Preservation Profile: Robert Melnick

"If there’s some way for preservation as an idea to be part of people’s lives, I think that would benefit all of us."

Robert Melnick, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon and champion of cultural landscape education, recently sat down with members of the Park Cultural Landscapes Program to talk about early inspirations, memorable projects, and future opportunities for the field.

Robert Melnick during design studio at Yosemite
Robert Melnick works with students during a design studio at Yosemite Village in March 2018.

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A group of three people with hats and cameras look at a cultural landscape report to assess condition at Death Valley.
Robert Melnick (left) with two members of the Cultural Landscape Research Group at Scotty's Castle, Death Valley National Park.

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Robert Melnick and students during a design studio, Santa Rosa Island
University of Oregon design studio at Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park

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Listen to the full conversation:

Robert Melnick and others at Buffalo River, 1980-1982
Robert Melnick and team document a rural historic cultural landscape at Buffalo National River

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Read the full interview with Robert Melnick and the NPS Park Cultural Landscapes Program. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
SUSAN DOLAN: So, this is an interview with Robert Melnick on February 28, 2018, and Robert is being interviewed for the People in Preservation profile that is part of the National Park Service Park Cultural Landscapes Program website. I am Susan Dolan, the Program Manager for the Park Cultural Landscapes Program in the WASO Office, and I am joined by my colleague Lia Nigro –

LIA NIGRO: Hello, I’m Lia Nigro, the Public Outreach and Education Coordinator –

SD: And also my colleague Vida --

VIDA GERMANO: Hi, Vida Germano, I manage the Cultural Landscapes Program for the Pacific West Region.

SD: And Robert, can you please introduce yourself --

ROBERT MELNICK: Sure, Robert Melnick, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon.

SD: All righty. Well Robert, it’s an honor and a pleasure to talk with you today, and we have a list of prepared questions that we think you’ve seen already, and we’d like to just go through those questions one-by-one and learn more about your history, your inspirations, and more about your work with cultural landscapes as a leader in the field for many years.

So the first question is: What inspired your interest in cultural landscapes and their preservation?

RM: Well thanks Susan, and thank you very much for the opportunity to talk with all of you. As you know, I grew up in New York, but my parents had joined a cooperative community in upstate New York where you owned your little cabin, but the organization owned all the land, and it was 125 acres and there were 75 families. But the cabin was really – there was no heat, it was open stud walls, it was really a very rustic kind of place. And I spent all my year in New York, but then spent every summer of my life there in this place. And I realize that was really a very formative event in my interest in landscape generally. This was a landscape where I could walk through the woods without a flashlight at night because I knew the paths so well. I have friends that I met when I was a year and a half old who I’m still friends with now -- people who I’m still very close with.

And that landscape really shaped how I understood it. It was a landscape that had been a Revolutionary-era farm, so there were stone walls that if you looked at them and you kind of blanked out the forest, they were really cow pastures. They were kind of enclosed places for cows, for cattle, mostly for dairy cows. And I realized that really shaped my appreciation for landscape.

I also had been an artist and an art student and had been very involved in the art scene in New York, but then kind of left that and majored in American History in college. But the history I was interested in was never the military history or the diplomatic history; it was always the history of – looking back on it – the everyday people, the common people, the people who I would say made those landscapes that I’m now most interested in. And then after college, I went off and went to Europe for a number of months, just roamed, literally.

I came back and helped someone build a log cabin in the Adirondacks. And, it was the first Earth Day, and it was very dramatic; it was like, well what’s going on here, what is this really all about? And a friend suggested I talk with people at SUNY College of Forestry (which is what it was then called), and I went and spoke with folks in the Forestry Management, maybe Forestry Engineering Department, and it clearly didn’t fit, it wasn’t me. And they said, well go down the hall and talk to Brad Sears, who was then chair of the Department in Landscape Architecture, and I think I said, 'Landscape what?' You know, like a lot of people, I came to it rather late in my life, relatively later – it wasn’t something I wanted to do when I was in, you know, middle school or something.

