Olmsted c.1860







In 1863, midway through the Civil War, Frederick Law Olmsted, who would later become one of America's foremost landscape architects, left his position heading the Sanitary Commission in Washington for the Far West. By this his forty-first year Olmsted had worn the hats of seaman, merchant, farmer, journalist, park superintendent, and, with English architect Calvert Vaux, co-designer of Central Park in New York City. Tormented by the country's disunity, and having experienced already the frustration that would plague him throughout his life of a lack of support for his convictions, Olmsted's decision to so drastically change scenery can be seen as a sort of voluntary exile. As exiles often can be, Olmsted's two years in the West were a period of great productiveness in terms of his writing and thought. Though his activities in California are not those for which he would gain reknown, they are of note in that they lend a sometimes skewed and often poignant perspective to the study of the meaning of the West to the development of America.

Map of California

The immediate motivation for the westward move was an offer to manage the Mariposa Estate, a mining estate acquired in 1847 by John C. Fremont. The estate, located in the foothills of the Western Sierra Mountains in Northern California, included six mining camps, the largest of which were Mariposa and Bear Valley. Fremont's investment ultimately proved disastrous; the mines did not yield a fraction of the gold expected. The absolute control Olmsted had hoped to have over the estate's running was hindered by the lack of finances as well as by a simple fact of nature: there was not an adequate water supply at Mariposa.

From the time of his arrival in California, Olmsted took interest in both the physical aspect of his surroundings and in the human aspect. The newly public parks and gardens of England had inspired Olmsted to apply for the position of Superintendent of Central Park, and his involvement with Vaux in its planning was a natural outgrowth of his conviction that American cities should have green spaces other than cemeteries in which the public could take refuge. California was a far cry from New York City and Central Park, and an even farther cry from London and Hyde Park, and though he was initially repelled by the terrain, Olmsted came to see in it a grandiosity and potential unparalleled in any other part of the country or in the world. He was equally fascinated by the society which had arisen in the mining communities. During the 1850's Olmsted had traveled throughout the Southern states chronicling the miasma of slavery; he seized the opportunity while in California to continue his journalistic endeavors and began writing what he called a "proposed masterwork on the growth of civilization from barbarism." Olmsted never completed this work, instead devoting his life after leaving California to the creation of public parks, gardens, and nature reserves across the country.

Because his conception of civilization so depends on the proper management of natural spaces, we cannot see his later path as an abandonment of his social project; it is rather an all-encompassing path that he takes by turning to landscape design. Olmsted's landscapes remain today articulations of his belief that society not only benefits from, but depends upon a collective appreciation of nature. Nature for Olmsted is not the unrestrained wilderness of the frontier, nor did he concern himself overmuch with the yeoman ideal. His achievement is to use art to shape a natural space in a way that amplifies the civilizing effect that is nature's greatest attribute. First mediated by the exertions of the artist, nature must also undergo the hand of the legislator in order to realize Olmsted's grand scheme. Olmsted called the park "a democratic development of the highest significance," and he believed it to be the duty of the government in America to provide public spaces in which every citizen had access to ameliorative nature. The interplay of nature, art and politics is at the heart of Olmsted's notion of "communitiveness," which is in turn the concept at the heart of civilization.

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