Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
A Philosophical Nature by Catherine Umphrey - Spring 2003
Maryland landscape architect John Gutting - a public speaker and regional pioneer in the use of native plants for more than 30 years - typically leaves his audiences spellbound. In presentations to prospective clients, lectures to design students, or conversations with just about anyone who will listen, Gutting speaks with passion and conviction regarding the critical imperatives of nature.
Gutting discusses the oneness of physical reality, describing to audiences a "fabric held together by competition and interdependency." He explains that animal life depends on the food-manufacturing capacities of plant life, which in turn depends on the propagation assistance of animals. Gutting also speaks of the gradual interactive changes that brought about our inherited and complex biological communities, each with its own "pulse of life." Finally, he teaches that as mere newcomers to a world of very "ancient rules," human beings are not its masters but its students and that in the end nature will simply "have its way with us." When a Gutting audience walks away, its members hold the distinct impression of having just been put in their natural place.
Living Fingerprints. Perhaps a homeowner seeking advice on the installation of a swimming pool would not expect such an impassioned overview of the workings of the planet. However, to Gutting the big picture is never irrelevant. It provides the context for every principle he holds as a landscape architect, including his advocacy for the exclusive use of the native plants that create a region's natural landscape. "They are the 'living fingerprints,'" expresses Gutting, "of every spot on Earth."
Gutting acknowledges that there are other philosophies of landscape design, but says, "I cannot for the life of me comprehend why anyone would even argue for, much less actually promote, 'un-naturalistic landscaping.'" Rather, Gutting contends that the role of the landscape architect is to protect existing natural conditions when at all possible and restore natural conditions when human activities have overwhelmed the original ecology.
Learning the Landscape. In the mid-sixties, Gutting studied landscape architecture at the University of Illinois under Donald Walker, who now directs the Conway School of Landscape Design in Conway, Massachusetts. Gutting was fortunate to find a sympathetic thinker. Mutual respect and shared viewpoints led to a professional relationship and friendship of more than 30 years. For Walker, the natural world is our proper garden and "as walls, and pavements, and exotic introductions, and lawns expand, the 'garden' shrinks." Gutting annually visits Walker's department at Conway as a guest lecturer.
Since Gutting began practice in 1970, most of his projects - except the building of his own house and studio in a wooded area of Church Hill, Maryland - have involved severely damaged sites requiring restoration. Because the "botanical pulse of the Mid-Atlantic region is basically a deciduous woodland," the forest of high canopy trees, mazes of understory trees and shrubs, and tapestries of wildflowers serve as his model of study for local restoration. Rigorous site analyses (especially of the soil) and observations of the plant life on undisturbed surrounding lands determine what species will be suitable. Gutting's general research tools regarding plant nomenclature include "Woody Plants of Maryland and Herbaceous Plants of Maryland," M. Brown and R. Brown (1984) and "Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada," H. Gleason and A. Cronquist (1993). Never having found a complete reference work that provided the regionally detailed information Gutting needed for design, he ambitiously launched his own study of the communities, habitats, and aesthetic effects of Maryland's native plants. He has now collected hundreds of field notes and photos from which he is creating a computer database depicting the area's seasonal changes and subtle plant preferences.