E.O. Wilson, one of the world’s great biologists and a Pulitzer prize-winning author on the natural world, made a case for preserving and investing in the restoration of urban parks at the 70th anniversary of Dumbarton Oaks Park in Georgetown. Designed by renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, the only woman among the founding members of ASLA, the 27-acre park has both formal and natural spaces, including meadows, gardens, dams, bridges and 18 waterfalls. Wilson said Farrand was a “splendid landscape architect.”
Wilson asked, “What is the value of a park within the limits of a city?” Garden woodlands like Dumbarton Oaks Park are valuable in themselves because they are often habitats for very rare endemic species. However, for people, they also offer “intricate pathways for opening up our minds to art, aesthetics, ecology, wildlife, natural successions.” Parks exist, in fact, in the “realm of the mind. We all make parks our own. They belong to us each individually. There’s a proprietorship we all feel.” He added that “parks are a home. There’s a sense of permanent familiarity.” There, we find a “sense of place but what is that?”
He believes this hard-to-describe sense of place is “a solid feeling based in a sense of history, a deep history of the land, unchanged over thousands of years.” Parks create this feeling because they are “the natural world and show us that life preceeded us.” Wilson, who spent a few of his early years catching insects in the District’s Rock Creek Park, went on to say that parks are a “magic well. The more we draw from them, the more there is to draw. They are part personal memory, part nature, part cultural metaphor.”
National parks, which he said must be saved from proposed funding cuts, can be cultivated or non-cultivated and include native and non-native plants but this mix, in fact, provides the perfect opportunity for an “outdoor lab.” Urban parks today “aren’t studied in this way” but will be with the “growth in the importance of ecology and population.” He believes treating parks as urban labs is needed to educate the public on biodivesity. Already some parks are undertaking inventories of their species, and turning the collection and documentation process into a fun outings by organizing Bioblitzes. Bioblitzes are “treasure hunts” used to find as many species as possible in an area in 24 hours. Wilson, who helped popularize the Bioblitz movement, said the “practice has spread all over the country and to 18 other countries.”
Finally, he asked, “why do we love parks and cultivated gardens?” The idea of nature is often “expressed beautifully in music, arts, and literature.” Nature “excites the imagination,” a process psychologists increasingly understand. In fact, this intense reaction of people to nature may be innate. Biophilia, a term Wilson coined to describe the “intrinsic attraction people feel towards nature,” is now being taken up by “students of landscape architecture” (see earlier post). He described how humans in different countries all like high open spaces they can look down upon and being close to water. “People will pay any price for property” that fits those qualities.
As for Dumbarton Oaks Park, which Dodge Thompson, National Gallery of Art, called a “cultural landscape treasure” and an “eden in the midst of the city,” its conservancy is starting a “vision charrette” in October. The process is expected to guide a complete ecological restoration to “recraft the park in a environmentally sustainable way,” said Rebecca Trafton, president of the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy. She said Farrand believed the park demonstrated the “educational and civilizing influence of beauty.” That beauty must be maintained, but issues like invasives, graffiti, worn-out trails, and broken stormwater management systems must also be carefully addressed.
Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks Park / James Blair, Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy