Frederick Law Olmsted has been on my mind recently, in part because while we’re spending a few days in New York, we’re staying on Fifth Avenue, opposite the southeastern corner of Central Park, unquestionably Olmsted’s best-known creation.
Olmsted (1822–1903) was for all intents and purposes the father of American landscape architecture. Before he gained fame for reshaping much of the nation’s urban and suburban landscape, however, he was an adventurous journalist whose 1857 book A Journey Through Texas; or, a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier is a classic of Texas travel literature. In the book, originally published in serial form in the New York Times, Olmsted recounts a trip he took with his brother John in 1853–54, traversing the Lone Star State from the Sabine River to the Rio Grande.
In A Journey Through Texas, as in A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856) and A Journey in the Back Country (1861), Olmsted, a deeply committed abolitionist, attempted “to explain how slavery prolongs, in a young community [such as antebellum Texas], the evils which properly belong only to a frontier,” including “bad temper, recklessness, and lawlessness.” (And this was before Interstate 35 even existed!)
Olmsted was a great admirer of the German settlers of the Hill Country (who, he pointed out, managed to earn a respectable living without employing slave labor) and of their “private convictions of right, justice, and truth.” He repeatedly held their settlements—New Braunfels, Boerne, Sisterdale, and the like—up as examples of the sort of virtuous, prosperous, cultured communities that were possible where slavery did not exist.
For me, however, the best part of the book is Olmsted’s portrayal of Mr. Brown, the mule he and his brother bought in Natchitoches to carry their supplies. Mr. B., as Olmsted often referred to him, was “a stout, dun-colored, short-legged, cheerful son of a donkey, but himself very much a gentleman…. Though sometimes subjected to real neglect, and sometimes even to contemptuous expressions (for which, I trust, this, should it meet his eye, may be considered a cordial apology), he was never heard to give utterance to a complaint or vent to an oath. He traveled with us some two thousand rough miles, kept well up, in spite of the brevity of his legs, with the rest, never winced at any load we had the heart to put on him, came in fresh and active at the end, and, finally, sold for as much as we gave for him.”
Only once did Mr. Brown mutiny. As the party was preparing to cross Cibolo Creek, he suddenly gave “a snort of fat defiance” and raced off into the nearby scrub, attempting to scrape off the wicker hampers affixed to his sides. Olmsted noted admiringly that “a short-legged mule, when fully under way in a stampede, is ‘some pumpkins’ at going,” but they soon ran him down and brought him back under control, and Olmsted tied him to a tree with no supper as punishment. “When morning came, his ears and spirits were completely wilted, and he always carefully avoided the subject of his private Cibolo stampede—never afterwards offering the least symptom of insurrection.”
In another memorable passage, the party was crossing Chocolate Bayou when they unexpectedly encountered a dangerously muddy bottom. Olmsted and his brother managed, with some difficulty, to free their mounts and lead them to safety, abandoning poor Mr. B. to his own devices. “Looking back, to learn the fate of the mule, we beheld one of the most painfully ludicrous sights I have ever seen. Nothing whatever was visible of Mr. Brown, save the horns of the pack-saddle and his own well-known ears, rising piteously above the treacherous waves. He had exhausted his whole energy in efforts that only served to drag him deeper under, and seeing himself deserted, in the midst of the waters, by all his comrades, he gave up with a loud sigh, and laid upon his side to die, hoisting only his ears as a last signal of distress.”
Fortunately Mr. B. rallied his spirits for one last effort and succeeded in freeing himself and wading to safety, “dripping like a drowned rat.” The wicker baskets he carried were, of course, not waterproof; “the hampers had become two barrels of water, which, added to our ridicule, the mule, his excitement over, found more than he could bear, and, sitting down, he gave us a beseeching look, as if ready to burst into a torrent of tears.” Mr. Brown was clearly a sensitive soul, and I’m a little surprised that Olmsted could bear to part with him at the end of his journey.
While I have had no personal experience with mules, my earliest encounter with a burro left deep psychological scars. When I was just a wee lad, no more than three or four, my parents, my grandmother, and I all crammed into my father’s Fiat 1100 and undertook a family trip from San Francisco to Mexico City. Somewhere in the Sonoran desert, we stopped at a dusty roadside establishment for gas, and my parents bought me a bottle of Coca-Cola—a rare treat indeed. Clutching my precious bottle of Coke, I wandered over to say hello to the poor little burro penned beside the gas station.
I was shocked when the creature came over, stuck his head through the slats of the fence, seized the bottle in his yellow teeth, and yanked it out of my hands. He tilted his head back and drained the contents in one long gulp, whereupon I burst into tears. My parents bought me another bottle of Coke, and the same thing happened! (Apparently I’ve always been a slow learner.)
After the tragic loss of the second bottle of Coke, my parents decided not to continue funding the burro’s drinking habit; perhaps they feared the effects of the rapid accumulation of so much carbonated beverage in his stomach. At any rate, they bundled me into the car—still screaming, no doubt—and headed down the highway.
As I grew older, I was as susceptible to the romantic myth of the cowboy as the next kid, but ever since that trip to Mexico I have generally distrusted all members of the genus Equus. Coke wasn’t introduced until 1886, but I like to think that, faced with the same temptation, the gentlemanly Mr. Brown would have exercised more self-control than his larcenous latter-day Sonoran cousin. But then I’ve always tended to idealize my literary heroes.
What we’re reading
Heather: Krista Tippett, Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit
Martin: George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (still!)