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The Rural Landscape 

12-09-2015 17:35

pleasant and delightful, the rural landscape is a relic from the past -- static, underdeveloped -- in need of the civilizing touch of the city and industry and commerce. That is the urban view. But the rural landscape is the unwritten record of intense, adaptive development, mute testimony to great revolutions.

The greatest revolution in human history -- that of the Neolithic -- made the rural world a place of villages. The compact settlement of the village enabled the cooperative endeavor of agriculture, providing the material foundation for all progress.

A complex architectural entity, the village is a miniature, theologically based, democratic state. At its midpoint stands a building of religion, a hall for worship, that gathers the homes of the farming people whose fields fan away, spreading order to the edge of chaos. So it is today in Anatolia, where the concept was invented, and so it once was from Japan, the island at the eastern end of the Eurasian landmass, to England, the island on the west.

The old English village was centered by the church, its tower rising in pride. Farm homes clustered in close sociability. Strips of tillage clustered beyond, convenient for cooperative labor. Then in the second great rural revolution -- the long, slow, violent revolution of enclosure, beginning in private initiative and ending in parliamentary law -- the village, with its stone church and huddled housing, was replaced by the separate farm, a steading of independent enterprise. This revolution marks the birth of the modern world.

Enclosure -- the shift from the village to the separate farm -- was at once an economic triumph and a social disaster. It was a change in social base from the community to the family. In the village, the family was part of a corporate entity, secure in the coherence of shared custom. On the farm, the family was on its own. It was a change from a sacred to a secular political order. People once unified within the mystic body of the church sought freedom of conscience and enterprise within the lawful order of the state. It was a change from a culture of trust and maintenance to a culture of competitive economic advancement. People traded confidence and cooperative security for material success.

Jamestown and Plymouth, both founded as villages, yielded quickly to the separate farm, to the hope for wealth. Anglo-America was born modern. New England experienced the sacred retrenchment of Puritanism when the church fathers strove to shape the New Jerusalem on the model of the Anglo-Saxon village, but the American pattern had been set in rural Virginia, the world’s first purely capitalistic landscape, and the idea of the separate farm went west. The plantation became the ranch, an open-air factory where the boss directed the hands in the production of a commodity -- not the tobacco or cotton or sugar of the South, nor the clocks and locks and firearms of the North, but cattle, meat for the market.

The West supplies at once the extreme instance of the ranch and the conspicuous exceptions to the rule. One is found in the pueblos of the native people, where the houses pile on one another and the people emerge from their kivas to dance, uniting and transcribing the lineaments of a monumental sacred architecture in the bright air. Another is found in the Hispanic village, with its church on the plaza. And the most dramatic instance exists in Mormon territory, where the old English village was revived within a neo-theocratic order, where the farmhouses congregate around a building for worship and the fields spread beyond. These are the exceptions, the villages of sacred order.

By contrast, the old Rural -- thoroughly modern -- landscape of America is predominantly a place of farms set alone, of churches set alone. In separating church and state, the Constitution merely ratified the reality of the landscape, the choice made by the country people who constructed the New World for themselves.

The farm is a unit on a rationalized landscape, and the unit was rationally divided into realms of living and labor. On the land, the analytic order of the Enlightenment was realized in separate farms, in houses separate from barns, before the philosophers got the idea into words.

In the Old World, functions often fused in the farmstead. The longhouses of Devon and Wales, like the monumental agricultural buildings of Switzerland and the Rhine Valley, provided space for the people and their cattle beneath one roof. But the American farm, with rare exceptions (notably among Germans in Wisconsin and Missouri), has two distinct centers: the house and the barn. Each tells a critical historical story.

The Inventiveness of Rural Buildings

Our affection for pure samples of particular fashions, our desire to classify houses by style expresses a distinct ideology: The belief that rural people follow the urban lead, that rich city folks set the style for passive compliance in the countryside. Our ideology obscures the reality.

