At the top of the Grand Staircase, Lake Park

It’s called “Lake Park” but unless you go looking for it carefully, Lake Michigan has not much to do with this slice of greenish parkland in Milwaukee designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of Manhattan’s Central Park and other celebrated urban parks across America. The Lake can be best viewed these days from the top of the Grand Staircase behind the Lake Park Bistro, a private and excellent French-inspired restaurant. (I recently had the “canard” entree there and recommend it.) The restaurant sits on the top of a forested bluff that is divided in places by ravines; because trees were removed to build the staircase, diners get a good view of the Lake. In front of the Bistro, facing away from the Lake, is a parking lot, a golf hole and a fenced-off area for lawn bowling. If one must bowl, best to do it outside on grass. The scene is that of an urban resort.

On the day I visited Lake Park it was a cool and deep blue day in early June; two late-blooming rosebud trees shone pinkly on either side of the Grand Staircase while the Lake across the lanes of Lake Drive below went from pale blue to a navy blue near the horizon of the sky, mimicking the pale to dark shades of sky as it rose upwards above me. My wife and I crossed a refurbished footbridge and strolled along paved paths decorated with a lot of lawn and benches. One of the benches is adorned with a metal plaque comemmorating a disceased person and includes a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Nature and Books belong to the eyes that see them.” The line is from Emerson’s essay called “Experience” and what follows that simple line is not so simple:

Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem. There are always sunsets, and there is always genius; but only a few hours so serene that we can relish nature or criticism. The more or less depends on structure or temperament. Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung. Of what use is fortune or talent to a cold and defective nature? Who cares what sensibility or discrimination a man has at some time shown, if he falls asleep in his chair? or if he laugh and giggle? or if he apologize? or is affected with egotism? or thinks of his dollar? or cannot go by food? or has gotten a child in his boyhood? Of what use is genius, if the organ is too convex or too concave, and cannot find a focal distance within the actual horizon of human life?

What is the proper focal distance for a human life? Should a bench be used for reading or conversing or contemplating? I suppose, as Emerson suggests, it depends on the particular mood of the particular person. Should I go outside and walk around and look closely at various places, or go outside to sit still on a bench and focus on one spot? Or go out (or stay in) to read a book? Should I carry binoculars or a camera or both as I walk along the Lake Michigan shore? Should I run or bike rather than walk? It all depends, of course, on my temperment of the moment. Whatever tool or mode of transport I choose will effect what and how I see. When I go out bearing binoculars I am looking to use them and I go looking in a magnified way: my focal point expands to distance and I tend to ignore what’s right in front of me. And I see more than I feel. I focus on outer rather than inner weather, to borrow from something poetic that Robert Frost wrote somewhere. An old-fashioned farmer, Frost, I’m sure, did not carry binoculars.

As for genius, Emerson in this passage is focused on intellectual or artistic creation rather than the more mundane, if essential, tasks of human and family life. What is ultimately more valuable? A good husband or a good writer? A good farmer or a good painter of landscapes? A multi-use park or a wilder forest? We need them all of course. Moods and methods vary and matter. Genius remains rare, despite what “social media” wants us to believe.

But I can’t say that walking through Lake Park put me in a very good mood, despite the company of my wife and the splendid spring weather. Whatever Olmsted envisioned has become a bit too tame and tattered (for my taste) through human use and government neglect. (The park does benefit from a private group of fund-raisers: Lake Park Friends.) The streets and traffic have grown a lot since Olmsted’s day and intrude on both nature and quiet reading. If I were a better philosopher or sat on the bench for awhile, I might appreciate this park more. But as it happened we veered off the paved path to exit lawn and playground and took a wooded trail down the bluff; we heard birds in the trees but did not see them through the fresh, full foliage.

The short trail ended on a sidewalk beside Lake Drive, which at such close proximity is more Drive than Lake. Lots of ring-billed gulls were in the air above us but nothing else of interest. We passed a road under construction that curves under the bridge we crossed; big metal fencing barred the way. So we followed the sidewalk back to the base of the Grand Staircase and climbed it up to the top where we saw again the best thing in Lake Park: the Lake Park Bistro. No binoculars required.

What I saw clearly at both Lakeshore State Park and Lake Park is that the urban shore of Lake Michigan, while refreshing and invigorating in some respects, is not where I need to be to match my inner mood with the outer atmosphere. I knew I had to head North to read the nature of the Lake that resonated best with my temperament and genius, such as it is. I didn’t want to travel far on a regular basis, however. A week later I got in my car again, my binoculars and smartphone along for the ride. I was aimed for a place called Audubon.

 Landscape Architecture 


John KaufmanRead More