While I couldn’t disagree more with him about the last phrase in this formulation, I’m quite taken with cultural landscape writer John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s ideas about a “vernacular” landscape: “The older I grow and the longer I look at landscapes and seek to understand them, the more convinced I am that their beauty is not simply an aspect but their very essence and that the beauty derives from the human presence” (in the preface to his 1984 book, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape).
“Vernacular landscapes” are everyday places, defined by the social and cultural uses of humans, and include parking lots, trailer parks, information centers, loading docks, suburban garages, subway stations, highways and other streets (as a place to be and not just along which to travel elsewhere), public parks, shopping malls, sports arenas, et al.
(Below, a few train stations I have known:)
Jackson wrote and lectured thoroughly over his career on the idea of cultural landscape, a perspective of landscape that situates human design — design according to human use and purpose — in a particular place. In the chapter “The word itself” in Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, he defines landscape as “a composition of man-made or man-modified spaces to serve as infrastructure or background for our collective existence. Landscapes have a synthetic character. They are artificial systems superimposed on the land and do not function according to nature’s rules. They are deliberately created to speed up or slow down nature’s processes” (in Jacques Abelman’s groundcondition blog).
What I want to consider today is the notion that as we humans (at least in 21st century North America) live more and more in built environments — urban, industrial, suburban, exurban — and move from place to place more and more often, the concept of permanence, of a sense of community based on the land and place where we live, has become less common, less accessible. (Our sense of community now often seems to come from brands we favour … a topic for another blog post.) To the extent that we now change landscapes with some frequency — instead of staying put on the farm or in the same small region, e.g., as we might have done in the past — our cultural landscapes have necessarily changed along with us, and along with them, our sense of place to some extent.
I have moved 24 times in 53 years, and lived in 18 towns. I haven’t lived near family in almost 25 years. Unlike some of my cousins, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, my sense of place is not one rooted in family history, with parents, grandparents, great-grandparents buried in the town cemetery a mile away from the family homestead. My sense of place is also not rooted in a lifetime of familiarity and intimacy with one geographic place.
I’m not much rooted at all, but rather perhaps the sort of vagabond Wallace Stegner had in mind in his essay “A Sense of Place,” when he lauds “the placed person”: “Much as we all want at times to be totally free and independent and mobile, he says, it’s the placed person who is more fully human” (in pdf “Discovering Home: Readings on a Sense of Place” at Windfall: A Journal of Poetry and Place). He allowed that “there are multiple paths to becoming placed” including adopting a place, but I’m not even that person; I haven’t adopted any one place, though there are many I revisit with a feeling of coming home. I’m comfortable being unplaced, even if it means I’m less human in some way. Maybe I just have an odd migration pattern.
I’m not the only one in transit. One of Jackson’s essays, “The Vernacular Landscape is on the Move…Again” (1991), looks at human mobility through the centuries, and then focuses on “auto-mobility” in the American culture at the end of the 20th century:
“Nevertheless, I continue to look for some visual clue to the nature of the contemporary American vernacular house, and I think I have found one. I think a vernacular house is one that is surrounded by a large number of cars. They are parked on a driveway that leads to the garage, in the back yard, sometimes on the front lawn, and along the curb. … The car has taken over, emptying the house of its noisy population, … and taking the family to the day care center, the Laundromat, the supermarket, the drive-in restaurant, the emergency room at the hospital. … The new landscape can be called the “auto-vernacular landscape.” … The real challenge is defining the auto-vernacular landscape. At the moment I see it as composed of structures and spaces designed to accommodate the auto as distinguished from spaces designed to accommodate people: the interstate, the parking lot, the strip, the gas station, the multiple-level parking garage, the race track and innumerable storage and transit facilities. … Similar places are by no means lacking in the countryside; a field modified to suit the tractors or a landing strip for planes, has the same impersonal, empty beauty and attraction.”
Vehicles obscuring houses, strip malls blending ever more into one another on those “miracle miles,” storage units planted like a monoculture crop across the land — not perhaps a very picturesque idea of landscape, and yet a prevalent sight for many of us in modern day North America. For some, like Jackson, these places are even beautiful in their very ordinariness and in their design for human utility alone.
(Below, views from trains:)
They may also be accidentally useful places, by providing the mostly unmanaged margins — “throwaway landscapes” — where children and adults alike, especially those living in very built environments, can experiment and play in the mud.
