As the saying goes, timing is everything — and the idiom holds true even when that synchronicity is unintentional.
Such was the case for Asheville-based writer Dennis Drabelle. His latest book, The Power of Scenery: Frederick Law Olmsted and the Origin of National Parks, began as a means of honoring the 150th anniversary of the country’s first national park, Yellowstone, on March 1, 2022. But it just so happened that this year also marks the 200th anniversary of Olmsted’s birth.
“I didn’t know that until I was already way involved with the research,” Drabelle says. “It was like a little gift from heaven.”
In many ways, The Power of Scenery is the book Drabelle has been working toward his entire career. A native of St. Louis, the author holds degrees in English and law; he is also an avid hiker with a deep love for the outdoors, dating back to his time as a Boy Scout.
“Part of it is the beauty and the serenity and getting away from the bustle of big cities,” says Drabelle, who’s previously lived in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., before moving to Asheville in 2016. “And then I began to get really interested [in the outdoors] as a lawyer and policymaker, surrounding the duty that we maybe take for granted when we’re out there: If we don’t protect [that beauty and serenity] with laws, it won’t stay that way.”
Beginning in 1971, Drabelle served as an attorney-advisor at the Department of the Interior. Then, 1973-77, he worked as counsel to the assistant secretary of Interior who oversees the national parks. There, he witnessed firsthand the early days of the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal conservation efforts.
Despite the exposure, the author says he knew very little about Olmsted, outside of his role as superintendent and co-designer of New York City’s Central Park. But in the late 1980s, Drabelle began work on The Art of Landscape Architecture (1990), a book he wrote for the National Endowment for the Arts. One of the chapters focused on efforts to restore Olmsted’s urban parks as closely as possible to their original designs. Drabelle followed that project up with “The Most Beautiful Street in Berkeley,” an article for the East Bay Express about the handful of surviving blocks from Olmsted’s first foray into parkways.
“Then I sort of put Olmsted on the back burner for a long time,” Drabelle says. “But I read a couple of books about him, so I knew what a protean figure he was and an incredibly hard worker. And, boy, when you get a combination like that, somebody who can do almost anything and can do it 18 hours a day, you’ve got somebody.”
With an eye toward writing a book on how the national parks came to be, Drabelle read Dayton Duncan’s and Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, the companion tome to Burns’ 2009 documentary series by the same name. Expecting his research to focus on pioneering geological surveyor Ferdinand Hayden, Drabelle was surprised to find Olmsted “sort of popping up everywhere.” The trend continued as the author further explored the topic, ultimately shifting Drabelle’s interest and focus onto the landscape architect.
Throughout the research process for The Power of Scenery, Drabelle was in contact with academics and experts across the country. Meanwhile, he also benefited from Olmsted’s history with Asheville. Late in life, while designing the landscape of the Biltmore Estate, Olmsted had planned to create the most comprehensive research arboretum in the U.S. on the Vanderbilts’ sprawling acreage. The dream never materialized, but Olmsted’s vision served as an inspiration for The North Carolina Arboretum, which was established in 1986. Thirty years after its opening, the facility added a sculpture of Olmsted in 2016.
In late 2019, Drabelle was at the Arboretum for a two-hour evening educational course. During a break, he walked around the library, discovering a collection that made his jaw drop: 11 volumes of The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
“I’d had this kind of dread in my mind that I would have to access them and probably some other stuff in Washington, D.C. And that I would just be sitting in the Library of Congress day after day, trying to copy as fast as I could because you don’t want to be away from home too long,” Drabelle says.
“[The Arboretum staff] just said, ‘Sure, come on out!’ So [in January 2020], I would drive up to the Arboretum and hole up there for as long as I wanted.”
While Drabelle notes that Olmsted had no direct influence on the creation of Yellowstone National Park, Olmsted’s “seminal” 1865 report advising the governor of California on how to manage Yosemite — established the previous year as the first U.S. wilderness park — had an indirect influence. The report lived on in the journalism and books of Olmsted’s friend Sam Bowles, who stressed that Yosemite need not be a singular endeavor, but that the same or a similar treatment — withdrawal from settlement and development, and preservation in its pristine state — could be given to other wild wonders, especially the Adirondacks and Maine’s coast.
“Bowles’ books were bestsellers and undoubtedly known to the Montana businessmen and lawyers who visited Yellowstone in 1870, as well to Hayden, who came a year after them and did more than anyone else to persuade Congress to preserve Yellowstone, which, being located in three territories — Montana, Wyoming and Idaho — stayed in federal ownership and hence became the world’s first national park,” Drabelle says. “In a nutshell, this is why a painting of Yosemite Falls is on the book’s cover rather than one of, say, Old Faithful.”
As Olmsted’s April 26 birthday approaches, Drabelle sees the landscape architect’s strong, enduring influence on a local level through the Arboretum and Biltmore connections, as well as the principles adopted by those responsible for Pisgah National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains (the latter of which Drabelle calls “our own almost backyard national park”). But the ongoing work to return Olmsted’s urban parks to his original visions — particularly the Olmsted parks and parkways in the greater Buffalo area — has Drabelle even more optimistic that their core intentions will be preserved and live on.
“Especially today, it’s all the more important to realize that parklike experiences are important for everybody,” Drabelle says. “A bit of wilderness in the heart of the city — that’s what [Olmsted] originally did with Central Park, and I think we need a lot more of those spaces.”
WHO: Dennis Drabelle
WHERE: North Carolina Arboretum, 100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way. avl.mx/92b
WHEN: Tuesday, April 26, 3:30 p.m. (book signing); Thursday, April 28, 6:30 p.m., in conversation via Zoom with Drake Fowler, Arboretum deputy executive director. Regular admission fees apply.