Book Review: A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybcynski

Author: Witold Rybcynski
Title: A Clearing in the Distance
Publication Info: Scribner, 1999


This biography of Frederick Law Olmsted remains one of my favorite books of all time. Olmsted is a fascinating person and Rybcynski does a great job of balancing a lot of research with creating a flowing narrative of his life.

Most people know Olmsted as the designer (along with his partner Calvert Vaux) of New York’s Central Park and an originator of the field of landscape architecture (although Olmsted disliked the term). Oddly, the great majority of parks attributed to Olmsted were designed by the Olmsted firm when his sons took it over. But Olmsted’s own designs remain the most inspired and influential. These include the Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Montreal’s Mont Royal, the US Capitol grounds, Buffalo parks system, Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Belle Isle Park in Detroit, and my very own Emerald Necklace in Boston.

Interestingly, Olmsted was a bit of a late bloomer, well into his adulthood before beginning a career in landscape architecture. He was a many of many talents who had success in other careers before and during the time of his landscape firm. In the 1850s, Olmsted was a journalist, most significantly travelling through the Southern states and writing dispatches of the Southern people and culture from his perspective as an antislavery advocate. During the Civil War, he served as Executive Secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross. In the middle of the war, Olmsted left the Sanitary Commission to manage a gold mining company in California near Yosemite (the mine failed, but the landscape of the Sierra Nevada mountains inspired Olmsted). Olmsted also participated in founding The Nation magazine in 1865.

This is a great book about a great life and I enjoyed re-reading it.

Favorite Passages:

Olmsted was one of the first people to recognize the necessity for planning in a large, industrializing country—whether in peace or war. This recognition was not yet widely shared, which is why he was often misunderstood.

It was the future that concerned him, and he had the rare patience to successfully project his plans years ahead. I think that was one of the things that finally attracted him to landscape architecture. It is a field where a long time—sometimes generations—is required for the full realization of the designer’s goal.

Part of Olmsted’s problem was of his own making: he was overdoing it. “He works like a dog all day and sits up nearly all night,” Strong noted in his diary, “doesn’t go home to his family (now established in Washington) for five days and nights together, works with steady, feverish intensity till four in the morning, sleeps on a sofa in his clothes, and breakfasts on strong coffee and pickles!!!” No wonder he was short-tempered and picked quarrels with the Executive Committee.

Willa Cather would later make a distinction between wilderness and landscape. The American West, she wrote, is “a country still waiting to be made into a landscape.” The unique and affecting charm of Yosemite, as Olmsted perceptively noted, is that it is both wilderness and landscape. The craggy vastness of the chasm is older than any human presence, yet the valley floor appears comfortably domesticated. Olmsted appreciated this curious contrast; he and Vaux had created precisely this effect in Central Park, where the wilderness of the Ramble was side by side with pastoral meadows.

For Olmsted, recreation—or rather, re-creation—was paramount. When he discussed the recuperative power of natural scenery, he literally meant healing. He believed that the contemplation of nature, fresh air, and the change of everyday habits improved people’s health and intellectual vigor.

Olmsted agreed that what they had done in Central Park—and what he himself was doing in California—was much more than horticulture. It was art. It was, however, a particular kind of art. At one point he referred to it as “sylvan art.” “The art is not gardening nor is it architecture,” he wrote. It was certainly not “landscape architecture.” “If you are bound to establish this new art,” he wrote Vaux, “you don’t want an old name for it.”

More was involved here than landscaping; the park and promenade were conceived on the scale of an entire city. 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. Even Yeoman’s first foray into journalism, which was an attempt to understand an entire region, was a useful preparation for Olmsted’s adopted role of city planner.

The subtle adjustments to the current policy of continuing the Manhattan grid produced a very different urbanism. The new parts of Morrisania had long blocks oriented north-south instead of east-west, so that all houses got some sun. West Farms consisted of a patchwork of grids whose slightly shifting orientation created variety, the same kind of variety that makes such cities as New Orleans and San Francisco interesting. The picturesque suburban layouts were derived from earlier projects, but what makes the Bronx plan unusual is that Olmsted showed how areas of low, medium, and high density could be combined into a seamless whole that would be “the plan of a Metropolis; adapted to serve, and serve well, every legitimate interest of the wide world; not of ordinary commerce only, but of humanity, religion, art, science, and scholarship.”

The fair was Olmsted’s creation, and not merely because he had contributed so much to the design. “Make no little plans,” Burnham is supposed to have said. Thinking big was something he and his generation had learned from Frederick Law Olmsted.

