A 1995 New York Times article described the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Washington, as “one of this country’s most original and ambitious gardens.” The Reserve was recently listed as a therapeutic landscape—a designation that is long overdue. It is, I believe, one of the first, if not the first, private garden in the U.S. created mainly as a place for people to gain wellness.
Virginia and Prentice Bloedel did not create an estate garden to display horticultural specimens, their wealth, or examples of European garden designs. They probably did not intend to create an estate garden at all. The designed spaces cover less than half of the 150 acres, while the rest is second growth forest. And within the designed spaces is a wide array of healing niches to discover, and they include a moss garden, reflecting pools, meadows, a skunk cabbage bog, and wildlife ponds. While several landscape architects have designed parts of the Reserve, the overall vision and many of the details emanated from Prentice Bloedel himself. This private and modest man did not share his motives as he created this place over 30 years ago, but we can surmise them from his actions. The Times writer noted that he had a “mystical reverence” for the land.
A likely source for Bloedel’s deep feelings about nature was his prep school experiences in the innovative curriculum of the Thacher School in Ojia, California, from which he graduated in 1917. Then and now, Thacher uses camping, horses, and hiking to connect each student with the natural landscape. For many this becomes a life-long bond.
As a young man, Bloedel contracted polio. In the 16 years I knew him until he died in 1996, he walked with a limp and needed a walking stick on the Reserve paths.
“Therapeutic landscape” is not a term Bloedel used, nor did anyone else almost 40 years ago. But I believe he felt increased wellness in the Reserve landscape and wanted to share what he felt. Most importantly, he wanted to explore these feelings intellectually. After giving the Reserve to the University of Washington in 1970, he created a “People-Plant Relationship Committee” within the Arbor Fund, the Reserve’s governing board, and persistently explored creating a new People-Plant curriculum at the University. Unfortunately, his thinking was ahead of the University’s leadership. In 1977, Dean Philip W. Cartwright responded to Bloedel’s urging by stating that “no such group of scholars existed on campus and there was little likelihood that it ever will.”
So, Bloedel sought out the leading thinkers in environmental psychology and the emerging disciplines of horticultural therapy and landscape theory. He had a close personal friendship with Charles A. Lewis for decades and supported his book, Green Nature—Human Nature. He also funded research by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, and Jay Appleton’s “U.K. Landscape Research Group.” All these scholars made several visits to the Reserve and to the UW’s Department of Landscape Architecture in the 1980s. My own special memory is a lunch I enjoyed with Bloedel and the Kaplans at the Reserve. Looking back and thinking about the exciting conversation, I know now that I was in the presence of three great pioneers.
Bloedel sought answers to penetrating questions about the relationship between humans and landscapes, but he wrote little about his intentions for the Reserve. Charles Lewis repeatedly urged him to amplify what he meant by the word “enjoy” in the 1976 Statement of Purpose for the Reserve. In 1978, Bloedel wrote, “The omission of the words emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual in the Statement is unfortunate.” If he were alive today, I am confident Prentice Bloedel would be an enthusiastic student and supporter of the therapeutic landscape movement.
Prentice and his wife, Virginia, are buried in the Reserve near the Reflecting Pool, a space that speaks to those who enter: “be still and feel.” For me, this is the quintessential message of wellness and the Reserve.
Note: The Bloedel Reserve is open to the public by appointment only. The admission fee is $12. More information may be found at www.bloedelreserve.org or by calling 206-842-7631.
Sally Schauman, FASLA, is Adjunct Professor, Nicholas School, Duke University, and Professor Emerita, University of Washington. She can be reached at: email@example.com.