What do art, architecture, food, music and humor have in common? Each is an area with a recognizable vernacular, something that identifies it as belonging to a particular place. The one vernacular that’s missing from the list is botany, but the Maine landscape is distinct, every inch a visual, auditory and aromatic connection to place. And we must face up to the fact that here in southern Maine, the native landscape is being lost at an alarming rate, stripped out whenever we develop or redevelop property.

When I first moved back here from New Jersey, I joked that I’d been talking about Santa Fe, New Mexico, or Sedona, Arizona, and hung a right when I meant to go left. What I didn’t say was that I’d been driving around for much of the previous year looking for “home” in places as diverse as the mountains, the Maryland shore, Woodstock, New York, and Woodstock, Vermont. Each was beautiful in its own way, but none of them reached deep enough, gave me that last exhale of complete relaxation that comes from feeling truly connected.

It isn’t just the salted air of the coast or the piney perfume of the forest that fills my head – it’s the softness of those pines, the laciness of the balsam, the white birch standing as sentinels in the moonlight, weighted in ice and snow. It’s the sauterne of those birch against the crackling blue of an October sky that gives me my preference for blue and yellow over the blue and orange combo that most artists prefer. It’s watching the marsh grasses caramelize and the hackmatacks turn gold that floods my eye and feeds my soul.

On the macro scale, we recognize the value of this botany in every tract of land we preserve, every scenic overlook we enshrine. Yet on the scale of the ordinary, the landscape of everyday life, we have essentially been saying that this green thing is the same as that green thing, and have treated all landscape material as interchangeable. This is akin to saying that a Cajun dish could be swapped for a Thai dish because they’re both spicy. That argument would be ludicrous on its face, and yet we continue to say that a tree is a tree.

Said another way, vernacular botany is a tangible method of realizing what landscape architects and designers call “spirit of place,” a quality that is at once ephemeral and enduring. While some insist that this spirit is too transitory to be captured, I say that its roots are quite literally in the ground. Place is an entirely plantable idea built, leaf by leaf, from the botany of locale. Those of us who design and build planned environments have, with every project, the opportunity to create places of meaning and matter.

You get to meaning by tying your site to the broader locale, using native botany as connective tissue. If we understand that part of what makes us feel whole as human beings is connection to place, and we understand that botany is an element of that connection, then the logical step is to use the botany of locale to make the finished site appear as whole, as connected to its surrounds, as a built environment can.

I’m not an absolutist, I’m not saying “no hybrid varieties ever” – just that their use should be tempered, balanced with native materials. And here in southern Maine, we need to find that balance now before we permanently lose one of the key ingredients that make this place look and feel like home.

When I talk to site developers about ways to salvage and reuse plant materials in the finished landscape, I start by giving them the elevator pitch: Southern Maine is starting to look like Connecticut, which looks like New York, which looks like New Jersey.

Having made the wise choice years ago to leave New Jersey and come home, the last thing I want is to see New Jersey following me. Maine is a unique place, and those of us who are blessed to live here need to keep it so.