Last week, MIT Press staff told us which titles they'd suggest as gifts.This week, Daniel Bouchard, a member of the MIT Press Journals Division, recommends A Landscape History of New England, edited by Blake Harrison and Richard W. Judd:
A Landscape History of New England is an ideal primer for answering (and providing) a lot of questions about the common and uncommon landscapes all around as you travel through New England. It’s a resource, serving as a decoder of landscapes. Drawing on a long and scholarly tradition, it teaches you how to read the landscape. As an interested reader of many of the books cited throughout these 21 articles (by 23 authors), and a fan of many of those earlier authors (John Brinckerhoff Jackson, William Cronon, John Stilgoe, D.W. Meinig, and others, not least of whom, Thoreau), I found this collection a significant addition and worthy contribution to the literature. Now, as a pleasantly burdensome bonus, I have two handfuls of new (to me) authors on whom to keep an eye.
But what good is that to you? Well, imagine you and a friend are driving separate cars north out of New York City. You’ve got some time on your hands, opted for a road trip, and decided to “see” New England. It’s not the biggest territory in the States, but it’s still a lot of ground to cover. You pass over bridges, pause thru toll booths, and lean the wheel into the lanes under the big green highway signs boldly declaring “New England.”
Then you do something unique. Your car and the other car part ways to investigate different routes. You will meet up again somewhere way up north, let’s say at a diner in Brewer, Maine, in ten days. There, over lobster rolls and ale, you will discuss what you saw and compare notes. One car will “take a left” off Interstate 95 at New Haven and head north into Vermont. The other will continue along the coast up through Rhode Island, Boston and New Hampshire.
Is it a scavenger hunt for the eyes? What do we expect them to see? When they see the attractive old buildings in a town center painted white will they know those buildings are painted “a starker white paint than had been available to earlier generations”? (31) There is a lot to be gained by understanding such a thing. There’s a lot of history to consider beyond any plaques mounted nearby, and such plaques may indeed be more part of that history than they are a guide to it. Take the town Common: it may look postcard nice when our travelers pull up, but chances are good it was once held with the regard of any uncared for empty lot with junk on it, deep ruts from vehicles and stray animals. That condition wouldn’t be acceptable today, of course, and you can find out why it used to be.
Think about what you would see if you bought someone a coffee-table book “about” New England, one of those over-size picture books (which A Landscape History of New England definitely is not). No doubt, in that book there would be a lot of superb photographs of historic town centers with colonial and Federal style housing on streets radiating out from rising white steeples. In the rural section there would be old farmhouses and barns and piles of pumpkins gathered in the fall. On the coast there would be pictures of beaches and waterfronts, and fishermen on small boats coming in or out of the harbor. There may be pictures of quahogs, oysters or lobsters. There are few better pictorial representations of New England than a close up of a bivalve or crustacean in the hands of an old salt donning rubber overalls. For representations of the city you would see some nicely framed vantages of historic houses like those on Beacon Hill (Boston) or College Hill (Providence) and an aerial shot of Faneuil Hall and Fenway Park and so on. And in the mountains some photos of the colorful fall foliage with more farms and attractive town centers nearby. But what do any of the pictures tell us about New England? They only show us what we already know is there. And it is pretty.
In both cars the challenge for the groups (yes, I’ve populated the front and back seats of the two cars—it’s more fun) is the same as they speed across the highways. They have the option to take any exit and explore whatever towns they come into and also the back roads between the towns as well as the large and small cities. The car along the coast exits and heads toward the water. They want to see some little town where there are fishing boats and a decent seafood restaurant. They will get out and take some pictures before they eat. The other car off-ramps in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. They admire the farms and meadows they pass and soon they come to the white steeple of a church and an old town hall and then the car pulls over by a small bridge where a handsome brick factory sits next to the water. The travelers get out, stretch, take some pictures and then go find something to eat.
If we have been in New England we have an idea of what others may expect to see in it. Now the questions turn to what can we understand about what we see all around us on the trip. The roads everywhere are lined with old stone walls. Sometimes, from the highway, you see the same stone walls rising up off the roadside and heading up over a hill covered with trees. Who put them there? The harbor atmosphere in a seaside tourist destination tries hard to evoke an earlier time. Why? Is the past more authentic? It is common knowledge that New England is the place to view autumn foliage but were those beautiful autumn views always highly valued?
Anyone can give you a dozen good reasons to visit Cape Cod. With this book you begin to see it from the eyes of a geographer. People on the Cape work hard to make a living from the land and sea. They always have. But after the First World War the economy shifted from working the land’s natural resources to working the industries and services that comprise a tourist seasonal-resident destination. The Cumbler chapter traces those changes with a cautionary note on the Cape as a “fragile ecosystem.”
So as our travelers compare notes they realize that they can now list dozens of towns all founded in the mid-18th century, from each state. Some look like they are still in that time period with sprawling old farms and pastoral views—beautiful. Some simply look ravaged. Some look like revived mill towns, with humming, retro-fitted brick factories. And some mill towns look simply dilapidated with no help on the way. Some towns, after 250 years, appear to be just two highways crossing by a gas station and some, maybe a town or two away, are congested with upscale housing and fancy shops. Are the current economic winners also the past economic losers, thus preserving the things now highly valued as “New England”? Read the Wood chapter to find out.
This book informs like a startling tour guide. What it can’t answer directly it points you in the direction to find out for yourself. Did you know that three-quarters of New England was deforested by the mid-19th century? Today it is three-quarters forested, and it reverted to its forested state “even more rapidly” than it was stripped (41). A Landscape History of New England offers everything our travelers need except restaurant recommendations. It offers everything they need to really see, the forest and the trees. After reading this book your trip on the Mass. Pike or the Merritt Parkway or the Spaulding Turnpike or through the Northeast Kingdom or the road to Mount Katahdin (after you finish your ice cream in the Bremen diner) or on what Jack Kerouac called “one long red line called Route 6” from the tip of Cape Cod to where it leaves Connecticut west of Danbury will never be the same.