Sachs delivers lecture on 19th century American landscapes

Aaron Sachs, associate professor of history at Cornell University, talked about topics from his book Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition on Nov. 13. --Photo courtesy of Cornell University
Aaron Sachs, associate professor of history at Cornell University, talked about topics from his book Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition on Nov. 13. –Photo courtesy of Cornell University

On Thursday, Nov. 13, Aaron Sachs, associate professor of history at Cornell University, delivered a lecture entitled “From Indian Mounds to Urban Parks: A Meditation on the Landscape Tradition.”

Sachs came to the College as part of the Class of 1960s Scholars Program in Environmental Studies. Nicolas Howe, assistant professor of environmental studies, organized the event.

“You get three for one tonight,” Howe said in his introduction of Sachs. “You get a great historian and a really terrifyingly innovative writer and an original thinker about environmental ethics and politics.”

“His most recent book pushed the conventions of academic writing even farther, blending memoir and cultural criticism and environmental history into a really fresh and intensely personal meditation on the relationship between life and death and landscape in America.”

Sachs received his B.A. in history and literature from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. He has published two books, including The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and most recently, in 2013, Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition. Sachs also advises a student group at Cornell called Historians are Writers and coedits a book series called “New Directions in Narrative History” published by Yale University Press.

Sachs opened his talk by asking the audience, “What would you say is the archetypal American landscape?”

Audience members gave a number of responses, including the Grand Canyon, Hudson River School paintings and suburban lawns.

“We tend to go to these extremes,” Sachs explained. “But what about the so-called middle landscapes? There is a huge amount of space in this country dedicated to different combinations of nature and culture, but the politics of these places tend to get oversimplified.”

Sachs then launched into an exploration of 19th century landscape tradition, the focus of his book Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition.

In his talk, Sachs focused on Mt. Auburn Cemetery as an example of an early 19th century landscape. Built in 1831 in Cambridge Massachusetts, the cemetery was one of the first large cemeteries to feature classical monuments and landscaped gardens. Prior to these types of cemeteries, according to Sachs, most corpses were buried in family plots or small communal burying grounds.

“It is a landscape with very powerful cultural meaning. It is literally a common ground,” Sachs said. “Death after all is the great leveler.”

Sachs explained that “cemetery” literally means a place of repose, which applied to both the physical position of the corpses and the living people who used the “enclave of nature right there in the midst of the city” as a place to get fresh air and escape busy city life.

“You were supposed to wander here, not just get from point A to point B as quickly as possible,” Sachs said.

He noted that the first suburbs were built around cemeteries.

“This was a period dominated by an ‘arcadian ethos,’ a mindset that emphasized our human interpenetration with nature,” Sachs said. “…[It was about] making something beautiful of that interpenetration while remaining aware of our mortality.”

Sachs displayed slides of various cemeteries that were created from 1836 to 1853. He explained these were places you could “play in … not morbid places at all.”

Sachs pinpointed the Civil War as the time that the human relationship between nature and death started to shift.

“Death in the Civil War was transfigured. It had to be understood on an industrial scale,” he said. “The regenerative forces of nature didn’t seem to have the best answer anymore.”

In addition, as the country started to push the “myth” of opportunity on the Western frontier, “Suddenly the landscape is being used to encourage denial, instead of to acknowledge the reality of life and death,” according to Sachs.

Sachs explained that during this time, Americans attempted to hide any signs of former Native American inhabitance, using national parks as an example.

“They [national parks] are crucial to our culture, but the scholarly side of me knows that for the past 20 years, the whole wilderness idea has been thoroughly deconstructed and challenged, and we have been reminded of the violent displacement of the Indians.”

He explained that national parks are now seen as pristine examples of nature, places where people vacation. “They are escapist,” Sachs said. “They don’t make us engage with our own consumption.”

Sachs then shifted gears to talk about H.W.S. Cleveland and Frederick Law Olmsted, two 19th century landscape architects who worked on designing public spaces. Olmsted was responsible for much of the design of Central Park and Cleveland worked on parks in Minneapolis and St. Paul, among other cities.

“Even though the arcadian landscape tradition had been wounded in this time … maybe the best place to look was in cities that could incorporate wild nature in a more organic way. In the west, where cities were young, this was possible, but cities in the east had to re-engineer cities in order to accomplish this,” Sachs said.

Sachs explained that there is a notable difference between the public spaces in Minneapolis and St. Paul and parks and other spaces in some eastern cities.

“In large part I think this is because Cleveland’s designs so clearly emphasize public space over private space,” Sachs said.

Sachs then talked about the lasting Native American influences in some cities that Cleveland attempted to echo in his work. Reflecting on his visits to these two cities, Sachs recalled a moment of realization when he noticed the reappearing hills in different parks and cemeteries, mimicking the Native American burial mounds.

“Most of those Native American traces were erased,” Sachs said. “I think it matters a lot that we have public spaces like this. I think it matters that Cleveland tried to inscribe those meanings in other public spaces. Did people even notice that echoing? It’s hard to say. Time changes everything.”