Last year in a graduate seminar, I made the claim that all experiences of space and place are designed for us.
One student in the seminar rolled her eyes and, face aghast, said, “I don’t believe that.”
As I pressed her on the issue, she relayed a story of a hike she took through the woods to view a beautiful waterfall that was as natural a setting as she’d ever encountered. Surely, she noted, that experience was not designed.
I apologized to her in advance of my next statements.
Did you follow a trail to get there? Was it in a national or state park? Was the water flowing from or into a reservoir of some sort? Was the site clean and free of debris? Affirmative answers to any of these questions would point to a designed experience.
I think the discussion may have rocked her world.
In late September, I traveled to the Catskills to experience the beauty of a fall in one of New York’s most natural settings. One of the weekend events was a beautiful hike to Giant Ledge near Big Indian. Here are some of the signs that my experience at Giant Ledge was designed:
CONSERVATION & PROTECTION
As I drove into the mountains, I was greeted by this sign:
Note the relationship between a natural area that is protected from development (since 1885) and the reason to protect it: “Water from mountain streams stored in great reservoirs… is conveyed by aqueducts and tunnels to supply New York City.”
Off of Oliveria Road in Big Indian sits a gravel parking lot indicating the Giant Ledge trail head. The sign calls hikers to enter the woods at a particular point and follow the marked footpath to the ledge.
Later in the hike, at a fork in the path, a series of signs indicates directions to various locations in the area.
The trail itself is a design of sorts. A hike to the top reminds the traveler that this trail is in the middle of nature.
In some places the trail is a natural, worn path of rock and mud that could be mistaken for a deer path or game trail. Yet, in others, giant boulders create routes through wetter areas or align to create stair-like structures for scaling near-vertical inclines. Never was there a rope or rail for assistance. Perhaps that would have made the trail feel too designed.
VIEW FROM THE TOP
The trail led to a fantastic overlook that showed the glory of the Catskills in bright autumnal colors. Surely this was not designed. Some might look back on the original sign and note that two events shaped this view. One: the protection of this region from development in 1885 – a protection that still exists today. Two: the timber industry may have altered the type and variety of tree found in the region.
I’m not sure that either of these two issues warrants the claim of design. But, I will point out that the decision to protect a natural area from the forces that could destroy it or supplant it is a decision of intentional design.
The trip to Giant Ledge was an exercise in experience design. But that design does not diminish the beauty of creation revealed in the experience. While I was there, I enjoyed the experience as I marveled at the beauty the Catskills and the beauty of a Creator who delights in colors, textures, and the grand design.