Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: human modification (page 1 of 4)

Dr. Sherren’s Day Off

I’m enjoying a stopover in Chicago on the way to the ISSRM in Michigan. The city has always been of interest to me, as a once-aspiring architect and child of the 80s, but this has been my first chance to visit. I re-watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on the flight here (happy 30th birthday), and headed straight for Frank Lloyd Wright sites in Oak Park upon arrival. A real highlight of my visit has been the Art Institute of Chicago special exhibition America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s. This expertly curated and described exhibition explores the response of artists to the ‘fall from grace’ that America felt after the stock market crash of 1929: some looking backward to pastoral ideals and others conveying dust bowl realities; showing stoic tradition or grotesque modern life; and documenting the dominance of industry in landscape and economic life conveyed as utopias (in some work sponsored by corporations) or the opposite by socialists. The industrial (Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth) and agricultural (Grant Wood, Alexander Hogue, Marvin Cone) landscapes were particularly compelling to me: telling of fears and hopes, as well as ambivalence. Functional landscapes were in eye as well as in mind as I travelled Chicago by L-train (elevated), which provides a great view of the working parts of the city, as well as its unique features such as the dominance of brick construction, steel bridges (including old drawbridges) over its many rivers, and water towers (which may have something to do with the Great Fire of Chicago, ca. 1871). I was also reminded of urban/nature juxtapositions at the wonderful Garfield Park Conservatory, where the marvelous fern room brought relief on a very hot day, in how the City Garden meadow beautifully framed industrial buildings. I look forward to returning to Chicago, maybe in a cooler season.

Industrial buildings for the Garfield Park Conservatory behind the natural meadow of its City Park

Industrial buildings for the Garfield Park Conservatory behind the natural meadow of its City Park

Mactaquac commentary abounds

In the months leading up to the Mactaquac decision, the editorial pages of the Telegraph Journal is filling up with opinion pieces. Early in May, Keith Helmuth of the Woodstock Sustainable Energy Research group (who was an expert at our citizen jury) spoke out for dam removal, looking towards more efficient, greener energy options for the same investment and a boon for agricultural production. LarryJewett of Lakeway Houseboat Rental on the headpond (who rented us the houseboats we used for floating focus groups in 2013), and Friends of Mactaquac Lake, responded to support the rebuilding of the dam and generating station, for the local amenity it has become. Since then, Peter Cronin of the Atlantic Salmon Federation has responded to both in a two part commentary (1 and 2), supporting dam removal to foster a healthy river and restore fish stocks, among other things. While TJ has a firewall, as a subscriber the commentaries are just as interesting. A recent blog post on the NiCHE website by once-NB now-Maine environmental historian, Mark McLaughlin, uses our Before the Mactaquac Dam storymap to illustrate the need for academics to avoid focusing on stories of environmental decline: dams dramatically change landscapes and ecosystems, but are the exception among infrastructure in creating new amenity. I’m heading next week to the ISSRM meeting in Michigan, where I am co-convening a five-session stream on energy landscapes and transitions, which will examine just such trade-offs.

UNB lecture on dam removal

Jeff Duda, USGS research ecologist, has been studying the effects of dam removal in the Pacific Northwest, such as on the Elwha River. He is in New Brunswick this week to give lectures on the process of dam removal and its ecological impacts, a topic very much front-of-mind as a result of the pending Mactaquac decision. He is also on the Science Advisory Board for the Mactaquac Aquatic Ecosystem Study (MAES) being undertaken by Canadian Rivers Institute. Duda was interviewed on CBC about his planned talks on March 22 and 23. We have a long list of dam removal videos, collected by Larissa Holman for the Energy Transitions team during her summer internship with the project in 2014. Some of these were from the Elwha River, showing the dam removal, with time-series photography, changing sediments in former lakebeds, salmon coming immediately back, and the impact on sandbars at the river’s mouth.

 

Akenfield

My 1978 Penguin edition of Akenfield.

My 1978 Penguin edition of Akenfield.

