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The Crosby Arboretum: A living memorial to a man who loved nature, designed by a man who listened to nature

In the beginning, the site known today as The Crosby Arboretum may have had the appearance of a typical pine plantation. But this Sunday, as people gather from across the nation to celebrate the memory of the Arboretum’s first director, Edward L. Blake, Jr., they will journey through a vibrant and layered landscape, alive with the glories of spring. Traveling through the Arrival Journey’s still youthful woodland, they may pass butterflies cavorting on native azalea blooms, near the area where Ed once stood in the 1980’s and mused while admiring pine and yaupon and sweetgum trees, that visitors would one day stand in a beech-magnolia forest.

Friends and colleges of Ed’s will hold a memorial event celebrating his life and work that spanned three decades and re-defined the boundaries of landscape architecture. The memorial will take place this Sunday, April 3, at 2:00 p.m. on the Crosby Arboretum’s Pinecote Pavilion, at the heart of the site considered by many to be his greatest accomplishment. Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania in 1947, Ed Blake grew up in Mississippi and left this world unexpectedly on August 30, 2010. He is survived by his wife Marilyn, and his sons, Benjamin and Chase.

Members of the community who knew Ed are welcome to attend.

The Crosby Arboretum was created as a living memorial to L.O. Crosby, Jr., who was the president and general manager of Crosby Forest Products Company of Picayune. Mr. Crosby died in Picayune on December 24, 1978. His daughter Lynn Gammill remembers driving by the property that is today the Crosby Arboretum with her mother, Dorothy Crosby, and her brother, Osmond Crosby,  remarking on how much their father had loved this particular piece of land. Mrs. Gammill remembered her brother saying that there should be a memorial to their father on this site, using “every kind of tree that grows there”. On that day, the family of L.O. Crosby Jr. decided they would build a living memorial in his honor on this 64 acre parcel of family land that had been part of a 640 acre Depression-era strawberry farm. Ed Blake wrote that the family “imagined how fitting it would be to make a place expressive of his contributions to the betterment to Mississippi’s livelihood and his deep love of the out of doors.”

The Crosby family knew they didn’t want to develop a traditional garden. Instead, they wanted a new idea. They sought to create a place where visitors would have opportunities to learn about the wonders of the natural world, and to celebrate nature. In addition to being a living memorial for L.O. Crosby, Jr., the Arboretum was intended to offer an educational, cultural, and economic benefit for the surrounding community.

The mission of the Crosby Arboretum is the preservation, protection and display of plants native to the Pearl River Drainage Basin ecosystem, and educating the public about the area’s natural resources. Three basic landscapes indigenous to the Piney Woods of southern Mississippi are represented at the Arboretum: a grassy savanna, a woodland, and a freshwater wetland, environments which are laced together by subtle pathways and buildings.

After careful planning, the family assembled a board, which included MSU President Emeritus William Giles, MSU Professor of Forestry George Switzer, and Sidney McDaniel, MSU Professor of Botany. Edward Blake, Jr., a faculty of landscape architecture at MSU, was chosen to lead these efforts. Ed had received his degree in landscape architecture from MSU in 1970 as part of the third class to do so, and taught at MSU from 1977 until 1984, when he became the first director of The Crosby Arboretum. Early in 1981, he began work on a Master Plan that would guide the Arboretum’s development.

Ed visited public gardens around the country to research “how the Arboretum might find its niche in the public garden world”. Bill Klein, director of the Morris Arboretum, introduced Ed to Leslie Sauer of Andropogon Associates of Philadelphia, PA, a firm pioneering ecological planning and design. Ed worked in close collaboration with Leslie Sauer and Andropogon’s partners Carol and Colin Franklin during the schematic design phase of planning (1981-1983). He wrote, “As a dynamic self-renewing mosaic of land, water, fire, site, flora, and fauna, Pinecote revealed to us a permeable approach to land design and development that has enabled its Web of Life, humans included, to build diverse and complex structures embodying site-specific, evolving relationships of place, process and context.”

The Arboretum’s Master Plan was approved in the spring of 1984, and Ed joined the Arboretum as director and began a decade of work directing the site’s planning, design, and development.

Dr. McDaniel and MSU botany graduate student Chris Wells conducted inventories of the plant species growing at both the Arboretum and its associated natural areas, as a basis for the future exhibits. MSU graduate and landscape architect Robert Poore contributed to Ed’s work, recording the spatial and species structures of the natural areas. University of Georgia graduate and landscape architect Hartley Fairchild also assisted by laying out Pinecote’s Introductory Journey, now the Pitcher Plant Bog.

Ed spent a summer on the land in 1983 with MSU landscape architecture graduate Tom Bobbitt, documenting its “mosaic of habitats and plant communities”. During this summer, Ed developed a Designer’s Sketchbook of all parts of the site, to capture the “zen” of the place. “I spent time out there in thunderstorms,” says Blake. “I felt the rain and lived with all the sights and sounds and smells, and it really tied me back to the land.”

Blake became interested in architect Fay Jones after hearing him speak at the University of Arkansas and visiting his award-winning Thorncrown Chapel in the woodlands near Eureka Springs. Jones was selected in 1984 to design the Pinecote Pavilion and associated site features. Pinecote’s initial facilities were completed in 1986.

Fay Jones received an Honor Award in 1990 from the American Institute of Architects for his design of the Pinecote Pavilion, the highest national honor given in the field of architecture, and the only structure in Mississippi ever to receive this prestigious award. Ed Blake and Andropogon Associates also received an Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1991 for the Master Plan and Landscape Design of Pinecote, also the highest national award given in its field and is the only one ever to be received in Mississippi until 1999, when Ed received this award for the Landscape Design of Lake Terrace Convention Center in Hattiesburg.

LSU landscape architect graduate Bob Brzuszek, now Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at MSU, became the Arboretum’s first curator in 1990 after completing his master’s work focused on the Mill Creek Natural Area. Bob assisted Ed with Pinecote’s restoration, and contributed fourteen years documenting the site and restoring the structural integrity and species diversity of its plant exhibits.

Blake left the Crosby Arboretum in 1994. He became a founding principal of The Landscape Studio of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, but remained an active member of the Crosby Arboretum Foundation Board, continuing to guide the site’s development. In early August 2010, Ed attended the pre-construction meeting for one of the Aboretum’s last major exhibits, the Gum Pond.

For more information on Ed Blake’s career following 1994, see the article written by Bob Brzuszek and Sadik Artunç at the Cultural Landscape Foundation website (http://tclf.org/pioneer/edward-blake-jr/biography-edward-blake-jr) and the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s website detailing Blake’s recent project, 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park (http://www.imamuseum.org/page/about-100-acres) and hosts contemporary outdoor arts exhibits. Brzuszek and Artunç’s article notes that the 100 Acres Art & Nature Park was the focus of the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer on August 24, 2010, only six days before Blake’s unexpected death.

In July 1997, speaking at the ceremony on the Pinecote Pavilion celebrating the donation of the Crosby Arboretum to Mississippi State University, MSU president Dr. Donald Zacharias spoke of the Arboretum’s significance as a state and national treasure. Zacharias predicted that the site will play an increasingly important role in the years ahead in educating the people of Mississippi about their natural heritage, and the vast importance of natural resources to our state.

The information in this column was compiled from The Crosby Arboretum archives, including Ed Blake’s “Genesis and Profile of the Crosby Arboretum, Mississippi State University”. For more information, call the Crosby Arboretum office at (601) 799-2311 or visit www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu. The Arboretum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and is located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, on Ridge Road.