“The idea of the garden—as a place, both real and metaphorical, where nature and culture can be wedded in a way that can benefit both—may be as useful to us today as the idea of wilderness has been in the past.”
-Michael Pollan from Second Nature
Although city gardens are often an afterthought, ranging in the simplest form of a potted plant or window sill basket to a large-scale recreational or social space, there are those, too, like Central Park, that were carefully plotted out as a means of preserving an essence of wildness even if excavation and non-indigenous flora make up the schema of the large-scale garden. The very spirit of the word “garden” throughout centuries of use suggests a public space, and so I think it fair to imagine parks in this way. It is interesting how many of New York City’s parks exist very much in the spirit of Frederick Law Olmsted’s credo where the space truly becomes an egalitarian retreat; it is a free area intended for the use and betterment of those who visit. But perhaps it is more interesting to consider what happens when parks are private and one needs a key to open a locked gate to enter. How, I wonder, does this affect the western psyche in relation to our imagining of the garden? Do we want to image the garden as a pastoral retreat, a democratic space, or a privileged demi-Eden? I’m not sure we can have it all.
If not only for its scale in addition to its perpetual enhancement of New York City, Central Park deserves some special attention in the discussion of the garden, here defined not only as a place where flora are grown, but also by incorporation of its most significant meaning as that of a public meeting area. As I reflect on Central Park, I return to a journal entry I wrote about my first experience of the place:
“As a relative newcomer to New York City, I (shamefully) hadn’t ventured far into the interior of Central Park until today when my Field Studies in Ecology course gave me no choice. As a preliminary investigation into the ecology we’ll be studying in a few short weeks at Black Rock Forest, today was a sort of trial run, and also a point of reference from the urban semi-natural to that which we will study upstate. Today happened to be a gorgeous day in New York, and with the cold front earlier this week, it was much deserved. We entered the park on the west side by the American Museum of Natural History (one of my favorite places in the city) and made our way down by the theater, to the Turtle Pond, and the Great Field, noting the various plant and bird species as we made our slow journey. What’s interesting about Central Park is the paradox between what we consider natural and unnatural—an obsession I’ve come upon that seems to reveal itself to me everywhere I go.
Central Park is of course a man-made park, carefully designed in the romantic vision of Fredrick Law Olmsted. Nonetheless, what has happened as the years pass is that the place has become more natural, despite its deliberateness. Many of the plant species, particularly the trees, are not native to our area. They are European imports. This is true of the birds as well. But native plants and animals have found their way into the park, making it suitably diverse as the rest of New York, I think. Today alone I must have heard five different languages spoken in the relatively crowded park, including an American singing British songs and a bagpiper who didn’t even pretend to portray himself as one of Scottish decent. I suppose, for me, the great paradox lies in the idea that this man-made landscape is an icon of the wonders of human capability in construction and design in our urban jungle, and yet we cannot entirely, not even halfheartedly say, it isn’t natural.
As my attention wandered from the starlings and red-winged blackbirds to people sunbathing on the lawn and a group of attractive men playing softball, I realized that the human component of Central Park is essential in its conceptualization. Of course it is a no-brainier that people would use this space for recreational purposes, but we, as part of nature, are doing natural acts just as much as the squirrels who rummage around in hopes of a nut. At once I was no longer in a fabricated park in one of the largest cities on the planet, I was just a human in a part of a larger ecological system that I am only beginning to uncover and comprehend. Olmsted knew full well that his great park would one day be surrounded by tall buildings and stand out amongst the seemingly unnatural urban landscape as a retreat or a haven, which certainly it is, but I wonder if he, too, had in mind that what he was doing, all of his careful planning and building was in fact simply a natural act to build a natural place where humans and other animals and plants would come to simply act naturally.”
As I reread these words with deliberation of what the park, the garden, really means, and armed with many more visits to Central Park, I’m surprised and pleased to find that I still think of it in the very same way. I’d say now, then, that the park is quite a success, especially by Olmsted’s standards and even by my own as I continue to discover and rediscover the urban pastoral all throughout our great city.
In addition to Central Park, Olmsted is responsible for much of the land preservation that we have deemed our National Park system here in America. It was initially difficult to read of Olmsted–the hero I had wanted him to be–as a man who only sought to preserve wild spaces for human or anthropocentric purposes. It came across to me as a dirty word–anthropocentric. I now realize how foolish that is for what other view could we possible have of the world? Olmsted thought Yosemite should be preserved because it had value for humans; to be in a place surrounded by ‘natural scenery’ would promote human health and well being. As anthropocentric as these views may well be, I think the relevance of these places, both the physical space and the conception thereof has far surpassed Olmsted’s original hopes for Yosemite and all of our parks, and for this he should be praised as far as his intentions seem to have been in good faith. And this was long before the environmental movement and realization of the human impact on the planet.
Certainly these parks have benefited our environment, protected thousands of species, and provided a haven for those fortunate enough to visit on family vacations, class trips, or solitary adventures into the spirit of the sublime. But it should be acknowledged that many of our great national parks have come at the cost of the homeland of indigenous tribes that lived in these places we so often take for granted as “untouched.” Indeed these gardens are, in a sense, like the ones in New York City’s village with lock and key where wealthy and often predominately White mothers like Sarah Jessica Parker walk alongside their nannies who push the strollers. Who are these nannies and where do they come from? In this way, I wonder if either of these spaces, huge national parks or these small ones with locks and keys, can truly be considered anthropocentric, for if it doesn’t include the welfare of all humans, not just those who are privileged, can we really call it such?
I love that we seek to preserve the wild—as Thoreau once said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world”—and I applaud Sarah Jessica Parker for her many accomplishments on screen and off, but I think it important to ask just who benefits from these parks, these “public gardens,” when there is a lock and only so many keys, even if we can’t always see the gates. That’s the thing about the sacred, secret garden: when we find out what’s at the core—be it the core of an apple or simply the root of a land’s history—the knowledge may have the power to ruin the idealized garden, the demi-Eden. History can not be undone and the wrongs done to the native people of America will never be atoned, but for the sake of all humanity, perhaps we should be a little more anthropocentric and consider unlocking the gates from now on (so to speak). The irony will lie, as it so often does, in the definition of the term. What exactly do we mean by “anthropocentric?” For Olmsted it sufficed to say that the preservation of the wild was for human gain. But today, after all we’ve learned, can we really stop there? Anthropocentric is, of course, for the good of humankind, but what if it doesn’t include all humankind but just a few of us lucky ones? It seems time to reconsider not only our place in the garden, but also our perspective of it.