Another second-hand bookstore treasure from someone who knows me well, Akenfield (1969) is a remarkably engrossing (and surprisingly undated) study of an anonymized rural Suffolk village, in the voice of fifty or so local residents. It tells the story of post-war England, agricultural modernization, social liberalization but also lingering fealty and class boundaries. The author, Ronald Blythe, interviewed and synthesized each voice, sometimes adding a sympathetic preamble of description and context. Surprises abound, such the description of WWII as a boon: conditions were so mean pre-war, that young men worked to the bone on farms found war service easy (with more food), and even bad farmers grew rich to supply that food. Some of the most compelling parts for me related to the farm landscape and how it was perceived and used. For instance, in the Introduction:

“…its hedges – now being slaughtered – were planted in the eighteenth century and, where they remain, shelter all the wild life of the particular fields they surround. Earlier field boundaries can be easily traced by ridges and ditches, and here and there a great tree spreads itself out in Time, making no sense at all. The clay acres themselves are the only tablets on which generations of village men have written … I am, but nothing remains of these sharp straight signatures.” (p. 14)

About the taciturn field workers, the last holdout of peasantry, working over generations for the same farmer, for compensations that keep him bound – a farm cottage, etc – Blythe writes: “Science is a footnote to what he really believes. And what he knows is often incommunicable “ (p. 15) . That younger generations continue to look to farming is described such: “perhaps, they have inherited the small residual static quality in all village life, that thing which is either condemned as apathy or praised and envied as contentment, but yet which is really neither of these. The attitude contains something determined and enduring, and also incorporates some kind of duty or loyalty to the village fields” (p. 91). For instance, a young ploughman bemoans the loss of the hedges, being undertaken to expand farms and enable increased mechanization, which make it difficult for a ploughman to keep his bearings:

“A well-kept hedge is a good sight and tells you where you are. The hedges belong to the village. You get used to seeing them standing there – they are like buildings and you miss them when they are knocked down. Some hedges are important and when they go you feel as bad as if a wood had been taken away. I think that there are certain hedges which the farmer’s shouldn’t touch without asking the people – although I can’t see this happening.” (p. 279).

An older farmer, an emigrant from Scotland, gives an outsider’s perspective on the impact of landscape on long-time residents, reminiscent of Swift’s observations in Waterland of what flat fenlands make of fenlanders: “The big skies leave the East Anglians empty. The skies are nothing. The horizons are too wide. There is nothing for a man to measure himself by here. In Scotland you have the hills, the mountains. They diminish a man. They make him think. … they last and he doesn’t.” (p. 320)

Blythe’s anthropology is thorough and generous, but does not shrink from difficulty. I do not know how he negotiated access and approval within such a small village given the blunt assessments many interviewees make of one another, individually and collectively, but it is a true gift that he made this record. It was made into an eponymous film in 1974 and is still in print – I just saw a new edition in Bookmark last week. This book is of a piece with early and modern tales of shepherding by Hardy and Rebanks discussed last year, as well as Robert Macfarlane’s Old Ways. A recording of Blythe and Macfarlane on the dais together at the Charleston Festival in 2013 for a celebration of rural life and sense of place is worth a listen.

Dam houseboat tour paper out

The Mactaquac houseboat flow-cus (floatus?) group team in August 2013: Beckley, Sherren, Keilty, Demerchant, Mittelholtz, Gutierrez Hermelo and Marmura (clockwise from top left).

The Mactaquac houseboat group team in August 2013 (clockwise from top left): Beckley, Sherren, Keilty (researchers), Demerchant (boat pilot), Mittelholtz, Gutierrez Hermelo and Marmura (videographers).

Back in August 2013, we ran three houseboat tours of the Mactaquac headpond, to elicit locals’ perspectives on the landscape and what they would like to see for its future. A paper about that work, Learning (or living) to love the landscapes of hydroelectricity in Canada: Eliciting local perspectives on the Mactaquac Dam via headpond boat tours, is now out in Energy Research and Social Science (free for 50 days at this link). This was a novel research approach that presented undeniable technical challenges, but generated rich stories of the place and their connection to it, some of which were produced into a short documentary, Mactaquac Revisited.

Despite the trauma that accompanied the construction of the dam in the late 1960s, the local population has demonstrably adapted and come to cherish the new landscape: the need to rebuild the dam, with power or not, was almost unanimously expressed in the focus group elements. In the landscape elicitation, however, done alone or in smaller groups, many people expressed a nostalgia for the old river, and even occasionally an openness to seeing it returned to that state. In fact, it was the misinformation and fear we heard on the boats about what the removal option entailed that inspired our storymap, Before the Mactaquac Dam. This paper shows (again) the adaptability of people to drastic landscape change such as caused by hydroelectricity, where some amenity can be found. The implications of this for proponents of hydroelectricity (and other large-scale energy) schemes is more fraught: “You’ll get used to it” is clearly an inadequate response to stakeholder concerns, yet clearly it is sometimes true.

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