Daybook: Reading the California Landscape. Calling All Students of Professors Laurie, Litton and McBride

In Spring 1989, my second semester into the landscape architecture graduate (MLA) program at Cal Berkeley, I took the California Landscapes seminar with professors Michael Laurie, Burt Litton, Joe McBride. Burt was the great uncle of the guy I had just broken up with, so I was hesitant about taking the class, but every MLA student I talked to who had taken the class raved about it. This guy hadn’t been super close with his uncle, so I signed up.


Professors Joe McBride, Burt Litton and Michael Laurie, first day of class
Professors Joe McBride, Burt Litton and Michael Laurie, first day of class

This course showed me my niche in landscape architecture. These three men took us out into the field to look at and draw the landscape. I learned how to read the landscape, as historical, regional and ecological text, and to see these perspectives as intertwined. They turned me on to J. B. Jackson. And we recorded our observations through watercolor/pencil field sketches, a favorite media for me. They taught us how to make notes, how to treat the field notebook as a tool for understanding place. And together, they were very funny. I loved watching Michael Laurie, the most city-adapted of the three, prepare his environment when he was called upon to sit on the ground. I could tell that drawing from just the right spot demanded great sacrifice for him. Later, when I was schooled on the creature comforts that 18th century English landscape readers enjoyed–soft velvet field stools, an assistant to carry the paints and brushes–I thought Professor Laurie was perhaps born a bit late. But he roughed it on the ground in moderately good humor. Professor Joe McBride was more of a John Muir type. He could no doubt do fine in the wilderness with nothing but a tea bag, bed roll and a few dry crackers, as long as he could be among his beloved trees. And professor Litton fell somewhere in between, a little of John Wayne sipping whiskey by the campfire, a bit of William Kent sketching beautiful images on his long trips across the more cultured landscapes of 18th-Century Europe.

sketching on the field in Northern California in the California Landscapes seminar
One of my sketches in the field on the Northern California trip in the 1989 California Landscapes seminar

Two years later, my eventually-to-be-husband and I became two of few students who ever got to go adventuring twice with the three amigos. Because the class was extremely popular, no repeats were allowed. But we both drove trucks. By agreeing to haul the gear down South, we enjoyed a journey through the California desert country. This trip deepened our mutual love of desert landscapes, so I have Laurie, Litton and McBride to thank for the family that transpired, and for our careers teaching in the desert southwest. Sadly, Michael Laurie and Burt Litton passed away in 2002 and 2007. Professor McBride is an emeritus professor at Berkeley and continues to speak for the trees.

I would love to share more sketches from anyone who took these great seminars. Send me a note and an image, and I can share them in the Daybook Series. rebecca [at] rebeccafishewan [dot] com