A Clearing in the Distance

April 20, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

This coming Tuesday, April 26th, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted: the father of landscape architecture.

Count me as an admirer. 

Perhaps I acquired my appreciation for natural environments and plant life (and people like Olmsted) via osmosis. My dad was an accomplished landscape architect and civil engineer. Walking through formal gardens or parks with him was always an education, and we visited quite a few of them. Even in his later years he could still rattle off the botanical name for just about any type of plant. When I was growing up our yard had multiple flower beds - his beds - home to hundreds of blooms.

I was introduced to Frederick Law Olmsted long ago. You might be acquainted with him, too - even if you're unfamiliar with his name - because you may have enjoyed one or more of his artistic creations.

"He (Olmsted) paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountainsides and ocean views..."
Daniel Burnham

Olmsted's legacy includes New York's Central Park (abstract reflections in the park's Bank Rock Bay are pictured here), Boston's Back Bay Fens, Asheville, North Carolina's Biltmore Estate, Chicago's Jackson Park, the Stanford University campus master plan, and Louisville's park system. 

That's just scratching the surface. He designed many, many parks and other outdoor spaces.

A landscape architect before the profession was founded, he remains influential even today. He understood the positive effect of nature, and knew how important it is to incorporate natural landscapes into urban environments. 

Olmsted was also an early conservationist and foresaw the concept of - and need for - national parks well before they became a reality.

If you're inclined to want to learn more about him, I highly recommend Witold Rybczynski's biography entitled A Clearing in the Distance (Scribner, 1999).

From the cover flap:

Olmsted was both ruthlessly pragmatic and a visionary. To create Central Park, he managed thousands of employees who moved millions of cubic yards of stone and earth and planted over 300,000 trees and shrubs. In laying it out, "we determined to think of no results to be realized in less than forty years," he told his son, Rick. "I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future." 

The book closes with an account of a modern-day visit to Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

I have visited many Olmsted parks. Most, like this one, are being tended, cared for, restored. That pleases me for these really are precious, historic places - as precious and historic in their way as Chartres Cathedral or the Acropolis. Unlike old buildings, however, these places are not historical relics. Timeless, I want to say. But I well know that they are rooted in a particular time and place, and in the minds of particular men. What ambition, what effort, what devotion. 

What gifts.


In Local News

Both national parks are under weather advisories through Saturday. In Yellowstone it's a winter storm warning while Grand Teton has a watch. As mentioned last week the west entrance to Yellowstone is now open to vehicle traffic but it's been touch and go due to snowfall. The park offers text messaging for up-to-the-minute road conditions. It's a good idea to sign up to receive these if you're considering visiting during the collar seasons.

Even some locations as low as 6,000 feet (Teton Valley, ID and Jackson, WY) are expecting up to eight inches of snow by Sunday morning. 


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