Saturday, May 7, 2011

Reading Olmsted's Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England

The recent broadcast of the documentary "Olmsted and America's Urban Parks on PBS, inspired me to revisit this article describing Olmsted's early book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, which was first published in Our Town Brookline June, 2006.  I highly recommend this early book of Olmsted's to anyone with a sincere desire to understand the man, his vision and his talents.
Frederick Law Olmsted is best known as the designer of New York’s Central Park and Boston’s own Emerald Necklace. What is less well known is that he practiced a number of different professions before finding his life’s work. Long before he began designing landscapes, F.L. Olmsted authored his first book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. It’s a chatty recounting of his month long walking tour through the English countryside. Reading it today, we get a glimpse of the formative experiences of a great talent. Originally published in two volumes in 1852, the book was reissued in 2002 with annotated text and an excellent introduction by noted Olmsted scholar Charles C. McLaughlin. Written from copious journals and letters home, Olmsted’s narrative is intimate, descriptive and often very funny. We are in the company of a young, energetic and inquiring mind.
At the age of 28, F.L. Olmsted, his younger brother John and John’s Yale roommate, Charles Loring Brace set sail for Liverpool, England, a journey that took 26 days. To secure a place on the trip, Frederick convinced his father that he needed to study scientific farming in England to benefit his current agricultural endeavor on Staten Island. To call the trip an adventure is an understatement by today’s standards, as the sea voyage alone was fraught with hardships, potential peril and a great deal of discomfort. Funds were tight and the young men traveled in the hardscrabble mode of students the world over.  At this point, Olmsted’s future was anything but determined. Prior to farming, he had been a surveyor, a clerk in a retail store, a merchant seaman, (a job that took him on a perilous journey to China), and a journalist. Unlike most of his peers, he did not go to college, but was nonetheless widely read and inquisitive.
Knowing what we do about F. L. Olmsted’s later achievements and remarkable career, reading this, his first book is a chance to witness the gestation of the many skills, attitudes, beliefs, and aesthetic preferences that, when blended together, would result in Olmsted’s wholly unique set of abilities. Open, amiable, adventurous, inquisitive, and exacting in his observations and critiques, Olmsted approaches England, “the mother land” with an affectionate regard, yet also with an eye for the distinctions and improvements his newly free America has wrought. He pursues a wide variety of subjects, including social class structure, land economics, scientific farming, religious beliefs, treatment of prisoners, status of the poor, landscape and its effect on psychology, health and social cohesion, architecture, and city form. Yet none of these were abstract concepts to Olmsted, his genius was his ability to connect his observations with the wider forces that were in fact shaping those experiences he was witnessing. He had a reformers heart, but a realist’s view of the world.
His many analytical skills are put to good use as he systematically gathers first hand knowledge through penetrating observation and conversations with people from all walks of life. He acquires vast technical knowledge about soil, climate, engineering techniques and the conditions necessary for healthy plant life. While the resulting long, detailed passages may prove tedious for some readers, the knowledge Olmsted gains will undoubtedly prove invaluable when it comes time to transform the barren and swampy lands he was often given to work with into pastoral paradises.
We also meet Olmsted the social critic and reformer. His traveling companion, Charles Loring Brace would later found the Children’s Aid Society in New York City and it was probably at his urging that the trio visited prisons, alms houses, jails and village schools. In this context Olmsted is pragmatic, practical and open minded, displaying an eagerness to embrace divergent points of view, and yet he still forms his own definite opinions. Despite the trip’s focus on learning and research, Olmsted was above all else acutely open to the experience of his immediate surroundings and as a skilled writer he is able to capture and share those sensations.
