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.
A Saturday Globe review for Miller’s Valley caught my eye, and when I discovered I was 46th in line to borrow the book at the Central Library, I headed to the marvellous independent bookstore Westminster Books during a weekend trip to Fredericton to buy my own copy. The book tracks the coming of age of a girl in Pennsylvania as she watches government pressure inexorably lead to the inundation of her family’s farm for the ‘public good’. The flooding plays the same role in this book as in many others I’ve discussed here and in recent papers – shorthand for obliteration, loss, injustice, and forgetting – but what distinguishes it is in demonstrating the capacity to adapt over time, nonetheless. A few excerpts from the last page resonate particularly:
I don’t really miss the Miller’s Valley I used to know, the one in which I grew up, my very own drowned town. It’s been gone a long time now… They’re talking about having a big celebration for the fiftieth anniversary… and that’ll clinch it. If something’s been around fifty years, it’s been around forever. Most people think it’s always been there. They run fishing boats and go ice skating and sit in folding chairs and look out over the place where we all lived and it’s just water to them, as far as the eye can see. I guess it’s just water to me, too. … When I talked to Cissy about Andover, when I was a kid, I thought her life, her past, her childhood, all of it was buried down there under the water. I didn’t understand that it was above the surface, in her, the way mine is in me. … Lots of people leave here, that’s for sure, but people stay, too. And some are like me. They circle back. (p. 256-7)
In this same weekend I visited Joe George at COJO Exploration, who had spent the day scuba diving in his quest for the old townsite of Kingsclear, now under the Mactaquac headpond. His hand-drawn map from the dive shows the foundations, wells and other infrastructure he swam over, trying to avoid stirring up sediment in the low-visibility (2 ft) conditions. Looking at old maps, he reckons the well (“still water in it!”, he joked) belonged to the Long family. Joe is hoping to set up a recreational scuba track – as he showed me, basically a high-viz yellow cable – to allow visitors to explore the drowned town. He also hopes, however, to find some relics of life there, to share with either prior residents or local museums.
Dams are in the news, either in terms of removal (see a discussion here about opening the gates of the Glen Canyon Dam), or protests about construction. For instance, a public letter signed by Canadian scholars protests about Site C’s approval as a violation of process and treaty rights. An early-stage proposal for a dam on the Eldred River near Powell River BC is being protested by rock climbers (on the basis of a long-standing base camp) and foresters (the transmission infrastructure associated with independent power installations affects forestry and thus jobs), possibly the first time that those two bodies were on the same side of any issue.
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.
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.
I recently re-read Waterland, by Graham Swift, which won the Booker Prize in 1983. It’s a remarkable combination of fenland geography, biographical mythology, environmental/industrial history, and thriller. I think you may need to be into wetlands to get through some of his passages, and certainly be comfortable with a fragmented temporal axis, but it is my kind of storytelling. It is funny – there’s this wonderful bit where he discusses how flat landscapes like the fenlands encourage lustiness – and the main characters are solid. As with much of what I record here, I also see parallels between my recreational reading and my research. This is a book about place, cultural landscapes, and adaptation. In the wake of my more recent research on dykelands, for instance, a late passage seemed particularly interesting upon this second read:
There’s this thing called progress. But it doesn’t progress. It doesn’t go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It’s progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged and vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn’t go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires. (p. 291)