garden tales from a Brit abroad
One of the pleasures of landscape history is the often surprising places where information can be found. Trainspotters’ model drawings, last wills and testaments, records from a convent, romantic novels, legal opinions, photographs on Facebook – all have in their time helped me understand and interpret historical landscapes. And this month I was shown another unexpected example.
A couple of years ago, I published a book on Fresh Pond, a historically rich landscape in Massachusetts, now the main source of the water supply for the city of Cambridge. No central archive exists on the landscape, and so I had spent several years digging around in obscure places for information and images. The task was made harder because in the late 1800s, to protect the purity of the water, the city had rapidly cleared the land of all its historical buildings, and quarried the surrounding glacial hills for gravel to make the shoreline more regular. This left steep, raw wounds over much of the landscape, ugly gashes of exposed rock and sand, much criticised by the Olmsted firm of landscape architects which was subsequently brought in to ‘beautify the borders’ of a new park planned on the shores.
The quarrying left the landscape unattractive and unloved. Virtually no photographs seemed to exist from this period, and my book had to rely largely on descriptions and occasional 2D plans. Then last week a colleague in Cambridge sent me a link to a cache of rediscovered photographs put on line by Harvard University, 23 of them of Fresh Pond, all from the winter of 1887/88. It turns out that the exposed gravel and sand had appealed to a new group of visitors: the Harvard geology department had sent professional photographers to capture images of contorted glacial gravels, shored kames, faulted sands, and upturned and overfolded shore-strips of ice at Fresh Pond. The man-made structures caught by the lens were of no interest to the geologists, and were left unlabelled and unremarked, but for many of the historical buildings at Fresh Pond these long-forgotten images serve as the only known photographs. Within five years all such structures had been swept away by the city.
I spent a couple of very enjoyable hours matching the dwellings, icehouses and bridges suddenly brought alive in the photographs to the plans so familiar to me from years of research. And I thought again of the unexpected reasons why people document and photograph the land, and how we landscape historians need to seek out and relish every example.