And, that’s when I met George Curry, who really helped me understand the relationship between history and landscape, and got me really thinking about a lot of that. When I was at Syracuse, when I was at SUNY, I wrote a master’s thesis on small town preservation, and really had very little interest even then in cultural landscapes; I don’t think I really understood what it was about. Some years later, after I was in Kansas, Bob Harvey and Susan Buggey asked me to come to this meeting of similarly interested people at New Harmony, Indiana in 1978, that became the very first meeting of what became the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation. At the second meeting I met Hugh Miller, and again through some fortunate moments in time he hired me to work for him, and as he and I have joked about often, he said to me, ‘The park service does very well with natural places, we do very well with historic architecture, but there are all these places where people have lived and developed and done things with and we don’t know anything about them. Come and help us figure it out. ... And by the way, I’m going to be gone for three weeks in the field, so when I come back let’s talk about what you’re doing.' And it was quite literally that way.

So I worked at WASO for that first year, and out of that time with Hugh, and Jerry Rodgers, and really Randy Biallas was involved on the end of my time there. And, we got involved in cultural landscapes. I took back with me to Kansas a three-year contract, it was then called, with the service, to continue the work, and really develop ways to think about these places, these landscapes.

We used Buffalo River in Arkansas as the test case for a number of reasons. One, it was relatively new, it was only ten years old. People really didn’t know about it, it wouldn’t get a lot of press; it was close to Kansas; the superintendent there, Alec Gould was very open to us coming and participating. And we could also - because at the time the relationship was pretty rough - we could drive state cars down there and never mention that we were working for the park service, cause there was still this kind of federal/local conflict that was going on, it was not very comfortable at all. And that’s when we really said, how do you develop this? And out of that came the early, early versions of the cultural landscape characteristics based in our work in Buffalo River. We had done a lot of reading in cultural geography, in agricultural history, Department of Interior library when I was at WASO, so we’d done our homework, but the field work was all done at Buffalo. And we worked very closely with Billy Webb, who at the time was in Santa Fe, and with Dick Sellars you know, who recently passed away; and Dick once said to me that working with cultural landscapes is like nailing jelly to a wall, that it couldn’t be done. He later became a real supporter, but we went through a lot of ups and downs with that, a lot of ups and downs.

But I think the real impetus and the real reason for that interest really went back to those early years, of how do people make places that reflect the kind of lives they lead? You know, why in the Midwest were there windbreaks in the northwest corner, why were farmhouses typically north and west of the pigsties, you know because of the way the wind typically blew. So we kind of tried to understand all of those issues, and that to me was incredibly exciting. It was very, very interesting to understand the relationship between peoples’ human needs – what they basically need to do to work and care for themselves and their families, whatever that might mean, and also to thrive and have a happy life themselves. Or to understand that it wasn’t always a happy life, that it was a difficult life -- I’m not suggesting it was all pleasant. But, to understand that relationship between people and the places where they are.

So I think that’s probably a quick overview of how I got there.

SD: That’s really excellent, Robert, thank you for sharing that.
SD: Well I’m going to ask Vida to ask the next question, if she will, please.

VG: Sure. So, Robert, we’re wondering what early academic or professional experiences were most formative for you. And you kind of talked a little bit about some of that, but could you elaborate?

RM: Sure. If I think back on it, I always think of the kind of academic experiences again as tied to specific people, and I think there were three or four people in my academic career -- and we can talk about professional experiences in a second. The first was actually my art teacher in high school who was – as I said, I had been a painter and I had been very involved – as much as you can when you’re sixteen years old – with the arts scene in New York, and my art teacher really, really supported it, and I think that gave me a certain freedom to push the boundaries and push the edges somewhat, and I think that was very, very helpful.

The second person was my American History professor when I was an undergraduate, who I was very close to until he passed away, oh about 25 years ago now. But, he was also someone who really encouraged me to see things I didn’t see before, and the example that comes to mind is – we were looking at an old newspaper, and he said - I remember I was like a sophomore or junior in college – and he said, what does this newspaper tell you that’s unusual. And I said, I don’t know, I’m looking at these articles, and he said, you’re looking at the wrong things, look at the advertisements in the newspaper and that will tell you more about what was going on at the time than the articles will. And that always stuck with me, it’s like don’t always look for the think that hits you first, but look beyond that, I think that was very formative.

