I have a master’s degree in English and a law degree, both from the University of Pennsylvania, and I drew upon both disciplines for my new book, “The Power of Scenery: Frederick Law Olmsted and the Origin of National Parks,” coming from Bison Books in November.
The literary degree helped to shape the chapters about a period, early in the republic’s history, when the rest of the world held American books, paintings, architecture, institutions, and manners in such contempt as to give rise to a national inferiority complex. Starting in the early 19th century, however, a few visionary thinkers and artists homed in on an asset that might be able to compensate for the nation’s lack of the castles, cathedrals, great houses, and other works of art that were the glory of Europe: a plethora of spectacular natural wonders.
The legal side enters as the impulse to brag about those attractions solidifies into campaigns to preserve and make them available to the public. As a former counsel to the assistant secretary of the Interior who oversees the national parks, I draw on a long personal history of thinking and writing about the parks, which I hope is reflected in my book. At the center of those campaigns was Frederick Law Olmsted.
This may strike some readers as an odd claim. Isn’t Olmsted famous for designing urban parks, Central Park foremost among them, and the grounds of such entities as the U.S. Capitol, Stanford University, and the Biltmore Estate in my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina? And in each case did he not prescribe a massive rearrangement and embellishment of what was already there in order to achieve a new artistic whole?
All true, but Olmsted was such an astute student of landscapes that he knew when a wild tract was so replete with untamed natural beauty that the right course was to keep it just as it was, introducing only enough improvements to accommodate visitors in safety and reasonable comfort. Moreover, Olmsted was a passionate small-d democrat who wanted all public parks—whether located at the heart of a teeming city or in a remote mountain range—to provide for the common people what grand estates provided for European kings and plutocrats: rest, relaxation, and inspiration. In the case of city parks, it took artifice to achieve the desired effects. Out in the wilds, Olmsted realized, the stage was already set.
Among Olmsted’s contributions to the theory and practice of wilderness park management was his brilliant 1865 report on Yosemite, the world’s first such park, which Congress had recently carved out of the public domain and deeded to the state of California to hold and take care of. In that document, Olmsted laid out precepts that guide the National Park Service (which came into being half a century later) to this day. Indeed, the principal draftsman of the National Parks Organic Act of 1916 was Olmsted’s son Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who saw to it that his father’s philosophy was embodied in the law’s language.
Olmsted Senior also played a key role in the decades-long campaign to clean up Niagara Falls, a natural phenomenon that had been cheapened and sullied by dozens of private entrepreneurs who owned property overlooking the falls. Far from calling for “improvement” of the falls’ banks, Olmsted favored removing almost all manmade structures and ousting the touts and souvenir peddlers who made visiting the falls tantamount to running a gauntlet. These changes ultimately went into effect on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.
Here, then, is the wonderful duality that was Frederick Law Olmsted. He expressed his genius with gusto in his earth-moving and tree-planting designs for a host of urban parks, but when it came time to consider the fate of sublime natural sites in the wild, he made a 180-turn toward the preservation of what Nature had wrought. It’s hard to think of a figure who brought more flexibility to his work with the American scene.
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