Touring the Biltmore Estate with the audio guide, I understood for the first time the scope of George Vanderbilt’s vision and purpose. His ultimate ambition was never so narrow as his own pleasure, or even that of his family and friends. Vanderbilt had generations in mind.
The trees told me so (the audio guide helped too).
Although the beauty of the North Carolina mountains is what drew George to the Asheville area in the first place, the massive land tracts he bought were anything but lovely at the time. No green forest vistas met George’s eyes back in the 1890s. Decades of near-sighted agricultural and timber practices had stripped the land of trees and soil. The hills were bare and muddy. The woods were scrub.
Worthless, most locals thought, and happily sold him their acres.
With the help of his master landscaper architect – Frederick Law Olmsted – George began to envision a future neither man could ever live to see. As they planned for millions of new trees, Olmsted cautioned that the results would be decades, maybe even a century, away. They were re-imagining a 128,000-acre Garden of Eden, after all.
Already an old man when he began work on Biltmore’s gardens and grounds, Olmsted considered the estate his crowning achievement. And that’s saying something for the man who designed Central Park and the U.S. Capitol grounds.
If you have ever stood on the back veranda at Biltmore and looked at the hills, you have benefited from the work of Vanderbilt and Olmsted. All the way to Mount Pisgah 90 miles west, the hills are covered with dense green forests, because two men planned and planted. A hundred years later, the woodlands look natural, but they were no free-form verse.
My favorite quote was from a letter Olmsted wrote to George early in their endeavor. Olmsted said,
“Forestry would be a most interesting rural occupation for a man of poetic temperament.”
A poet’s patience to construct form out of chaos and a poet’s love to create beauty out of loss – that was the stuff needed for an undertaking of mountains and men. A temperament to plan, plant, and tend. Then, wait. Thankfully, George was of such poetic disposition and of deep pockets, as well.
Forethought and generosity of spirit are a rare combination in any century. Their impact can grow bigger and spread farther than was ever initially imagined. The work begun by George and Olmsted eventually replenished the mountains as far as the eye could see and gave birth to the U.S. Forestry Service.
So, today, it is not an overreach to say that if you’ve enjoyed a national forest in your lifetime, you owe at least a small debt of gratitude to George Vanderbilt and Frederick Law Olmsted. Two men of vision, who saw beyond bare dirt hills to lush green forests they would never personally witness and planted a reality they would not benefit from, but all of us would.
To the sixth generation, so far.