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The Human Hand of Eden

Todd Ziebarth reviews Imagining Eden: Connecting Landscapes by Lyle Gomes

Imagining Eden: Connecting Landscapes, by Lyle GomesIn Imagining Eden: Connecting Landscapes, Lyle Gomes presents the results of a 15-year photography project that took him to various public and private gardens in American and Europe. The black-and-white photographs on display capture various attempts to recreate the lost paradise of Eden in the here and now, with subjects ranging from Central Park in New York City to Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia to Rousham Park in England.

As I viewed Gomes’s excellent work, two things became clear. First, the sense of mystery in many of the photographs is provocative. What’s on the other side of that turn in the path in Riverway Park in Boston, in that road straight ahead in the Presidio in San Francisco, across that bridge beyond the frozen pool in Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.?

San Francisco Presidio # 1, 1989, by Lyle Gomes.
San Francisco Presidio # 1, 1989

Second, the images of paradise on display aren’t of nature as wilderness, but are rather of nature tamed and shaped by the human hand. Each photograph adeptly captures this coming together of nature and man. Sometimes, it is as simple as a couple of benches and a clearing through the trees in Rousham Park in England. Other times, it is more apparent, such as a winter view in Central Park, with glimpses of skyscrapers in the misty background.

Veduta, Villa Serbelloni Bellagio, Italy, 2002, by Lyle Gomes.
Veduta, Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, Italy, 2002

In addition to Gomes’s wonderful photographs, related quotes are interspersed throughout the book as guideposts to these man-made attempts at recreating paradise. Here’s one from Major W.A. Jones in 1883 that captures the thinking behind these attempts:

Sir: I have the honor to submit a detailed plan for the cultivation of trees upon the Presidio Reservation. I have given the matter considerable attention and treated it largely because it is one of both importance and interest . . . [The] project is perfectly feasible, provided it be treated systematically and with forethought. If it be worth while to plan trees on the Reservation at all, they should be planted effectively, and not dumped into the ground by the thousands at random.

Frozen Pool, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., 2004, by Lyle Gomes.
Frozen Pool, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., 2004

It is worth noting that the book opens with an excerpt from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and an introductory essay by UCLA geography professor Denis Cosgrove. Both of these may be skipped—that is, unless you are a fan of seventeenth-century poetry or a geography history enthusiast. Milton remains one of the two most impenetrable authors I have read (the other being American philosopher John Dewey). Cosgrove’s introduction was clearly not written for the lay reader and is a missed opportunity to set the stage for what is to come for those of us outside of the academy.

Imagining Eden ends, however, with an informative interview with Gomes that provides some perspective on the thinking behind the photographs.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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Imagining Eden: Connecting Landscapes

By Lyle Gomes
Introduction by Denis Cosgrove

   University of Virginia
   November 2005
   ISBN 0813923824

Purchase this book at Powells.com.


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