Sunday, January 25, 2009

Winter Sunday Evening

Just put a few more logs into the woodstove before heading upstairs to bed. So many books and seed catalogues on my bedside stand that if I roll over too far and hit the stand, the carefully balanced stack crashes to the floor. On the top of that stack is a fascinating book which I am now reading entitled Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington. Montgomery spends much time discussing early working landscapes and how cultures often disappeared because of soil depletion or climate change. I have scanned forward into the book a bit to see that he discusses land reform and how land has affected this country and legislation. I am now reading about how the Chinese addressed land issues in earlier millenia. For instance, according to Montgomery, "the Yao dynasty (2357-2261 B.C.) based taxation on a soil survey that recognized nine distinct types of dirt." When one considers how land is taxed in Vermont - views, location, and criteria other than dirt, I wonder if taxes might rise significantly for all those corn spreads in those beautiful river bottom lands.

Over the past thirty or so years, I have sadly watched beautiful farmland slowly fall into decline and either grow up to puckerbrush or slowly be sliced, graded and traded into some form of tract housing because the land "perced." So often the land between the homes becomes a mowed landscape, often without a vegetable garden cut somewhere into the turf.

As we sat at lunch today, I thought about the number of people in the village who still had a summer garden and there were very few who still planted one. As I tried to remember driving out on the back roads in Town, I recalled far fewer vegetable gardens than there once were thirty, forty years ago. Considering our present economy and how far worse it might devolve, I wonder what it's going to take to motivate people to again have a garden to produce food for not only the summer but to hedge in some small way for the winter.

The decline of the village center, the questionable convenience of the automobile, availability of out-of-season food in markets which has been shipped in from who knows (cares) where...
How far can education deliver us from this weakened state of non-productive consumerism?
Anyway, back to Dirt.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

That Landscape Dilemma - Old vs. New

Clair and Curtis and Susan.
As you and I and a number of the AofA artists look toward the land or the landscape, or the human-scape as I like to call it, for inspiration for our projects, , might I suggest a few readings most thought-provoking.
Yes, some of John Brinckerhoff Jackson's writings are indeed academic but I do believe his observations are quite astute and worldly as was the writing of George Perkins Marsh versus Thoreau when it came to people mucking around with the land. Food for thought as you/we put together our thoughts for the next round at the end of the month. I participated in a conference in the Fall of 2006, sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council, which addressed the Vermont landscape from many perspectives. The Council produced a wonderful book of annotated readings which were distributed in advance of the conference in order for participants to become familiar with diverse perspectives on and about the land, and of course the human altered landscape, past and present.

The title of the conference was Setting as Character: Vermont’s Landscape, Stories and Sense of Place. I recently re-read some of the material in this for it was very appropriate and helped me to more thoughtfully craft my proposal. I'm not sure if this is still available from the Humanities Council but excerpts in quotes are from the following books:

- "The Lost Language of Villages" from The Same Axe Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age by Howard Mansfield. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2000
- “Puckerbrush, Cellar Holes, Rubble: Observations on Abandonment in Vermont” by Shaefe Satterthwaite, from Vermont Landscape Images, 1776-1976 (Burlington: Robert Hull Fleming Museum)
- “From Pictorialism to Progressivism: Myth and Reality in Twentieth-Century Vermont,” by William Lipke, from Celebrating Vermont: Myths and Realities: Middlebury: Christian A. Johnson Memorial Gallery, Middlebury College, 1991.

This anthology has much other fine writing from Barry Lopez to Jan Albers who authored the book Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape. Not part of this anthology, but read Ernie Hebert's novels about the insider/outsider - have/have-nots when considering the nature of extreme poverty rubbing up against wealth as often observed and sensed in Vermont REAL ESTATE these days. Whereas, as you discuss the vernacular landscape, box stores or other kinds of generic architecture a la Jackson in editions of more than one, I ponder the stripped-aesthetic sensibilities that often pervade much suburban habitation where architects and "thoughtful" are often replaced by money-driven development and building.

When I think of vernacular, I think of unique, personal, thoughtful action, be it architectural design, folk-art produced with no formal academic training, a small garden whose beauty and layout transcends mere functionality. I have spent years photographing this in northern Vermont, many places in this country and overseas, and for me, that is the genuine article. Whereas, as we all witness change in the nature of the land and building forms in general, we are also witnessing changes in the manner with which people interact - from active, more personal one-on-one interactions to now more accepted vicarious methods of conversation, communication and participation. I have spent hours the last few days after turning in my proposal for the Art of Action, not putting my feet up to relax and celebrate, not photographing or writing in my journal, but deleting hundreds, thousands of emails that are choking my server so I won't continue to receive warnings that my mailbox is beyond capacity before I go back to college. And now, I'm blogging. At least now I am trying to be a bit more thoughtful in my use of words versus the blather that I have been voraciously deleting...

I am glad that a number of the artists have been embracing the land in their proposed work in some way, from pure aesthetic to cultural observations. I often searched for a more ideal landscape in my early work aka Ansel and Strand, but then I was drawn to Walker Evans and his recording the vernacular life, the vernacular forms in architecture and for instance, trade signage. His work was loaded with commentary about inequality, racism, and humanity, often in photographs without humans.

So, as we yearn for certain landscapes and human-scapes of the past, there is an immense amount of land that could be farmed and gardened for food in this State and despite some popular opinion, there is a growing community of younger generations with a work-ethic who can and will create and regenerate life-styles and human-scapes and community on a scale which is local and vernacular, sound and thoughtfully envisioned!