borrowed scenery: of views and viewsheds

churchlandscape3A “NEIGHBOR” CLOSER TO THE HUDSON RIVER than I am got me thinking recently again about how much our sense of landscape and of gardens depends on “borrowed scenery” that forms our views. Frederic Church depicted his view across the Hudson to the Catskill Mountains in 1871 (shown), a vista not unlike my neighbor’s. What’s your view like, and what’s your view on views?

Such expressions by Church and other artists in the Hudson River School marked the start of the American environmental movement, many experts believe today. Standing in my neighbor friend’s garden recently and looking out at the same landscape they did, I was reminded how few of us get to witness that kind of majesty very often, and how precious a resource such viewsheds are. No wonder they inspired an entire movement.

Today a number of historic sites like Church’s astonishing home near here called Olana are working to protect their viewsheds, in part thanks to work by groups like Scenic Hudson, and to unique events like the one coming up Nov. 1 for Olana’s benefit (see details of their ‘Viewshed Tour’ below).

Nearer to New York City, the dramatic stretch of Palisades across the Hudson from the gardens of Wave Hill has long been protected from unsightly development. At Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia, similar viewshed preservation efforts are under way, as they are in the Napa Valley and numerous spectacular places across the country. Perhaps you know of some to share, or some you never want to lose?

Even my far-smaller views from where I sit and where I garden are precious to me: a glimpse of the sunset sinking into an adjacent cornfield across the road, the way the stand of birches to my southeast catch the sunrise in winter. Nothing to paint and hang in a national museum, exactly, and not even part of “my property,” but I am definitely attached to seeing them.

As much as where my house was situated, as much or more than any other factor, these bits of borrowed scenery influenced how and where I made my gardens on this little piece of land.  Are there views you treasure (or things you want to hide)? What scenery are you borrowing as part of your individual garden pictures?



On Saturday, Nov. 1, the Olana Partnership and the New York State Office of Parks join 12 landowners to celebrate the beauty that surrounds Olana’s landscape. This first-of-its-kind event includes access to a dozen privately owned landscapes, from orchards and farms to estates, all in the dramatic Olana viewshed and looking back at Olana, the Hudson and the Catskills beyond.  I plan to wander through them all that day, and savor the rare opportunity to take in all that borrowed scenery and help keep it safe in the process by buying a ticket and participating. Proceeds will benefit the restoration of Olana’s landscape.  All the details of this unique event are in this PDF invitation.

  1. Sarah Caron says:

    The view in that painting reminds me of childhood. I could stare at it all day and get lost in my own memories … Funny how a landscape can do that, if you feel a connection.

    I grew up in the Hudson Valley, when I think landscapes, I think of the views of the gardens at the mansions in Hyde Park and the high vantage points above Norie Point.

    And that leads me into thinking about how I need to create better landscapes for my children. I have a vision in my head … now, how do I translate that?

  2. David Hicks was a great believe in borrowed landscapes, which he said was a Japanese gardening tradition. Our primary view, from the front of the house, is of a huge haymeadow and rolling hills, on all of which has been placed an easement. Our other good view overlooks more rolling hills and a river valley.

  3. Ilona says:

    What a great post! You inspire me, and my answer will make up my next post on the blog.

    I wish we all had the power to protect our views, but the reality is that sometimes we have to just roll with “progress” or what we have that is less than ideal. In no way does that lessen the importance of thinking about it and deciding to preserve our sense of nature (which is essentially what protecting such “viewsheds” is all about, I think).

    btw, “viewsheds” is a completely new term for me

  4. margaret says:

    Welcome, Sarah. Ah, how do we translate it: I guess that’s what we are all doing or trying to as we make our garden pictures, our landscapes large and small. So glad to “meet” and hear of your “connection” to these views.

