21 February 2017

Fly-Over Season

In the world of aerial photography the flyover season is about to begin.  Thanks to the unusually warm winter temperatures in the Northeastern United States, snow on the ground is already patchy or the ground is bare, and the leaves will not come out on the trees for some time.  Under these conditions, the lines etched on the land by human travail are at their most visible.
More than a century ago much of upstate New York was farmland, cultivated and sectioned off; but the combination of easy farming on the flatlands  of the Midwest, improved transportation (think: connecting waterways and railroads) and industrialization in the Northeast left fallow fields, ripe for reforestation.   Now some of the old farms  that lie south of the Erie Canal are being taken up again, often by Amish and Mennonite families  who have moved up to New York from neighboring Pennsylvania.  Drive along the Cherry Valley Turnpike (U.S. Route 20) or N.Y.S. Route 80, both roads running more or less from east to west and you can identify these houses  by the lack of electrical wires  running from the roadside poles.

By the time President Thomas Jefferson took office in 1800, the American farm had already assumed the outlines still in evidence today.  The best farms were situated on hillsides facing south, with barns and other sheds forming a screen around the house, the kitchen garden located nearby for protection from the elements, and a wood lot located to the north to act as a windbreak.  There were trade-offs, of course, between the richer soil in the valleys versus the longer growing season on the sun-soaked hills.  Farms on the north slope of hills often failed to prosper because of the shorter growing season and even today these lots are more likely to be timberland than farmland. A sheltered site for the house also lessened the need for firewood. A farmhouse was located near the top of hill so that a well with pure water would be protected from farm water runoff.

Avoiding the  cold  was uppermost in the minds of European settlers  accustomed to milder winters, followed closely by the belief that the fog and mist that hung over the valleys carried disease. Charles Estienne, author of the popular manual Maison rustique or The Country Farme (London, 1616), certainly thought so.  "If ever there be a hill, build upon the edge thereof,making choose to have your lights toward the east but if you be in a cold country, open your lights on the south side, and little or nothing toward the north ....recoup the liberty of the air and a goodly prospect..."

The land is a palimpsest, written on again and again, written over until details of previous times are obscured.  By comparison with cities and suburbs, rural areas still offer a rich visual story for those who take the time to look.  Now is a good time to take a ride in the country.

John Pfahl (b.1939) is an American photography, a graduate twice from Syracuse University, who now lives  and teaches in Buffalo, New York.
For further reading: Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845 by John R. Stilgoe, New Haven, Yale University Press: 1983.

1. John Pfahl - Nursery Topsoil - Winter + Lancaster New York, 1994, Janet Borden Gallery, NYC.
2. John Pfahl - Blue X, Pembroke, New York, 1975, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
3. John Pfahl - Pingry Hill Road, Andover, New York, 1979, Joseph Bellows gallery, NYC.
4. John Pfahl - The Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile, 1994, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


Hels said...

Excellent. In comparison with crowded and over built cities, rural areas DO still offer a rich visual story for anyhow who might take the time to think about it. Being a big city person in a hot climate, I would normally think only of a few sheep and dry trees.

But you highlighted two problems. a] Snow is so cold it makes residents miserable and the land blanketed. And b] The land changes over and over, written over until details of previous times are obscured. The artist or photographer would have to work like an archaeologist.

Jane said...

Hels, I've been able to look at aerial photography of upstate New York from the late 1930s, the late 1950s, 1970s, 1990s,etc. The changes on the land raised all sorts of interesting questions. Another thing plainly visible is the rising waters levels of rivers and lakes.
And yes, archeologists make use of aerial photography when considering where to dig.