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Frederick Law Olmsted & His Beautiful Parks

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822 - 1903) is far from a household name these days, having died over a century ago. Despite this, his reach remains wide in the United States. Olmsted was a landscape designer and pioneer of landscape architecture, and was the genius behind many urban green spaces that still exist today, and continue to anchor their cities with a measure of respect for nature. Olmsted prided himself on his ability to place natural-looking spaces smack in the middle of cities, and took great care in making his designs feel organic. He was as prolific as a landscape architect can get, and designed spaces as far west as Berkeley, California, and as far east as Boston. Below are some of his grander and more interesting designs.

1. Central Park

800px-Lower_Central_Park_Shot_5First and most obvious on any list of Olmsted designs is Central Park. In 1857, a landscape design contest was held to determine who would design the huge swath of land in the center of Manhattan. Olmsted, who at the time was a writer, worked with architect Calvert Vaux to win the competition with their Greensward Plan, an innovative design that gave high priority to natural-looking landscapes and separate pathways for pedestrians and other modes of transport, like bicycles and horses. A particularly beautiful and interesting feature was the use of multidimensional pathways-- Vaux designed 36 separate bridges, which were used all over the park to create interesting intersections. The design, which required the removal of ten million cartloads of dirt and rocks and the installation of more than four million trees, shrubs, and plants, was not officially completed until 1873.

2. The Emerald Necklace

arnoldarboretumThe Emerald Necklace actually describes a chain of several parks that reach from Boston to Brookline, Massachusetts, including the Boston Commons, Boston Public Garden, the eponymous Olmsted park, and the Arnold Arboretum. Olmsted originally designed the project in 1878 to link the Boston Common with Franklin Park, and by doing so clean up the marshy in-between areas of Back Bay and Fens near Boston. The chain of parks, which constitute a long series of walking paths along the water is now seven miles long, with a significant portion of the water that occupied Back Bay redirected into the Charles River. The Arnold Arboretum in particular exemplifies the great care Olmsted took in designing his parks: rather than flattening the landscape and ensuring orderly pathways, he carved them around the existing plant life, making a beautiful exhibit out what was already there. Also a gifted botanist, Olmsted also helped classify and arrange some of the newer plants in the park with the new classification system created by Bentham and Hooker.

3. The Columbian Exposition

800px-Chicago_expo_Midway_PlaisanceChicago was able to snatch the honor of hosting the 1893 World's Fair away from the hands of many other hopeful cities, including New York. However, at the time, Chicago had a long way to go to become a city fit to do so: in just a few years, Chicago had to turn its blackened, industrial urban spaces into a celebration of enlightenment and civilization. Olmsted had a heavy hand in this transformation, and during the preparation period drastically renovated no fewer than three parks in Chicago: Washington Park, Jackson Park, and the Midway Plaisance. Olmsted took special care in developing the three, despite many setbacks like swampy areas and vegetation crushed by workers setting up other parts of the exposition. Olmsted originally conceived of a Venetian canal system that would connect "lagoons" he constructed in each of the parks, but this proved to be too much of a hassle and the plan was abandoned. Once completed, the parks saw over 26 million visitors as part of the Columbian Exposition, and remain in existence today.

4. Congress Park

Congress ParkCongress Park in Saratoga Springs, New York, is a relatively small operation when compared to the like of Central Park, but has very unique features. Saratoga Springs, as the name suggests, is home to several natural springs that were revered in Olmsted's day for their ability to impart health and youth (later, everyone realized they were just water). Nonetheless, the park was designed in the 1870s around the springs, and even today has several small pavilions housing spigots that produce water from various springs that have different aromas and flavors. The park is also home to an old gambling casino, as well as an original carousel.

5. Cherokee Park

300px-Cherokee_parkCherokee Park is a municipal park in Louisville Kentucky, and one of 18 parks in the area designed by Olmsted. It was opened in 1892, and its design probably coincided with that of the Columbian Exposition, adding to Olmsted's load at the time. Like his other parks, Olmsted designed the park to integrate with the natural landscape shapes found in Kentucky, with gently rollling hills and long pathways that surround Beargrass Creek, which runs through most of the park. Its features today include Baringer Spring, a stream crisscrossed by several walkways; an archery range; hiking trails; and Big Rock, an outcropping eight feet over the surface of Beargrass Creek that is popular as a picnicking and swimming area.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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