A century and a half ago, city dwellers in search of fresh air and rural pastures visited graveyards. It was a bad arrangement. The processions of tombstones interfered with athletic activity, the gloom with carefree frolicking. Nor did mourners relish having to contend with the crowds of pleasure-seekers. The phenomenon particularly maddened Frederick Law Olmsted. He repeatedly complained of it in his essays and letters, which have been collected by the Library of America in Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society (a digest of Johns Hopkins University Press’s projected 12-volume set of Olmsted’s papers). A “miserably imperfect form,” Olmsted lamented. “A wretched pretext.” The cemetery problem, he felt, was an expression of a profound, universal desire that cities were neglecting to meet: the desire for public parks.
That public parks should exist at all was a radical idea. Olmsted’s solutions—Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, among dozens of others, many designed with his longtime collaborator Calvert Vaux—were just as radical. Today we take much of his thinking for granted while rarely acknowledging the fact that, through industrial agricultural practices, resource extraction, and atmospheric monkeying, we have landscaped the entire world to suit our needs. Every square inch of land on Earth has been altered by our presence. Yet in the process we have failed to follow Olmsted’s conclusions to their logical end. If his theories about public greenswards could be applied to towns and cities, why shouldn’t they be applied to the planet as a whole?
Until Olmsted created a new occupation for himself—he and Vaux were the world’s first professional landscape architects—he lived what he called a “vagabond life, generally pursued under the guise of an angler, a fowler or a dabbler on the shallowest shores of the deep sea of the natural sciences.” He was, in other words, a dilettante. His father, a prosperous dry-goods merchant in Hartford, Connecticut, supported him. Born in 1822, Olmsted claimed that he had been destined for a Yale education until, at the age of 14, he suffered severe sumac poisoning, which left him temporarily blind. Witold Rybczynski casts doubt on every fact of this assertion in his book about Olmsted, A Clearing in the Distance, arguing that the eye problems were more likely caused by conjunctivitis, and were not serious enough to interfere with schoolwork. In any case, Olmsted’s formal education ended when he was 15. He professed interest in becoming a land surveyor but soon set out to travel the world.