LSS 110 Reflections – Exploring the Landscape

28 Jan

You might think the MacLeish Field Station would go quiet in the winter, but each year students spend one week of interterm there in a unique class called LSS 110: Interpreting New England Landscape. In this course students experience the natural cultural history of the New England landscape, and develop educational activities that explore ways of sharing the significance of MacLeish (and the broader New England landscape) with a variety of audiences. The week concludes with a visit by local 6th graders who learn from the students. The following series of posts were written by students in LSS 110 this year over the course of their class.


Exploring Otherworlds 1.14.19 by Clarity Phillips

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Our first day in LSS 110 took us through the woods with Jesse Bellemare to identify some trees and investigate an 18th century homestead site. I found the deductive analysis of the site fascinating; though I’ve studied some archaeological digs from pictures, I’ve never been on the ground exploring a historical site like this before, after nature has reabsorbed most of it. The site reminded me of my work at Old Sturbridge Village this past summer, so I could vividly imagine the house standing new, the pathways to the well and the barns, the vegetable garden alive with beans and turnips and carrots, and the Waite family going about their constant daily work. Because I’ve been immersed in such scenes recreated at OSV, it was sobering to pass through it as a visitor from the future. I felt reality shimmering, like the layers of time between our present and the period of active use of the site were superimposed. It made me think of a book I’m currently reading called Haunted Landscapes: Super-Nature and the Environment, which is about what makes landscapes “haunted” and what “haunting” entails; it reads, “A haunted landscape deconstructs itself. Boundaries, borders and spaces themselves dissolve in fluid reconfiguration as that which haunts, movies in and out, here and there, in-between and nowhere (6).” Essentially, a haunted space is a liminal space between worlds that evokes a visceral, emotional reaction. At the homestead site I felt such a reaction, and I knew that ghostly forms were slithering all around me. Not only had the house fallen apart, but the edges of reality also dissipated. It was a place where time and space were broken down.

I felt that liminality twice on Monday; the first was in the morning at the homestead site, and the second was in the afternoon, when I wandered down the field past the swing, through a little gateway in the stone wall. I’m always looking out for gateways in nature–I’m not sure what I think built them, but I feel strongly that they mark doors into otherworlds, sacred spaces, and haunted sites. I looked up at a tall white birch that resembled a long femur, and got a distinct sense that my eyes were not showing me what was really there. In British folklore, this is called glamor, a trick of the fairies to hide their world from human eyes. Often in nature I feel that my eyes are filled with glamor, and that if the glamor were removed I would be able to see something magical. This birch seemed to shimmer with glamor, and I suspected it might be an elemental being taking the form of a tree (I know this sounds very odd, especially in an academic context, but I believe everyone builds their own reality and I see no reason not to build mine to be enchanted). The gateway was a liminal space into a landscape populated by fairies, externally resembling our everyday landscape, but a shade different. I got the feeling I was coolly tolerated there. I checked the time and was surprised to see that it was almost 3, and I had to hurry back to the building. That makes sense–time is loose in fairy country. It’s easy to forget that you need to leave. I wanted to stay out and wander far away, as though in a trance or a dream. I enjoyed making my event map because I could illustrate these feelings and ground them in the landscape, like with that birch tree. I could mark the moments of passing through, the entrances to different realities. I will definitely employ this activity in the future.


Event Map 1.14.19 by Hannah Gates

I venture away from the innate security of the warm Bechtel Environmental Classroom and out into the brisk midwinter afternoon. The sun may shine down on my path, but the air stubbornly chills my body regardless. As I walk I allow my steps to carry me wherever they see fit. A recent conversation about the moon sticks in my mind as I glance up to study her waxing form, nearly halfway through the process of returning to a complete orb in our sky. What causes the moon to appear in the daytime sky as she does right now? Is she always there? Have I simply taken her for granted and failed to notice her other days? Whatever the case, she is here now and I sketch a picture in my fieldbook we had made a few short minutes ago. I continue my path away from the warmth of the building and tromp through fierce bristles and dogwood, noticing the intricate weave of slim branches as they dance across my path and intertwine with their neighbors in tight nets. Some bundles comply politely with my footsteps and generously slip to the side. Others, however, persistently swoop in front of my destination, thorns catching my jeans as I pass through. While these bundles of inconvenience are not an inherently pleasant addition to my adventure, I respect and appreciate their place in nature’s world and mark their forms into my book.

Farther along the woods a moss-laden stone wall interrupts my path. As we had learned earlier in the morning, this orderly wall and all of its companions formed from the scattered hillsides when English invaders demolished the ancient forests and cleared these same rocks from their plough fields and pastures. These settlers needed boundaries for their farm animals, and Mother Nature provided as she always does. I walk over the stretching row of stone and consider the generation that engineered this structure. Whose hands carried these rocks? How long did the stones live in solidarity before man interrupted and united them with hundreds of companions in a single row? How long will it be before nature truly takes over and erases the evidence of such intentional reconstruction? Who will walk this path long after I have gone? I cannot know the answers to these questions, but I can note my time and experience with these rocks. I sketch the wall in my book and continue down my path, stepping on red berries and listening to the birds flying above who have no doubt enjoyed their sweetness. My field book welcomes these additions and I continue.

As I hop a modern wire fence which attempts to block my path, I note the cow patties that now greet me on my path. I sketch these remnants of a living creature and wonder how long it’s creator has been away. A day? A week? When will this animal return? Will it come with its friends to leave additional impressions on their land? I leave these animals’ home and climb through the fence back toward the classroom.

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I take a final turn and am on route back to the promise of heat and chocolate that awaits me, but before I get too close I take a final detour. I find a stretching log on the ground and sit, watching the movement of leaves in the wind, listening to the babble of the frozen creek, smelling the dirt and decaying leaves surrounding me, and feeling the cool bark under my jeans. Growing on this collapsed log to my left is fungus, stubbornly perpendicular to the log, defying gravity and refusing to fall. On my left, a creature has torn the bark away and drilled holes into the side. Was this the work of a woodpecker? Perhaps another bird or hungry insects? How many animals seek food or even shelter in these crevices? I know only that I am a visitor in their world, a brief inconvenience at most. Nature and her life will be here after I go. She has always been and always will be. After all of us temporary visitors have gone, some of us wounding her and some of us trying to help her, she will continue on her way. This dead and decaying log may seem dead, but it is full of life. It supports the other creatures of the forest even after it could no longer support itself. I mark its shape and growing companions in my book and take the last steps back to our man-made building. How long will this building itself remain here? Will nature’s eternal impact ever erase the presence of anything other than trees and rocks and animals and other growth? I may never know the answers to any of my questions, but I do know that this land has no regard for what I wonder, and the stretching time of this environment humbles my perspective on how I interact with the natural world around me.


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