By Kimberly Mayer
As many years now as I have lived out west, I’ve never visited the National Parks like I did as a child from Connecticut. My father would round us all up in the summers and set out on road trips with the goal of camping in the National Parks out west. All my memories of Grand Teton National Park, Yosemite, Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon and Zion, were seared then. On some level I’m sure I thought all the great National Parks were over the Rocky Mountains.
When a thought like that gets planted, it’s no wonder I moved west.
Looking back, the mileage he covered was remarkable–first in a station wagon of four and later six—back in the day when men did all the driving, and drove at night through deserts, back in the day when car radiators “boiled over.” My father believed these National Parks were something we had to see. That our lives would not be complete without having known them.
Only now I realize how much my father’s philosophy resembled that of nineteenth century visionary, Frederick Law Olmsted, and how large Olmsted’s handprint was in our lives. Before he had any inkling he was going to be a landscape architect, and before “landscape architecture” was even a field, Olmsted was appointed as a correspondent to tour the South for the New-York Daily Times, later to become The New York Times. Our nation at the time was even more divisive than today, with the South holding fast to slaveholding, and Civil War about to break. As a reporter, what Olmsted sought was a dialogue, some understanding with Southerners—but what we can also find in his writings, which became published as a trilogy, A Journey in the Back Country, are observations on nature so keen, they led him to his remarkable career and legacy in landscape architecture.
“Infused with the writings of transcendentalists and European Romantics, he believed scenery touched our ‘unconscious’ selves, stirring a sense of ‘mystery and infinity,’” writes Tony Horwitz in Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide. “Olmsted likened this to the action of music on our minds and souls, a sensation that ‘cannot be fully given the form of words.’”
My dad knew this in every fiber of his being. I remember him standing with us at one of our remarkable destinations when we were small, and with a large sweeping gesture of his arm he exclaimed to us, “This is all yours.” This is what he wanted us to feel. Of course, this turns out not to be entirely true. It wasn’t all ours. Yellowstone alone, the first National Park in 1872, was seasonal home to Blackfeet, Bannock, Shoshone, and Crow Nations.
But I am getting ahead of myself. When Olmsted started his career, National Parks had not yet been established. No doubt he foresaw it, however. Tony Horwitz writes, “After seeing the very remote Yosemite in California Olmsted stated that it would someday attract “millions,” and should be “held, guarded and managed for the free use of the whole body of the people forever.””
In his reverence for nature and by placing his belief in parks as public spaces, Olmsted envisioned parks as places where the masses would have access, where they would “assimilate” and be uplifted. In this spirit, Olmsted created parks and campuses, too many to mention, from Central Park, NYC to The University of Washington in Seattle, throughout the United States and Canada.
Olmsted put the natural in his parks. He “… paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountainsides and ocean views…” noted his colleague Daniel Hudson Burnham. In this way a rocky tract of inhospitable land became Central Park in New York City. Untamed and pastoral.
And as for Frederick Olmsted’s farsightedness at Yosemite in 1863 of the need for National Parks, his idea was revived when one of his sons participated in drafting the legislation to create the Nation Park Service in 1916. Thirteen years after his father’s passing.
In 1958 while we were still a family of four, my father moved us to New York City where he completed his doctorate in psychology at Columbia University. There we lived for two years in student/teacher housing on the Upper West Side, going from backyard apple trees to hopscotch on asphalt, and where would we—or anyone–have been without Central Park in our lives? In Olmsted’s own words, “A sense of enlarged freedom is to all, at all times, the most certain and the most valuable gratification afforded by a park.”