Across the Open Field: Essays Drawn from English Landscapes

Across the Open Field: Essays Drawn from English Landscapes

Across the Open Field: Essays Drawn from English Landscapes

Across the Open Field: Essays Drawn from English Landscapes


"Twenty-eight years ago I went to England for a three-month visit and rest. What I found changed my life."

So begins this memoir by one of America's best-known landscape architects, Laurie Olin. Raised in a frontier town in Alaska, trained in Seattle and New York, Olin found himself dissatisfied with his job as an urban architect and accepted an invitation to England to take a respite from work. What he found, in abundance, was the serendipity of a human environment built over time to respond to the land's own character and to the people who lived and worked there. For Olin, the English countryside was a palimpsest of the most eloquent and moving sort, yet whose manifestation was of ordinary buildings meant to shelter their inhabitants and further their work.

With evocative language and exquisite line drawings, the author takes us back to his introduction to the scenes of English country towns, their ancient universities, meandering waterways, and dramatic cloudscapes racing in from the Atlantic. He limns the geologic histories found within the rock, the near-forgotten histories of place-names, and the recent histories of train lines and auto routes. Comparing the growth of building in the English countryside, Olin draws some sobering conclusions about our modern lifestyle and its increasing separation from the landscape.

As much a plea for saving the modern American landscape as it is a passionate exploration of what makes the English landscape so characteristically English, Across the Open Field is "an affectionate ramble through real places of lasting worth."


In 1970, I WENT TO ENGLAND for a three-month visit and rest. What I found changed my life. Trained as an architect, but frustrated with the field as I knew it, I was overwhelmed by the English landscape. This was especially so as I came to see it that summer as a built artifact, a mosaic of designs and purpose. This experience launched me into the study of landscape history and soon led to my pursuit of landscape architecture instead of that of the architecture of buildings. Over the next four years I spent months on end in the field in England, exploring, walking, looking, sketching out-of-doors, alternating with periods in libraries and archives in England, the United States, and Italy, reading and studying the records and accounts of how this landscape came to be. I produced a work of youth but not a book that met my expectations or standards. Worst of all, it didn’t in the least resemble the simple thing I had set out to make. This was to have been a modest collection of drawings and straightforward text that conveyed several points. First, it was to be an introduction to the English landscape, not an exhaustive or authoritative work. Second, it was merely to be an appreciation of the field of landscape history and design, not an original contribution to its history, theory, or criticism. Third, and probably most important to me, it was to demonstrate the possibility of human society and nature working together in a densely populated, beautiful landscape in a highly productive and rewarding manner, something that is as desirable now as it was then, but is not the experience of a large percentage of the population of the industrial and developing worlds.

An American, I was then and still am alarmed by the environmental crisis as it was perceived and weary of the all-or-nothing debates between preservationists and advocates of ecology versus the entire apparatus of society, commerce, and government. It seemed to me that there had to be ways that urbanization could take place in conjunction with natural processes and systems. There had to be methods one could develop to preserve and expand agriculture while maintaining the health of streams and wildlife habitats. Large portions of the United States had become such a mess and had been made so in such a short period of time that counteraction was called for. We needed alternative models and habits from those we were using. While I didn’t then and still don’t think we can or should remake America into a landscape resembling England, I did think there was much to learn from it in terms of strategy and values. I still do. Also while studying in England I began to wonder how many people there really understood their own landscape, and if they weren’t about to tear apart what had so carefully been made over such a long period of time.

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