The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Start practicing real politics

“Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”

I found this quote typed on a card in a sweet shop near me called Nesting, where they specialize in selling charming oddities — like quotes typed on a card. It was being sold for a dollar, and so I plunked that down and took the card home.

In politics, the art of perception is to pay attention, deeply, to what the other person might want and where what they want is shared with you. In strategy, artful persons develop a vision of what they want to achieve and perceive how others might find it acceptable to come along with them.

Artless politics is the drive, drive, driving of a point without any sense of how to bring others along — which means, in the end, you probably won’t.

Liberal and conservative heroes have been both perceptive and strategic, and so they have passed large pieces of legislation, made shifts in U.S. foreign policy, and made the previously unthought-of accepted and expected – from clean air and water laws to restarting relations with previous enemies to ending decades-long civil wars to accommodating people with disabilities. These are just a few examples.

Much of what passes for politics right now is not artful. Politicians considered “darlings” or “leaders” of their parties are usually the ones shouting or disdaining. Social media encourages lots of posting and lots of scanning headlines without seeking information or nuance. We watch cable to feel righteous or pissed off. The hunt is for the thrill, for the spreading of the “Can you believe this?” headlines and memes of the day.

And so we are not armed with perception, and we can’t develop strategy. We can only react, and in turn the leaders we elevate become even more reactionary.

In our democracy we have many opportunities to gain perception and develop real vision – the kind that imagines many different constituencies moving toward common goals. This week, for example, The Washington Post is broadcasting the Cabinet confirmation hearings live online. Taking a ten or fifteen minute break to watch or listen to one is fascinating and far more informative than any news summary.

Senators signal their positions through their lines of questioning. Nominees betray ignorance or display thoughtfulness that is not always covered in the media accounts. And when you see something you like – like a Senator being tough on someone for a particular position or lack of knowledge – you can follow up by giving their office a call to say thank you, which shifts that office’s perception of what is important. Same thing when you don’t want a Senator to be soft on a particular issue, or you have concerns about the nominees’ ability to address it. You can participate as a citizen, right there and then.

As you begin to participate, you learn the issues and the players more clearly. You can ask more of your own politicians and others across the country. And you might begin to notice where there is some commonality you previously thought did not exist – as I found yesterday, when a Senator I did not expect to closely questioned the nominee for Secretary of State on climate change. Armed with that awareness, you might begin to think about how to turn the tide on an issue that has seemed so partisan and deeply entrenched.

That’s what the greats did. That’s what we should expect again of our leaders — but we will only get this from them if we expect it of ourselves.




Wherefore, boots?

For at least three seasons, maybe as many as five, I haven’t been able to find a tall boot that would work in a professional situation. At first, I thought it was me. I wasn’t really looking, or I was too picky, or the fashions just weren’t right for me. If it was the latter – well, that always changes after a season or two.

But recently I’ve realized that the current offerings are relatively permanent, and that it’s a problem noticed by other women I know. It’s an abrupt reversal of fashion and design trends that grew over decades as women entered, stayed in – and sent female children off to – the work force.

This isn’t about a boot shortage. These days, there seems to be a surplus. Online retailers like Zappo’s and Asos list pages and pages of tall boots (not to mention the equally ubiquitous “booty”). Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, Nordstrom Rack, Marshall’s, T.J.Maxx, Nine West, Garnet Hill, J.Crew, Land’s End and others all list them on their websites or stock rows and rows of them in their stores. Everywhere, there are boots.

But there are none for women who want to wear them to work, looking smart and professional all day while being able to hurry down the halls of Congress or run up the stairs of the lab building or chase down an interview at the end of a court proceeding and then get back to the newsroom. For when we would want to wear trousers, dresses, or skirts.

The tall boots offered now are one of two styles: “riding” or over the knee (or riding boots with an over the knee flap, giving them a vaguely jackbootish air.) Some of the riding boots are faintly or overtly western, other Ralph Lauren-ish stiff, others elfin slouchy, still others all three in a mashup of design elements. Most of the over-the-knee boots remind one only of one profession – which might bring you to Washington or to courtrooms but not for the right reasons.

None but the highly expensive dress the ankle. None distinguish themselves through the shape of the toe bed. Almost all in the “riding” style have the profile of a rain boot: Wide in the ankle, gaping in the calf, neither square nor narrow. Some of the over-the-knee boots are fun, and some beautiful, but not really for everyday. For everyday, it seems, we have shapeless.

Did this trend emerge from girls wearing Uggs or Hunter rain boots (depending on whether they wanted to be slouchy or prim in their privilege) to college classes ten years ago? Is it a resistance to being professional? Are the stiletto over-the-knee boots being sold at department stores an outcome of internet porn?

Maybe it’s all of this and maybe it’s something more reflective of the state of our economy and of our aspirations. There is little cost to making the same boot year after year, and making it in China out of manmade materials. There is no cost to making a boot that will “fit” anyone – and there may be a profit in putting actual design up on the “luxury” shelf, so those with any style at all now cost between $300 – $800. And when we see boots that can only be worn with skinny jeans and leggings by day, or a minidress to a club at night — does it limit our imagination for putting on clothes that will take us far out into the world?

It’s a reshuffling toward the proletariat and the oligarchs – not toward a place where women are independent, buying their own clothes with their own money, succeeding and leading in the workplace and beyond.

boots from


Time for a cleanup

dotbostonfromplaneIt’s a beautiful thing to fly into Logan International Airport in Boston. No matter which direction you come from, the plane will eventually angle over the water of Boston Harbor, ceding views of the islands, the city, and the neighborhoods nestled into the low hills near the sea.


Something else you might see are these curious eggs, arranged in what looks like a semi-industrial sculpture on an island just beyond the runway. They are the result of an environmental and economic success story – one in which an environmental disgrace actually figured into a presidential election.

The Sunday after this year’s election, we were invited by friends to see their beach house in Winthrop, a modest coastal town just beyond Logan. It is one of the last Massachusetts working class towns on the beach, with cottages crowded cheek by jowl on tiny lots festooned with funky buoy art, lobster traps, and painted Adirondack chairs. As we strolled the sand, beachcombing for shells and picking up bits of stray garbage, planes flew in low overhead for landing.

At the end of the beach, we walked onto an island that rose up with views of the Boston skyline on one side and the open ocean on the other. It was landscaped at the bottom with pretty parks with benches and trees and in the middle a berm rose up with native grasses like those that populate the marshes along Boston’s North Shore.

The berm concealed the island’s true purpose as the site of the wastewater treatment plant that was constructed to clean up Boston Harbor. And those are the eggs, which are digesters of eastern Massachusetts raw sewage that used to be dumped straight into the water.

The eggs are an engineering feat and the result of eventual political and judiciary displays of will, but they came about after centuries of avoiding the obvious. The problem of dumping raw sewage into a relatively closed harbor was first recognized in 1634 yet somehow ignored for centuries, until its solution was driven only by court order. By then, it had become Boston’s embarrassment, used by Republican presidential nominee George H. W. Bush against his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, in the 1988 campaign.

The eggs have cleaned up the harbor, and island is the pride of the beach neighborhood residents, who can walk the 2.5 mile circumference trail on a beautiful day. My neighbors, who voted for the current President-elect, loved to show it off and to tell me the biological details of how the digesters work.

During this year’s presidential campaign, both candidates promised significant investment in infrastructure, but neither mentioned any projects that might begin to tackle the enormous environmental hard stops we are coming up against. This country has a lot of resources, know-how, and creativity in engineering, finance, technology, and good old-fashioned labor. I’d love to see every city identify and apply for funds or raise bonds to tackle the latest obvious problem, engaging their eggheads, their wonks, their working class to get it done – just as Boston eventually did, albeit under duress.

Everybody knows what they are. The trashy, stinking river. The wetlands to be restored that would filter drinking water or hold a storm surge. The plastics pouring out of our landfills and into the ocean. The mountains of electronic trash. Or even, as the storied track coach would say, just start by getting the lead out.



Opening salvo: Three small trees


Since I last wrote, the yard came back to life. We didn’t have an entirely barren rectangle to start and so various plants reappeared, including weeds wherever they could. I planted the vegetable garden, pulled the weeds, composted and mulched, set up the sprinkler to water. We’ve mowed the grass that’s there, trimmed some bushes.

I spent the spring months noticing the basic composition of the yard and how I might anchor it to begin the transformation to lush oasis. The space divides essentially into three triangles, from the deeply shady and barren slope on the left, to the middle where there is mostly grass and a fair amount of sun, to the much sunnier right side that is close to the vegetable garden.

I also considered all the functions I wanted: A tranquil setting for our patio; somewhere to play with our dogs; habitat, hatchery, and corridor for mammals, birds, bees, butterflies, and other life; and a place to grow food and flowers for us to enjoy. On a trip to Vermont, when I saw this book, The Nourishing Homestead, I was inspired to think about how to get the most out of every square inch of our small patch in town.

Ambitious, right? Not really — if you give Nature an inch she will take a mile. We know this is true when battling weeds. But when we introduce just a few new biotic aspects, it is really incredible the variety of life they attract, and how quickly. IMG_0747

I knew I wanted smaller trees interspersed through the body of the yard, but I also didn’t want “ornamental.” I wanted functional, to serve all the purposes above. I was inspired by a Martha Stewart Living magazine to try dwarf fruit trees – I didn’t know that apricots and plums would grow in Massachusetts! Hooray! I had already planted a serviceberry – a wild version of a crabapple – that would host butterfly caterpillars in its bark.

We bought the two fruit trees – $45 each – from a local nursery, and planted them as two points at either end of the line shared by the sunny triangle and the middle triangle. We moved the serviceberry upslope and to the left, to make the third triangle point. Next I’ll work on rhododendrons and/or mountain laurel to fill in the understory in the shady dry slope section. My hope is that these trees and bushes will serve as the infrastructure to anchor the design of the space, attract more biota, and begin to offer shade and shelter to us all.



top right: apricot tree.

middle right: plum tree.

bottom left: serviceberry.

nature abhors a rectangle


The American backyard is generally a fenced-in and mown space of grass. Any trees or plants stand along the edges, based with mulch in an attempt at clean perfection. But designs for clean perfection are static, and often devoid of life – they miss the chance to reference and nurture the greater environment. They require artificial aids to maintain, because nature works against squared off, scrubbed portions of the outdoors.

Lawns are lovely, for sure. Though our “lawn” is about a third crabgrass and violets, it’s a sweet expanse of green when it’s just been mowed. I imagine lying on it, on a blanket, on some Saturday afternoon when I commit to relaxing in my backyard with a book. But it dries out easily. Weeds spring up. It’s not very interesting. The basic rectangular views leave no mystery – no secrets or surprises. We have a panoramic view of this yard out our kitchen windows. What we mostly see is the back fence.

Our yards are part of a much bigger landscape, even if we work to keep them as barren nicks in the canopy. Where I live, the original landscape is composed of forests, meadows, wetlands, and ponds. A few miles east of me, salt marshes signal the transition from land to sea. Wildlife travel across and thrive within these landscapes where they can, though humans disrupt their habitat and corridors not only with concrete but also with mulched and pesticided perfection.

It doesn’t take much to turn your small piece of the rock into an oasis of flora, a connector and resting place for the fauna that belong where you live, and something much more soulful to enjoy. When planted with depth, yards become more visually intriguing and sensually pleasant.

Rather than decorating the edges with the usual plant fare at Home Depot – plus mulch – consider disrupting the rectangle, even when it’s fenced in. You can start small, as we’re planning to in our yard this year. I’d like to plant a few smaller trees throughout the interior, trees that might naturally succeed in a sun-drenched forest clearing and would look pretty out the window in the winter. I discovered that two such natives in my state are black birch and serviceberry. I also learned that the right trees would support not only birds and other usual arboreal customers, but would also provide hatcheries, in their bark, for butterflies and moths.

Start with one change this year – a single tree in the center, three or four native shrubs to one side, or an area of native grasses and perennials in your own private hummingbird and butterfly meadow. Take down a side of fence and plant a natural barrier of native shrubs that will thrive in that spot, with a native ground cover, rather than mulch, to spread beneath them.

Then sit outside, or look out the window, and start documenting the new life that you see – the birds that visit, butterflies, bees – it’s addicting once you get started.


Here is our yard at its bleakest: After the winter, before the spring. Soon the leaves will be cleaned up — they were left deliberately to mulch the lawn. The bushes and trees will leaf out, and the rhododendrons, azaleas, and forsythia will bloom. Birds will sing, and bunnies will continue to bound out of our leaf pile. It’s a sure sign we got our piece of the rock. So why is it so… square?


If you give Nature an inch, she will take a mile: In the corner of our yard, shared with our neighbor, stands a five story tall hemlock. Its lower branches spread above our sprawling leaf pile. While I took the dogs out yesterday I heard a tap tap tap that made me look up, and I saw a small woodpecker making its way around one of those limbs. Closer to me, several chickadees trolled for seeds, their gray and white, black-capped bodies hopping around just above my head. Two blue jays flew out of the middle. We’ve seen red tailed hawks regularly landing at the very top, many other birds at the mid-section, and rabbits, possums, squirrels of course, and a fox beneath it.Just looking up brought busy and multi-colored life into view, all around one tall tree.



%d bloggers like this: