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.
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.
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. 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.
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.