Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An Olmstedian ethic -- Part 2

"He who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man." Emerson
Earth as a human artifact? It seems profoundly counterintuitive to suggest that the best way to ensure the survival of nature's "sweets and virtues" is by human design. That glorious swatch of relative wildness that is Central Park in New York City was an uninspiring wasteland before Frederick Law Olmsted used it as a canvas for creating woods, meadows and ponds -- a sea of spirit-enhancing green in a city of wall-to-wall brick, concrete and steel. The park is no less artificial than the rest of Manhattan Island; it is also a world apart, the heart and lungs of the city.

(Yes, that "uninspiring wasteland" was once, at an earlier time, untrammeled wilderness, but hankering for what cannot be retrieved is a fool's errand.)

If my environmental ethic is Olmstedian, it is certainly at least partly because my path back and forth to work each day for 47 years has taken me through a landscape designed by Olmsted as an estate for a wealthy local family, now in the care of the Natural Resources Trust of Easton. Not wilderness. Not nature untouched by human hand, but woods, brook, ponds, water meadow, and greenswards, designed with an eye to beauty, and populated by birds, wildflowers, and animals. I can say with Emerson: "It seemed as if the day was not wholly profane, in which we have given heed to some natural object."

The Olmstedian ethic entered my consciousness through the soles of my feet.

It is an foolish conceit that we can let nature alone. There is not a square foot of the planet's surface that has not already been influenced in some way by human activity. So let' s get on with it -- making the planet a work of art. Pocket parks on street corners. Vast tracts of protected wilderness where it still exists. Not just for the condors and the cougars, the bluebirds and the butterflies, but for us, because our best natures feed on organic beauty -- and without application of our best natures we all go down together.

In the last years of the 19th century and first years of the 20th a generation of far-sighted men and women followed Olmsted in applying his ethic to the environs of Boston. First came Olmsted's own Emerald Necklace of urban parks. Then Charles Eliot and friends acquired and developed the splendid reservations -- Middlesex Fells and Blue Hills -- that bracket the city to north and south. Other parkways and open spaces followed, in Boston and around the country. A national park system was established. It was a glorious -- and as yet unrepeated -- flowering of visionary design.

It could happen again, on a global scale. The deterrents are greed -- get mine and to hell with the public good -- and, ironically, an environmental ethic that sees humans as the unnatural enemy of the natural world.