we had the knowledge to mimic functioning ecosys­tems, the cost would be prohibitive. The best way to accomplish complexity is to relinquish control. Let natural processes alter the landscape. Let the land­scape evolve. We can work subtly to push a land­scape in the desired direction and, then, with humili­ty, let it go. Allow enough complexity to encourage people's curiosity, so that they may return time and again to see the seasonal and long-term changes.

     The wild that we need to connect with is not controlled and includes wild animals moving into a designed landscape. Many people know the fascina­tion of seeing wild animals, and children are usually especially mesmerized. In animals, we see something of ourselves and some­thing of the Other. In a direct, visceral way, we realize we are not alone. The writer Annie Dillard (1982), for example, describes an unexpected en­counter with a weasel at a suburban pond as "a clearing blow to the gut" and a "bright blow to the brain" (p. 14).


     Too often, environmental designers concern themselves primarily with the visual. The other senses can also be wonderful avenues to involve people in their surroundings. One way to conceptual­ize a nondualistic experience is to think of a time when your attention was completely focused outside yourself. As with Annie Dillard and the weasel, you lose your sense of self and are fully involved.

     In Dillard's case, the primary contact seems to have been visual, but would she have had the same experience if she hadn't been sitting silently on a "lap of lichen" with her back against a tree? What if she had been sitting in a lawn chair? Or looking out the window of a car?

     Children have a kinesthetic experience of their surroundings and value being able to interact physi­cally with the world. Why do we lose this richness of environmental experience as we get older? Perhaps there are experiences that designers could plan to help adults get back in touch with more sensual relations with their surroundings.

      One possibility is to provide edible plants in the environment. Wilderness backpackers often rely solely on "imported" food and would starve without it. This situation lends an air of non-belong­ing. Obviously, heavily-travelled national parks cannot allow everyone to eat the plants, but there are design opportunities near home and work where low- or no-maintenance fruit and nut trees or other edible plants could be included.

     On a trip to some of the national parks of the Southwest, I stopped at Capitol Reef where the Park Service maintains an historic orchard. There were no guards or rangers‑-only a sign telling me to help myself but only pick as much as I could eat on site. I happily spent an hour up in the cherry trees (and climbing trees is another excellent way to get in­volved in the landscape), eating my way around the limbs. Looking back, I realize that this experience sticks in my memory more than does most of the magnificent scenery I saw.

     Capitol Reef was a wonderful exception to an unwritten but pervasive rule of public space manage­ment: keep people from interacting with the land. Clare Cooper Marcus' research cited above did not point to official "preserved" spaces. Children loved best the places where human control on human beings as well as non-humans was relaxed, as in unbuilt suburban lots, which allowed the freedom to interact with and change the surroundings.

     Unfortunately, in the sprawling suburbs or cities where most people live, such undesigned places are becoming more rare. This is one reason why we need to be more aware of the types of experiences that designed spaces can, but often do not, provide.

     Walking is another important way to engage people more deeply in the landscape. The rhythm, pace, and physical connection with the ground bring awareness of one's surroundings. Obviously, people need to get out of their cars, but also, I believe, they need to get off their bikes and in-line skates.

     Bikes are wonderful for longer distances but, to experience the landscape at the level of detail and interaction desirable, walking is best. Bruce Chatwin (1987), who believed ances­tral nomadism to be a potent force still in our bodies, has collected frag­ments  from  many  sources  on  the   importance  of

walking and travelling. He describes an experiment demonstrating that normal babies scream if left alone but stop crying at once if rocked to the movement and pace of a walking mother (p. 229).

     In the realm of walking, too, we need to relin­quish control. Walking on trucked-in gravel is not the same experience as walking on an earthen trail, and walking on a path is not the same experience as wandering where one will. Designers could develop some rudimentary trails and also design areas that subtly invite people in without trails.

     One of the times I felt most alive was when a friend and I, on a drizzly March afternoon, walked down a path near to town along a stream. When we turned around to go back, we decided to cross the stream and return by way of the path on the other side. We took off our shoes and carefully waded across the cold water and smooth, hard rocks.

     Though the path on the other side was nothing special, (I had walked it many times before), the feeling of being fully alive and engaged with the world lasted much longer than the cold feet. Years later, when I walk the path and pass the spot of our crossing, I still think of that afternoon.


     Feeling a systemic relationship with the living world is at least partly a sacred experience. Scientist Gregory Bateson (1972) writes in regard to this type of connection to the larger natural system, "A certain humility becomes appro­priate, tempered by the dignity or joy of being part of something much bigger. A part‑-if you will‑-of God (p. 462).

     When approaching the sacred, expectations can be stultifying. If people expect a spiritual experience, their attitude will be grasping rather than receptive. In this sense, signs, publicity, or other direct declara­tions of intent are antithetical to an experience of interrelationship with the non-human. Self-conscious­ness can also lead to defensive joking or over-analysis and rob the sacred of its revelatory power.

     The sudden nature of insight is one of the most powerful   teaching  tools  and  can  generate  strong perceptual shifts. As humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1974) explains, "The most intense aesthetic experiences of nature are likely to catch one by surprise. Beauty is felt as the sudden contact with an aspect of reality that one has not known before" (p. 94).

     Revelatory experiences gather some of their power from their prereflective nature, thereby avoid­ing the dualistic subject-object filter. Because of this bypass quality, revelatory experiences are ideal methods for facilitating a sense of interrelationship between people and the natural world. The importance of revelation suggests that secre­cy, spontaneity, and human silence are all aspects of a sacred/nondualistic experience of environment.


     Dualisms can be useful cognitive tools, but our culture has gotten lost in taking them literally. Environmental designers are concerned with modify­ing the environment to suit human needs and desires, thus sitting on the fence between culture and nature. Perhaps some designed places can help people to realize that the fence is only a metaphor.

     Ecology can show us evidence of our intimate interrelationships with the world, but experience can go further in teaching people of interrelationships due to the inherent nonduality of revelatory experience. Such experiences often occur in non-designed wild places, but these places near our homes are being paved over and pushed back. Designers can try to step into the breach and learn how to create desirable spaces to facilitate extra-ordinary experiences. We have forgotten how to live in the world, but there is hope if we can now "forget ourselves."


Arendt, R. 1994. Rural by Design: Maintaining Small Town Character. Chicago: APA Planners Press.

Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. NY: Ballantine.

Chatwin, B. 1987. The Songlines. NY: Penguin.

Dillard, A. 1982. Teaching A Stone To Talk. NY: Harper & Row.

Tuan, Y. 1974. Topophilia. NY: Columbia Universi­ty Press.