December 28, 2023

Suggested reading for the General Assembly


            If you should read that I died under an avalanche, it won’t be on a ski slope in the Swiss Alps.

            Oh, no.

            I’d probably enjoy a trip to Switzerland, but there’s another avalanche more likely to smother me. It’s the leaning tower of books that I have on deck to read. If the stack tumbles on me, I hope that I can dig out for air.

            Of course, I’m exaggerating.

But I do enjoy a good book. Some are really good at suiting my literary taste. Others are good at helping to fill the deep chasm of—well, there’s no other way to say it—my ignorance on so many subjects.

Here’s an example.

Traces of Frederick Law Olmsted’s (1822-1903) footprints have been hiding in plain sight. But I was 100 percent clueless about him until I read Genius of Place by Justin Martin.

The 464-page paperback is nothing close to a John Grisham page-turner or a Rick Bragg you-can-eat-it-with-a-spoon story. But with every page, I’d tell myself, “Duh, I didn’t know that.”

Have you ever visited Biltmore Gardens in Asheville? How about New York’s Central Park? Closer to home, Atlanta’s Piedmont Park or Decatur’s Druid Hills? The bearded Olmsted was a journalist, farmer, globetrotter and father of American landscape architecture. He personally designed more than 100 parks.

Olmsted’s imagination crafted the wondrous layout of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. And when former California governor and railroad magnate Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, decided to turn their farm into a place of higher learning, they turned to Olmsted for the design. That’s why Stanford University is sometimes called “the farm.”

A few years ago, we visited Niagara Falls. At the time, I did not know that Olmsted’s passion and persistence helped save the unique place from overdevelopment. The list goes on, but I had no idea this unknown-to-me genius had his fingerprints and footprints all over America.

 While I was reading, I gained a new hero from the past. Olmsted was one of the nation’s early conservationists. While working in California, he fell in love with Yosemite Valley, as did naturalist John Muir.

Before he was assassinated, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act in 1864, giving the wilderness to California so that the scenic landscape could be protected. Abe believed nature could help to heal the Republic.

Who is the father of the national park system? Some believe it was John Muir. Others consider President Teddy Roosevelt to have that distinction. No doubt both men collaborated on the idea. And many believe Olmsted’s visionary brilliance built the framework for protecting our nation’s natural treasures.

As I read Genius of Place, I kept thinking, “Where are the Roosevelts, Muirs and Olmsteds today?” The three conservationists/environmentalists are rolling over in their graves, fretting about what could happen to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

There’s but one Okefenokee Swamp. And most of the natural and national treasure is in our state. Don’t you wonder why Georgia’s leaders aren’t standing up to Twin Pines? They should be saying, “No, we must protect the Okefenokee. Go mine titanium elsewhere, where there’s less risk.”

There’s a reason that they aren’t.

Simply follow the money. An avalanche of dollars—campaign contributions and lobbyist influence—is blocking their long-range vision.

            Before the General Assembly convenes in January, I hope the lawmakers will dig out and read Genius of Place. Perhaps Olmsted will inspire them to do the right thing about the Okefenokee.