Lecture #13: Nurturing Nature: The Child in the Garden

Suggested Readings:

Peter J. Schmitt, Back to Nature: The Arcadian Myth in Urban America (1969)

Blanche M. G. Linden, Silent City on a Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston's Mount Auburn Cemetery (1989, 2007)

David Schuyler, Apostle of Taste: Andrew Jackson Downing, 1815–1852 (1996)

Justin Martin, Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted (2011)

Frederick Law Olmsted, Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society (Library of America) (2016)

Allen Lacy, The American Gardener, 1988

Bonnie Marranca, American Garden Writing (1988)

Celia Thaxter, An Island Garden (1895); available for free download here: https://archive.org/details/islandgarden00thax

Norma Mandel, Beyond the Garden Gate: The Life of Celia Leighton Thaxter (2004)

H. Allen Anderson, The Chief: Ernest Thompson Seton and the Changing West (1986)

Kevin C. Armitage, The Nature Study Movement: Forgotten Popularizer of America’s Conservation Ethic (2009)


I. The Dream of a Rural Cityscape: Cemeteries, Parks, and Suburbs

Core premise of lecture: sublime wilderness was only one version of idealized nature for nineteenth-century Americans. In counterpoint with wild sublime was the pastoral beauty of the garden, designed and tended to express human ideas of natural beauty. Such landscapes were often perceived as being gendered feminine, with a mother's relationship to children expressed in the gardener's care for beautiful plants. Women played important roles in shaping and celebrating these traditions of beautiful domestic landscapes.

Related to the garden in this sense was the emergence over the course of the nineteenth century of rural cemeteries, parks, and suburbs.

1831, Dr. Jacob Bigelow organized Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was intended as a rural retreat in city where one could go to contemplate human mortality amid the beauties of nature. Mount Auburn was also the nation's first arboretum, and became a model that would henceforth influence romantic cemeteries, arboretums, and parks across the country. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Auburn_Cemetery

Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison was created in 1857, very much in the tradition of Mount Auburn: http://foresthill.williamcronon.net

Andrew Jackson Downing, 1815-1852, became one of the nation's most influential "landscape gardeners" (the older term for "landscape architect"), publishing the first major overview of this subject in 1841 as Theory & Practice of Landscape Architecture, 1841. In it, he borrowed from J. C. Loudon's ideas of landscape gardening in England: constructing landscapes that expressed ideas of the "picturesque" and the "beautiful" on the gardened landscapes of rural estates and retreats. Downing's book can be downloaded for free here: https://archive.org/details/treatiseontheory41down and more on Downing himself can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Jackson_Downing

Downing's books offered recipes for achieving the qualities of picturesque and the beautiful that theorists like Kant, Burke, and Gilpin had written about in the second half of the eighteenth century:

  • Picturesque: wild, dark, coniferous, masculine, Gothic
  • Beautiful: pastoral, light, deciduous, feminine, Greco-Roman classical

Downing died young in a steamboat accident on the Hudson at the age of 36 in 1852. It was thus another man, much longer lived, who would go on to become the nation's greatest landscape architect over the course of the nineteenth century: Frederick Law Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted is best known for the commission that made him famous (along with the architect Calvert Vaux): Central Park in New York City in 1857. Before then, he had dropped out of Yale College, tried to become a gentleman farmer, traveled in England, toured the American South and wrote books on the evils of slavery. With Central Park, he began the career as a landscape architect that would define the rest of his life, bringing the rural picturesque into the heart of the city, its curvilinear organic patterns standing in counterpoint to the grid of city streets, with Mount Auburn Cemetery & Downing's work serving as models.

For more on Olmsted, see the summary and links in the Wikipedia entry for him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Law_Olmsted

Olmsted's essay on "Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns" remains a classic on this subject: https://www.fandm.edu/david-schuyler/ams280/public-parks-and-the-enlargement-of-towns The passage I read in lecture suggests Olmsted's views of the picturesque and the beautiful as they apply to urban parks:

It may be inferred from what I have said, that very rugged ground, abrupt eminences, and what is technically called picturesque in distinction from merely beautiful or simply pleasing scenery, is not the most desirable for a town park. Decidedly not in my opinion. The park should, as far as possible, compliment the town. Openness is the one thing you cannot get in buildings. Picturesqueness you can get. Let your buildings be as picturesque as your artists can make them. This is the beauty of a town. Consequently, the beauty of the park should be the other. It should be the beauty of the fields, the meadow, the prairie, of the green pastures, and the still waters. What we want to gain is tranquillity and rest to the mind. Mountains suggest effort....

Olmsted would design parks and park systems all around the country, including a redesign of the park looking out on Niagara Falls and the system of roads on the floor of Yosemite Valley. But his work also led him to ponder the design of an ideal suburb, one of which was Riverside, Illinois in 1869, with its curving streets, middle-class houses on large lots, gardens tended by well-to-do women or the gardeners they employed. The male commute between suburban home and urban workplace meant that the suburb would be shaped by (middle-class) feminine notions of beauty and well nurtured childhood.

