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Cultural Landscape

The cultural landscape of Vermont is a rich text waiting to be read. It has deep layers of meaning and many stories to tell, but most people need to be taught how to read it. If you want to understand the human side of the Vermont landscape, the first thing you'll have to do is to learn to look at it in a different way. You'll need to learn to stop and really see all the human features in the landscape, even the most ordinary and easily overlooked objects, whether it's a telephone pole or woods road or an old brick house, and the one-of-a-kind features, whether it's a Native American pictograph or a grand hotel or a three-story round barn. All of these human structures and objects are there for a reason. Reading the cultural landscape means having a clear vision of the human features that are really there and understanding why they are there.

Shelburne, Vermont from the air, 2003

Shelburne, Vermont from the air, 2003


A typical Vermont town has human features on the landscape today that are remnants from many previous eras. The cultural landscape can be thought of as being created in layers during the distinct eras of human prehistory and history in Vermont. In learning to read the landscape, you'll need to learn to see the layers. Here's an example of how you might approach a common rural Vermont landscape, research it step by step, and learn how to read it and its layers of meaning.

Say you have found an old stone wall in the forested hillside near you. The first thing you need to do is to try to date the stone wall. You might do some research at the town clerk's office and discover the wall was mentioned in an 1850 deed. You may not know exactly when it was built, but you know it is at least a mid-nineteenth-century feature. The next thing to do would be to look for other human features that could be the same age. You might follow the stone wall and find a cellar hole, and a small stone-lined hole in the ground, and a lilac bush. Human features tend to cluster in certain time periods, and the clusters can help you reconstruct what happened there. The cellar hole you find corresponds to a farmhouse site shown on a map from 1857 and on one from 1869. The small stone-lined hole uses the same building technique as the wall (no mortar, dry-stone), and you surmise it is a well for the farmhouse. The lilac bush is on the side of the cellar hole that faces an old road. It must have been planted there before it was forest, and probably long before. So, you associate all these elements from one era together, erase in your mind's eye the recent additions to the landscape, and try to picture the mid-nineteenth-century farmhouse along the road, with a dooryard lilac and well, and open fields beyond fenced in stone.

If that stone wall now runs through the woods, you may also be able to research and see in your mind's eye the farm failure, the abandonment of the farmhouse and farmland, and the natural forest succession of the twentieth century. You've started with one human feature on the landscape and learned to read what you see in greater depth.

Human use of the Vermont landscape reaches back 11,000 years, and each of the layers of human use can be looked at one at a time. To understand the prehistoric human layers of the landscape, you need to look mostly underground, and look at archeological excavations to see how early humans used the landscape. (If you're interested in prehistoric landscapes, see the section that follows.) Most of the human features in the Vermont today, however, are from the landscapes created in historic times by the European settlers of the last 200 years. If you're interested in historic landscapes, see the section that follows the prehistoric landscape section below. Separate sub-sections on village and city landscapes, and rural landscapes are included in the Historic Landscape section. A third type of landscape element, the industrial landscapes that are neither rural or urban, is also discussed briefly below.

In the end, the everyday features around us teach us that our social biography gets woven into the physical fabric of our surroundings. If we choose to, we can learn to look beneath the surface of the landscape we travel through and see the evolution of our cultural and natural history. The stories that people have written into the landscape are amazing and revealing, and waiting to be read and understood.

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