Mountains Without Handrails
Reflections on the National Parks
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Chapter 2
An Ideal in Search of Itself

The early preservationists and park advocates assumed, without ever explaining, that personal engagement with nature could build in the individual those qualities of character that the existence of the parks symbolized for us collectively. Perhaps the point was made most explicitly by the celebrated wilderness pioneer Aldo Leopold in his essay, "Wildlife in American Culture. "No one can weigh or measure culture," Leopold observed.

Suffice it to say that by common consent of thinking people, there are cultural values in the sports, customs and experiences that renew contacts with wild things. . . . For example, a boy scout has tanned a coonskin cap, and goes Daniel-Booning in the willow thicket below the tracks. He is reenacting American history. . . . Again, a farmer boy arrives in the schoolroom reeking of muskrat; he has tended his traps before breakfast. He is reenacting the romance of the fur trade. [1]

Certainly it would seem eccentric to hold national parks simply so that people could go muskrat trapping. Like Aldo Leopold, John Muir and most other early park supporters had an idea in their minds about the importance to people of encounters with nature, but they seemed at a loss when it came to formulating their intuitions into any coherent recreational plan. To a substantial extent the presumption seems to have been that if only people would come into the parks, as John Muir put it, they would find "everything here is marching to music, and the harmonies are all so simple and young they are easily apprehended by those who will keep still and listen and look . . ." [2]

But it wasn't simple at all, as Muir himself soon realized. Many came and looked, but they didn't see what he had seen, just as they listened without hearing what he had heard. National park admirers have frequently ignored the fact that nature has commended itself to people in very different ways at different times. The awesome grandeur of the parks has at times been thought fearsome rather than beautiful. It is perfectly possible to conceive of wilderness as something to be conquered rather than worshipped; people can, and have, shunned rather than climbed mountains. And it is quite as possible to respond to parks as pleasant sites for picnics and hotel resorts as to view them as fragile museums of nature or history.

Aside from scattered hints here and there, there is little serious or sustained writing to which we might turn for guidance in seeking to understand how those who conceived of parks as culturally important recreational resources meant them to be used. There is, however, at least one document that seeks explicitly to address itself to this question, a report entitled "The Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Trees," written in 1865 by Frederick Law Olmsted. [3] Olmsted is not a name that leaps immediately to mind when one thinks of the national parks. He was of course America's premier landscape architect, and though he was a man of many remarkable accomplishments—including the authorship of a fine series of books on the pre-Civil War South, leadership in the United States Sanitary Commission which was the predecessor to the Red Cross, and innovative work in the design of suburban communities—he is known to most Americans only as the designer of Central Park in New York.

For a brief period, however, during 1864 and 1865, Olmsted left New York to become the manager of the troubled Mariposa mining properties in northern California. While there is no conclusive evidence, it is highly likely that he was one of a small band of Californians who urged the federal government to preserve Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa grove of giant sequoias from settlement and destruction. [4] Olmsted was appointed the first chairman of the board of commissioners that California established to manage the Yosemite Park; and during his brief chairmanship he wrote a report that was intended as a basis for future management. In it he also set out to explain why it was desirable to have a place like Yosemite as a public park, and in those observations lie the report's great interest.

Olmsted read his report to his fellow commissioners in August, 1865, but it was not published, and it then simply disappeared. It has been suggested that the report was suppressed by those in the California Geological Survey who feared that Olmsted's plan for Yosemite might create competition for legislative appropriations. Whatever the case, it was not until nearly ninety years later, in 1952, that diligent searching by Laura Wood Roper, Olmsted's biographer, turned up a virtually complete copy in the still-extant Olmsted firm's office in Brookline, Massachusetts. [5] Roper published the report in the magazine Landscape Architecture, where it remains largely unknown, though in it, as she justly remarks, "Olmsted formulated a philosophic base for the creation of state and national parks." [6]

The failure of Olmsted's report to command modern attention is less surprising than might at first appear. [7] Unlike much popular nature writing, the report lacks rapturous descriptions of self-discovery, and it is marred by a certain archaic nineteenth-century style of expression. Olmsted talks about the advance of civilization and speaks of "scientific facts," among which he numbers mental disabilities like softening of the brain and melancholy. [8] Some effort is required to penetrate these passages, but it is well worth making.

