I have learned that I pay better attention to what is around me if I consciously choose a frame through which to view the landscape. My daughters and I saw the New Zealand landscape through the lenses of our bird book. The last time I lived in Hong Kong I purposefully paid attention to what was hanging in, and from, windows into domestic spaces.
Recently, on two day trips, I decided to use the “connecting house” as a frame through which to see what was around me. Prior to moving to New England I had read about (but never seen) “connecting farm houses” in the works of cultural geographers like Wilbur Zelinsky. This domestic architecture is unique to New England, though it may have some roots in England and Wales. In this style, the main house is connected to numerous outbuildings, and finally tied to the barn.
I had seen a few example of these complexes over the past year, but when I decided to pay attention to them, I found them around every turn!
New Hampshire and Maine have many examples, so day trips to those states allowed to view endless varieties on the theme.
So dominant is this house type, that even new housing construction follows the form. So much for the homogenization of American domestic architecture…
Actually, domestic architectural form and construction are some of the more conservative elements of culture. What feels like “home” and our knowledge of how to build is passed on from generation to generation with little change. This makes the introduction of new materials and construction techniques to be very difficult.
Now–if I could only get to know someone who lives in one of these houses–then my curiosity as to how they look inside could be satisfied!
The language used in signs often does not translate from place to place. The result is that outsiders are left puzzled, amused, or both. As a student I spent a semester in England. I remember my fellow American students and myself being totally appalled by plastic figures of handicapped children on the sidewalks with attached signs asking us to “donate to spastics.” The cognitive meaning of the words or phrase did not match how it was used in our own colloquial linguistic context. In these cases we end up being uncomfortable. The phraseology is just not quite right.
It took me two months after my arrival in Hong Kong, and some prompting by someone, to figure out that the “hopper room” sign signaled that there was a garbage chute behind the door. I had used the phrase “throw it into the hopper” but I somehow didn’t associate this metaphorical act with throwing the garbage down the garbage chute. It was more about throwing ideas into a pool for consideration.
I’ve encountered several signs in New England that have caused me some puzzlement. The first one is the “transfer station.” I would expect a transfer station to be found at a busy intersection where one could change from one form of transportation to another. Such is not the case. Transfer stations are off the beaten trail because they are places where you take your garbage, recyclables, yard waste, etc. As in:
“Why does Marblehead have a Transfer Station instead of a dump?Materials (trash, recycling) brought to the site at Woodfin Terrace are temporarily stored there until they are “transferred” to licensed locations for disposal or reprocessing.”
Another sign that has caused me puzzlement is one that says that the area I am entering is “thickly settled.” Thick is a milkshake. Thick is the width of Texas toast. Settlements are densely populated, not thick.
Alas, in Massachusetts, the driving manual states: “A ‘Thickly Settled’ district is an area where houses or other buildings are located, on average less than 200 feet apart.” But the REAL meaning of the sign is that you cannot exceed 30 miles per hour. Now that is clear as mud–or am I thick?
And then there are signs that are just wrong.
I spent most of my first 40 years in the prairies or on the edge of the prairies. Prairies have trees but you plant them. And sometimes you water them. Or you go to the river valley to find trees. This is where prairie settlers found wood and where I expect to find forest. I associate trees, especially cottonwoods, with river valleys or with towns where people plant them and water them.
I’ve been dealing with the yard around my New England house. I am amazed at the trees. I have to beat them back! They grow everywhere without being planted, watered, or asked. Oak trees, maple trees, and brush grows with abandon.
I know enough of New England history to know that the forest has retaken the region after being cleared during early European settlement. My ancestors left New Hampshire in the 1800s as part of the general migration to the Midwest to find better farmland. I’ve seen Francestown, NH and I get it–it is a town that sits on a top of a hill and is now largely depopulated and surrounded, covered, or in the process of being covered by forest–all since my ancestors left to go to places where they had to plant and tend their trees around their Midwestern farmsteads.
I have been identifying with my ancestors who settled this land and lived here from the 1630s until the mid 1800s as I’ve worked on my New England lot. Along the border of my property–not a large lot–maple and oak saplings push through the brush. It has a certain wildness in it that can’t be cultivated or controlled.
I live in an area of forests unbounded. I think I have lost control.