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Vision Quest

David Butler

A Quest for Life: An Autobiography. Ian L. McHarg. xvi + 430 pp. John Wiley & Sons, 1996. $34.95.

The name Ian McHarg should be familiar to anyone who has the slightest knowledge of any aspect of the environmental movement. Author of the classic book Design with Nature (1969), McHarg is widely recognized as the father of ecological planning and has advised environmental planners and government officials for four decades. This autobiography, preceded by a short and glowing foreword by former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, crisply provides the life story of a true giant. McHarg virtually bubbles over with his love for nature and its healing touch, and his passionate fervor permeates the entire book.

The book is comprised of an introduction, nine chapters, a poem to the world's children, a chronology of McHarg's life, an impressive list of awards, a bibliography, an inventory of projects and a thoroughly detailed index. The first two chapters provide the historical background of McHarg's upbringing in the starkness of industrial Scotland and his harrowing, but also amusing, experiences as a soldier during World War II. From these chapters one can see why McHarg became so enthralled with nature and so adamantly opposed to environmental despoliation of any kind. These are followed by two chapters that outline his education at Harvard following the war and his depressing experience with—but ultimate triumph over—tuberculosis in the early 1950s.

Chapters five through seven provide the bulk of the text's discussion of McHarg's environmental career. They detail how he established the program in landscape architecture and city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, the many obstacles encountered in the 1950s and 1960s to his espousal of an ecological perspective, how he came to write Design with Nature, and his involvement with the environmental movement during the 1970s. The development of a methodology for studying the environment had to be created from scratch, and McHarg describes in detail his "layer-cake" method that has led ultimately to the development of environmental impact statements, as well as geographic information systems. As one who was too young during the 1960s to be familiar with McHarg's television series and appearances in that period, I was particularly fascinated to learn of his use of the media to espouse what at the time was an unknown message. The last two chapters, although necessary for rounding out an autobiography, provide little additional insight into the development of McHarg's worldview, but instead examine his recent personal life and recapitulate what had already been more effectively discussed in previous chapters.

My only major disappointment with the book is that it did not provide greater insight into the actual writing process associated with the development of Design with Nature. The process of the genesis of the book, which was developed from a series of lectures in his class on man and environment, is clearly presented. But what of the writing process itself? Is it simple for a giant to put word to pen, or did McHarg struggle with every sentence the way others do?

The book is attractively packaged and nearly free of annoying errors. Several excellent photographs document McHarg's career, and numerous drawings and photographs provide the background for discussions of the environmental projects in which he was involved. The book offers fascinating insight into the mind and life of a living legend, and I highly recommend it.—David R. Butler, Geography and Planning, Southwest Texas State University

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