Wednesday, April 21, 2010


On a beautiful spring morning last week, I was out with Professor Mooney's environmental studies class for a walk along the Path. Yes, that Path, the one I called "a one-mile walk through the universe."

I quoted the novelist Anne Michaels, as I do in the book: "If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another." I don't know what we might have learned about this particular landscape in 75 minutes, but we walked, and talked, and sat on the plank bridge over Queset Brook, and shared a few stories about our respective home places, and here we are standing by the glacial erratic known as Dogface Rock (click to enlarge), and -- well, maybe we soaked up a bit of knowledge though the soles of our feet, and maybe, just maybe, each of us went away a little bit more in love with the world. I know I did.

The one thing that makes this one-mile walk unique is the fact that it traverses a landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, as the estate of Oliver Ames, great-grandson of the founder of the Ames Shovel Company and the Ames family fortune. Olmsted was and remains America's greatest landscape architect, the designer of Central and Prospect Parks in New York City, Boston's Emerald Necklace, as well as prominent public spaces of many other cities in the United States and Canada. To be a landscape architect is to be patient. Trees must grow. Plantings must mature. Olmsted said that it took forty years for his works to reach completion.

The Oliver Ames family moved away from the estate at about the time the plantings reached maturity. Now another forty (and more) years have passed during which the estate passed into the care of the Natural Resources Trust of Easton. Olmsted's completed work of art has faded somewhat, like a old master painting with cracks and cloudy varnish. Trees have grown up where Olmsted planned clearings. Banks of flowering shrubs have been displaced by native weeds and brambles. Sandy pools in the Queset Brook have silted up. Still, enough remains of the original design to give a sense of what Olmsted attempted to do -- create a landscape that honored nature and nourished the human spirit. Not wilderness, but art. Know, love, serve. He taught us a bit of how to do it.

So we walked, me and the those bright young people, listening to woodpeckers, watching tree swallows do their acrobatics, picking up snakes, and I found myself wishing I was the students' age again so that I might see what this landscape will become another forty years hence when they are in charge. From what I saw and heard on our morning walk, the planet is in good hands.