Monday, August 7, 2017

Tonsor: Intellectual History: The Romantic Garden II


After Tonsor finished his lecture on Romantic gardens and landscapes, he packed his satchel with the notes and books he had brought to class. I remained in my seat -- motionless, ruminating, processing all that I had just heard. It felt as though my mind had been stung by the proverbial torpedo fish, likened to Socrates because he paralyzed his interlocutors with probing questions and dazzling intellect.[1]

As my professor left the lectern and approached and asked, knowing he was being ironic, "Did the lecture convey anything of interest to you, Mr. Whitney?"

"It certainly did," I said. "It was the best lecture I've heard you give. I'm still taking in what you said during the last 90 minutes. I've read a good deal about landscape architecture but have never heard the things you taught us today. Landscapes will never look the same."

"Landscapes frame our lives, do they not? As you know, with paintings it behooves us to pay attention to the frame because the frame interprets the picture. It's the same with a man. You cannot understand all the dimensions of a man until you know the landscape he grew up in." 

"What was the landscape like where you grew up?"

Saul Steinberg's famous cover,
"View of the World from Ninth Avenue"
"It was the landscape of central Illinois, in the Great River country. Of course, Saul Steinberg and the East Coast cognoscenti would laugh at my saying there's anything remarkable about it. They disparagingly call it 'flyover country.' But for people who have eyes to see, it's the very heart of America's heartland. And it's not just flat cornfields either. Interspersed with the cornfields are upland woods of oak and hickory; bottomland forests of silver maple and sycamores; and the topographic transitions between them that separate the glaciated tableland on top from the riparian floodplains below. There is even the occasional island of tall-grass prairie that makes one marvel at how hardscrabble pioneers ever tilled the soil. What pulls the entire scene together is the panoramic vastness of the Illinois prairie peninsula. The sense of space is liberating!

"This past July, when Caroline and I were driving back to my hometown of Jerseyville, I started looking at the different kinds of lines in the heartland landscape. The most dominant lines reflect the checkerboard pattern of township-and-range surveys bequeathed by Thomas Jefferson. His vision for the Old Northwest gives us those long, straight roads that follow the original survey lines. Other lines are sinuous, usually where roads follow the meandering of rivers or the curve of lakes. Still other lines characterize the way farmers grow things to conserve the soil. Most apparent are the lines of trees, windbreaks to shelter the farmhouse and barns and fields from blizzards. More subtle than the windbreaks are the lines among the crops. There are the furrows made by the plough, of course, like a Rembrandt etching that follows the contours of the land. Then there are lines separating the ocher-green of ripening corn from the dusk-green of maturing soybeans from the yellow-green of flowering milo; lines separating crop from the spring-green of grass in the creases of the hillslines separating crop from stubble; lines separating crop from the fallow earth. I suppose only someone who grew up on a farm cares about such things, but it's the frame that interprets me."

"I'm no farmer," I said, "but on my road trips I try and understand the landscapes I drive through. There's no such thing as a boring road trip, even across the Great Plains --"

Tonsor's eyes smiled and he interrupted: "You mean where the earth ends? Once, when my family was driving across the Great Plains, my son asked if we were going to the end of the earth. I said, 'No, it's not the end of the earth, but it's what the end of the earth would look like!'"

He laughed in little puffs and I with him, saying I'd experienced the same thing with my family. "They think I'm weird because I love driving across Kansas. When I studied geography, one of the things I most enjoyed was analyzing landscapes not just for their utility but also for their beauty and sublimity. One of my favorite Willa Cather passages, from My Antonia, captures the feeling: 'I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh easy blowing wind; and in the earth itself as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide; and underneath it herds of buffalo were galloping, galloping --'"[2]

"Yes," said Tonsor in laconic affirmation. "I'd add Walt Whitman to your collection of favorite passages. He was quite smitten with the prairie lands of the Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas country. After visiting the Colorado Rockies he told a reporter that 'much as the grandeur of the mountains impressed him, the impression of the plains will remain longest with him.'[3] In Specimen Days, which is his travel log out West, he wrote: 'As to scenery ... while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the Upper Yellowstone, and the like afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but that the Prairies and Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the aesthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America's characteristic landscape.'"[4]

"Whitman got it right!" I said. "Just about anything west of the Hundredth Meridian is magical. As for Kansas country, especially in a place like the Flint Hills, both landscape and sky are sublime. Who cannot feel overwhelmed by those towering cumulonimbus clouds on a hot summer afternoon during the monsoon season. I always carry a 35 mm. camera in the car to try and capture the sublimity of those moments. Speaking of which, where did you learn about Romantic landscapes and English gardens?"

"My earliest experience of the romantic landscape, believe it or not, was also in the Illinois country. West of Champaign, along the Sangamon River, is a remarkable park on the old Allerton estate. Nowadays it's managed by the University of Illinois. But around the turn of the century, an eccentric artist and philanthropist named Robert Allerton transformed acres of prairie outside his mansion into gardens and forests. There's not only the requisite herb patch and bowling lawn, but also a parterre garden and various flower plots, all surrounded by woods and meadows that overlook the Sangamon River -- the same Sangamon River that Abraham Lincoln knew.

"Given your interest in landscape architecture, you will want to make the trek to Allerton not just for its natural beauty but also for the remarkable sculptures it contains. Perhaps in your art classes you have seen a photograph of Emil-Antoine Bourdelle's 'Death of the Last Centaur' or of Carl Milles's 'Sun Singer.' Experiencing the vistas in person leaves one alternately feeling the satisfaction of classical beauty and the awe of romantic grandeur. I'm sure this morning's lecture had its origins in the many happy hours I spent exploring the park."

"Death of the Last Centaur," by Emil-Antoine Bourdelle, Allerton Park, Monticello, IL
Photo at URL


Later that week I was having lunch with Tonsor and Caroline and the subject of Allerton Park came up.

"Oh, the old Allerton estate!" said Caroline, delighted by the very name. "When Stephen and I were in college we used to bicycle in the park. There was something special about leaving the cornfields behind and making your way through the dark brooding forests to 'The Sun Singer.' Stephen was quite taken by the drama of the setting."

"On one of my road trips back to Colorado, maybe I'll stop at Allerton," I said to be polite, doubtful that I would ever really get around to visiting such an out-of-the-way place.

"You should," said Tonsor authoritatively. 

"The Sun Singer," mixed media, by Caroline Tonsor.
From the title page of a chapbook that Caroline Tonsor
made for Stephen Tonsor (2009)

It would be three decades before I would finally make the trek to Allerton Park and experience the work of Bourdelle and Milles in surroundings of haunting beauty.


[1] For the original reference to Socrates as a torpedo fish, see Plato's dialogue Meno.

[2] Willa Cather, My Antonia.

[3] For Whitman's observation see Robert R. Hubach, "Walt Whitman in Kansas," (Topeka: Kansas Historical Society, May 1941), pp. 150-54; at URL 

[4] Walt Whitman, Specimen Days (1879).

No comments:

Post a Comment