- The Gyre Narrows, AgainVernacular Buildings, Vernacular Landscapes, and Environmental History
While in graduate school, I listened to Henry Glassie’s lectures on Ireland’s vernacular landscapes and read about them in greater depth in his book Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Culture and History of an Ulster Community. Those familiar with this work know that its ethnographic depth is largely attributable to Glassie’s intimate immersion in the vernacular landscape. But since its publication thirty-eight years ago, I have often been struck by what I see as one of its most overlooked contributions to those who study every day buildings and everyday landscapes— its ecological resonance. Whether he is describing the repair of thatched roofs, the burning turf fires in houses, or the spatial logic of farmsteads nestled amidst undulating hills and the nearby lough, each feature assists in calibrating the bodies of Irish men and women to the biological rhythms and physical constraints of nature. When Charles W. Joyner— a historian and folklorist— assessed Passing the Time in Bally menone, he titled his review essay “The Narrowing Gyre,” inverting the frayed societal sensibility William Butler Yeats expressed in the line “the widening gyre” from the poem “The Second Coming” to praise Glassie’s ability to intellectually reconcile disciplines, a step in getting us to the heart of buildings’ uses and meanings.1 Joyner pointedly identified nature in this enterprise, citing a line from one of Glassie’s endnotes: “For I begin at texts [material and nonmaterial], at forms created by the people themselves, and move through them to the culture and the environment, and swing from the culture and the environment back to the texts . . . attempting to gain some understanding of the world as viewed from Ballymenone.”2 Such sentiment emerged from the influence of a line of thinking shaped by geographers and historians who made environment central to their inquiries of cultural landscapes: Carl Sauer, Fred Kniffen, E. Estyn Evans, and W. G. Hoskins. Perhaps most telling, Glassie’s ecologically-charged handling of Ballymenone’s wrought setting conveys a place that breathes, “where environment is inherently useful, and the human task is to discover through work the logic of its construction,” where organic, biological cognizance is honored in the measured crafting of “smooth meadows, trim hedges, trees in a line, crisp white houses arranged on a green field: the landscape of farmwork is a work of art.”3
But for me, the “narrowing gyre” was only beginning to take shape as I sought greater insight into how I might find congruence between the fields of vernacular architecture studies and environmental history. Coinciding with Glassie’s handling of landscapes in Ulster— and critically influenced by it— Robert St. George’s essay, “ ‘Set Thine House in Order’: The Domestication of the Yeomanry in Seventeenth-Century New England,” although rarely acknowledged as such, framed the treatment of vernacular architecture in terms that squarely connected with the concerns of American environmental historians. For St. George, the seventeenth-century New England landscape emerged from a view of nature deeply dialectical in scope— a divinely held notion of the “immanence and utilitarianism” contained in God’s earthly bounty. Belief in the perfectibility of nature forged a paradoxical [End Page 1] view that runs through the American vernacular landscape to this very day, one where, in St. George’s examination, the yeomanry embraced “the philosophical conservation of resources” and, at the same time, “their sanctioned exploitation.” Glorifying God’s design of nature meant understanding it. Collapsing disciplinary boundaries, St. George noted that “man learns the most about nature and God’s universe when he alters it” through artifice, and that “Puritans legitimized their mission as they symbolically broke open their landscape. As a result, the yeoman could improve his lands, build miles upon miles of stone walls, and turn trees into towns, while still heeding the words of his minister as he urged the detailed study of nature.”4
Such interpretation of vernacular landscape redounded with the emerging tide of American environmental history scholarship, and, perhaps not surprising, corresponded with another work dealing with the same region— William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology...