On the High Line: The Third Landscape with Gilles Clement and Michael Gordon

Michael Gordon on the High Line

In late October I was fortunate to join Michael Gordon for a walk on the High Line. He planned to come to New York for a lecture by Gilles Clement, which I intended to go to too, so we arranged to meet. We had the opportunity to talk about the changes in the High Line since its opening, and to observe how the plantings have developed over those years. (See the photos below because I’ll be silent on that matter.)

The lower end of the High Line near the Gansevoort Street entrance. Yes, the trees have grown much larger.

In more ways than one, it was appropriate that we concluded the day by attending Gilles Clement’s lecture at the New York Botanical Garden’s Mid-Town Center. Clement spoke in heavily accented English. I didn’t completely grasp some of the details of the lecture–the Third Landscape–until I got home and read about his theories, but he nevertheless communicated an extraordinarily powerful message through use of simple photos and stories about the nature of nature. The ideas were clear; the label came later.

Northern spur preserve.

Clement told several simple stories based on observation, using simple snapshots mostly taken years ago.

First was a photo of his home garden showing a Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), followed by a second photo with several smaller plants that had seeded into his lawn. Clement responded to this self-seeding of what many consider a noxious weed by changing his garden and allowing the plants to grow. (I perked up on hearing this; I do the same). Why did he let the Giant hogweed grow? Because he liked it! The point of this little parable? Nature knows how to do what it does. Before we intervene, and intervention will certainly be needed at some point, we should give thought to what and why we do it.

I think the colorful plant is Gillenia trifoliata.

The next image was of an apple tree in his garden. For some reason, the tree fell; its long trunk lay flat on the ground. Clement left it in place, just to see what would happen, altering his mowing pattern to leave an oblong grassy island around the trunk. Then he showed a photo of the trunk regrowing from its base, and another of the mature tree regrown many years later. He was making the point that plants have knowledge. They know what to do without us–a simple idea, but one we don’t often give enough attention. Many gardeners fight this knowledge, gardening in opposition to it, “fighting the weeds,” when it’s equally possible to garden with it.


With the third image I imagined we were moving into the unknown, perhaps even the unknowable. The image was a skyward shot of a tree canopy (it brought to mind an abstract fractal pattern). The canopy was made up of several trees, and where they might have met near the center of the photo, a highly irregular linear space clearly demarcated each tree canopy from the other. The trees “knew” not to touch each other. One might even read intention into that not touching. It was quite remarkable to see. Clement called this phenomenon the “fissure of timidity”–an intriguing name–I don’t know that he offered further explanation, but it hints at the mysteries visible in plant life if we choose to look. And, of course, it was yet another example of something plants know that we do not know.


(I am not speaking of the pathetic fallacy; I do not mean to say plants think and have feelings like human beings; their knowledge or intelligence is of a different order entirely–think more of evolutionary traits genetically encoded in responses to environmental stimuli: sunlight, wind, water, soil, nutrients, competition, stress. That still leaves room for a lot of mystery.)

I believe Clement was saying that this knowledge that resides in plants is being destroyed as we overdevelop and devour more and more of the planetary landscape for “useful” purposes. Clement identifies areas–which he refers to as The Third Landscape–where potential remains for this knowledge to survive.


I offer the following from his writings:  …”The Third Landscape – an undetermined fragment of the Planetary Garden – designates the sum of the space left over by man to  landscape evolution — to nature alone. Included in this category are left behind (délaissé) urban or rural sites, transitional spaces, neglected land (friches), swamps, moors, peat bogs, but also roadsides, shores, railroad embankments, etc. To these unattended areas can be added space set aside, reserves in themselves: inaccessible places, mountain summits, non-cultivatable areas, deserts; institutional reserves: national parks, regional parks, nature reserves.


“Compared to the territories submitted to the control and exploitation by man, the Third Landscape forms a privileged area of receptivity to biological diversity. Cities, farms and forestry holdings, sites devoted to industry, tourism, human activity, areas of control and decision permit diversity and, at times, totally exclude it. The variety  of species in a field, cultivated land, or managed forest is low in comparison to that of a neighboring (unattended) space…

Baccharis halimifolia, often considered a weed, but used ornamentally both here on the High Line and at Chanticleer outside Philadelphia.

