A landscaper’s view of the Confederate statue hornet’s nest
By Elizabeth Westling
Can a landscaper shed light on the Confederate statue hornet’s nest? The controversy is nationwide, and has touched communities North and South. It broke out in Oak Bluffs over an 1891 statue of a Union soldier, whose cast-iron base contained a plaque added in 1925 “in honor of the Confederate soldiers.”
Here we are in the middle of one of the most virulent pandemics this country has ever seen, the Russians are paying the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, and unless you’re super-rich like Jeff Bezos, you are probably watching your bottom line pretty closely. And what is our president talking about: Confederate statues? Why?
I came to my career in landscape design late in life. While most of my much younger classmates were designing their business careers, I had the luxury of finally landing in a field that not only gave me pleasure but seemed tailor-made to fit my background in history.
As I listen to the current debate on Confederate statues, my mind wanders back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, for a start. Where are all the beautiful statues that adorned the Acropolis and temples of the ancient world? In museums, of course! And why not? Museums typically do not judge the rightness, wrongness, or moral rectitude of Hercules or Helen. History and artifacts eventually fade into ornament for their own sakes.
From a landscaper’s point of view, the aesthetics of statuary goes in fads. For example, the Washington Monument, a classical obelisk, is far more enigmatic than a Confederate general on a horse with his name engraved on the pedestal. Enigmatic is the operative word! At 555 feet, the Washington Monument stands like a giant sequoia, an elegant and enigmatic shape that reaches for the sky on the plane of history. As a memorial, the Washington Monument embodies ideas. It lionizes the aspirations on which our country was founded, the details of America’s early history, George Washington’s role as our first president, and so much more.
So here we are, again having a national conversation about removing Confederate statues. Some people think we should just tear them down. Marc Fisher, in his Washington Post article of August 18, 2017, rightly points out that “one generation’s hero becomes another generation’s symbol of inhumanity” … As my friend Al Goins, whose father was among the Tuskegee Airmen, so poignantly puts it, “These public statues were quasi-private. Like a [‘whites only’] sign; black Americans were not allowed into these ‘personal heirlooms’ of segregation.” Maybe the answer is to sell them all into private collections. If you want to buy a Confederate statue and display it on your front lawn, only the local zoning ordinances will stop you from purchasing your heart’s desire. Your choice: a rusted, old, broken-down Chevy, or a Robert E. Lee.
Or perhaps we should put them in museums. History museums are proliferating for many reasons: lynching museums, Holocaust museums, museums portraying the ugly history of the slave trade, and more. A museum collection does not have to cancel history. Rather, it can curate its collection to tell the story it wants visitors to hear, in the way that the Martha’s Vineyard Museum will do with the plaques donated from Oak Bluffs.
The national conversation surrounding Confederate statues is sparking lots of ideas about what to do with them. And it is also teaching us about lost chapters in American history that we may not have wanted to see or read about. The promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for liberty and justice for all are coming due. Time past has caught up to time present.
As a country, as a culture, the monuments we wish to build or destroy demand answers to society’s questions about what we value. Instead of designing “one size fits all” statues (except for the belt buckle) that demean and degrade a multitude of human beings, let us use nature here on planet Earth to signify what we want to hold dear. So I say, replace the statues with boulders! Or trees! Or groups of trees, and groups of boulders.
As time passes and history flows beneath our feet, what any particular manifestation “meant” gets polished by the river of time. In 10,000 years, whether it’s a priceless piece of art or a silent sentinel, time will erode any meaning we might have wanted to convey.
And though it may seem counterintuitive to recommend replacing statues with trees and boulders, I believe it represents the landscaper’s long view of designing public spaces for the ages. Boulders and trees would make better memorials than the racist hubris reflected in Confederate statues. If we take sufficient care of planet Earth, nature will remain, not as a reminder of our petty political points of view, but as proof that we bear witness to the most powerful forces that push their way up from the center of our earth.
Give nature her due, and let the boulders and the trees speak of earth’s diurnal course and our small part in it.
Elizabeth Westling, an annual visitor to Martha’s Vineyard, holds degrees in early modern European history from UCLA and landscape history and design from the Landscape Institute at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.