  5. Mary-Frances Makichen says:

    Margaret, very interesting post. Right now I have an amazing view of a lake and hills. It’s definitely the most spectacular view I’ve ever had. However, we’re looking at relocating to a bigger city and I know there’s a good chance we won’t be able to afford this kind of view in a bigger city. How I wish larger cities could do a better job of incorporating open space and views with development:).

  6. Susan says:

    I just came back from a walk with my dogs, thinking how beautiful my local views are. Your post is great for today and the changing landscape right now. I am unable to make the tour on Nov 1, I will wait and read all about what you savor. I have an amazing view out my kitchen window, I get to see the sunset as I cook every night.

  7. margaret says:

    Welcome Mary-Frances. You hint at the “priceless” aspect of views, how in more-developed areas we can’t afford to have one, all too often. I know I am happier now that I live in my rural home with wider views than when I lived in my city one, and what I can see out the window is a big part of how much more expansive I feel here.

  8. islandexile says:

    Well, you’ve challenged me to put into words something, I’ve only felt. We live about 800′ up a wooded hill facing part of an archipelago in the Pacific Northwest. We see water – a constantly shifting aspect of light and motion. We see nearby islands that vary by time of day, the passage of sun, fog, clouds, occasionally snow, and the changing colors of the deciduous trees among the evergreens. Then there is the occasional maritime traffic, the small mainland town far in the distance, and occasionlly and movingly, the great cone of Mt. Rainier, particularly beautiful in the rising or setting sun. I guess all this makes it easier to cede the land to the deer and confine my gardening to the decks.

  9. Cameron says:

    We have a front meadow, just beyond our cottage garden and outer garden. We sit on our front porch and watch the morning sun from the east cast shadows across the front. In the evenings, the shadows from the west. My husband often says “another Monet moment” at Arbor Lea (our neighborhood). We also borrow the views of our neighbor’s meadow and fence across the road and our little neighborhood “Sawmill Park” at the corner of our meadow. Our neighborhood was a dairy farm for 200 years before being divided. Our neighborhood “common area” consists of the old dairy barn (not renovated), outbuildings and a fishing pond instead of a clubhouse and pool.

  10. My view used to be miles and miles of sea, islands and cliffs. Now my garden is rented out for a couple of years, as we are temporarily in the US. So for a while, I will have to do with a well-manicured backyard. I’ve been contemplating the impact of these views on my mind. Sometimes I felt that my precious view in Sweden was almost draining me, demanding so much attention. I sometimes made jokes of the view making my garden instead of me. A great view is fantastic to have, but also quite exhausting, as it diminishes everything connected to it – everything has to be on a large scale to able to compete (or even complement the view). The garden will be open to winds from that direction. But in overall, I still miss the changing sea, clouds coming and going, rain in the horizon. I feel that seeing just 10 or 20 meters (30 to 60 feet) towards a neighbours fence, however well designed the garden might be, can impossibly inspire as much as a larger view… Even if a small garden can naturally be as great of a joy for its owner as a grander one.

  11. Tammy says:

    What a thought provoking post. My little garden in the city is confined to within my wooden fence. However, our land 2hrs. east in the Piney Woods of East Texas is another story. We can stand on the porch of our little log cabin and see across the meadow and up the hill to pine trees filling the expanse up to the sky. All the more precious because it once belonged to my grandpa and now to me.

    Wish I was there right now. Can smell the air, so sweet….

  12. dogrivervt says:

    A topic near and dear to my art historian heart. When I first left Vermont to go back to school in NJ, I was surprised to find views in this flat landscape that I love just as much as my mountains, something I never thought could happen. It may be the sky’s reflection in the river, or maybe the train bridge arching over the streets, but it’s always there. Just goes to show you.

  13. Jan says:

    I live in flat, prairie, farm country and the view changes a lot. In spring the land changes from weathered grey to deep black as the fields are tilled for planting. As the crops emerge (corn and soybeans) it is black with green stripes. The stripes get larger and eventually the green fills in the entire field. Next, the tassels come out on the corn so now it is deep green topped with beige stripes. In fall the green turns to tan. once the crops are harvested, suddenly there are lights on the horizon at night. Then it starts all over again. I love it!

