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The Shared Nature of Nature

(Reposted from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin's blog dated November 17, 2011: http://blog.bjen.org/)

In the mid-19th century, Calvert Vaux created the iconic images of the American urban landscape, including the grounds at the White House, the Smithsonian Institute and (with his newly hired young recruit, Frederick Law Olmsted) Central Park. Though Vaux started in landscape design, he later moved into designing buildings and homes that would occupy these landscapes.

A populist of sorts, he believed that access to natural beauty was a right shared by all. And that natural beauty should not be marred by ugly architecture or blocked by aggressive private ownership.

In his classic book entitled Villas and cottages: a series of designs prepared for execution in the US, 1857, Vaux makes available to the general public (at least those of a certain means) drawings for what he believes are attractive houses that can appropriately grace various natural settings and landscapes. (He believed, no doubt, that the house should be made to suit the setting and not the setting manhandled to suit the house.)

In this book, he quotes N P Willis of Idlewild, a defender of the public's access to the grandeur of nature and the limits of private ownership of public goods:

To fence out a genial eye from any corner of the earth which nature has lovingly touched with her pencil, which never repeats itself – to shut up a glen or a waterfall for one man’s exclusive knowing or enjoying – to lock up trees and glades, shady paths and haunts among rivulets, would be an embezzlement by one man of God’s gift to all. A capitalist might as well curtain off a star, or have the monopoly of an hour. Doors may lock, but outdoors is a freehold to feet and eyes. (p. 250)

One wonders what Willis and Vaux would say about how we can restore the blessings and shed the excesses of capitalism today.

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