Magical Spaces

Across the driveway opposite my bedroom window there is a little field. The little field is more of a yard than a field. It is less than a hundred feet wide, maybe two hundred feet long. It drops a few feet down from the entrance driveway and parking lot, like a little emerald bowl carved out of the earth to compensate for the concrete piled up next to it. Still, the field rises above the busy road on the other side. It is an engineered space.

It is also, I have found, a magical space.

The little field is shaded almost completely by stately pine trees emerging from the bowl. I like to take my dog, Penny, over there for walks. She finds little things in the grass to chase and smell. Sometimes she is overwhelmed by some aroma there, driven to flop over and roll around, covering herself in its wonder. There are patches of grass she enjoys eating. I call this “salad time” and we do it almost every day.

At the back side of the field, right up against the fence separating us from the high school next door, there is a tree unlike the others. Where the pines tower, telegraphing their power to absorb the sun’s energy by shading the ground far below, this tree huddles. Its branches swirl and cascade, creating a sort of greencast temple underneath the spreading boughs. I like to pause there on our walks and bask in this little space. This tree, a mulberry in a pine field, is the wellspring of the field’s magic.

There is magic everywhere you go. I don’t mean abracadabra magic, rabbits from hats, wand-waving, magical beasts. I mean magic as an expression of the mysterious power that certain spaces can exercise over us. You know it when you see it. We are drawn to these spaces. Perhaps it is an echo of the space’s past. Our neighborhood used to be a dairy, for example, and the little field calls out to this past in stark contrast with the lumber, concrete, and steel of the parking lots and buildings surrounding it. Or perhaps the magical space is a zone of quiet in an otherwise hectic environment. It could be a nook, a void, a hiding place, a lively spot in a drab surround. It could be anything, but it must be powerful to pull us so.

As often as not, the magic that a space works on us has as much to do with what’s happening in our own minds while we’re there as it does with the power the space possesses of itself. Behind my workplace, for example, there was once a little picnic area cleared out of the squat hardwood margin between the interstate and the parking lot. They ruined it some time ago by dropping a big wooden gazebo back there, but it was a nice place for awhile to read a book and eat a sandwich while the cars and trucks roared by on the other side of trees. This was a magical space for me, but now that it is gone the magic persists in my memory as an enchantment of time and place rather than harmonic space. It was magical because I lived with significant feelings there.

I started my job at the end of my graduate coursework. It was a time when most of my colleagues began turning their attention from seminars to teaching and conferences in preparation for the workforce. I will spare you the “quit lit” picaresque–which is an insufferably self-absorbed genre that exists out there on the wild internet–but in order to explain the magic of the lunch clearing I need to explain that I felt like there wasn’t much future in academia. Living here was as good as living anywhere else, I thought, and if I got a job instead of starting to teach I would still be free to write and do all of the big thinking that I went to grad school to do in the first place. But it still felt like giving up on the dream. I remember making my way to the clearing some time in my second week on the job and thinking, this isn’t so bad. I remember the autumn afternoon, watching the long shadows playing across the building through the trees while completely re-imagining who I was and who I could be. Sitting at one of the picnic tables there I got a text message from my friend which read, “Is it soul-crushing?”

“No, actually,” I replied, “it’s not bad at all.”

I would return to the clearing again and again, day after day. I read books there: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was one. I wrote there: poetry, essays, emails. I wrote about a Water Oak tree living next to the bench where I sat to read and think. I wrote an ode to my wife sitting beneath the tree’s branches. Occupying this magical space helped me escape the workday. It charged my creativity and gave me peace. It helped me adapt to a period of profound change.

Think of a magical space like a power-up in a video game. Being there may recharge your batteries or allow you to focus. It may give you a moment of peace or an hour. What it is and what it means will vary as widely as the people who occupy the space and the feelings shaping their experience from moment to moment. On this blog I intend to share examples. Perhaps, by doing so, I can better explain myself.

Camera Roll: St. Marks NWR

I’m always inspired when I visit the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve posted photos before, and I made a Minute Wild video just upriver last spring, but somehow I forgot to post these photos when I hiked the trail out to the old ghost town of Port Leon in February. Maybe it’s because I recorded something like twenty-five voice notes about the hike for a collection of travel essays I’m working on, and I didn’t even know where to begin. For this post I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves.

Public Lands No. 1

We use these pull cards at DEP when we check out files. Each one of the file numbers written on this card corresponds to a lease of State-owned lands. I thought it would be neat to take a couple of the old cards that were used up and paint one of the projects someone used the card to work on. I picked the lease number at random. This one ended up being a jetty on submerged lands in Boca Raton. I’ll do an uplands lease next.

Lease #502079586

Video Game Spaces: Halo

“When we gazed upon all this splendour at once, we scarcely knew what to think, and we doubted whether all that we beheld was real.”  

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Conquest of Mexico and New Spain

You land on a strange “installation” and there are a few moments of silence for you to take in this unique world. After a quick look around at the clearing where your shuttle crash-landed, you make your way across a narrow bridge high above a bubbling stream. To the right, the stream cascades down a well-beaten course cut through a precipitous rocky valley. To the left, this. This expanse of land, water and sky slicing the inky vastness of space. There is a dialectic of sublime beauty and precarious terror in this space. You feel as though you could peer into the cumulus distance for hours, exclaiming at the wonder of it all like Bernal Diaz del Castillo and his murderous crew of invaders. They felt as alien in Tenochtitlan as you feel in this place. The only choice, though, is to pass through an evergreen grove up the rough path leading toward the source of the stream. There is gunwork ahead, unfortunately. 

What I want to suggest, in this and future posts about video game spaces, is that games are a new design commons — a new public architecture that we should take just as seriously as we do “real” spaces. We inhabit games for longer periods of time than we inhabit most public spaces. I’ve spent more time running around the archives level on GoldenEye than I have spent in church; far more time driving around the virtual streets of San Andreas than riding the subway in New York City. All of these spaces were shaped by human hands and minds for humans to inhabit. 

I also hope to think through some of the design problems inherent in games. These are not democratic spaces, for example, and they are not free in any sense of the word. Burning electricity instead of calories, too, may not be sustainable for our bodies or the planet. As in Halo, violence is the dark centerpiece of most video game spaces, as well. What cultural work are these costly, undemocratic, and violent realms performing? Are we designing and inhabiting beautiful hellscapes? 

I’ll share spaces in games here when the inspiration strikes. I hope you can use them to question your assumptions about architecture, landscape, and industrial design, as I am. At the very least, I hope that you can appreciate their beauty and the skill that goes into designing and building them.