Perceptions of the Place

Catherine F. Smith

Since we (Catherine, John, Ian) have lived on this farm (since 1974), our perception of the place has changed several times.

Early on, we occupied the house and used the barn (for chickens, geese, goats, and horses) while John and Catherine commuted to jobs elsewhere and Ian bussed to and from the local school.   We had little awareness of the place.   We weren't farmers.  We were apartment-dwellers who had moved to the country.   It was our 'place to stay, with weedy fields around it.'   The attention we gave went to the log farmhouse, remodeling it according to our ideas of loghouse living.   However, even then, perception of the surrounding grounds shifted when, around 1976,  we took a wild medicinal and food foraging class led by Evelyn Snook, Keith Wilson, and Bill Russell thru Penn State's Free University.  ("Stalking the Wild Asparagus" was the idea.)  As a result of that experience, the outdoors took on a special interest.  The weedy fields suddenly seemed a 'farmacopoeia' of useful plants for eating and for healthcare.   With Evelyn's and our plant-knowledgeable friends' encouragement, we began to pay attention to coltsfoot, golden seal, stinging nettles, skullcap for health care, added ground cherries to salads, and steamed lambsquarters and dandelions for side dishes.  (Nothing like Evelyn's and friends' creativity, but it was a change for us.)  We had a glimmer that plants required particular growing conditions ('habitat'' was not yet the term, but it was the recognition), but we didn't think much about it. 

In the late1990s,  James Lesher began working with us, bringing his eye as a landscape architect, his skills as a gardner, and knowledge of plants.  What decided his willingness to work with the place, he told us later, was not us.  It was a plant, the red Canada lillies growing one of the streams ('mountain runs') as he noticed driving in the farm lane the first time. He wanted to know more about the place where this rare (red color) lily grew.  Over some 15 years now,   James' artist's eye, skilled hands, and experience as groundskeeper at Rhoneymede (a historic farm and art garden nearby) has added to our emerging idea of  the place as a 'landscape' and to our aim of encouraging 'native' plants in it.  This was the 'garden' phase of perception.  (We had small vegetable gardens for a year or two, but not for long.  We started and have maintained a kitchen herb bed. The combination of native/nonnative occurs in beds all around the house and barn as well as in wooded areas.  This phase of perception is ongoing, while becoming  better informed.)  Meanwhile, we still perceived the place primarily as a 'farm,' with tillable fields rented to neighboring farmers for crop production and we (the 'hobby farmers') gardening isolated patches of it.

These relatively subtle perceptual shifts between 1974-approximately 2005 occurred within the frame of 'farm,' or agriculture.  In that frame, locations on the farm had value according to their usefulness or attractiveness to us or to renter-farmers.   Wet locations, for example, were ignored  because they were not useful or they required special treatment (usually more work) to make them useful.

Around 2005, we stopped renting fields for farming.  The farm entered a post-agriculture life, in our minds.   (Meanwhile, without our noticing as it happened,  the formerly open, grassy, pastured hillside had gowrn up in a new, successional forest of elms and other trees along with brushy multiflora rose, autumn olive, etc.)    Gradually, we introduced 'conservation' practices of reforestation, wetland restoration and construction, prairie grassland development, plant and animal habitat improvement, and others.  Wet places became most interesting.  In this phase, Pennsylvania and US agents in government roles as biologists, wildlife managers, watershed specialists, and others are our educators and helpers.  This relatively strong perceptual shift  is still growing strongly.  Ecology is the new frame and 'old farm ecology' is our working concept.  'Sense of place' is evolving.   Now in 2012, we're fully in frame of trying to understand the place.   Related, we're trying to recognize our impacts on it and the ways we and it change reciprocally, in tandem.

As one activity in that frame, we're tracing the place-people ('what the people living there then did on it and with it') in time.  We're trying to learn how place and people interacted over roughly two centuries (recorded)  before we came on the place, roughly 1760s to 1970s before us, then in our time 1974-present.   James is now using his historical research skills,  examining records of various kinds for references to land and water use or vegetation (forests, other plants) over time.  He and Catherine are gaining momentum in understanding the reciprocal impacts of people and place over several time scales.   John is building a website for the place that, among other functions, archives and invites discussion of our progress in historical study.    This blog entry is a way of opening the discussion.

As James has pored over deeds, tax records, maps, atlases, and aerial photographs in times prior to 1974 when we took occupancy of the place, he has initiated several thought-provoking ideas that are directing subsequent research: 

- 'heritage forest (remnant woods on our property and surrounding properties of "The Pines,' a feature prominently marked for the area on the 1861 Tilden map (the first map) of Centre County).  Relates to nearby place names such as Green Grove Road.

- 'improved' land (indicator of change in land use such as clearing woods to create farmfields.  Example: tax records for '200 acres, 10 improved').

- 'released' or 'returned' fields (post-agriculture conservation)


March, 2012