  14. margaret says:

    Welcome, Jan. I, too, live amid farmland, and love watching the swaths you describe as they evolve. I particularly love the corn stubble catching the light this time of year, sort of punctuating the otherwise-empty fields. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Great topic Margaret!
    As a garden designer in Los Angeles one of my favorite design objectives is to “discover, create or maximize” any view that my client may have, or not know that they have.

    On my “design discovery visits” I take with me a ladder, loppers and a folding chair. I drag these around the yard, step up the ladder a few feet at different places and look to see if the view is better from a higher vantage point. Many times, there are incredible borrowed views from beyond that can be easily enjoyed from 2 or 3 feet higher, so I design a multi level garden to take advantage of this.

    My lopers are used to cut “portholes” through mature vegetation to see if there is a view beyond the verdant walls. Again, I discover the most beautiful views that have been hidden for years! The chair is useful because I set it down and sit where I’d like to create a sitting area and this gives me a realistic “on-site” perspective that you can’t get at the drafting table.

    Sometimes when there are no amazing views to borrow, I just open up the horizon lines so that my client gets a maxed “big sky view.” I keep the trees low, so that beyond you can see a tranquil big sky.

    I wrote a post on my blog , “EdenMakers” about discovering hidden views that you may enjoy reading:


    Shirley Bovshow

  16. margaret says:

    Welcome, Jeff. The two destinations sound like perfect day trips for the coming offseason, a chance to enjoy some great views even when the weather may not be so hospitable outdoors. Thanks for your comment, and the tips. Hope we see you again soon.

  17. Jeff Greenberg says:

    Just a note of discovery:

    There’s a small but very impressive museum at Vassar in Poughkeepsie with an exceptional collection of Hudson River artists, gathered I am told by pere Vassar himself in the 19th century (for pennies, no doubt).

    An added plus is the elegant modernist garden that backs the museum.

    The New York State Museum (I think that is its name) in Albany has even more paintings on display.

    Of course, the big disappointment was the sale of the wonderful Asher Durand painting that hung for years in the south staircase of the NY Public Library to the Wal-mart heiress. The painting now resides somewhere in Arkansas.

  18. I am also in the Pacific Northwest and our view from the garden is, I think unique. To the west is a giant Laurel hedge, creating a dense green backdrop for my row of Crabtrees “Transcendent”. To the South are giant Doug Firs with a skirt of willow, thimbleberry and Oceanspray. To the North is our farmer’s field bounded by a hedgerow of Saskatoon, maples, wild cherries and a tumble of others that hide the coyote family. And to the East.. ah the East! We are up at 1600 feet and our land drops away below us. The best I can do to describe what we see, especially in the Autumn, is from that old song: of purple mountain majesty above the fruited the plain. The dawn shows the peaks of the Cascade volcanoes: Mt Jefferson, Mt Hood, Mt Adams, Mt St Helens and finally the snow covered dromedary hump of Rainier. Each volcano has its changing character, from the dark massive shape of St Helen’s now too warm to sustain much snow, to the Fuji-like triangle of Mt Hood.At first dawn they are silhouettes of black etched against the red sky, then the rosy color lights up the snowy sides and finally they can be seen as mountains beneath the cloud cover lit up from below. They rise literally “above the fruited plain”: the Willamette Valley’s rolling hills of wheat, grapes, crimson clover and solitary giant oaks. As I see all of this from everywhere I walk in my garden I am filled with a sense of gratitude. Small person, how did I get so lucky?

  19. margaret says:

    Welcome, Lori, and nice to meet up again from a different vantage point: both more rural and less high-pressure. Sigh. I hope to see you at the Olana Viewshed tours…it should be a great day, full of inspiration.