And then of course my years as SUNY, especially with George, who I always look back on as a mentor and a teacher and someone who pushed me. One of the things I was able to do at Syracuse - right next to the SUNY campus is a cemetery, and everyone thought it was an Olmsted design but no one could ever prove it. That was always the, kind of the myth, it was Olmsted did this place. And it was right before Al Fein's book came out about Olmsted, right before people really discovered what he was all about; or, re-discovered. That is really a better way to put it. And George encouraged me – I went to the Library of Congress, when you could still sit there with your fingers and go through all the Olmsted papers, and look for things. Looking back on it, it was kind of crazy that I could actually do that. And I came across a little, kind of receipt, and it was for – Olmsted visited this cemetery, Oakwood cemetery, he charged a hundred and fifty dollars for a visit, and that was all there was – there was no plan, there was all. So we knew that he had been there, but that kind of got me thinking: how do you do research about landscapes, how do you try and understand them, and that was incredibly formative in terms of my own thinking about what I do, and I always credit George for doing that.

I think the professional experience that was formative, maybe not always the most important, but formative, was my time with Hugh Miller. Because again, Hugh, you know, we did, we would go to Gettysburg, we’d go to other local parks, we would sit for hours and talk about cultural landscapes - I remember one, after a draft of the early work came out, we did a week review -- a week meeting with (I think it was a week, it felt like about a year to me) a review at the Denver Service Center, and I think Hugh kept on pushing, he kept…every time I would say, can we really do this, is it really worth doing, he would always say, yeah, let’s just keep going, let’s just keep pushing…

So yeah, those are the things if I think back to formative, those were the things that were most formative.

SD: And, would you like to give a shout out to your art teacher in high school or your American History professor in college and name them for us?

RM: Yeah sure, the American History professor was Fred Crane. Fred had had the first Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale, and I think at the time I didn’t realize what that meant, but he was the first person, at the time in the late ‘40s – I think it was ‘49 – he had an American Studies degree, and he really imbued that in me, the notion of crossing over academic silos, you know, crossing over those boundaries.

My art teacher in high school was an artist named Neil Shevlin, who, at the time, I was very very close to. He had encouraged – I think, Susan, maybe I told you about this, but, when I was in high school I spent some time working in Andy Warhol’s factory –

SD: Yes, yes.

RM: - with Andy Warhol - and Neil had really encouraged that. He had really encouraged me to kind of, again, push those boundaries, as Fred did, and certainly as George did and as Hugh did. So I credit all those people with in some way giving me academic or professional permission, if you will, to think beyond the way that I was otherwise doing things, so I thank those four people especially. As well as other people who were friends and colleagues.

SD: I can so hear that influence in you of crossing academic silos. As a student of yours, that was something that I learned that you were a very strong proponent of, in encouraging all of us to take classes in other departments or other schools at the university and expand our horizons. And when you mention the newspaper and looking at the ads in the newspaper, I was reminded of one time when you taught us in one class – you had us empty out the contents of our wallets, and this was a cultural landscape preservation class, because you wanted to demonstrate to us that we all carried around memorabilia from the past, that we all had a significant connection to our own history, and we carried the material evidence of it.

RM: Well thanks Susan, yeah – I’m glad you remember that. I used to do that in public talks, I once did it in a talk in Astoria, where I’d just given a talk about preservation, and someone said, ‘well, I don’t believe in preservation,’ and I thought, ‘wait a minute – yes you do.’ You know. I think it was, ‘Pull out your purse – you know, and what have you got in there that you don’t need today’ kind of question. But I think I find it so hard to let things go – I mean, you know, physically. Looking around my office it’s like, no I can’t let that matchbook go or that ticket stub go.
SD: Let’s ask our colleague Lia Nigro to ask the next question.

LN: Robert, what is the most rewarding project that you’ve ever been involved with?

RM: You know Lia, I took a look at that question and I thought, I don’t…it would depend on when…where I was, and where I was in my career I guess? Certainly I would say that early work in Buffalo River was incredibly rewarding. Uh, the work we did at the Presidio when Tim and Gennie Keller and I were partners in Land and Community Associates. That, which was a multi-year project to record what was going on at the Presidio as it was converted from an army base to a national park unit. So that was certainly among the most rewarding I think. If I think back on it, those were…

I think – and I know we’re going to get to what was the most difficult, what was the most challenging – but I think in many respects the most challenging and in many respects the most rewarding, is the climate change work that we just did. We can talk about that in a minute…
I think it was the accumulation of projects…you know, one of the things that we always tell students when I do studios, is that you don’t learn everything in one studio, that’s why we do a studio every term, so you add it all up. And when I think about, you know, the projects that we’ve done, I have to include the Hanalei project in that because that taught me so much about, not only landscape, but about people.