Olmsted begins at the beginning. The park was established for the preservation of its scenery. He does not, however, treat this as a self-justifying observation. The question is why government should take upon itself the burden of scenic preservation. His answer at one level is largely descriptive. Striking scenery has a capacity to stimulate powerful, searching responses in people. "Few persons can see such scenery as that of the Yosemite," he notes, "and not be impressed by it in some slight degree. All not alike, all not perhaps consciously, . . . but there can be no doubt that all have this susceptibility, though with some it is much more dull and confused than with others." [9] He does not claim to be making some universally true claim, good for all time, but certainly it was a claim that was true enough for his own time, and for ours. As Olmsted observed, Yosemite had become a popular subject for artists and photographers, and their widely reproduced works had induced a great interest in, and admiration for, the place. Moreover, in the Old World, it had long been a tradition to reserve the choicest natural scenes in the country for the use of the rich and powerful. Apparently people able to do whatever they wanted found great satisfaction could be elicited from engagement with striking scenery.

At this point, Olmsted offers his distinctive hypothesis—the basis of his prescription for the national parks. In most of our activities we are busy accomplishing things to satisfy the demands and expectations of other people, and dealing with petty details that are uninteresting in themselves and only engage our attention because they are a means to some other goal we are trying to reach. Olmsted does not suggest that gainful activity is a bad thing by any means; only that it offers no opportunity for the mind to disengage from getting tasks done, and to engage instead on thoughts removed from the confinement of duty and achievement. He calls this the invocation of the contemplative faculty.

For Olmsted the preservation of scenery is justified precisely because it provides a stimulus to engage the contemplative faculty. "In the interest which natural scenery inspires . . . the attention is aroused and the mind occupied without purpose, without a continuation of the common process of relating the present action, thought or perception to some future end. There is little else that has this quality so purely." [10]

Olmsted does not purport to explain why scenery has this effect on us, though doubtless the modern attraction to the idea of God-in-nature is a plausible explanation. He is content to observe that there is something that moves us to appreciate natural beauty and to be moved by it, and "intimately and mysteriously" to engage "the moral perceptions and intuitions." [11] He recognized that not everyone responds in this way, thus anticipating the objection that nature parks established for their scenery would not likely be as popular as amusement parks. But he attributed this to a lack of cultivation. It is unquestionably true, but it is not inevitable, he said, "that excessive devotion to sordid interests," to the constant and degrading work upon which most people are engaged, dulls the aesthetic and contemplative faculties. [12] It is precisely to give the ordinary citizen an opportunity to exercise and educate the contemplative faculty that establishment of nature parks as public places is "justified and enforced as a political duty." [13]

No one, he thought, was more relentlessly tied to unreflective activity than the ordinary working citizen. The worker spends his life in almost constant labor, and he has done so traditionally because the ruling classes of the Old World had nothing but contempt for him. They thought "the large mass of all human communities should spend their lives in almost constant labor and that the power of enjoying beauty either of nature or art in any high degree, require[d] a cultivation of certain faculties, which [are] impossible to these humble toilers." [14] Olmsted rejects this belief categorically. Behind his rather archaic vocabulary, and his pseudoscientific proofs, lies a prescription for parks as an important institution in a society unwilling to write off the ordinary citizen as an automaton.

Olmsted, as a practical man, set out a number of specific suggestions for the management of parks. He had an idea about the "thing" that should be made available to the public as a park, just as the curator has an idea of the collection to be presented in a museum.

