Saturday, 3 August 2013

Thinking about Landscapes at the Central Experimental Farm

Central Experimental Farm 2013-08-03: Desire lines across a hay field.

In less than a month I'll be moving to Kingston to start a PhD at Queen's University. I'll be exploring the ways that the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa acts as an urban park and how urban residents experience and understand agricultural and rural places in the context of both the Farm and the Canadian Museum of Agriculture and Food--a topic inspired by my own experiences of the Farm in the decade since I moved to Ottawa. In preparation I've been thinking more and more about what these kinds of places and landscapes mean, and how to encounter them.

Central to my musings has been the idea of vernacular landscapes, following the late John Brinckerhoff Jackson, as well as the idea of landscapes of settlement, inspired by Susan Gray's presentation at the 2013 National Council on Public History conference.

Vernacular landscapes, Jackson argued, are those work-a-day places where we work, live, and play. These everyday spaces can be contrasted with the monumental landscape of, for example, Parliament Hill or the National War Memorial. With that said, the monumental and vernacular exist along a continuum depending on individual experience and context.

For example, for anyone who takes the 1 or 7 to school or work and passes these locations on a daily basis, they can quickly become part of the vernacular backdrop of one's workaday life. On the other hand, for the tourists coming from across the country (and around the world) to see Canada's capital, these places remain firmly monumental, somewhere exalted in the imagined community of "Canada."

Central Experimental Farm 2013-08-03

Landscapes of settlement, similarly, exist on the monumental-vernacular continuum. Gray argues that European settlement in North America is not only the process of taking possession of land and displacing others, but also the creation of a unique landscape. In particular, it's about the transition of the dominant landscape form, at least in some regions, from forest to farms.

This idea is encapsulated in popular culture by Gordon Lightfoot's 1967 "Canadian Railroad Trilogy." Lightfoot begins by singing of a time "long before the whiteman, long before the wheel, when the green dark forest was to silent to be real" (0m25s). Over the course of the song, following the forgotten labour of the navvies, with "all the world at our command, we have opened up her soil, with our teardrops and our toil" (5m15s).

Lightfoot's song evocatively summarizes Gray's North American landscape of settlement, the clearing (or, in the words of the late 19th century, "improvement") by European settlers of the forests into farms. In this process, it seems the dominant vernacular landscape of the eastern parts of the continent shifted from woodlands to agricultural settlements and towns, marked, perhaps, by the creation of forest reserves and provincial, state, and national park schemes to preserve some aspects of the forest as a monument to the past for settlers and their descendants to experience in a safe and controlled manner.

Central Experimental Farm 2013-08-03: The Skyline Campus (National Headquarters of the Agriculture Portfolio) and the Central Park Neighbourhood, Ottawa.
The Farm offers an interesting counter-point to this narrative. With an ever increasing amount of "settler" settlement in Canada shifting to urban places, farms are being transformed into suburbs, while villages are being developed into exurbs, and downtowns into condos. At a time when the dominant vernacular landscape of most of the population is (ex/sub-)urban, the Farm was declared a national historic site in 1998 and the original lands have since been protected from development, with the parcels of land (added to the Farm later in its history and therefore outside the heritage designation) that are now the Skyline campus of Agriculture and Agri-food Canada and the Central Park neighbourhood in Ottawa as the exceptions that prove the rule.

Central Experimental Farm 2013-08-03: The Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre's 2013 crop calendar.

The Farm has become a vernacular landscape for the hundreds of people who use its paths recreationally every day--whether to walk their dogs, go for a run or commute along its lanes and pathways, go tobogganing in the Arboretum in the winter, or engage in remote control airplane flying over the fields or even to drink or consume recreational drugs. At the same time, despite the ongoing scientific experimentation undertaken by the Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre of AAFC, the Farm (and the Museum) have become monuments to agriculture, a practice that many city dwellers seem to envision as existing only in an idealized past of the family farm.

The tree lined laneways and painted brown and white "stake" fences along the recreational pathways speak to an idealized pastoral landscape, reminiscent perhaps of a forgotten English countryside. Tourists visiting the museum can see Clydesdale horses and Canadien cows on display and, perhaps, take a horse drawn tour of the Farm itself. The interaction between the monumental and the vernacular, as well as the encroachment of the city on all sides creates interesting dissonances that I am looking forward to diving into in the coming years.