“From this point of view, the Third Landscape can be considered as the genetic reservoir of the planet, the space of the future…

“Viewing the Third Landscape as a biological necessity, conditioning the future of living things, modifies the interpretation of territory and enhances areas usually looked upon as negligible. It is up to the political body to organize ground division in such a manner as to assume responsibility for these undetermined areas, tantamount to concern for the future (italics mine).”


Isn’t this what the High Line is doing? Has been doing for more than four years?

Rosemary willow (Salix eleagnos)

Having just spent several hours on the High Line, which had begun as an elevated railway line on which wild vegetation had spontaneously established itself over decades of abandonment, I grasped Clement’s idea of the Third Landscape with a renewed understanding and a sense of surprise. Not a new idea, certainly, but a new way of conceptualizing, of understanding, something many of us have been doing all along. It’s helpful to see an old thing presented in a new context.

I had to leave immediately on conclusion of the lecture, so I didn’t know Michael’s reaction until I received an email from him several days later.

Besides his own remarkable home garden, far more formal than mine, and designed with intense deliberation, Michael is responsible for designing and managing volunteer maintenance of the public parks in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which he does as a volunteer himself (your can see photos on his blog The Gardener’s Eye). Many years ago he developed a friendship with Lynden B. Miller, who did much the same for parks in New York City, and in the intervening years he has sought her advice on how to create and maintain a similar parks program in his own town. As I hurried off to my appointment, he spotted Lynden near the front and headed down to speak to her. Michael and Lynden may or may not want to grow Giant hogweed in their gardens, but I think they understand why some gardeners would.

So I watched a bit of magic spring from the sharing of ideas. On his drive to and from Peterborough, Michael took the opportunity to get in a raft of garden touring. In an email titled ‘Brine, Clement, High Line, Lynden Miller,’ Michael wrote, “Visting the new NYBG Native Garden, Lynden’s work, the High Line and the Brine Garden were the perfect complement to the Clement lecture. My head is spinning a bit, but I can feel more evolution coming in the public parks in Peterborough, which is very exciting.”

“The Brine Garden was very interesting, especially after seeing the Clement lecture… They let trees fall over and shrubs that were smashed are growing new vertical stems … it is very much like what Clement was doing in his own garden. There are lots of wet paths that are muddy and steep hills with gravel paths without steps which are very difficult to negotiate. I would have liked it much less a week earlier before hearing the lecture.” Clement’s lecture changed how Michael appreciated this garden. Point taken!


There may be changes coming to the parks in Peterborough next year–a more naturalistic approach in some areas (a bit of The Third Landscape in New Hampshire?). Michael continued, “Clement’s park in Paris and the different levels of ‘tailored-to-wild’ remind me of the different intentions I have in the parks in Peterborough,” reminding me that Clement had stressed the need for ‘reassurance’ in parks and public gardens to ‘tell’ users the space is intended for public use, that it is not entirely wild … “My wildest space is Teixeira Park,” he explained. “I have been toying with the idea of letting the grass grow in large areas of that park. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. The Clement lecture has given me more courage to try it. I would cut it in a way that left a large  area where you could play soccer for instance. I think I could make paths in the long grass and make the wild seem organized in a way that would be reassuring. I don’t know what to do with the grass–just let whatever grows there, grow. I would certainly want a meadow, which needs to be cut yearly, and would not let it grow into a forest.”

Recall Clement’s statement, “It is up to the political body to organize ground division in such a manner as to assume responsibility for these undetermined areas, tantamount to concern for the future.” Michael is doing this. The High Line is doing this. The Brine Garden is doing this. How may of us are doing this?

(On the other side of the world, Dan Pearson was concerned with very much the same thing at the Tokachi Millenium Forest in Japan, where he designed a zone of cultivated, though naturalistic-appearing, perennial plantings to gradually introduce visitors to the experience of the less controlled, ‘wilder’ nature of the forest beyond.)


Michael’s philosophical, and very practical, response to Clement’s lecture calls to mind that haunting image of the ‘fissure of timidity,’ the mysterious line of separation between the canopies of the trees Clement presented in his lecture–not because it is applicable directly to garden or park design–though it may well be–but because it reminds us that we need to pay attention. Knowledge is available to us, though frequently the visible remains invisible. It’s so familiar, we can’t see it, we’re predisposed to see the world in limited, constrained ways.


We need a Gilles Clement to point his finger at the obvious. 