I don’t know if – Susan or Vida – if I ever told you this story, but we were doing work in Hanalei in the taro ponds, and we’d spoken with the State Preservation Office about… and the taro, the taro in Hanalei was farmed, and still is, by the Haraguchi family, which were, who were originally from Japan a number of generations ago. So they were Japanese American taro farmers. And we said, well what about Native Hawaiian taro farmers? And they took us to meet some people on the north shore of Maui, in a little village there. Tim and I went with someone from the state office. We met with four, maybe five Hawaiian women who only spoke Hawaiian. And so they spoke to the person from the state office who translated, and then we spoke in English, and he translated back to them, and this went on for hours – I mean really, a very very long conversation. And then at the very end, I said please tell them ‘thank you.’ And the woman who was clearly the leader said, ‘oh that’s okay we had a great time also.’ ‘Because she had understood everything – and then she said, we just wanted to make sure you really wanted to listen to us and you weren’t just...

SD: Oh! Sweet –

RM: You know. So they were testing us. And then we continued to talk for the rest of the day. It was very interesting, but it was a great lesson in being straight and being honest and being clear and listening to other people. And listening to their landscape, I guess, is the other way I would put it.

SD: What a great story.

RM: So those projects were really important.

SD: The work that you mention with Tim and Gennie Keller at Presidio – did that experience contribute to the writing of Bulletin 18, about designed historic landscapes?

RM: You know, I think Bulletin 18 and Bulletin 30 were done before the Presidio project. They were earlier.

SD: Okay. Yes. So your collaboration with them continued for a long time, didn’t it.

RM: It did, yeah. Well, Hugh introduced us in 1980, and I moved to Oregon in ‘82, and Tim and I clearly found a lot of commonality, and they had Land and Community Associates in Charlottesville, and then I opened up the west coast office of Land and Community here. We hired a few people, it was all project based, and we did work – we did the Presidio together, we did Hanalei together, we did that Cultural Landscape Report for Yosemite Valley together, we did work really all over the country. And then it got too big, the office got too big, stuff was going out the door that we weren’t always happy with, and I became Dean, and Tim went to Iowa to be Department Head at Iowa State. And we’re still very good friends but we just decided, living so far apart and going in different directions, it was time to break it up. Which happens a lot in offices.
SD: What do you think is the most challenging project you’ve ever been involved with?

RM: Well, I’m sure Vida who’s sitting here would agree that the climate change work that we just did with the Pacific West Region was the most challenging for me, and it was challenging for lots of reasons. I think it meant taking what we thought we knew about cultural landscapes and thinking about it differently. It was a very very steep learning curve for me certainly and for the people here in Oregon who I worked with. Noah and Roni [Veronica] and Alison, and then Nadja for the second phase. And it meant – you know, we’d do something and then someone who knew a whole lot more about climate change than we do would say no, no you’re thinking about it the wrong way and that – really accepting that, and going, okay, what do we have to do, and how do we have to think about it? I think in the long run, that was the most challenging project. And every project has its excitement and its challenge, but I think the climate change was the most – in many ways it was the most rewarding, but it was also the most challenging.

SD: Can you give us, or paint us a picture of an example of something about a landscape that you thought you knew, but then you had to think about it differently when you considered climate change effects?

RM: Yeah, I thought that we knew about how the landscapes are affected by weather. And I just – you just think about…you know, the work at Redwood, how that site, that landscape, Lyons Ranches was affected by typical Northwest coastal weather. And then we’re understanding that it’s really being affected differently. And therefore the projection – obviously not the prediction, but the projection – for what will happen to that landscape, is going to be different than what we thought it might have been. I think that, if anything it’s only reinforced my belief, and I really say belief – strong belief -- that you’ve got to understand natural systems much more than we did in the past. I think in the past we gave much lip service to that, well it’s a riverbed system or it’s a coastal system, and we kind of then almost took – when I say we I mean generally – you know, almost took for granted what that system was, and I think this work has really reinforced a need to look as deeply at those natural systems and how they’re changing as much as what I like to call the cultural systems of what people did to that landscape.

I think that’s just an example of how it’s caused me to think very very differently about it. We’re starting some project with the Intermountain Region at Fort Union [National Monument] and Pecos [National Historical Park], and part of the team is – if you don’t know him – an ecologist named Rob Bennetts…

SD: Oh yes! Absolutely – wonderful gentleman. Ecologist.