II. A Woman's Garden, A Woman's Home

Mabel Osgood Wright, a founder of the Connecticut Audubon Society and editor of the Audubon magazine Bird-Lore, was also the anonymous author Garden of a Commuter's Wife (1901), which does a good job of articulating these gendered ideals of domesticated suburban landscapes. In Wright, we see the convergence of romantic ideas with bird-watching, conservation, gardening, childcare, suburban domesticity. Her Wikipedia entry will tell you more about her: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mabel_Osgood_Wright and her Garden of a Commuter's Wife is available for free download here: https://archive.org/details/gardenofcommunte00wrigiala

There was a dramatic shift in the late nineteenth century from High Victorian gardening fashions often derived from formal French models -- geometric designs produced by using annual plants of uniform color in flat parterre beds -- toward rustic, more picturesque perennial plantings promoted by the English garden writers William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, whose ideas spread to the US and in many ways still dominate. The "cottage garden" became popular as a result. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Jekyll https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Robinson_(gardener)

Among the most beautiful of the gendered celebrations of gardening that appeared during this period was Celia Thaxter's Island Garden (1895), in which she describes her garden on the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire: https://archive.org/details/islandgarden00thax (probably best to download PDF version of this file) In her book, we see the garden as an expression of women's role as nurturers of young life; flowers as symbols of fertility and feminine beauty; the garden as a direct sign of God's love for birth, growth, and death. During lecture, I read from the following pages of her book: v, 3, 5, 77.

Women's love of gardens & flowers ranged across class boundaries: see, for instance, Elizabeth Lawrence's Gardening for Love (1986), on "market bulletins" that served as seed/plant exchanges for southern gardeners from 1901 on. Although they were initially created by southern state governments with the goal of creating markets for farm produce that might not otherwise earn profits for farmers, they in fact fostered communities of women (and men) sharing the fruits of their labors--an early form of social media for gardeners.

III. Moral Visions for Children: Nature Study

Gifford Pinchot saw women as key to the conservation movement's success, given their role as educators of the next generation. Chapter 9, entitled "The Children," argued that "...almost without exception it is the mother who plants patriotism in the mind of the child. It is her duty. The growth of patriotism is first of all in the hands of the women of any nation. In the last analysis it is the mothers of a nation who direct that nation's destiny.... The great fundamental problem which confronts us all now is this: Shall we continue, as a Nation, to exist in well-being? That is the conservation problem."

Conservation during the Progressive Era was publicly supported by women's clubs, Audubon societies, etc., in which women played key roles.

One of the most important vehicles for women's work in conservation was the nature study movement, which sought to integrate the study of nature into the curricula of public schools. Nature study could sometimes be romantic, sentimental, embracing the natural world and its creatures as anthropomorphic vehicles for the exploration of human values: fables, moral lessons.

It took many forms: Florence Holbrook's nature myths, with made-up fictional stories of Indians and nature spirits or Clifton Hodge's fairy world of divine enchantment, with a child's experience of God in nature as an explicitly religious educational goal.

Anna Botsford Comstock's highly influential approach still retained this search for values, but with a much greater commitment to bringing rigorous scientific investigation into the classroom. Botsford was born 1854; 1874 enrolled at Cornell; met entomologist husband J. H. Comstock as a student and became scientific illustrator for him; 1895 became involved in nature study, joined Cornell faculty, and became a leading figure of the movement for next three decades: Handbook of Nature Study first published 1911, remains in print as a classic. The book is available for free download here: https://archive.org/details/handbookofnature002506mbp and you can learn more about Comstock here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Botsford_Comstock

Nature study can be seen as another domesticated strand of the romantic sublime: secularization of (Protestant) religious values, nature as an ideal context for educating children to cultural values about the human place in nature and society.

IV. Boys, Girls, and Woodcraft Indians

Among the most popular of natural history authors in the early twentieth century: Ernest Thompson Seton. His Wikipedia entry is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Thompson_Seton and digital versions of his collected works can be downloaded here: http://etsetoninstitute.org/digitized-works-by-seton/

Born 1860 in England, Seton moved to Canada at the age 6. He began work as an artist/illustrator, doing animal illustrations for scientific publications by mid-1880s. He worked as a wolf hunter in New Mexico in 1893, and began writing illustrated stories to help readers identify with the animals he cared about.

One of his earliest and most popular short stories was called "Lobo, the King of Currumpaw," 1894, which appeared in his book Wild Animals I Have Known, published in 1896. He favored stories of noble wolves and other animals struggling against great odds, often dying tragically but heroically.

In 1902, Seton created the Woodcraft Indians, teaching rural and suburban children outdoor "Indian" skills. It went on to serve as a model for Lord Robert Baden-Powell's Boy Scouts in England in 1908. Seton's Birch-Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians (which can be downloaded at http://etsetoninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Birch_Bark_Roll_of_Woodcraft.pdf) served as the source for the first edition of the Boy Scout Handbook, with Seton as a principal author. It can in turn be downloaded here if you're interested in perusing it or comparing the two: http://etsetoninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Boy-Scouts-of-America-Original-Handbook-Seton-and-Baden-Powell.pdf

Baden-Powell's vision of the Boy Scouts very much reflected his British imperial vision, with strong emphasis on military virtues and discipline. Seton's American version had less of this emphasis when Seton helped found the U.S. branch of Boy Scouts in 1910. It was followed in 1912-15 by Juliette Low's Girl Scouts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boy_Scouts_of_America https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girl_Scouts_of_the_USA https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juliette_Gordon_Low

Girl Scouts emphasized domestic, "feminine" values: home-making; group vs. individual achievement; nature as a field for nurture and communal support more than for competition or discipline.

Seton's child Indians used fantasy to occupy a lost American landscape, but also to encounter a natural world whose meanings represent a higher source of moral value in modern society.

Conservation in this context meant preserving a world that was being lost, whether for wildness or to save a child's moral universe. Birdhouse as a practical symbol of gentle nature humanely protected.

All of this suggests again how complicated were the thematic strands contributing to Progressive conservation: in addition to nature as a utilitarian resource or as a sublime cathedral (as we saw in the previous lecture), it could also serve as a kind of Sunday School for moral instruction, as well as a pastoral vision of the human home (a garden) in nature.