Perspectives Online

College Profile - Will Hooker, landscape design professor, teaches and practices sustainability — with a ‘magical ambiance.’ By Art Latham

Will Hooker
Photo by Art Latham

A funny thing happened to Will Hooker, professor of horticultural science, on his extended journey to N.C. State University, where he teaches landscape design.

Several things happened, actually, not all of them funny but all definitely intriguing.

There were, for instance, a life-altering epiphany in a paper mill; a job in a Borsch Belt resort, where he worked with Barbra Streisand and other stars; a little time in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury during the ’60s; and journeys across the United States and Europe “on my thumb with my fellow flower children,” he says.

Hooker holds a 1979 master’s degree in landscape architecture from N.C. State. This fall he entered his 29th year as an educator in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, 15 as a full professor.

Hooker’s work, while sometimes controversial in the land-grant college milieu, nonetheless has garnered him acclaim among the cognoscenti.

“This is one of the best programs in the nation and is unique in that we have landscape design in a horticulture department,” says Hooker, here working with landscape design student Peyton Peterson.
Photo by Art Latham
He was honored in April with the City of Raleigh’s Legacy Award in recognition of lifelong contributions to the environment. “All his teaching has been based on ecologically sound principles,” Jayne Kirkpatrick, Raleigh’s public affairs department director, said. Hooker introduced the language of sustainability to campus, she said, and “has made sustainability his primary advocacy.”

Hooker served on the 1995 N.C. State Master Plan update committee and on its 2000 and 2005 review committees. In 2002, he and a coalition he founded advocated for the hiring of a campus sustainability coordinator, a position now held by Tracy Dixon.

Known locally for the large, ephemeral bamboo sculptures he and his students build yearly on campus and around the Raleigh area, he currently teaches introductory and advanced small-scale landscape design courses. He also teaches an introduction to permaculture, a discipline that uses ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, appropriate technology and community development. Within this context, says Hooker, his professional interests center around resolving the increasing conflicts “between nature and human activities described as ‘development.’ ”

Or, as Hooker puts it, “My teaching responsibilities center around designing user-oriented, functional landscapes with a ‘magical’ ambiance.”

Magical? Yes, he insists, in the sense that any aesthetic experience or reaction to art is magic, due to its transcendent and inexplicable nature.

But he realizes that the magical aspect, while not only highly subjective, is non-quantifiable and might not fit comfortably into some folks’ world view.

“The sectarian or pedestrian take on a ‘magical’ landscape,” Hooker explains, “is that it is perfectly set up to make an experience absolutely perfect in the moment a person is there. The moment becomes transcendent, uplifting, inspirational and full, engaging all five physical senses, as well as at least hinting at the sixth sense, intuition. An example would be if while you were waiting for a door to be answered, you looked casually off to the side, only to see sunlight backlighting a Japanese maple and causing a kaleidoscope of dancing light and color.

“It really is,” he says, “phenomena that exist and have the power to influence the environment, but as yet are unexplainable by science.”

“The more spiritual aspect of ‘magic’ in a landscape,” Hooker says, “is akin to an ancient yogi’s talk of breathing in ‘energy,’ something we couldn’t understand until we realized that oxygen is part of the makeup of the air that is critical to our survival.”

How did an upstate New York country boy arrive at this point on the spiritual spectrum?

Born in Rochester, raised in a small nearby farming community a few miles from Lake Ontario, Hooker and his brother and sisters happily roamed his family’s 15 acres. “My first paying job was as a cherry picker on the farms around our home,” he recalls, “and my first hourly job was as a ‘hoer’ in nearby tomato fields.”

In high school, he belonged to the FFA and the honor society, was student council president and as a senior received the 1961 trophy for outstanding student athlete, lettering in soccer, basketball and track. To earn college money, Hooker worked construction with his father in gravel quarries, where he learned to weld, cut and build with steel.

Because he wanted to become a forest ranger, he applied to the College of Forestry in the State University of New York at Syracuse, now the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He chose a pulp and paper technology major, rising to the top of his class by the end of his sophomore year.

