20 August 2012

Vernacular Buildings - Appreciating the Ordinary

A short post on Farming Life focuses on vernacular buildings in rural Ireland and a project to map and preserve these wee bits of workaday history in and around Londonderry.

Vernacular buildings are of the land, often built of local materials such as stone and wood. Over time they. too, become the land. These ordinary and often overlooked bits of architectural history are symbolic and "represent the ingenuity and resourcefulness of our ancestors." They exhibit "the human ability to work with the local natural environment and to be an integral part of it."

This sort of "vernacular built heritage" weaves itself so intimately with the local natural environment over time that it becomes simply part of it, part of the sense of place for that particular community. I can think of several examples of old stone housing foundations, old barns, or pump houses that I used to play in and around as kid. They were indeed distinct parts of the landscape, part of what connected me to those places.

10 August 2012

Yi-Fu Tuan's Humanist Geography

The wait is over!  A career-spanning look-back by a pillar of "place" philosophy, Prof. Yi-Fu Tuan, is now available. I saw a copy of this at the American Society for Environmental History conference last spring but it hasn't been publicly available until now. Yes. I know. Exciting!

It seems to be distributed by both University of Wisconsin Press and GFT Publishing. They introduce the book as such:

For more than fifty years, Yi-Fu Tuan has carried the study of humanistic geography—what John K. Wright early in the twentieth century called geosophy, a blending of geography and philosophy―to new heights, offering with each new book a fresh and often unique intellectual introspection into the human condition. Humanist Geography: An Individual's Search for Meaning, his latest and last book, is a final testament of all that he has learned and encountered as a geographer.

I love this stuff. I'm not even sure why exactly. But I do. And that's okay.

As a student at UW with an interest in the "place literature" I have read a lot about it. Many, many scholarly articles mention Tuan when crediting the origins of this approach to humanity's interaction with the physical world. I've even seen him walking around campus once or twice. Sort of like nerd celebrity sighting. Next to Prof. Wm. Cronon, Tuan is about as close as one gets to such a sighting around here. Though I once saw Wisconsin alum, Jane Kaczmarek (a.k.a. the mom from Malcolm In The Middle) walking through the Memorial Union with some people who were probably family. And there are plenty of other well-known scholars who've come and gone through UW, I suppose. Still, seeing someone who you've "gotten to know" through books and essays is always a treat (at least for a sort-of lit nerd like me).

Tuan's Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (University of Minnesota Press, 1977) is a bookshelf favorite. Again, I'm not even sure why. Which is odd. But there is just something endearing about it. It's certainly not for everyone. It's not light fiction. It's no Jodi Picoult. Thank goodness.  The world's got enough of that crap. (Sorry, Mom).

GTF says that Tuan's intent with this book is "to show how wonderful life on our small planet can be, even as we must deal with nature's stringencies and our own deep flaws." His take on the future is hopeful, which will be a welcome reprieve from my own pesky pessimism, to be sure.

If you pick up a copy, let's talk. I'll be cashing in my coin jar to scrape together the $26 purchase price post haste.

07 August 2012

LAND and how it gets that way. A review.

It may sound like the start of a bad joke, but it’s not: A sheep farmer, a car dealer, a horse trader, and a real estate developer all walk into an open field. What do they see? From the same vantage point, they see a sheep farm, a car lot, a horse pasture, and rows of rooftops. These various perspectives are the central dilemma around which filmmaker Walter Brock creates a compelling and well-rounded snapshot into the disputes that these senses of place create. These are the varied views of land, and how it gets that way.
            It is a story of place, Woodford County, Kentucky, during a ten year period starting in the early 1990s. It is a story of disputes over land, community, economics, and aesthetics. And it is as timeless as it is ubiquitous. Brock uses these archetypes - the agriculturalist, the business man, the horse trader, the developer - to exemplify the heated battles that have been happening not only in central Kentucky but throughout the United States since before the many battles for independence in the 1770s. What Brock finds is just what one might expect: political positioning, rhetoric, name-calling, a dose of good intention, and a wagon-load of pride.
            To be sure, these are not simple decisions. Any community that has wanted to expand its economic base while striving to preserve its unique geographic and cultural heritage has come up against difficult and divisive decisions needing resolution. Do land owners have the right to sell property on the edge of the city if it is properly planned according to a comprehensive zoning plan? Certainly. Do preservationists speak for the voice of many when they claim that development should be approached cautiously so as not to convert valuable agricultural land (be it pasture or tilled acreage)? Of course. The problem, as Brock shows, is that people typically want to do what they please on their own land, yet they also want to tell others (often direct neighbors) what they should or should not do on on that adjacent land.
            This hypocritical bit of human nature (or at least the nature of the landed gentry) is exemplified by the car dealer who doesn’t want the land around his residential estate developed but wants to build new car dealerships on pieces of “ugly land” here and there throughout the county. And the preservationist whose family sold off land for a tidy sum to developers but yet eloquently relays a convincing line of argument about why others should be restricted in their desire to profit from parcelization.
            Brock narrates the film, which was shown on Kentucky Public Television (some time ago) and offers a balanced view of the opposing sides. Most importantly, he spent the time to give viewers a longitudinal perspective by investing a decade in filming the central characters while they struggled to continually convey their side of this evolving story. It would be very interesting to see how such issues were affected by the ongoing recession but, to be fair, when making a film one must create parameters and at some point shout “cut!” for the last time.
            In the end, Brock asks “where exactly in this world is the line that divides us from the land?” In trying to answer this question, Brock utilizes these archetypal perspectives to exemplify the deep rifts playing out in one small Kentucky community. The subtle point running throughout the film, however, is that we are all intimately connected to land. To quote the great environmentalist and philosopher John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Where we live and work and the roads we travel by all have different meanings from different perspectives. And it is this basic pluralistic conflict that will keep filmmakers like Brock, for better or for worse, indefinitely supplied with ample stories to share.