Nature and the Law- Olmsted’s report on Yosemite (1885)
As Olmsted grew more and more distressed about the potential for true civilization in Bear Valley, his appreciation for the scenery was ever-increasing. In a letter to his father he writes: “It is sublimely beautiful, much more beautiful than I had supposed. . . as sweet and peaceful as the meadows of the Avon.” Olmsted’s comparison of the Yosemite Valley to the English countryside fulfills the purpose of making the unknown familiar. Describing the wilderness is perhaps the first step towards civilizing the wilderness, and Olmsted describes the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove, a grove of giant sequoias, at some length in a report he prepared for the Yosemite Commission. The report marks as well another important step of legislating the wilderness, that is, bringing the wilderness into the political arena in order to define its purpose and designate its owner.
The Yosemite Commission was formed as part of the movement to cede the valley and grove to the state of California for use as a public park. Senator John Conness introduced a bill in 1864, which was signed into law by President Lincoln that same year. The law stated in part:
That there. . . is hereby granted to the State of California the “cleft” or “gorge” known as the Yo-Semite Valley. . . with the stipulation, nevertheless, that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation; shall be inalienable for all time. . .
Tourists began going to the Yosemite Valley, which was at the time referred to most commonly as the “Yo-Semite,” and, in at least one magazine article, the “Yo-hem-it-y,” in the 1850’s. By the beginning of the Civil War, a visit to the valley was considered a “must” as part of any “fashionable trip” to the West. Thus there were financial considerations that came into play around the effort to claim Yosemite. For Olmsted, however, there is more at stake than the tourist dollar.
To Olmsted, civilizing the wilderness is a means of promoting national unity. His report, which we can take as a guide to this process, is especially poignant for being written during the most divisive event in the country’s history. It is a nation-defining document coming out of a time when United States is a plural noun.
Olmsted’s mode of description follows two main tracks; he compares the scenery to that with which his reader is already familiar, and he exalts in the newness of the Yosemite, specifically in those ways in which its aspect surpasses that which is familiar. These two paths often converge; that he can weave them together into a conceptual framework provides one means of justification for his project.
Olmsted’s realm of the familiar includes both the United States and Europe. He writes:
There is nothing strange or exotic in the character of the vegetation; most of the trees and plants, especially of the meadow and waterside, are closely allied to and are not readily distinguished from those most common in the landscape of the Eastern States or the mixedland counties of England.
After midsummer a light, transparent haze generally pervades the atmosphere, giving indescribable softness and exquisite dreamy charm to the scenery, like that produced by the Indian summer of the East.
The broad parachute-like leaves of the peltate saxifrage, delicate ferns, soft mosses, and the most brilliant lichens abound, and in following up the ravines, cabinet pictures open at every turn, which, while composed of materials mainly new to the artist, constantly recall the most valued sketches of Calame in the Alps and Apennines.
In this passage, we find hints of the new. Olmsted certainly conveys a sense that there is more in the Yosemite Valley: more variation, bigger trees, higher mountains. He writes that “one small stream falls, in three closely consecutive pitches, a distance of 2,600 feet, which is more than fifteen times the height of the falls of Niagara,” that “the average elevation of the ground is greater than that of the highest peak of the White Mountains, or the Alleghenies,” and supplies outside evidence by deferring to other pilgrims:
Besides [the Grizzly Giant], there are hundreds [of trees] of such beauty and stateliness that, to one who moves among them in the reverent mood to which they so strongly incite the mind, it will not seem strange that intelligent travelers have declared that they would rather have passed by Niagara itself than have missed visiting this grove.
Perhaps most revealing is Olmsted’s enraptured statement that
This union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty of nature, not in one feature or another, not in one part of one scene or another, not any landscape that can be framed by itself, but all around and wherever the visitor goes, constitutes the Yo-Semite the greatest glory of nature.
In that it is a union is Yosemite “the greatest glory of nature.” It is, first, a union of the sublime with the beautiful. Stanford Demars has written that in the language of natural scene description in the nineteenth century, sublime indicated those landscapes not felt to be completely of the earth; just beyond human capacities for comprehension, the sublime landscape was that in which one felt the presence of the hand of God. Beautiful referred to pastoral landscapes “graced. . . by the civilizing touch of man.” In Yosemite is joined the work of God and the work of man. God’s presence may be seen as a sanction of the “civilizing”effort man exerts on nature.
It is indeed with an eye to the purposes of God for mankind that Olmsted charges the government with the task of keeping the park out of the exclusive clutches of the wealthy. He writes:
It is unquestionably true that excessive and persistent devotion to sordid interests cramp and distort the power of appreciating natural beauty and destroy the love of it which the Almighty has implanted in every human being, and which is so intimately and mysteriously associated with the moral perceptions and intuitions, but it is not true that exemption from toil, much leisure, much study, much wealth are necessary to the exercise of the esthetic and contemplative faculties. It is the folly of laws which have permitted and favored the monopoly by privileged classes of many of the means supplied in nature for the gratification, exercise and education of the esthetic faculties that has caused the appearance of dullness and weakness and disease of these faculties in the mass of the subjects of kings. And it is against a limitation of the means of such education to the rich that the wise legislation of free governments must be directed.
The duty of the government of a democratic nation, under God, is to provide to all its citizens equal access to those parts of the land which serve to illustrate of what life in such a nation should be made. Yosemite has such capacity to illustrate, which “peculiarity,” Olmsted says, “consists wholly in its natural scenery.”
Just as man’s freedom is secured by laws, so does nature work best when legislated. Much as Olmsted believes in man’s potential for communitiveness, so does he recognize his tendency towards self-interest. He purports that:
It is the main duty of government, if it is not the sole duty of government, to provide means of protection to all citizens in the pursuit of happiness against the obstacles otherwise insurmountable, which the selfishness of individuals of combinations of individuals is liable to interpose to that pursuit.
Any government which does not counteract the self-serving tendency is not one befitting a truly democratic nation. Man’s best inclinations are given expression in his laws; when Olmsted writes that “it is the will of the Nation as embodied in the act of Congress that this scenery shall never be private property,” he refers to the collective will a nation of union can be said to possess, in whose greater interest individual interests are subsumed, and out of which arise the laws which promote the civilization of man.
Olmsted concludes his report with a request for $37,000 to be used to cover expenses already incurred in the survey of the land made during its transfer to the dominion of California, as well as anticipated expenses of building roads, footpaths, bridges, and cabins in which visitors could stay, and the salary of the Park Superintendent. The Yosemite Commission, worried that $37,000 was too great a sum, withheld the report from the California legislature. The governor of California was in compliance with the suppression of the report, and it was not until the 1880’s that relations between the Yosemite Commission and the legislature improved. Olmsted had resigned from the Commission in 1866 and returned East.
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