The reading we had for this week by Anne Whiston Spirn’s titled, Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted really appealed to me and I found I was able to connect with it. Spirn speaks highly about Olmsted and even more so about his work. She mentions that Olmsted worked for the public so everyone could visit his works; he feared that Parks like Yosemite would become a “rich man’s park.” Olmsted acted on this by proposing plans change various landscapes like Yosemite or Niagara Falls that would make it easier for anyone to visit. This article talks a lot about changing a city into nature or changing an already “natural” place so it better suits humans.
One of the ways this article looks at nature, much like we’ve seen in previous readings, is a human defined nature. A different approach to this that we do not see in other readings is that when trying to manage or protect nature, you are still changing it. Spirn says that Olmsted’s work was based on human cultural ideal of nature, and that cultural ideal has evolved over the years as humanity has grown. In 1864, people who lived in cities did not experience nature as God made it, but with the declaration of Yosemite as a National Park, it gave the people the leisure of experiencing it. People in the 19th century were lucky they got to see nature in its (almost) pristine and original state. In today’s times people consider Central Park as a good example of nature, but most of them do not know that 100 years ago the area where the park is now was middle-income housing. But still New Yorker’s see Central Park as nature, and that is because it has become the cultural ideal of nature in New York City.
Olmsted’s job was to make the parks as profitable and enjoyable as possible, but at the same time the job he cared most about was to “let nature be alone.” As the article mentions, to let nature be alone one has to study and understand nature, and the only way to do this is by altering and recording it. This is what we see with the Fens and the Riverway in Boston. If you showed someone who has never seen it before a picture of it, they would assume it was always there. The truth is, like Central Park and Biltmore, Fens and the Riverway is a man-made wetland that was built to accommodate humans. It was built to accommodate the movement of people (the first street car was built in Boston to bring people here), the flow of water to limit flooding in the surrounding area, and to remove sewage from local communities. This idea of letting nature be alone by changing it even reached Niagara Falls. The flow of water going over the falls has been greatly altered; industrial sites upriver take a few thousand cubic meters a day from the river, the flow is regulated based on a consensus of what flow levels were most appealing (this is after water is taken out for industry) to tourists, and constructs have even been put in place to make more water fall over the American side. The definition of nature will be continuously changed by our different cultures, but I believe it is important to follow the lessons from Fredrick Law Olmsted and put an emphasis on the preservation of nature… even if it means changing it a little bit for research.
“His landscapes were constructed by human imagination, human labor, and processes of nonhuman nature.” – Spirn pg. 110