Robert Michael Pyle, nature writer and lepidopterist, writes in the chapter titled “The Extinction of Experience” in The Thunder Tree: Lessons From An Urban Wildland (1993) that
“nature reserves and formal greenways are not enough to ensure connection [with nature]. Such places, important as they are, invite a measured, restricted kind of contact. When children come along with an embryonic interest in natural history, they need free places for pottering, netting, catching and watching. Insects, crawdads and tadpoles can stand to be nabbed a good deal. … There need to be places that are not kid-proofed, where children can do damage and come back the following year to see the results.
Likewise, we all need spots near home where we can wander off a trail, lift a stone, poke about and merely wonder: places where no interpretive signs intrude their message to rob our spontaneous response. …
For these purposes, nothing serves better than the hand-me-down habitats that lie somewhere between formal protection and development. Throwaway landscapes like this used to occur on the edges of settlement everywhere. Richard Mabey, a British writer and naturalist, describes them as the ‘unofficial countryside.’ He uses the term for those ignominious, degraded, forgotten places that we have discarded, which serve nonetheless as habitats for a broad array of adaptable plants and animals: derelict railway land, ditchbanks, abandoned farms or bankrupt building sites, old gravel pits and factory yards, embankments, margins of landfills. These are the secondhand lands as opposed to the parks, forests, preserves and dedicated rural farmland that constitute the ‘official countryside.'” (bolding mine)
Mabey’s and Jackson’s places sound remarkably of a piece: places we might see as dreary, unsightly, downright ugly, unnatural (or too natural, against the built environment), dirty, sullied … a blight on the natural landscape. Often they will exist side-by-side, the ditches and embankments alongside the highways and behind the strip malls, the abandoned commercial or home sites next to the gas station. They’re not scenic; they’re not romantic, harmonious, serene, or wild, and yet, this too is where we live, along with insects, amphibians, birds, and other animals, and many very hardy and resilient plants and fungi as well.
I remember these sorts of places from childhood: a large drainage ditch and culvert where we caught tadpoles (there’s one nearby my house now, with tadpoles, frogs, the occasional duck or heron); a barely wooded walk to school in suburbia lined with an abundance of Mayapples in spring; a sandy parking and loading area behind a strip mall (which I frequented with friends, to hang out at the soda fountain and read Teen Beat magazine) where I can remember seeing daisies, dandelions, and other plants whose names I didn’t know; a downed tree trunk in some woods behind my house that smelled of earth and fungi.
“In the Newty Field” by Frank Key in The Dabbler (May 2015) describes this sort of childhood “wasteland” spot and the mucking about that goes on there so well:
“It was a patch of neglected woodland, overgrown and pitted with ponds, on the edge of the estate where I grew up. That being so, it was the natural destination for children otherwise confined to a bleak grey postwar suburban council estate with no other redeeming features I can recall. … One reason the Newty Field has lingered in my memory, and my imagination, is that it was the closest thing to ‘countryside’ accessible to me. Slap bang next to the estate, small enough not to become hopelessly lost, yet big enough to convince yourself that you were out in the wilderness. In trees and ponds and tangled bracken and clumps of thorns and nettles. … A faintly squalid, sordid place, rather than one of bucolic beauty. A place where one squelches through muck rather than gambols in the sunlight. … I suspect I enjoyed myself in the sort of aimless, dawdling, mucking about that used to keep children occupied ….”
I’d invite us, next time we’re stuck in traffic on the road, visiting a storage unit, getting gas, to look around more closely, maybe even get out of the car and listen, or crouch down on the ground. We might be surprised.
Interview with Pyle at Terrain.Org, May 2015
Links to feature articles by Pyle at Orion Magazine
“The Vernacular Landscape is on the Move … Again” by John B. Jackson, originally in Places Journal, 1991.
Short review in Yale University Press of A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (1996) by John Brinckerhoff Jackson.
A response to “Discovering the Vernacular Landscape – The Word Itself” by J.B. Jackson (1984) by Jacques Abelman at groundcondition
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.
This project is a bit like Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird, in that I’m writing about a sense of place from vantage points that may not obviously connect with each other. I’m not going to attempt to tie them together. In the end, these 31 days of looking at a sense of place may overlap, contradict, form a whole, or collapse like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say. That remains to be seen. Thanks for stopping by.