  20. Lori Powell says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I am not going to ask how you are since you are living a heavenly life… congratulations!!
    Like you, well not really, except that I too have retired my city life as of Jan 08 and moved upstate in Old Hurley (Ulster County) full time. This move was after commuting 4 days a week for 3 1/2 yrs with what resulted in no real life in either place. Sooo I bit the bullet, left Real Simple as Food Director, to explore the freelance life up here full time. Great timing… what with the volatile economic climate but one can always find reasons for not jumping off the cliff and I had already waited 4 years to do so. I have not looked back once, big sign, and actually love doing different projects and not having to show up in the same place 5 days a week. I adore the Hudson Valley and heard about your website through Dan Shaw. It is so inspiring all of it and such a fun and informative read. I would love to catch up with you at some point since we really never did get to talk after I left and still feel bad about that.
    Looking forward to more good reads on your site and downloaded the Olana Viewshed Tour that sounds like a must do.

  21. chris says:

    what is my view on views? interestingly, differently in the city than in the country. in my city apt, i am lucky enough to see a park outside my window, so there is a psychological benefit, letting me breathe, if you will, by seeing out the window. in the country, on my property, it is all about sightlines, which means that i do a lot of brushcutting. for me, a tree needs to be seen from top to bottom, and this means that all of the invasive stuff has to go. good thing i don’t go around central park with my bypass loppers…

  22. When I was last on Frederic Church’s porch (about 10 years ago) looking at his view, the main discussion was protecting that “viewshed” which was under attack from industry. If you stand on the front porch of the Laurence Rockefeller home in Woodstock Vt., the view out to the mountains is incredible. The Rockefellers actually went out on the porch one winter when the trees were bare and bought the viewshed — the 180 degrees that was visible. They later gave the house and the property as the nation’s first conservation park. The whole area was logged over in the 19th century and restored in the early 20th century. So they protected fantastic views and created a learning experience for citizens at the same time. My own view is of my neighbor’s big cottonwoods, white pines, small oaks and the state champion dawn redwood — beautiful in autumn but spectacular come January.

  23. ScentScelf says:

    “My” viewsheds have been urban or suburban, and planning & incorporating therefore is necessarily on a rather smaller scale than many discussed here. The 40′ mulberries that lined the east side of my former (urban) backyard, for example, which I clearly considered “mine” as far as view and landscape planning went, along with the oak on the far side of the east neighbor. The water fountain (plus) and cigar boat (not so plus) on the west side. The blank space/interruption in greenery that was the alley at the rear edge. I planted to harmonize with what was alongside or in the near distance, and planted with an eye toward what the neighbors saw. (A patch of daffodils went in where I could smell them, but never see them, for example. But my neighbor noticed them out her kitchen window the first year they bloomed, and walked over to thank me.)

    In more intimate/densely populated settings, the scale changes. I remember having a conversation about privacy fences with a gardener and a local beat cop; we bemoaned the fact that we knew that someday, our clear view from one end of the block to another was likely to be interrupted by a blank wood wall. And the cop pointed out that views are two-way…without a view IN, police officers found it hard to do an “all’s well” kind of check.

    Much to be said here, and I’m not doing such a good job. Suffice to say I have enjoyed the “peeks” at all the other viewscapes discussed in these comments, and thank you for starting such a good thread.

  24. margaret says:

    Just wanted to check in and say that I am glad this topic, which I almost didn’t post about, has resonated and elicited such substantive and thoughtful comments. It’s always a learning experience for me to try a new kind of topic, and learn more about you in the process. Thank you all for sharing a “look” at your views so far; in my mind’s eye, I can see them all, from Sweden to Rainier and in between, and they are beautiful indeed. Keep them coming.

  25. margaret says:

    Welcome, Christiane, and thanks for the info. Also good to post in the forums…under regional/Hudson Valley Berkshires board, which I have just done. That’s the best place for announcements probably. Hope to see you soon again…shout out when you walk by.

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