The Backgrounds

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“. . . One Owes It to One’s Family and to the Children,” in L. H. Bailey, Home Grounds (1918), p. 16, and here.

“There are two parts to the common day,—the performance of the day, and the background of the day. Many of us are so submerged in the work we do and in the pride of life that the real day slips by unnoted and unknown. But there are some who part the hours now and then and let the background show through. There are others who keep the sentiments alive as an undertone and who hang all the hours of work on a golden cord, connecting everything and losing none; theirs is the full life; their backgrounds are never forgotten; and the backgrounds are the realities.” –LHBGC, p. 95

In his work as a pioneer in the field of landscape gardening (known today as landscape architecture), Bailey was familiar with the term “background” in terms of the design of a home or garden, as in the illustrations of “a house” and “a home” at the bottom of the previous page. As the years passed, however, that word “background” began to take on a new meaning in his writings. In the early 1900s, as he grew to national prominence as a leader in both the nature-study movement and country life movement, he became invested in the philosophical project of helping people redirect their attention away from what seemed to him like some of the more superficial distractions of modern consumerism and back toward the natural world and our place in it. He was far from anti-modern, but he believed that humans and everything involved with civilization were still part of nature, and that losing track of that fact would cause people to lose their way in life. Notice in the illustration above how the trees and shrubs form a background for the conversation happening with the children—the landscape gardening here helps to frame the conversation and thought process of the gathering. You imagine that the conversation can’t help but be influenced by the songs of birds in the trees, by the insects whirring by, and by the breeze rustling through high tree branches.

The vegetation around the periphery of that illustration form a sort of “background space” that Bailey believed to be important to people’s mental and spiritual health. By reorienting our attention back toward such background spaces and engaging with the plants and animals we find there, Bailey believed we could hold on to an important part of ourselves that commercial modernity sometimes threatened. We might imagine him encouraging the children in this picture, after their huddle, to spread out along the line of trees and shrubs to see what they find there. As he writes in the block quotation above, the day itself has a sort of background, and it is important to “part the hours now and then and let the background show through.”

He elaborated these ideas further in a series that he titled The Background Books: The Philosophy of the Holy Earth, published from 1915-1928. Far from a mere backdrop, Bailey believed the “everlasting backgrounds” to be more real than most of the artificial elements that humans build around their lives, and more vital to human flourishing. As he wrote in the first of the Background Books, his 1915 book The Holy Earth:

“The backgrounds are important. The life of every one of us is relative. We miss our destiny when we miss or forget our backgrounds. We lose ourselves. Men go off in vague heresies when they forget the conditions against which they live. Judgments become too refined and men tend to become merely disputatious and subtle.

“The backgrounds are the great unoccupied spaces. They are the large environments in which we live but which we do not make […], to which we adjust our civilization, and by which we measure ourselves.” –The Holy Earth, p. 97

On the right, you will see the cover of the centennial edition of The Holy Earth, which features a photograph, taken by Bailey and now part of the collection of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum & Gardens, depicting his daughter Sara leaning against a tree at the old farm in Michigan, her attention drawn along a line of trees to the background of the picture and the whispers of wind through the distant leaves.

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