Olmsted






Olmsted's wilderness is primarily a state of mind. He finds the "pioneer condition" wherever man is held sway by his self-interest rather than his civilizing spirit. Even after leaving the country's literal frontier, Olmsted's desire to civilize the wilderness took him to Brooklyn and to Asheville, North Carolina, to Boston and San Francisco. When he did return to California in 1886 to plan the grounds of Stanford University, he did not make the trip to Yosemite, an indication, perhaps, that he felt his plans had not been properly executed. Laura Wood Roper has written that

Olmsted regarded himself as less an artist than as a sort of social engineer, an educator of hearts, a refiner of minds, one whose function was to civilize men, to develop in them communicativeness, and to raise the general level of American society by exerting a beneficent influence on environment and by modifying unfavorable surroundings through art.
This is an awesome task. Expanding the frontier to include those unsettled regions in the psyche of man, while it may take care of Turner's problem of the closing of the frontier, nonetheless widens the playing field to such an extent that one can easily imagine how Olmsted could have felt himself to be continually losing ground.

The problem of where we are has been a concern for Americans since our point of arrival. Whether as howling wilderness, new Eden, or city on a hill, we have conceptualized the land in terms which betray both hope and anxiety about our place. Often our terms become confused. Olmsted's ideas about where we are (and where we should be) are, like those of other American visionaries, encompassing of the human and the divine, the real and the ideal, the natural and the constructed. To best understand his "communitiveness" we must see permeation where our instinct may be to draw boundaries. This is a concept which requires that nature be arranged by art and managed by law and at the same time retain its sublime aspect. It suggests the middle ground as a point of convergence more than of mediation.

The ultimate project of civilizing the wilderness is one of making our place here. Olmsted believed it to be a matter of national unity, and therefore of our survival as a nation.


Home