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Year in Yosemite: A Grand Vision


I once interviewed an artist who had been raised in Yosemite Valley from the time he was a toddler until he left for college in Manhattan. Asked how he made the transition from living in a national park to living in America's largest city, he replied, "It was easy. They remind me of each other." At the time, I chalked his comment up to an artist's sensibility. But then several more people told me that their two favorite places on Earth were Yosemite and Manhattan. Coincidence? Or something more?

Obviously both places are defined by massive walls that tower overhead (and let's face it, the Valley floor in summer feels like Manhattan at rush hour), but, that said, I couldn't help but wonder why so many people seemed to feel a connection between two places that, to me at least, seemed so different. Then I read Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life. There, on page 323, in a chapter called “The Garden,” I had my aha moment. Both places were heavily shaped and influenced by the vision of one man -- and that man was Frederick Law Olmstead.

In 1857, at the age of 35, Olmstead won his first commission as a landscape architect. The place was 840 acres of scrub and marshland in what was then the far reaches of Manhattan -- now known as Central Park. At the time, his only experience moving earth was as a farmer. He hadn't a clue how to draft a blueprint. But he'd witnessed the British movement away from the structured, geometric gardens of France and Italy to a more pastoral design. He wanted the same for America, only better. In Europe, parks and countryside retreats were strictly the domain of the aristocracy, the rich and the well connected. A patriotic American, Olmstead believed the government had a moral obligation to provide green space -- huge, great, massive tracts of it -- for all the people to enjoy.


Teaming up with architect Calvert Vaux (who knew his way around a drafting table), Olmstead was, in Bryson's words, absolutely against anything "noisy, vigorous or fun. He especially didn't want diversions like zoos and boating lakes -- the very sorts of amusements users craved." Instead, Olmstead felt that parks should have a wildness to them in order to provide opportunity for reflection and renewal. Only then could nature act as an antidote to the crushing noise, daily stresses and overcrowding of urban life. But the "masses" for whom he'd designed Central Park didn't see things quite his way. Hence the boating lake, pavilions, skating rink and zoo that help make Central Park what it is today.

Disappointed, Olmstead accepted a job out West working for the flamboyant John and Jessie Fremont. Hired to run their mining operation in Mariposa County, he hated every moment of his stay, finding Californians to be "thriftless, fortune-hunting, improvident, gambling vagabonds." He had even worse things to say about the people we call pioneers. But he did have a solution. A park -- one done on a massive scale -- designed by heaven and Frederick Olmstead to act as a civilizing force. He called it "Yo Semite."

To accomplish this, he proposed a radical idea. Writing as the head of a commission that was to decide how the Yosemite land grant (signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War) should be administered, Olmstead wrote 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 or combinations of individuals is liable to interpose to that pursuit.

To ensure that Yo Semite, his park of the people, matched his vision, he drew up plans that included everything from a road for stagecoaches to campgrounds for visitors and housing for employees. His fellow commissioners were so horrified by his idea of nature as a healing and civilizing force for everyone for all times (paid for by the government), that they repressed his report. It would be years before it was released.

Today Olmstead's vision for Yosemite -- as well as his basic notions about urban and wilderness parks -- reign supreme. Over 100 years ago, Olmstead called for Yosemite's visitor services and roads to be centralized to protect the rest of the park from overuse. At a time when only a smattering of people had the money or time to visit Yosemite (it took three days on horseback to get from Stockton to the Valley in 1865), Olmstead spoke of a future when millions would enjoy its majestic wonders.


And while it might not seem like it when you are sitting in a traffic jam in the Valley in August, the Valley -- with its dense concentration of visitor services and roads -- is doing just what Olmstead envisioned. The five percent of Yosemite that's developed allows the other 95 percent to be wild, leaving the majority of the park as a place for reflection and renewal.

All of which makes me wonder if Central Park and Yosemite are Olmstead's great ying and yang. One offers refuge in the midst of a city. The other offers a small city (complete with post office, courthouse, library, schools, housing, pizza parlors, hotels, restaurants and gift shops) in the midst of wilderness.

If people find joy in both places, are they responding to the vision of one man?

-- Jamie Simons/Photos by Nancy Casolaro

In May 2009, while hiking in Yosemite National Park, long-time Los Angeles resident Jamie Simons turned to her husband and said, "I want to live here." Jamie and her family have since lived in the park. Check out all of her blog articles by clicking here.

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