The first point, he said, is to keep in mind that the park was reserved because of its scenery, and therefore the first task

is the preservation and maintenance as exactly as is possible of the natural scenery; the restriction, that is to say, within the narrowest limits consistent with the necessary accommodation of visitors, of all constructions markedly inharmonious with the scenery or which would unnecessarily obscure, distort or detract from the dignity of the scenery. [15]

To read this formula in isolation is to have the impression that Olmsted was advocating a pure wilderness status for the parks or that he was interested only in an aesthetic or visual experience, but plainly this is not at all what he had in mind. His principal goal in seeking preservation of the scenery was to assure that there would be no distractions to impede an independent and personal response to experience. Olmsted did not have an ideological opposition to the presence of any particular structure, such as roads or hotels in the park, for, as we shall see, he found such developments perfectly acceptable. His concern was with the installation of facilities or entertainments where "care for the opinion of others" [16] might dominate, or where prepared activities would occupy the visitor without engaging him.

Thus, for example, Olmsted would have found the modern ski resort an anomaly in the parks, not because it intrudes upon the scenery, or impairs the indigenous ecosystem, or because of the skiing itself, but because of the crowding, commercialism, obtrusive social pressures, and the inducements to participate in entertainments planned and structured by others.

While he did not spell out his management theory in detail in the Yosemite report, he returned to the problem twenty years later in a report for a state park at Niagara Falls. Niagara had been the most popular tourist attraction in America during the later nineteenth century, but all the land had been sold into private ownership and commercial enterprises had taken over. Tourists were importuned and harassed, led around like trained animals and hurried from one "scenic site" to the next. [17]

As early as 1869, Olmsted began a campaign to establish a public park around Niagara Falls, and to combat the desecration of the area that had taken place. [18] The park was finally established in 1886; in 1879 Olmsted prepared a study proposing a management scheme for the Niagara Park, [19] and eight years later he drew up a detailed planning report. [20]

The Niagara report contains a passage almost identical to that quoted earlier from the Yosemite work, asserting that nothing of an artificial character should be allowed to interfere with the visitor's response to the scenery. But in the Niagara report, Olmsted set out his views about park management in much more detail. Again, he made clear that a wilderness park need not be established. It would be quite appropriate to provide, near the entrance, toilets, shelters, picnic facilities, and the like. He also recommended the construction of walkways, as well as restorative efforts to combat erosion and revegetate barren areas.

He opposed fancy landscaping, however, because it is calculated to draw off and dissipate regard for natural scenery. For the same reasons he opposed a plan to build a fine restaurant on Goat Island, a wild place just above Niagara Falls. Neither, he said, ought sculpture or monuments to be placed within the park, worthy as they are.

Probably the most revealing expression of Olmsted's approach was his opposition to a proposal to permit people to see the falls without having to leave their carriages. This was not an obvious issue for him, for in the Yosemite report he had advocated the construction of a carriage road in the valley. But Yosemite, at that time, was a very remote place, with few visitors and difficult access. Niagara was entirely different, and Olmsted's response—based on different circumstances—tells a great deal about his conception of a rewarding park experience.

He began with the observation that as many as ten thousand people a day visited Niagara, and that to permit the scenic grandeur of the place to engage the visitor it was necessary to see the falls at length and at leisure. If the scenic viewing areas were designed to accommodate large numbers of carriages, it would "interpose an urban, artificial element plainly in conflict with the purpose for which the Reservation has been made." The purpose of the park was to encourage people to experience Niagara "in an absorbed and contemplative way." A profusion of carriages, with crowds of people, would intrude upon the opportunity for an independent experience.

He sought to restore the setting of an earlier Niagara, where

a visit to the Falls was a series of expeditions, and in each expedition hours were occupied in wandering slowly among the trees, going from place to place, with many intervals of rest. . . . There was not only a much greater degree of enjoyment, there was a different kind of enjoyment. . . . People were then loath to leave the place; many lingered on from day to day. . . revisiting ground they had gone over before, turning and returning. [21]

It is striking to see how far removed Olmsted's views are from the sterility of current battles over riding versus walking, or wilderness versus development. Olmsted believed that the essence of the park is not determined by the details of the visitors' activities, by whether they see the park from a sitting rather than a standing position, or sleep in a tent rather than a hotel bed. His attention was focused on the attitude that the visitor brought to the park, and upon the atmosphere that park managers provided for the visitor. He thought it perfectly possible to have an appropriate park experience using a vehicle in a remote enough place; just as he would, without doubt, have condemned the relentless backpacker whose principal concern is to prove that he can "do" so many miles a day, or climb more peaks than any of his predecessors. His goal was to get the visitor outside the usual influences where his agenda was preset, and to leave him on his own, to react distinctively in his own way and at his own pace.

