Understanding Ourselves Through Cultural Landscapes

By Alison Rooney

“Cultural landscapes,” a term new to many, is the subject of a lecture presented by landscape architect Charles Birnbaum. Offered through the auspices of Manitoga, it will take place on Saturday, Oct. 23 from 5 to 7 p.m., at the Desmond-Fish Library.  Although “cultural landscapes” may imply the imprint of the arts over a society, the description, in fact, is quite different.  The World Heritage Committee has defined it as “distinct geographical areas or properties uniquely “”¦representing the combined work of nature and of man.” This description is then sub-divided into three categories: A landscape designed and created intentionally by man; an organically evolved landscape which may be a relict (fossil) landscape, or a continuing landscape; and an associative cultural landscape which may be valued because of the religious, artistic, or cultural associations of the natural element.
       Birnbaum, who works largely on preservation projects, is president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. He will speak about the significance of cultural landscapes, focusing on why they must be preserved and respected as integral to understanding our shared past.  Through his

Landscape architect Charles Birnbaum (Courtesy of Mr. Birnbaum)

professional training and work as a landscape architect on preservation projects, Birnbaum became aware that designed outdoor spaces often fall into an abyss. They are largely ignored by art and architectural historians, who value their beauty but fail to appreciate their importance as part of our heritage.
       Manitoga is a perfect cultural landscape paradigm, as its woodland landscape was scrupulously designed by Russel Wright.  His legacy of curving, winding trails carved out following deer tracks, vistas created from the trimming and shaping of trees, and planned groves of native plantings are part of a much thought-out design. It is this design, however, that challenges those who wish to maintain it today and into the future.  Natural ravages such as hemlock disease, and economic travails, such as lack of funding to maintain the landscape, are but two of the challenges specific to Manitoga and typical of those experienced by many cultural landscapes.
       According to the Cultural Landscape Foundation, there are four types of cultural landscapes and a site can fall into more than one category:

  • Designed Landscape: a landscape that was consciously designed or laid out in a recognized style or tradition.
  • Vernacular Landscape: a landscape that evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped that landscape.
  • Historic Site: a landscape significant for its association with a historic event, activity or person.
  • Ethnographic Landscape: a landscape containing a variety of natural and cultural resources that the are defined as heritage resources.

The Foundation asks the question: “Why are cultural landscapes important?” and answers it, saying “Cultural landscapes are a legacy for everyone. These special sites reveal aspects of our country’s origins and development as well as our evolving relationships with the natural world. They provide scenic, economic, ecological, social, recreational, and educational opportunities helping communities to better understand themselves. Why is it important to protect cultural landscapes? Neglect and inappropriate development put

"Stepping Stones" (Photo courtesy of Manitoga)

our irreplaceable landscape legacy increasingly at risk. Too often today’s short-sighted decisions threaten the survival and continuity of our shared heritage. It is everyone’s responsibility to safeguard our nation’s cultural landscapes. The ongoing care and interpretation of these sites improves our quality of life and deepens a sense of place and identity for future generations.”
       This lecture is part of Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Center’s Fourth Annual Woodland Landscape Program. According to Lori Moss, Manitoga’s Assistant Director of Operations, the program was initiated in 2007 by then-board member Katy Moss Warner. It was created with a distinct purpose: to refocus emphasis on the landscape component of the site, rather than Wright’s home and studio. Manitoga now hosts six Landscape Volunteer Days each year, with a Family Volunteer Day coming up on Saturday, Nov. 6.
       The Why Cultural Landscapes? lecture takes place from 5 to 7 p.m., Saturday, October 23rd, in the Program Room at the Library. Admission is free, but space is limited. Reservations may be made via email at [email protected]  or by calling 845-424-3812. For further information on Manitoga’s programs and events may be found at russelwrightcenter.org.

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