Frederick Law Olmsted


Morton Arboretum, the closest photo I had to landscape architecture

I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than forty years. — Frederick Law Olmsted

So many surprises in A Clearing In the Distance. Olmsted was an autodidact. A slow starter, a dabbler in disparate enterprises, he kept afloat with his father’s loans. He himself was his father’s ‘Central Park’, the long investment whose glories would become apparent in the future. Fame first came as a journalist. He sailed to China; he bought a farm; he traveled to Europe; he started a magazine; he managed the largest gold mine in California.

It is the breadth of Olmsted’s curiosity that makes his writing compelling.

His genius was made manifest when he, along with Calvert Vaux, created New York City’s Central Park. After that, Olmsted designed other huge city parks, the suburb of Riverside, IL, university campuses, cemeteries, the U.S. Capitol grounds, the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the Biltmore Estate. I enjoyed reading about the projects he didn’t get: Golden Gate Park, the city of Tacoma, WA.

The ability to think on a large scale, to project himself into the future, and to quickly master broad issues were skills Olmsted acquired while he was directing the United States Sanitary Commission, managing the Mariposa Estate, and chairing the Yosemite Commission. All these projects depended on his ability to digest and organize large amounts of information, and to integrate diverse requirements. All involved planning in time as well as space.

The timing of my reading was delicious! In some ways this is the daylight to the darkness of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives. Riis writes extensively about the Children’s Aid Society, started by Olmsted’s closest friend, Charles Brace. Olmsted’s work on Central Park was more civic than aesthetic, giving residents the space to soak up sunshine and fresh air.

Other reading intersections: Erik Larson’s The Devil in White City made me thirsty to know more about FLO. Michael Pollan referenced Olmsted’s ideas in Second Nature. By chance, I’ve landed in books set in the late-19th century. The wider I read, the greater my familiarity grows and the joy of recognition sparks.

Finally, I believe growing up in Lombard, IL, walking through our own Lilacia Park, designed by Jens Jensen, and nearby Morton Arboretum, a 1700-acre tree museum, predisposed me to love this book.

For myself and those interested in cultural history: 5 stars
For those who like biographies, history, and books with an index and maps: 4 stars

The Walls of Windy Troy

schliemannsexcavationI’m digging through my shelves, reading children’s books that I never got to when my children were, you know, children. One of them is Marjorie Braymer’s biography of Heinrich Schliemann, The Walls of Windy Troy.

This is a story of the rewards and risks of being an autodidact (self-taught scholar). Schliemann, the son of a German pastor, was nineteen, injured and destitute. He embarked on a ship to Venezuela, survived a shipwreck, and landed in Amsterdam.
Ever since he first heard Homer—music with the cadence and swing of the sea in it, language like the beat of armies surging across grassy plains—he was fired up with a burning desire: to find Troy. When told that Troy wasn’t real, just a story, his resolve hardened.

He needed to make money to fulfill his dream. To be a master of men, one has to master their languages. He picked up Dutch by immersion in the culture, then taught himself Spanish, English, French and Russian.

Soon he was reading English novels, always aloud, always in full voice, without stopping to translate. He had discovered this to be a more efficient system than studying grammar. Words and sounds and meanings made connections in his head, and he gradually got the sense of what he was reading. (emphasis mine)

When he struggled with Russian, he made progress by hiring a Dutch student (who knew no Russian) to listen to him read. That busts me up, but he actually learned enough Russian to move to and work in St. Petersburg. He wanted above all to learn classical Greek, but disciplined himself to learn languages that helped him in business first. After he garnered Greek, he added Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Polish, Arabic and Turkish. That accomplishment is dizzying!

002_Schliemann 1890His wealth and international prestige grew to the point that he could travel to Turkey and start digging. Believing in the exactness of Homer’s word, Schliemann chose to ignore received wisdom and broke ground at a site he felt more closely matched Homer’s words.

And, lo, he made epoch discoveries. Did he discover Troy? It’s hard to say. He found layers of civilizations. Initially he made sweeping claims. The science of archeology hadn’t yet been developed; Schliemann’s work destroyed some valuable layers as he dug deeper for Troy. There was not an established protocol for the ownership of the artifacts dug up. He had to learn humility by acknowledging his own errors and asking for help from other scholars. Clearly, his work has added to our knowledge of ancient cultures.

This is an instance where I greatly enjoyed reading a biography written for young adults. For me, this is enough. There are a handful of books by Schliemann and an armload about him, but, in the vernacular of friends declining an offer, ‘I’m good.’