“Landscape with Figures”

This is actually a response that I had to write for a class assignment after reading a chunk of Kent C. Ryden’s Landscape with Figures: Nature & Culture in New England. With how personal the response ended up being and with how much information about the house was put into it, I felt it right to place it here. Regardless of the grade, I was really happy to finally put a bit of this into words.


Reading Kent Ryden’s work is find eerily fascinating. When living in an any area, if one digs deep enough, they can easily find that there are numerous layers beneath the one that they see on the surface of their landscape. The history of nature and culture come together to bring out a varied and layered landscape that never really has a “natural” piece to it, or at least not since homosapiens roamed the earth. Human intrusions eventually become seamlessly enveloped into the landscape. An example of this can be made out of the home that my husband and I bought roughly a year and a half ago.

In Ryden’s book, Landscape with Figures: Nature & Culture in New England, he quickly comes to the idea of page six that for the majority of us, just like for Donald, “Nature … [is] something exotic, something extraordinary…” and that it’s not “…nature unless it suddenly [makes] the world feel a little bit stranger and more wonderful.” When we moved into our home, that’s exactly how it felt. Looking from any of the south or east side windows, you see where the lawn ends and where that nature begins. We both felt excitement at the fact that, here at our fingertips, was a large chunk of nature to enjoy at our leisure. It was “wild and untamed” without a single road cutting through it. The only obtrusion being that of the railroad that has been their since 1876.

Is there a time frame on how long it takes a human intrusion to become part of the landscape? The railroad has been the boundary on this property for over one hundred years. One would argue that it will always be an eyesore, a piece of horrendous machinery that clicks and clacks, bellows and puffs its way through the town, breaking out at one point from the harmonious woods and entering back in before making its way towards Madison. However, no one pays much attention to the train. Driving through town, its part of the daily occurrence to have to stop at the tracks and wait for the train to cross all four roads before traffic moves again. When we first moved here, the beast would wake us up every time it went by. We would cringe as it shook the house and hope that we didn’t buy a building that would one day shake it to pieces due to the unnatural mini-earthquakes that it felt. Now even the dog doesn’t wake up to the train at night; our sleep is as uninterrupted by the machine as though it was nothing but a rainstorm. During the day we might make the comment of, “Oh, here comes the train,” in the very same respect that we might say, “Look, the crows are back in the pine tree.” From our kitchen window, a slight rise, cleared of all flora and fauna is the only sign that the tracks are there.

When I came to page eight, were Ryden introduces the concept mentioned in the title, “landscape with figures,” I had to smile. Here again, I thought of my home and the numerous figures that I imagined in the landscape. Thanks to the countless hours that I’ve poured into my hobby of researching the area, my figures are not limited to myself, my husband, and my animals, but extend to others that have lived in this area. The earliest figures I have with this land are those to the Norridgewock, or Nanrantsouak (“people of the still water between the rapids). While I would like to say that I have a clear view of them interacting with the land, I don’t. All I can think of them as doing is peacefully walking by my stream on their way into the woods to gather and hunt.

The strongest figures I see in this landscape are those who lived in the area from the incorporation of the town in 1788 on until May of 1924 when a fire took out most of the southern Main Street businesses. These people thrived on a hard day’s work. While we don’t know exactly if there was a house before ours here (1920s) or ours was the first one on this land, we do know that where the Cumberland Farms is today used to be the Sawyer House and Livery Stable, one of Norridgewocks many hotels, that was in service until the place burned in the late 1800s. After that came the Norridgewock Hotel, which was a three story structure whose presence became instrumental in bringing the boat and electric services to Norridgewock. In the 1930s, the Norridgewock Hotel contained a garage in the first floor while the upper rooms were for rent. I see these men and their now invisible establishment working on the coaches, renting out the rooms, and I can’t help to think that at some point our little house was a groom-man’s home.

Finding the old coach wrench in the farm dump that makes up part of our backyard really tickled my fancy in making these figures even more solid. Along with the glass jars dug out of the stream bed and the insulators left here as part of the home, these figures become real. Does their dumping what was one their goods tarnish the landscape, the “nature” of our piece of Maine? I actually find it the most natural thing. You can’t even tell that the farm dump is there.

Off to the right, near those three trees and beyond, lies a plethora of history buried in dirt and soil. I have dug out numerous glass bottles that are now used around my home as vases and pencil holders. They have gone from the living landscape of before the fires, to the landscape in nature around the home, and are back in the landscape of inside of our house.

Another example of “human” landscape that has folded in with the “natural” we found this past summer cutting down a black ash that was rotting in the middle. High up on the branches, about twenty feet or so off the ground, was a telegraph wire. The tree had grown around it, and with the tree being roughly 60 – 65 years old, it’s hard to tell when the wire was put it. You never would have noticed it from the ground. The only reason we can tell the critters must have known about it is because the squirrel that used to hang out in that area of the tree to eat is now bringing his acorns to the tree where it lays to use the large magnet as a solid piece to crack them on. If this squirrel has been able to accept the adjustments of nature that man has made into part of his natural landscape, why can’t we?

Our home is at the end of a dirt road, down past the tracks, in an area that seems to be fogged in history. Ryden says that when he was younger

“To find natural landscape, I merely had to take a few steps up the hill. Stepping across the clean sharp border from lawn to woods, from culture to nature, was a profound and liminal experience, an immediate transition from one world to another, from a sphere clearly controlled and defined by human beings to a world in which I was a visitor, a guest.”

It’s easy to see from what has so far been talked about our home, that there is no clear cut “natural” and “human” landscape, the two intertwine. The building to the railroad changed the landscape one way. The multiple hotels that have been burned and dumped into the ground around us in another. Even the building of this house and the changing of the land, the clearing and seeding into what is considered necessary for a lawn, has changed the landscape. While we can claim that this is a “humane” landscape now, the fact remains that humans are mammals and are part of nature on their own, does that not keep landscape as still “natural?”

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