Most country houses defy classification by style. Their witty builders happily mixed the styles, and normally they reduced their blended vocabulary of ornament to details that served (as John Ruskin wished) to reinforce the outlines of the basic form. And the form continued, despite the coming and going of fashion. Look upon the landscape, North, South, or West, and you will find houses built, say, in 1880 with Greek Revival doorways, Gothic scrolls, and Italianate brackets; then look beyond the ornament and you will find a form, in plan and elevation, dating from the middle of the 18th century.

The American farmhouse displays an awareness of fashion, and it displays a deeper mood of resistance in a form that keeps faith with the socially effective traditions of its place. Its mass is familiar, its rooms are comfortably useful, its decorative detail is modest and sufficiently proud.

Like the house, the barn exhibits continuity over time and space. The barns of old England were reproduced in New England, but European forms also provided the basis for creative departures. The barns of Pennsylvania, astonishing combinations of economic intelligence and aesthetic mastery, are among the most beautiful and historically significant works of American architecture. Beyond the mountains, in Tennessee, the inventiveness of Pennsylvania was matched in the development of the transverse-crib barn, the signal form of the Middle West.

The Need for Rural Preservation

We are not used to thinking of rural places as hotbeds of invention, but the rural designers in the Mohawk Valley, southeastern Pennsylvania, the Valley of Virginia, and eastern Tennessee were as creative as their industrial contemporaries in the Connecticut Valley to whom historians attend. But when the old buildings have all decayed and the land has been paved, there will be no record to challenge the urban view.

Held with equal conviction by thinkers from both ends of the political spectrum, by apologists for capitalism and Marxist critics alike, the urban view dominates our history and governs our policies. From the urban perspective, the rural landscape -- in fact, a record of creative endeavor -- is a pretty thing, belonging to a placid past, in need of development.

It is crucial that we have alternatives, checks to prejudice, and it is primarily for that reason, I believe, we need programs of rural preservation. For that reason, I tagged along and helped a bit when Marsh Davis, then of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, now of the Galveston Historical Foundation, worked to make Maple Grove, in Monroe County, Indiana’s first rural historic district.

The Maple Grove area included a set of noble old homes: houses of log and stone from the first phase of settlement, one brick mansion— Georgian in form, Greek and Gothic in ornament—built during the Civil War, and a scatter of plain frame farmhouses from the end of the 19th century. Old patterns of agricultural land use were visible from the road that followed the ridge above the bottoms rich with corn. People from families many generations on the land rallied to the cause, and they found a leader in Joe Peden, a farmer who spoke eloquently about the spiritual nature of working the earth.

Maple Grove was a fine choice for preservation, and it passed easily through the requisite legal stages to historic district status. Now it is for sale. Lots by the roadside carry the signs of dealers in real estate, and the view to the valley is blocked by new palaces of the usual suburban sort.

The preservationists have not been beaten. Bloomington Restorations Incorporated (BRI), the energetic local organization, has followed the general drift in preservation by concentrating on late urban buildings. It has pioneered admirable programs in affordable housing, but the countryside has not been forgotten, BRI loans are helping householders in restoration projects in Maple Grove. But, here too, preservationists are going down to defeat for want of policies adequate to the rural task. Along Maple Grove Road, new intrusions proliferate, and the rural landscape is becoming, tragically, yet another suburb.

When it has all been developed, when the countryside has been obliterated by travesties of one kind or another, by broad bland highways and jerry-built commercial strips, by vulnerable mobile homes and plastic-clad Queen Anne Revival-French Provincial mansions, the stories muttered in the ruins of gaunt wooden houses and soaring stone barns will be too weak, unable to counter the urban ideology or stay the hand the of the developer.

Meanwhile, as we pine for sturdier regulations and more attractive incentives for preservation in America, we are fortunate that most of the surface of the earth remains undeveloped, safe in the canny, caring hands of hardworking peasants who create beautiful landscapes around their villages and who are not to blame for the ecological disasters we face.

Publication Date: Winter 2003


Author(s):Henry Glassie

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