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18 thoughts on “On the High Line: The Third Landscape with Gilles Clement and Michael Gordon

  1. Well, maybe now Clement’s theories aren’t new, but they were as he started experimenting on this in the 80’s, at least from a landscapearchitectural point of view. High Line idea was originally based on this movement, observing the wild weeds which had grown on the abandoned railway, but then Oudolf crystallized this project in a cultivated way. Nature apealing, but not as natural as Clement (and maybe yourself) understand. Process vs. final appearance.

    1. Yes, I get your point and I was troubled comparing the High Line in its present form to The Third Landscape. Only the future will tell us the answer. I know Oudolf has traditionally not wanted his plants to move about, and though I think he’s changed on that point, even allowing some self-seeding, I’m not sure the managers of the High Line will allow much seeding from the outside environment, as happened on the old, abandoned rail line. That would effectively remove the High Line from the land Clement defines as The Third Landscape. I believe I’ve read a part of the yet-to-be constructed Part 3 may be reserved for native urban vegetation, as distinct from the Oudolf-designed plantings, but I can’t confirm that. To really be “natural,” some room would have to be allowed for chance and randomness in the planting of the High Line. This is an important issue to resolve as the park continues into the future.

  2. I agree with much of what you say; I saw a tree growing just as you described, it must have fallen down at least fifty years ago if the size of the ‘new’ trunk is an indication. But I don’t really agree about the High Line (which I cam eto NY to see last New Year), which is obviously planted even if the aim is for it too seem natural, it is a planted (controlled) space. I loved it.

  3. I love the idea of ‘The Third Landscape’ but as with most things Oudolf, he expresses his own views on such matters with pinpoint brevity:

    “Experience what happens. Act when necessary”.

  4. Christina, I agree with your disagreement. The High Line is a controlled, planted space, not at present open to seeding in from outside (unless some decision has been made to at least experiment with that, to some extent). I love it too. It’s naturalistic (i.e., it “looks” natural), but it isn’t. It’s a simulacrum, idealized, of nature. If you come back to NYC, please contact me so we can meet.

  5. I received an email from John Kramer in Boston. I’m posting it as a comment here because he addresses the rather mysterious “fissure of timidity” Clement spoke of.

    “It sounds like M. Clement’s “fissure of timidity” was fully leafed out. Here’s a nearly leafless one I observed in the Arnold Arboretum a number of years ago (a stand of red oaks — I think). And I’ve been seeing the phenomenon again and again ever since. Of course I never had a name for it.

    Thanks very much for your blog. Today’s post touched me in a number of ways.


    I have no way to posting the photo he included in the email, but I will if I find a way.


  6. James,
    I think I mentioned to you about my observations of the roadside along Interstate 93 that I drive through to get to hiking destinations in the White Mountains in NH. There are masses of bluestem, panicum, asters, goldenrod and volunteer suckering colonies of Rhus typhina. They way they have evolved is startlingly similar to Oudolf’s recent work as can be seen at his former nursery area at Hummelo and is in fact Clement’s Third Landscape. Ten years ago, I might have declared it neglected and a mess. I am now realizing it is a rich, diverse and beautiful garden.

    1. Michael,
      I can’t wait to see where you go with this. (I don’t usually get many comments on these “long” posts, but interestingly, I think you are the only American to respond out of the comments on the blog and on facebook. The others come from France, Spain, Argentina, Canada. My guess is that Clement is much better known in those countries than in ours.)

  7. Hello James,
    Clement (whom I don’t know) speaks to a Romantic mysticism that, as you point out, is also expressed in Oudolf. The High Line is but one of the most recent, and popular, examples of this sensibility. As you note, this kind of garden can be hard work and as labor intensive as the “formal border” — an equally artificial form of gardening.
    So my only comment would be that it is questionable to view self-seeding “weeds” or fallen trees as acts of horticultural liberation. And sometimes it is easier to “maintain” a path where it is….

