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!


Clair said...

Thanks for that John -- and yes -- one of the earliest forays I made after I was selected was to the Fleming, and the first solid quote I got was this from a card on Neil Drevitson's Blue Farm Wagon and Barn, 1991. Barns and farmhouses comprise some of the most picturesque elements of the agricultural landscape; they are also some of its most ephemeral features. In order for a barn to remain useful, and in working condition, it must continually adapt to modern farming technology. When a barn outlives its usefulness, the expense of its preservation often fuels its neglect.
That little bit of writing struck me to the core. As did Satterthwaite's writing in the museum's landscape book. In fact, I think that's where I got the quote at the top of my blog. (Satterthwaite could certainly write!) This subject is so incredibly deep that it is easy to get lost in it, which is exactly what happened to me in October, November and half of December!!

docjohn said...

The concept of adapting to new technology is an interesting one.
I remember, not many years ago, talking with a fellow who derived much of his income from wood resources. He made cedar oil during the summer, cut balsam brush in late fall, and I believe logged and cut cedar fence posts in the winter and spring. He used to use horses and now an ancient tractor.
He commented how his neighbors bought two fancy new skidders and with lots of bull-and-jamming proceeded to amass quite a pile of logs at their landing whereas my acquaintance slowly built a pile of logs for sale, at that time, skidding out logs with his horse.
Within a few months as he was heading out by his neighbors to work in the woods, a large tractor trailer was at his neighbors loading on the skidders. They had been repossessed by the bank.
I often wonder about embracing new technologies, do we need them all, or are the ad agencies and lobbyists working for the corporations telling us we can't survive without replacing all of our outdated?? technologies?

Susan Abbott said...

Same with farmers. My cousin is a dairy farmer, and I've watched her amass so much debt for new equipment and expansion. I've been tempted to say--why don't you just sell it all, and keep one cow for milk, and have a garden again. She's be ahead financially, and with way less stress.

I found out that the old, massive Orton barn near where I live has been sold to someone for a used car lot. I was appalled, but a friend said, well, no one's bringing cows in there again, maybe this use will keep it standing. Maybe she's right--though I know I'll wince every time I drive by it.

Dana Wigdor said...

I'm going to check out "The Lost Language of Villages" - thanks for the title!