Embarrassingly I've never heard of Walter Guthrie before posting about his interview with The Cultural Landscape Foundation, and soon afterwards, he passed on quite easily into nonmemory. After a second chance encounter, however, I've not been able to avoid thinking about the circumstances of his death.
Last March, “when the rains started falling and didn't stop, Walter Guthrie's concern grew for the hillside he cherished behind his Mill Valley home.”
After cracks formed in the soil, he hired a contractor to install a piping system to handle runoff from the saturated canyon.
Then, on Wednesday, in the predawn darkness while he was checking to see if a backyard culvert was clogged, an avalanche of mud coursed down the steep slope and buried the 73-year-old landscape architect.
A steward of the land suffocated by his own ward.
Particularly heart wrenching is this account of Guthrie's wife by one of the rescuers: “I was told that she was shining a flashlight out the window to give him light to work and she turned away for a second and when she looked back the slide came down and hit the back of the house.”
And then “neighbors above the slide say they could hear Lisa Guthrie screaming.”
As in any disaster wherein landscapes and lives are momentarily or permanently become out of sync, the aftermath and the scenes of rescue later that day must have been charged with frenetic incomprehension; with anxiety over a still moving, still lethal earth; and with inconsolable grief.
But perhaps therein one could interject a thought, a possible way to rescue Walter Guthrie from his inopportune demise: He did not go out at 3:00 in the morning to inspect some backyard drain! Rather he ventured out to make one last landscape, his greatest work, the one to be called his masterpiece — himself!
To graduate from a “yeoman farmer” to be landscape.
And let's even rescue this new landscape from the rescuers themselves, from an eternity hermetically sealed in satin and cement, and transport him away from that hillside to somewhere secluded, say, western Montana — forever undiscovered, forever floating inside the earth like an Archaeopteryx in akimbo, progressing silently in darkness from zoology into botany into geology and, given enough time, say, a few billions of years, into astronomy.
Meanwhile, there'd be new gardens in rich efflorescence, ossified bedrock dislodged from the living, new fields where carrion feeders can graze. And there'd also be new caverns and pits, a karst terrain of vessels and intestines and bronchi to be explored by the indigenous population. Guthrie, of course, would at first seem to be an intruder, but once the initial apprehension by the shy and the nervous critters that dwell in this place subsides, he would then be fully welcomed.
If one objects to a terrain unseen and unknowable to the human species being considered a landscape, then we can suppose to transport Walter Guthrie from that hillside — or for that matter, other landscape architects as well, and here we're talking dead ones, obviously — to the Body Farm. This infamous forensic anthropology research station isn't entirely accessible but it's not completely isolated either and thus enough for our own purposes.
There, as the body begins to liquify — to flood the earth with itself, as it were — a team of surveyors will keep a close watch, reporting everything that happens in this new geography. Lodge now above ground on one or several contour lines, amongst real vegetation, there will be new fountains to witness, the uplifts and subductions of anatomical landforms, the successions and regressions of ecologies. And all of that lovingly recorded, annotated, analyzed and discussed amongst colleagues and friends alike like cherished memories.
So if one were to say that there was only death and grief on that hillside that day, they would certainly be mistaken.