    From Clement’s point of view, a garden seems never to be finished, but has this always been the case? What might it mean (emotionally, subjectively) to maintain a “finished” garden? From a philosophical perspective, I’d raise the question of continuity — the continuity of, say, keeping the form of a garden bed (or a path), and the way in which say a formal border or gravel path echoes notions of the enclosed garden that return us to earlier, pre-Romantic notions of what a garden might be. Your interesting post makes me realize that I am a conservative; and you the radical — Ross

    1. Ross,
      I’m intrigued by your question of what it might mean, emotionally, subjectively, to maintain a “finished garden.” I’ve been trying to imagine a finished garden. My lack of knowledge of gardens through history and in other cultures is a hinderance. First, thinking of the English landscape garden of the 18th century, many of these gardens were never finished simply because they cost too much, or the owner never reached an ending point for reasons having nothing to do with the garden. Those with elaborate architectural structures, rivers changed into lakes, and the like strained the resources of even very wealthy owners. (I do wish Tim Richardson were available to address this question.) Long before that, going back to the “pre-Romantic” enclosed garden, the hortus conclusus, those, too, were never finished, were they? I believe they had mostly practical uses for growing medicinal herbs and plants; they were cultivated, so were subject to constant change. And further back in time were the Islamic gardens, the paradise gardens, with stone walls and copious amounts of flowing water in the midst of desolate, dry environments thought to be “finished”? Perhaps so. They were mainly structural, with large trees and little to no other vegetation.

      I think a finished garden in the West, today, would be a garden where the gardener had gone away or died. Whether a conventional, formal border, or a naturalistic garden of grasses and perennials, constant attention and considered intervention would be needed to maintain the garden. If you stopped work on your garden, wouldn’t it begin to revert to a disordered state?

      As to allowing weeds to grow in the garden through self-seeding, even that kind of garden requires attention and intervention. If such plants/weeds find places where they grow well, I would leave them alone only if they fit the garden aesthetically. Inappropriate seeding would still need to be controlled. I’m just advocating adding a bit of chance into the making of the garden.

      I’ve run on too long, but I’d say I think one could very well maintain continuity with the past in a garden, keeping historical forms, objects, features. I think this may be so in certain Chinese and Japanese gardens, one example being Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, but I’m afraid I’m stretching the limits of my garden knowledge.

      1. Interesting, James. I would say that the gardens you mention, perhaps with the exception of Dan Pearson’s garden in Japan, were designed to be “complete” — even if, inevitably, they changed, were never fully realized, or were lost. Recognizing their form connects us to the gardener’s inspiration. There is a restlessness implicit in a constant process of change that I think is counter to the spiritual meditation of a garden, and that also obscures one of the things that I find pleasant about a garden, its form. As a gardener, I struggle to realize my idea, and then to maintain.

        As far as Clement is concerned, it would seem that he wants to disappear into the landscape, as Nature’s hand. But as we know this effect takes a good deal of work! Michael’s highway weeds are attractive because the sumac is cut annually, and a highway runs through it! (the highway is the formal constant, and the road crew the weeders).

        1. I don’t disagree with you, Ross. I quite like your idea of the garden’s form. I think I understood your use of “complete” in a sense you didn’t intend. In this sense, I would say even my garden is complete (even though the details of planting continue and some of it occurs by chance). The formal elements, though largely hidden in the growing season–the deep gravel paths, the narrow elevated terrace overlooking the garden, the contrast of the view from above with the immersive experience down in the garden, the sitting areas (some of which I believe were added since your brief visit, the “geography” or physiography of the garden, the idea of a glade in the woods, the circle of sky above–all remain season to season and year to year. The garden’s form is largely fixed even though its style is naturalistic and informal.

  8. This conversation brought to mind the ASLA article about “novel eco-systems” that you shared on FB. Novel ecosystems being very similar to the natural reclamation element of the Third Landscape, I believe. The High Line tracks (as they were prior to development as a park) seem to represent a clearer example of “Third Landscape” than does the current High Line park.

    1. I agree with you Emily about the High Line tracks, rather than The High Line Park is Clement’s Third Landscape. I don’t think it was a safe place to wonder. The park was a excellent, albeit expensive and labor-intensive, solution.

    2. I agree, Emily. The original “wild” rail line, before it was developed as a park, is what Clement means by The Third Landscape. Clement has designed parks, and he recognizes that such places must “reassure” users that they are in a park and not a wild, possibly threatening, landscape. The existing High Line represents some kind of reservoir of genetic diversity, but one entirely different from what would exist with the “self-created” landscape that was there before. We need places that Clement would call “Third Landscapes” but I’m glad the High Line is a designed planting by Piet Oudolf rather than a wild planting in which the aesthetic aspect is totally left to chance.

      1. Michael, agreed. The High Line is a complex, designed park, totally different from a derelict, abandoned piece of land where nature (for want of a more exact term for the process of chance ecological development) plants by itself and, possibly, preserves a threatened genetic diversity.

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