The reading, “Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted,” inspires a variety of questions related to how we experience and view the natural world. As Olmsted actually constructs areas that eventually come to be seen and accepted as natural environments that have always existed, he causes us to question the role that people play or the authority that we have in relation to the natural world. Although—as I mention in my Topic Prospectus—it is dangerous to develop widely accepted constructed ideas of what wilderness should be, and although Olmsted does have a specific way of creating his environments which led to people accepting his landscapes as real, natural, and as what nature is supposed to be, he promotes the idea that we can live in and as a part of nature. His landscapes contribute to the notion that the natural world does not have to be something separate and remote, removed from our everyday lives, but that we may live in conjunction with it, that we may have a regular correspondence with nature. For example, his Boston’s Fens and Riverway projects were “built on the site of tidal flats and floodplains, fouled by sewage and industrial effluent, were designed to purify water and protect adjacent land from flooding. They also incorporated an interceptor sewer, a parkway, and Boston’s first streetcar line; together, they formed a landscape system designed to accommodate the movement of people, the flow of water, and the removal of wastes.” Although this landscape was constructed, the system allowed people to realize the many benefits of living within natural landscapes as opposed to being isolated from them.
All of Olmsted’s landscapes that the reading discusses lead us to question how we should experience and interact with the natural world. His work with Yosemite and Niagara, for example, may cause us to re-think how we experience these places as the views and layout of the parks have been carefully planned and developed. Furthermore, his work on the Biltmore Estate provokes the most controversial questions of how we should work with, protect, or even control the land; this landscape initiates debates over whether we should approach land management from preservationist or conservationist perspectives. Olmsted’s ability to hide the human hand in his natural environments becomes a puzzling notion as we contemplate our relationship with the natural world. Are we meant to live as keepers of the natural environment, tending to it as if it were a garden? Are we meant to live separated from it, seeing human manipulation or intervention as possibly destructive and unnatural? Do we think of it as a resource, something to be tended and protected so that we may eventually receive benefits from these natural resources? Should it be seen as something sacred, as something to be protected for its own sake? These questions are at the center of environmental debates and concerns, and we are urged to consider them as we think about Olmsted’s landscapes.
Although Olmsted approached his landscapes from a conservationist perspective, his legacy leads me to see the importance of holding on to preservationist ideals. In last week’s reading and class discussion where we discussed consumer society, I was surprised to realize just how immune I have become to this defining aspect of our culture and how its pervasiveness has caused me to blindly accept certain societal “norms” as facts of life. That being said, I wonder how we would interact with the environment if we all—at least temporarily—abandoned the ingrained notion that we must consume in order to progress, and how we might live if society adopted a preservationist lifestyle. Even though there is something to be said for the conservationist’s perspective, it seems to promote the idea that we must continue to consume; there is no room for preservation in a society built on concepts of continual consumption.
Olmsted’s legacy should continue to live on as it promotes the idea that we may live within nature, being a part of it through conserving, protecting, and appreciating it. However, if we continue to accept the norms of consumer society and purely see nature as something that can be conserved for future use and consumption, we may risk endangering the natural environment even more than we already have. With that said, maybe there is a balance to be found. Maybe we could follow in Olmsted’s footsteps and bring wilderness into civilization, utilizing the urban wilderness for conservation purposes while making a definite stand in preserving existing natural landscapes. Although this may be an idealistic notion, it seems that the main way to really begin to appreciate the natural world is to live within it, incorporating it into our everyday lives as Olmsted seemed to want us to do. Furthermore, in order for preservation efforts to be successful, we must first fully recognize and appreciate the natural world.