To understand Olmsted's views it is essential to keep in mind that he was a republican idealist. He held, that is to say, to what we generally call democratic values. He believed in the possibility of a nation where every individual counted for something and could explore and act upon his own potential capacities. He feared, and he condemned, the nation of unquestioning, mute, and passive followers. The destruction of Niagara's scenery appalled him, not simply because the place was ugly, but because old Niagara was a symbol and a means for the visitor freely to respond to his experience. The trouble with the new Niagara was that it had returned, with its leading and hurrying of visitors and with its commercial entertainments in the guise of free enterprise, to the same contemptuous disregard of the individuality of the visitor that had characterized the aristocratic, condescending spirit of Europe.

Olmsted was criticized on the ground that his plan for Niagara constituted an attack upon a place that was—for all its tawdry development—extraordinarily popular. The charge was, as Olmsted rephrased it, that "whatever has been done to the injury of the scenery has been done . . . with the motive of profit, and the profit realized is the public's verdict of acquittal." [22]

He, of course, conceded Niagara's popularity, but it was his conviction that the best use of highly scenic areas was not to serve popular taste but to elevate it. The new Niagara was a modern version of precisely what he had condemned in the Yosemite report: the belief of the governing classes of Europe that the masses were incapable of cultivation. Hence, they had thought "so far as the recreation of the masses receives attention from their rulers, to provide artificial pleasures for them, such as theatres, parades, and promenades where they will be amused by the equipages of the rich and the animation of the crowds." [23] "The great body of visitors to Niagara come as strangers. Their movements are necessarily controlled by the arrangements made for them. They take what is offered, and pay what is required with little exercise of choice." [24]

The commercialized Niagara was enjoyable, it provided a service for the leisure time that citizens had to spend. Olmsted's Niagara plan called for some sacrifice of that service in order to provide a place designed to engage the contemplative faculty and to encourage the visitor to set his own agenda. He believed these were opportunities that citizens of a democratic society ought to want to provide themselves.

Olmsted's distinctive conception of a park is not easily captured in a phrase. He repeatedly uses the word "contemplative," but plainly it is not an intellectual experience he has in mind. He also talks about "cultivation" and "refinement," faintly archaic terms, that are probably nearest to our notion of the conscious development of aesthetic appreciation. Though he speaks principally of the visual experience of scenic inspiration—understandably enough in light of his professional work as a landscape architect—his Yosemite report also contains approving references to hunting and mountaineering. And there is a strong element in his writing of republican idealism, a distaste for the mass man unreflectively doing what he is told to do and thinking what he is told to think.

Of course Olmsted was himself a man of the nineteenth century, and his writing reveals a confident belief, characteristic of the time, in the progress of the human spirit. The attitude he evinces is reminiscent of the famous passage in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Nature":

Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Ceasar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler's trade. . . . Yet . . . your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build there fore your own world, As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. [25]

Olmsted's dedication to a spirit of independence also echoes Emerson. "The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame," Emerson wrote in "The American Scholar." [26] Indeed, Olmsted's views draw on a pastoral, moral, and aesthetic tradition with even deeper roots. [27] The distinctiveness of his contribution lies in the application of these ideas to the public institution of a nature park, and therein lie some puzzling questions. What special activities and attitudes, for example, would be called for on the part of visitors to such parks; and how does one deal with the claim that as public facilities parks also have a responsibility to meet the demands of conventional tourism? Olmsted's work only hints at answers to such questions.


Mountains Without Handrails
©1980, The University of Michigan
Published by The University of Michigan Press

sax/chap2.htm — 22-Jan-2003