Then, while serving a required internship in a Woodland, Maine, paper mill, he happened to chat with a manager who’d worked a long time in the intense heat and sulfur-dioxide fumes of the mill.

“He turned to me and asked, ‘What are you doing here? Is this the life you want? You’re young; you can do anything!’” recalls Hooker, who soon decided the man was right and “that I needed a change.”

Hooker dropped out his junior year and landed a job as an assistant social/athletic director at Grossingers’ Catskill Resort Hotel.

“I worked for a comedian, Lou Goldstein, who patented the ‘Simon Says’ game,” he says. “I set up and took part in his shows, managed the toboggan run, helped on the ski slopes, worked the ice rink, helped out around the pools and ran the spotlight for the evening entertainment. I met and worked with celebrities like Eddie Fisher, Roger Maris and a new, young talent, Barbara Streisand. In short, I learned social skills and confidence in the fact that people were just people, whatever their position in life.”

Back in Syracuse a year later with a latent love and talent for art, he opted for a landscape architecture major, taking outstanding sophomore and outstanding senior awards, and earning his 1967 bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from SUNY College of Forestry at Syracuse University.

The years following included working in a Durham area landscape architecture office; a job with Eckbo, Dean, Austin and Williams, a nationally acclaimed landscape architecture firm in San Francisco (where he had an apartment at the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets); and treks through Canada, Spain, Greece and Germany.

Then, after landing back in the United States, he and a companion headed south by bicycle.

Back in North Carolina, Hooker landed a job with Landscape Services at Duke University. He soon re-entered the Durham design office he’d left three years before, and in 1974 he passed the three-day licensed landscape architect exam.

In the spring of 1976, after Hooker had substituted as a lecturer in a N.C. State design class, Dr. Claude McKinney, then dean of NCSU’s School of Design, convinced him to accept a three-quarter-time assistantship and begin graduate studies. Hooker earned his masters of landscape architecture (MLA) degree in 1979.

“I very much enjoyed the experience. And I learned one very important thing: I loved to teach,” he says.

After graduation, despite several job offers, Hooker wanted to continue work with his major professor, Randy Hester, MLA, so he took a temporary visiting assistant professorship in the College’s Horticultural Science Department.

In 1988, during his first sabbatical study leave, he completed a cross-country bicycle odyssey, studying historical landscapes, national parks and visiting environmental education centers.

This raised his consciousness concerning the health and sustainability of the natural environment, he says, and led his becoming a certified instructor in permaculture. During a second sabbatical study leave, in 1999-2000, Hooker, with his wife, Dr. Jeana Myers, and their young son, circumnavigated the globe, studying and working in hundreds of permaculturally inspired landscapes in 11 nations. “I wanted to re-connect to the spiritual aspects of the landscape as much as I could,” he says, “to listen to the music of the Earth.”

Today, 28 years after he started teaching at N.C. State, Hooker says. “I realize that good fortune smiled on me once again when life’s little twists caused me to make the best career decision of my life, when I chose the position I still hold.”

And he’s proud of his accomplishments in the position. “In my second year, I completely rewrote a good curriculum and made it very strong in design,” he says. “And the student body count in the curriculum has held steady and strong, even through the lulls in the ’80s that crippled similar programs.

“We focus more on the design and building end more than any other similar department in the nation,” Hooker says. “Our students are very well versed in the plant sciences, so they have all the tools they need when they walk out the door. Our graduates are competent, well educated, and are now occupying significant positions in the industry. They should be: This is one of the best programs in the nation and is unique in that we have landscape design in a horticulture department.”

What does the future hold for this once-peripatetic adventurer?

“I’d like to get off the grid and to become completely self-sustaining, doing some dowsing [searching for water] and some design consultation; teaching workshops at various eco-villages; building ephemeral sculptures; and writing, painting and gardening.”

In other words, like any other sustainable landscape designer at the top of his game, keep on keeping on.