Olmsted’s month long walking tour through the English countryside would have a profound and lasting effect on the rest of his life. Many of the scenes and events that captivate and enlighten him mark the genesis of some of the core passions that would later propel him towards his ultimate profession. On the Isle of Wight Olmsted considers the profoundly soothing effect of nature when he writes, “ Dame Nature is a gentle woman…Gradually and silently the charm comes over us; the beauty has entered our souls; we know not exactly when or how, but going away we remember it with a tender, subdued, filial-like joy”. A pleasant walk on a public promenade in Chester gives rise to his belief in the social benefits of shared public spaces. He experiences the extreme contrast between the dismal slums of industrial Liverpool and the beauty of the surrounding countryside and would go on to devise new metropolitan forms that better blend the advantages of both urban and rural life.
We are witness to Olmsted’s epiphany at Birkenhead Park, a public park outside of Liverpool. It was by happy accident that he visited the park at all and yet it was an experience that changed the course of history. Created by landscape gardeners Joseph Paxton and Edward Kemp, the entire park was under-drained, with wide carriage roads and paths, rock gardens, pavilions, trees and shrubs and ponds stocked with fish and swans. Olmsted observes that “…large valleys were made verdant, extensive drives arranged - plantations, clumps, and avenues of trees formed, and a large park laid out. And all this magnificent pleasure-ground is entirely, unreservedly, and forever the people’s own. The poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy it in all its parts as the British queen. More than that, the baker of Birkenhead has the pride of an OWNER in it. Is it not a grand good thing?”  This was a revelation to Olmsted, for at this time there were no such public parks in America.
It sometimes took private wealth to create great art, as in the case of Eaton Hall in Chester. Eaton was one of over 1,000 private estates in England at the time, many of which were known the world over for the beauty of their lavish grounds. The private ownership of so many great parks in England fueled Olmsted’s conviction that public ownership and access to such natural beauty was a vital necessity in a democratic America. The artistic lessons to be learned here would not be lost on Olmsted, either. Immediately upon seeing Capability Brown’s landscape, Olmsted finds himself identifying with the creator and exclaims, “What artist, so noble, has often been my thought, as he, who with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing power, sketches the outline, writes the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he has arranged for her shall realize his intentions” These sentiments describe the far reaching vision that necessarily define the yet to be born profession of landscape architecture.
Landscape viewing had become an intellectual as well as recreational pursuit in America by the mid 19th century. Olmsted’s father, John had read Sir Uvedale Price, William Gilpin, Richard Knight, and John C. Loudon, writers who waxed poetically about landscapes that were picturesque, beautiful and sublime. A definition of these terms evolved as a common lexicon and fostered the popular pastime of extended outings seeking vistas and views of scenic value. Picturesque scenery made a good, sketchable picture and fell somewhere between the soft, rounded tranquil aesthetic of beautiful landscapes and the awe and grandeur one finds in sublime settings such as Niagara Falls. As a young boy Frederick’s father had taken him on many such outings. In this way he was already tuned into “analyzing” a landscape, a skill he developed to a remarkable degree.
In the English landscape he found that form of the picturesque he most admired, a domesticated land that has been cultivated for centuries, one that fell somewhere between natural and civilized. He would later strive to recreate his idealized versions of the Victorian English landscape back home on American soil. Upon first seeing it he exclaimed, “The country-and such a country!-green, dripping, glistening, gorgeous! We stood dumb-stricken by its loveliness…-in an English lane; with hedges, English hedges, hawthorn hedges, all in blossom; homely old farm houses, quaint stables, and haystacks; the old church spire over the distant trees; the mild sun beaming through the watery atmosphere...” Through observation he was able to identify the precise combinations and relationships of scenic elements that made up this landscape, as when he observed, “The great beauty and peculiarity of the English landscape is to be found in the frequent long, graceful lines of deep green hedges and hedge-row timber, crossing hill, valley, and plain, in every direction; and in the occasional large trees, dotting the broad fields, either singly or in small groups…here is everywhere a great deal of quiet, peaceful, graceful beauty, which the works of man have generally added to.”
It seems a special privilege to accompany a young Olmsted on his trip. Reading Walks and Talks is meaningful for those interested in learning about Olmsted’s early experiences, but the book can also stand on it’s own as an enjoyable travel book, giving a descriptive narrative of the English countryside of the mid 19th century.

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