RM: (So Rob is on this team.) He’s an ecologist, right? And I’m just getting to know him – so you know him, but I’m just getting to know him. And we’re really coming to grips with the fact that we look at the same place and we use different language for it. So how can we get past that semantic silo, if you will? How can we get past the semantic silos and really understand the place that we’re talking about from each other’s point of view?
SD: Vida, would you like to ask the next question?

VG: Sure. So, Robert, what excites you most about working with students on a daily basis?

RM: You know, I think what excited me most about working with students, that they don’t realize - the number of days that I come away from working with students and feel like I’ve learned something. That it’s not just sitting there – and I use this word, you might want to edit this out – spewing out ideas that come from years of work, but also listening to them. I think that one of the really wonderful things about teaching is always working with – and maybe I’m fortunate, but always working with smart, intelligent students who will ask very difficult questions or have another way to think about something, especially in design studio. And I think that really is probably the most exciting thing about working with them, but also seeing when they grasp something.

You know, Vida, when we went to Santa Rosa a year and a half ago, when a couple of people got off that boat – I don’t know if you remember this, I remember it so clearly – they looked at me and said, ‘this is it? This is why we’re here? You’re kidding.’ And then when we left at the end of the week, one or two said, ‘if we walk away and miss the boat, and stay here, will that be a problem?’ So there was that one week of conversion. And they got so excited about it, so they also engaged that landscape, and I think that was something – that to me is very thrilling and very exciting, that they really want to kind of grapple with it and take it on.

I think teaching in a department or field where every student is a major and I don’t have to convince someone, you know, why this poem or book is important because they have to take the credit. The students in the classes are doing it because they desperately want to be there, and that is a wonderful thing about this field.

Vida was there, and other people were there from the park, and I was there, so [the students] could talk and they’d get different points of view and understand that there’s not one way to do the work. Yes, there’s a format and there’s a way to approach it, but there are different perspectives on what that means, and I think that’s also very, very important - especially for these students as they go forward.
SD: Wonderful, and Lia, do you have another question for Robert?

LN: Yeah. What advice can you give to an aspiring landscape preservation professional?

RM: Well, I think to not only think about – I’m going to repeat something that my friend Richard Longstreth said to me. Richard is retiring and I just wrote an appreciation for him for his retirement party. And I remembered something that he said to me and that’s why it comes up. When I first met Richard when we both taught at Kansas State, he said to me, anyone interested in preservation ought to be interested in excellent new design as well. I think that’s something that always stuck with me, that if you’re interested in preservation – and he’s interested more in architecture and I’m more interested in the kind of vernacular and cultural landscape that has evolved – but nonetheless, you want to be interested in the way things are happening now as well as what you want to protect.

I also think about, for aspiring landscape preservation professionals, you’ve really got to link in to the idea that landscapes are dynamic by definition. That even if you try to protect certain aspects of it, which you can, that you can – you know, that they’re going to change, and therefore making those decisions, about what do you protect and what do you let go, is important. I will admit that early on, in a much younger phase, I never used the word preservation. I only used the word conservation – historic conservation – because to me preservation has this kind of freeze-dried, bell jar theory kind of idea, and I’ve gotten past that, but it was still that notion of you’re not going to hold it exactly as it is, as you might try and stabilize in a rigid way a building, for example, because the issues are different. That’s not bad or good, just the issues are different. And I think for landscape preservation professionals, I think the issue is, well what here is really worth saving, what here is really most important to hold on to -- which is why I think the CLI process becomes so important, because through that process, you can begin to say, this is what we really value here, this is what we should give attention to.

I think also, Lia, you know, to talk to other people, to listen to other people. I had the fortunate opportunity to spend years, really years, talking to, listening to, visiting with David Lowenthal, who always taught me a different way to look at something than I thought I knew. He would always say no no, look at it this way, not that way - and David was just brilliant at that and still is brilliant at that, and I think that’s one of the things to do.

I was talking with someone also recently about this, and we were remarking about how when I was in college and even graduate school, we all knew some faculty, when they went to give a lecture, would pull out white pieces of note paper that had turned yellow, because they’d been using the same notes for so many years. And what a terrible thing, because it means they’re not learning either. So, continuing to see yourself always as a student, always as someone who will learn from this landscape, this project, or these people, or these questions that you have trouble answering. That to me really is a critical part of what we do.

