Landscape architect professor writes about Crosby Arboretum, a place of haunting beauty

Landscape architect professor writes about Crosby Arboretum

tmsmith@sunherald.comJune 30, 2014 

Bustling cities enclosed within the shadows of soaring skyscrapers are inspiring for some. Others are thrilled by the sight of majestic mountains or sweeping plains.

For Bob Brzuszek, it's a longleaf pine forest blanketed in fog or standing on the edge of two enviroments.

Brzuszek, an associate professor of landscape architecture at Mississippi State University, is the author of the recently published "The Crosby Arboretum: A Sustainable Regional Landscape" (Louisiana State University Press, $23.95 hardcover, pdf or epub). He teaches courses in landscape design, ecology and management, and was site director and first curator of the Arboretum, from 1990 to 2003. A native of the Midwest, he lived in Picayune for 13 years and frequently visited the immediate Coast during that time.

The impetus for the book was that "some of the people in the early days -- Fay Jones, Ed Blake -- both passed away in the past 10 years. I knew if I didn't put this stuff down now, it might not get saved," he said in a recent telephone interview. Blake was a landscape architect who designed the master plan, and internationally known architect Jones designed Pinecote Pavilion and wooden bridges associated with Piney Woods Lake.

"It took 14 years of planning," Brzuszek said of the Arboretum, which encompasses 104 acres in the Native Plant Center as well as management of 700 acres in seven associated natural areas. The Native Plant Center includes the Pinecote Pavilion and the Piney Woods Lake for display of native water plants in their natural setting. What many visitors don't know, he said, is that the Arboretum is a planned garden -- a natural garden, to be sure, but one created.

"What is significant is that the Arboretum could have gone in a lot of other directions," he said.

When the facility was being seriously planned in the early 1980s, there were plenty of European-inspired gardens in the United States. But an adviser, a botanist from Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, noted these were gardens were quite abundant. Richard Lighty urged the Crosby board to consider "looking at the plants of their own back yard."

And so the Crosby Arboretum became "a garden of place," as Brzuszek calls it, of "growing woodlands, developing wetlands. It shows the best little vignettes of South Mississippi and the Gulf Coast landscape. The Crosby Arboretum took damaged land and healed it. It's about healing a landscape. It's really symbolic, working with the land even as you're healing it."

Decades before, that damaged land had been clear-cut, devoid of its vegetation by the 1930s after the timber was cleared. Where longleaf pine forests once had stood, owner L.O. Crosby put in farm crops: strawberries, peaches, grapes, pecans, even tung trees. Overharvesting timber was a common practice at the time, but with the Depression well entrenched, Picayune needed the new crops Crosby planted on the old forest land. The Arboretum's land, at the time, was known as The Strawberry Farm. At some point in the '40s, slash pine replaced the strawberry plants, but before they could mature to harvest, Hurricane Camille scuttled that plan. After Crosby's death in 1978, his family wanted to establish a memorial.

"L.O. Crosby Jr. loved nature," Brzuszek said. "He was very active in the Boy Scouts and in getting kids into nature. A native plant garden fitted well into what he was about. They made a very wise move. They recognized what was right to do with that land."

The Crosby Arboretum was ahead of its time, he said.

"It became sustainable design before the word was really used," he said.

The Crosby Arboretum shows our "ancestral landscape," he said. "It's a way for people to be in touch with the place they came from. When people think about Mississippi, they often think about the arts here and how they work with the place, and that's what captivates other people -- our literature, our music, other things. You can't get it anywhere else. It's what makes us unique, who we are. As Picayune, Slidell and the Coast grow, people cam get a sense of what the original landscape was like."

Brzuszek doesn't want to play favorites with the Arboretum, but there are areas he's especially drawn to.

"I like the edges of places. That's what I find fascinating," he said. "To me, it's walking along the savannah walkway, on the edge of woods and grassland, on the edge of a creek bank or pond. It's standing in one environment and looking into another.

"To me, the Mississippi landscape is so beautiful. I came from the Midwest, and here we have one of the most hauntingly beautiful landscapes. It's exquisite, ethereal -- a quality I can't describe. It's what's so stunning about the Gulf Coast."

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