Bear Valley




In Virgin Land, Henry Nash Smith discusses the frontier theory of Frederick Jackson Turner, which he calls "the most influential piece of writing about the West produced during the nineteenth century." According to Turner, American society has as its primal shaping force the push westward of the "frontier," which he defines as "the meeting point between savagery and civilization." As long as there was open land beyond extant settlements, Americans had what Turner calls a "safety valve for social danger," a means of starting over again by going someplace new. Henry Nash Smith states that Turner's theory is in a line of descent with the myth of the garden as well as the agrarian ideal; it encompasses both the archetypal story behind and the economic motivations for western expansion.

While living in the mining community of Bear Valley, California, Olmsted also produced a work, ultimately unfinished, concerning the shaping of American society. Entitled The Pioneer Condition and the Drift of Civilization in America, Olmsted's work takes as its thesis the dual strain in the nature of Americans: towards barbarism on the one hand, civilization on the other. Civilization is not defined spatially, as what exists on this side (as opposed to what is on that side) of the frontier line, but in terms of human nature, the collective nature of the individuals living within a defined space. However, external circumstances are by no means irrelevant. Olmsted's later work designing parks and other "natural" spaces is testimony to his conviction that man's environment can and does affect his character and, in turn, his capacity to contribute to society. California's desolate cragginess caused Olmsted distress upon his arrival, which distress deepened as he furthered his studies of Bear Valley and its citizenry.

Although Olmsted articulates two possible directions in which human nature tends, he does not present the poles of savagery and civilization as having equal pull. He calls pioneers "men and women who have not found satisfactory place in civilized society," thus implying that though some may require directional assistance, the inclination of Americans is towards that which produces satisfaction in a sense of belonging, that is, towards civilization. While he writes that California is populated "almost entirely [by] thriftless, fortune-hunting, improvident, gambling vagabonds," that Bear Valley is "nowhere; there is no society," and despite his infusing of The Pioneer Condition with bitter sarcasm, Olmsted nonetheless retains his belief in the "civilizing spirit" of men, what Melvin Kalfus has described as the "motivating characteristic within men that could permit them to bridge the ideological (and emotional) gap between self-indulgent individualism and an other-directed spirit of cooperation." Olmsted's vision is one of a spirit of über cooperation; he invented a word for what he saw as the highest achievement for human civilization. With his notion of "communitiveness" Olmsted articulates the spirit of community and communion which would shape and pervade his ideal society.

While Olmsted ostensibly went West to manage a mining estate, we can also conceive of his work while there as a mission of sorts. Olmsted biographer Laura Wood Roper has written that

His own duty with his talent on the Mariposa frontier Olmsted conceived to be nothing less than a grand and radical undertaking in social engineering: to transfigure a semiarid, barbarous principality into a well-watered, fertile garden; to turn its economy from dangerous dependence on a single industry to thrifty reliance on diversified enterprise; and to shape from its transient and semibarbarous population a stable and civilized community in which should prevail "an all-embracing relationship based on the confidence, respect and interest of each citizen in all and all in each."
Roper employs the metaphor of a garden to suggest that civilization is something which must be cultivated. Nature may supply the rough materials, but a human hand must manage nature, direct it in the way most beneficial in both economic and social terms. In this way, the garden is civilization, created out of the savage desert by the human hand that waters it. Worth noting is that this human hand must remain virtually invisible.

Olmsted and Vaux had disputed during their planning of Central Park over the structures Vaux wanted to build. To Olmsted, fountains and pagodas -- obvious constructions of man -- had no place in a space of pastoral retreat. Cleared swampland, winding footpaths edged with stones and planted groves certainly require the work of a human agent, but, to Olmsted's mind, evidence of this work is subsumed in the natual qualities brought forth. Managed nature is not a contradiction. Nature fulfils itself in that same continuum with the human and the divine in whose sweep man defines his humanity. All are part and parcel, every agent a receptor. The Mariposa Estate was never to become the garden Olmsted envisioned. This was probably clear to Olmsted fairly early on, and his need to distance himself from the business of the mines, in addition to a natural curiosity about his surroundings, spurred him to travel throughout his environs. The scenery soon captivated him, and he became especially entranced by the Yosemite Valley. Another major piece of writing Olmsted produced while in California is Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report. More widely read than The Pioneer Condition, if only because it was prepared in conjunction with California's efforts to claim Yosemite as a state park, the Report is interesting for its incorporation of the political realm into Olmsted's scheme for the proper channeling of human nature into a civilized state.

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