Olmsted was frustrated by people’s unwillingness to recognize landscape architecture as an art. Olmsted thought that this was chiefly because they confused it with what he called decorative gardening. According to him, landscape architecture involved composition and perspective in which details were subordinate to the whole, contrary to decorative gardening, which treated “roses as roses, not as flecks of white or red modifying masses of green.” He considered landscape architecture akin to landscape painting, except that the landscape architect used natural materials instead of pigments. That, of course, was the root of the problem. Since the medium—as well as the subject—was nature itself, the public often failed to discriminate between the two. No one would think of altering a landscape on canvas, but a garden was different.

That was the chief difference between Olmsted and the architects. They wanted to create order out of chaos. He wanted to accommodate order and chaos.

Recommended books:

Rating: *****

Book Review: Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz

Author: Tony Horwitz
Title: Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
Narrator: Mark Deakins
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:


A few months ago when author Tony Horwitz died, I learned that he’d recently released this new book of his unique blend of history, travel, cultural exploration, and literary journalism.  When I saw that his final work was based on following in the footsteps of one of my favorite historical figures, Frederick Law Olmsted, it seemed as if it was targeted at me.

Olmsted is best known for innovating the field of landscape architecture and designing some of America’s most notable city parks and park systems, college campuses, hospital grounds, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Midway Plaisance, and the grounds of the US Capitol.  Prior to his career in designing parks, Olmsted worked as a journalist, and much like Tony Horwitz, he traveled to places and wrote about his experiences. From 1852 to 1857, he traveled through the American South submitting his dispatches to the New York Times.  In 1861, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, his writings were compiled in the book Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom, which remains a significant first-hand document of antebellum Southern society.

Olmsted was anti-slavery, a moderate position at the time compared with abolitionists who wanted to immediately free all enslaved people, and in some cases extend the full rights of citizenship to the freed African Americans.  Anti-slavery advocates, which included Abraham Lincoln and other early Republicans, sought to prevent the expansion of slave-holding to new territories and carry out gradual manumission.  Olmsted believed that practice of slavery was inefficient and had a deleterious effect not just on the enslaved people, but on the white society as well.  A goal of his travels was to meet with Southerners, civilly exchange views, and convince them of the error of their ways.  Olmsted would be disappointed, finding Southerners entrenched in their beliefs and uninterested in civil discourse on the matter of slavery.

Tracing Olmsted’s route through the South in 2015-2016, against the background of the contentious presidential election leading to Donald Trump’s victory, Tony Horwitz would also find a deeply divided America.  Some of his encounters with Southerners who supported Trumpist ideology and believed in all manner of conspiracy theory are deeply disturbing.  More disturbing still is that many of these same people treated Horwitz warmly and were happy to speak with him, as long as he hid his own political views.

The travelogue is interesting as Horwitz first journeys down the Ohio River through West Virginia on a ship towing a coal barge, offering insight into a tedious but dangerous job that some “country boys” have found as a source of income in an economically depressed region.  His next river journey is on board a luxurious replica paddle wheeler with stops at historic plantations where the tour guides tend to ignore the enslaved people who made them possible.

In Louisiana, Horwitz is joined by a friend from Australia who is literally nearly killed by the artery-hardening Southern cuisine.  They also enjoy the bizarre Mud Fest, where monster truck drivers come together to drink and drive their modified vehicles through a giant mud bog for a week. Nearby, they visit the site of the Colfax Massacre of 1873, where 150+ black men were murdered by a white militia organized to reverse the reforms of Reconstruction.  To this day an historic marker on the site only recognizes the deaths of three of the white aggressors.   Continuing on his own across Texas, Horwitz tries and fails to debunk a conspiracy theory about a compound of Islamic extremists and participates in the Battle of the Alamo reenactment, oddly set against the background San Antonio’s tourist trap attractions.

Perhaps one of the more interesting parts of the book is the Texas hill country where German immigrants settled before the war, and Olmsted found a community he thought could serve as an example of Free Soilers in the South.  150 years later, the German community persists – albeit in some cheezy ways – and Horwitz describes a part of Texas that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions of the state.  Horwitz travels by mule, a humbling experience, in the west of the Texas.  He concludes his narrative along the border with Mexico where he interacts with both the border patrol and the mixed American and Mexican communities.

In many ways, Spying on the South is a sequel to Horwitz’s best book Confederates in the Attic.  It’s also more somber and unsettling.  20 years ago one could chuckle at Confederate devotees as a dwindling number of hobbyists devoted to living in the past.  Today that same energy has been channeled into a dangerous movement that has reached its political ascendancy.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****