SD: Those are really lovely thoughts, Robert, and I can see very much how you embody those ideas, and you are a lifelong student of landscape and history and people.
SD: Another question for you is, what role do you see for historic preservation in society at large?

RM: Well, you know I think historic preservation has, for one reason or another, become a little bit too compartmentalized, I guess is the word I want to use. You know, I think that the issue right now, for example – it’s just the issue now, it’s not the long term issue – is the whole issue of gentrification in neighborhoods. I mean, I have friends living in Harlem in New York, in neighborhoods that I wouldn’t have gone to when I was there, you know because of that gentrification. Well, that might be beneficial, but what’s happened to those poorer people who can’t live there any more, where have they gone. And I don’t think….I think preservation, the big challenge is to take on some of those bigger societal issues and to say, well what can we do.

I always think, and I try not to repeat it too often – but I think preservation, the real value of it is knowing as people -- whether it’s individuals, or neighborhoods, or communities, or larger societies -- knowing where we are in time and place. What’s become before us, where might we be going, and what is our context that we live within in the broadest kind of philosophical sense. And I think that preservation has become a little bit – I think it’s getting better, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s getting much much better -- but when I went through and I was just starting to learn about it, it was a little bit too much about preserving artifacts, and not enough about the people, and not enough about what preserving that artifact will mean – whether it’s a building or an archeological site or some other kind of feature that preserving those – what that will mean to the society. And I think we’ve got to get beyond the Liberty Bell or the Statue of Liberty -- wonderful important places that I love going to visit -- but they become only destinations rather than part of your life. If there’s some way for preservation as an idea to be part of people’s lives, I think that would benefit all of us.

SD: Really interesting thoughts, and you’re making me wonder whether you also believe that to some extent the physicality of things is not necessarily as important as the beliefs, the stories, the traditions – or do you see there being kind of a balance there, where it’s important to preserve both? The physical place and the physical story?

RM: It’s absolutely important to preserve both. I think that one of my favorite books, and certainly one of my favorite movies of all time, is Fahrenheit 451, you know, where everyone goes up into the mountains and they memorize a book so it’s not lost for the future. Even though the books are all being burned. You know, and I think that to me is a little bit what – I think the physicality is critically important, because you can go see it, it can remind you of it, you can be there…but then the stories and why they came to be are also very important. So, physicality to me is very important.
SD: Vida, do you have another question for Robert?

VG: Yes. So Robert, what opportunities or next frontiers do you see in the landscape preservation field?

RM: I think Vida that the opportunity is there to hold hands, if I can use that term generally, or to work more closely with people working in the natural resource field. The ecologists, and – just to pick one [field] -- and truly work more closely with them so that landscape preservation...well, let me back up a little bit.

I think that as you know, we’ve talked about this a lot, all of us, that landscape preservation – cultural resources and natural resources are kind of almost live in this world where there’s a barrier between them, a little bit like the historic – pardon me, you might want to edit this one out – the bundling board in New England. You know what I’m talking about, right? You know, that they’re next to each other, but they can’t really touch, and I think that one of the opportunities is, I always do and I still do view cultural landscapes as bringing those two fields together, even more so now after the last few years of work that we’ve done together. I don’t think that you can really understand a cultural landscape without understanding the details of, not only its cultural systems, but its natural systems as well.

Let me give you an example from the Hanalei project. Hanalei is taro, which as you all know is a wetland crop and it requires the same kind of landscape for raising as rice – it’s a wetland crop. Well, in the 19th century in Hanalei, they planted coffee trees like at Kona, and they all died. Then they planted mulberry trees to try and raise silkworms, and they all died. And we were talking to a historian in Hanalei, a great historian named Carol Wilcox, and Carol said, we don’t know why they died, we don’t understand that. And Tim Keller said, do you have a soils map? And I went, Tim, what are you talking about? He pulled out a soils map – it was all clay. So as soon as the rains came, the trees drowned, and they died. Well, knowing that little bit really minimal amount of natural features or natural systems explained so much about why that landscape developed culturally the way it did.

Just knowing that little bit about the soils helped us understand why the agricultural systems that were so prosperous could be prosperous there, as opposed to the coffee trees at Kona or the mulberry trees. You know, I wasn’t looking at it, but Tim said, what about the soil? I mean, it was a great simple, but direct question. And to me, that’s one of the really great frontiers for landscape preservation: as we continue to look at places all over the country, really all over the world, how do you bring together that understanding of natural land cultural systems to really explain that cultural landscape.

