May 24, 2012

Genius of Place

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law OlmstedI am long overdue in wrapping up my thoughts on Justin Martin’s Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, which I finished a few months ago. It was the ninth read in my Year of Reading at Your Mercy, my father-in-law Sam’s pick. Sam is a landscape architect and genius of sorts himself—spending his career promoting the use of native plants and the cultivation of natural spaces in private and community landscape design—so it didn’t surprise me when he chose this book.

The book, however, is surprising. In all the pictures I had previously seen of Olmsted, he looked to me a gentle, wise, old man. But, of course, this biography covers his entire life, so now I know that like all people, Olmsted was once a young’un. I know about his Steve-Jobs-like youth during which he followed his nose into many different interests and ventures, during which he didn’t go to college but instead crafted a self-made education that prepared him for the variety and scope of his later life—a youth during which he relied on the generosity of his father and his friends in a way many modern people might call mooching.

Reading a biography, I’ve discovered, is a window into history, and even more so when the subject is a man like Olmsted, who had a part in the birth of so many movements and institutions which still affect us today. Reading such a well-researched biography can also school you in the complexity of human nature. Like I mention above, I had a limited vision of Olmsted as a wise, old, man—a Gandalf, say, if you replace the staff with a drafting compass. But Olmsted had a chaotic life and was a difficult genius—uncompromising and driven to be true to himself. These are admirable traits, ones to which many would like to admit, but at the same time, they make a personality hard to work and live with. (Here is another way Olmsted reminds me of Steve Jobs, or at least of the rumors I’ve heard.)

This book has made me think about the nature of genius, or perhaps I should say the process of genius. For the sake of this post, I’m thinking of genius as a peculiar aptitude or leaning toward one particular thing, a gift one person has, a key into a certain type of knowledge or experience. (In Olmsted’s case, to my surprise, the genius wasn’t simply landscape design, it was an approach to problem-solving and organization that he applied in many different ways over the course of his life.) My question is, how do you balance such a gift, a key—or responsibility—with the rest of life’s requirements? In order for Olmsted to live his life as a genius, he had to make choices that many people would frown upon, especially in today’s world. He mooched off his father far longer than most young men did during his time. He spent little time with his wife and children. He was so self-assured, he often acted arrogantly or pridefully. Yet is it possible to exercise genius to its fullest potential, to affect the world with your peculiar ability, if you compromise genius to other priorities?

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect the world needs people who choose the path of genius and people who don’t, people who take both paths, or many paths, and people who walk something in between as well.

Another thing I found interesting about Genius of Place is how important networking was to Olmsted’s success. Martin points out how sort of socially inbred the moderately well-off, intellectuals of the Northeast were during Olmsted’s time. Everyone was connected to everyone else in one way or another. I started thinking that perhaps because they had fewer pop cultural distractions like TV, they valued communication and discourse in a far greater capacity than we typically do. This kind of environment created a sort of powder keg for ideas and movements and ventures. Even with his genius and his drive and his supportive family, I doubt Olmsted could have reached so far if he hadn’t been born in such a time and place. Reading about it reminded me of what’s happening now with social media, especially on sites like Twitter, where people can seek out and ignite social powder kegs in a whole new way. People make fun of Twitter, because, let’s face it, some tweeters are geniuses at being idiots, but from what I can tell, Twitter and similar social sites serve as a uniter of like-minded people who would otherwise be adrift and out-of-reach in the massive, modern world.

To close, I’ll just list a few of the institutions/movements in which Olmsted had a heavy hand—ones I can think of without getting up from my seat and searching for my Kindle. (I really do value discourse. Can’t you tell?)

  • Central Park, among many other parks, including the Mall in Washington, D.C.
  • The abolitionist movement before the Civil War
  • The Medical Aid Society, which made great headway in military sanitation and medical practices during the Civil War
  • The setting aside of the lands that now make up Yosemite National Park
  • The Nation (Though his touch here was on the periphery.)
  • The grounds of Biltmore Estate
  • The Chicago World’s Fair, 1893—the infamous White City

As impressive as Gandalf, I’d say.
For the record, I read Genius of Place on my Kindle..