SD: Do you see opportunities for academic programs in ecology or natural and biological systems to integrate cultural systems classes in their curricula?

RM: I do, and the other way around, as well….I think that Nadja Quiroz, who Vida knows, who just worked on the second phase of the climate change project, she had a pretty steep learning curve for what cultural landscapes were all about, But her background was in natural sciences, so when it came to all of that, she knew it really well, so she was going in the other direction trying to put that together. But I think absolutely, doing all that together is important.
SD: Excellent. Lia, do you have our final question for Robert?

LN: Yeah. Um, Robert, thanks that was a great introduction to a lot of your experience and thinking, so I’m wondering at this point – what might readers or listeners find most surprising about you?

RM: Wow. Well, I’ll share some things with you and you can chose to edit or not, you know. Number 1, I came to landscape architecture fairly late in my academic career.

Number 2 – I’ll share this – I repeated my junior year in high school, and I dropped out of college once and changed majors twice. And the best jobs I ever had – not projects, but best jobs I ever had – I never planned to get. I never planned to be Dean, I never planned to work for Hugh Miller, I never planned to work for the Getty, and never went looking for that, they were just from having good relationships – professional relationships with people – and being in the right place at the right time.

Before I went to work for Hugh, I had two jobs, both of which fell apart at the very last minute. One with Jones and Jones in Ann Arbor, and one with John Poppelliers in the park service. He was running HABS and HAER at the time and asked me to develop the landscape piece that became HALS, and before I went to work for him he left the park service, so I had no job there. So I think, that’s to me the most surprising thing, that I’m still standing, I guess.

SD: And what were the majors that you – what was your first major in college before you changed?

RM: My first major was painting. My first job when I came out of high school was a painter. I still do some painting – not a lot, but some. I was a painter.

SD: I imagine the artist’s eye helps when you’re reading landscapes.

RM: Yeah, it does. I think you know, looking at it and seeing it certainly helps you.

Those are the surprising things. You know, sometimes you see someone who’s been doing this for, what – you know, almost forty years, and it seems like you’ve always done it and you knew what you were doing. And lots of times I never did know what I was doing, but I had good advice and good help from people to ask questions and look for a way to answer them.

SD: Well, you’ve also left us with a sort of a motto that it’s important to have good relationships with people; be someone who connects with others that they want to have around, and there’s a certain amount of serendipity.

RM: And be willing and almost eager to take, to give advice but also take good critique of your work. I think good students do that. You know, one of the things that we still do is -- because studios here are pass/no pass, we always do a studio evaluation form at the end of the studio -- and one of the questions is, how well did the student take critique of his or her work, because if you can’t take good criticism and work and improve it, you’re not going anywhere…with your work, you know – and your own self, I think.

SD: Yes, valuable life skill to have indeed. Well, are there any final thoughts that you’d like to leave us with?

RM: I guess mostly to thank you, because having the questions ahead of time caused me to dig pretty deep and think about...because I don’t think about, you don’t think about this stuff a lot, in your day, and to go back and think about what was –

The other thing I was going to say about students, and I think this, you know, clearly applies in this conversation, is one of the best things about being a faculty member is ending up with colleagues who used to be students, but now they’re colleagues. And there’s a long list of those people, you know, starting with Cathy Gilbert, who is a colleague, and to me that is invaluable to have that, you know, and to be able to continue that.

SD: Yes, to shape them, but also know that they also magnify your work, your mission by continuing the work on.

RM: Well, yeah Susan, but it’s much – yes. Yes, but it’s more than that for me. I’ll tell you, I love it – well, I’m not saying I love it, but I fully get it when someone who’s now a colleague who used to be a student critiques my work. And says no, we can do better than that. Both of you have done that!


VG: I’m glad you take it so well, Robert.

RM: Oh, I value it immensely. I don’t just take it well, I value it. I really, I mean that very, very seriously.

VG: Well we have valued your critiques throughout the years. It’s definitely – it is truly a testament to, I think the inspiration and just the opportunity that you’ve given students throughout the years.

RM: Well thank you. I’ve only got one more to go.


VG: Well, we’ll try to end on a high note. I know everyone’s looking forward to working in Yosemite with you.

Last updated: October 1, 2018