An Ancient Megalith in New York

A dolmen is a type of Neolithic tomb architecture found in Western Europe. So what would one be doing in a small town in the Hudson Valley? Balanced Rock in North Salem, New York is a unique example of (what appears to be) a European megalith in North America, long predating recorded transatlantic contact.

I filmed a short video about the structure which you can watch below, or at YouTube.

Stonehenge Undermined

Associated Press reports:

The British government went against the recommendations of planning officials Thursday, approving controversial plans for a road tunnel to be built near the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in southern England.

As I wrote back in 2018:

The lifespan of concrete is remarkably short. Modern reinforced concrete needs repairs after only fifty years. In the fullness of time the decay of the tunnel will destabilize the landscape around Stonehenge. Assuming this generation wishes to bequeath the monument to posterity the risk is unacceptable.

A regrettable outcome.

The Old Straight Track

John Michell writing in The View Over Atlantis describes the moment Alfred Watkins discovered ley lines:

One hot summer afternoon in the early 1920s Alfred Watkins was riding across the Bredwardine hills about 12 miles west of Hereford. On a high hilltop he stopped, meditating on the view below him. Suddenly, in a flash, he saw something which no one in England had seen for perhaps thousands of years.

Watkins saw straight through the surface of the landscape to a layer deposited in some remote prehistoric age. The barrier of time melted and, spread across the country, he saw a web of lines linking the holy places and sites of antiquity. Mounds, old stones, crosses and old crossroads, churches placed on pre-Christian sites, legendary trees, moats and holy wells stood in exact alignment that ran over beacon hills to cairns and mountain peaks. In one moment of transcendent perception Watkins entered the magic world of prehistoric Britain, a world whose very existence had been forgotten.

Pictured above: Michell photographed by Paul Broadhurst.

The Village Survival Guide

This week the Prince’s Countryside Fund released a Village Survival Guide. The 104-page booklet addresses challenges and needs facing rural communities in Britain. It follows from the belief of Prince Charles that, “The role of the countryside, with all its diversity and idiosyncrasies, in our national life is too important to be left to chance.”

The guide offers ten suggestions, including the reorientation of village life around the time-honored poles of pub, parish church, and post office. These are elaborated upon with stories and advice. Read the whole report and order a printed copy here.

Manhattan in Better Days

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer writing in The Century Magazine (May, 1897):

There have been times when the word “suburban” rang pleasantly in the ears of the citizen of New York. Such must have been the times, long ago, when Greenwich village and Chelsea village were the summer resorts of local magnates, and when Harlem village (legend affirms it) was a health-resort so placidly umbrageous, Dutch, and small that people who could not sleep in town were sent out there, assured of a week of unbroken slumber. And such, again, were the nearer times when all the isle was still suburban north of Washington Square, covered with farms, and dotted with country mansions that were often set in forest-like domains, and often fronted on the East or the North or the Harlem River.

England By Train With Eric Ravilious

The aesthetic of Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) blends traditional landscape painting, folk art, and modernism. He painted England in watercolors, with compositions often juxtaposing the contemporary and the ancient. The effect was always surprisingly harmonious. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the related works, Westbury Horse (1939) and Train Landscape (1940), which feature railways passing a Medieval, possibly prehistoric monument.

In his book, Eric Ravilious: Imagined Realities, Alan Powers describes these paintings: “One is seen from an adjacent slope at the same level, with a view over the Wiltshire plain, across which runs the railway with a train passing in the middle distance. The second…reverses the relationship, by viewing the hills and horse from the windows of a third class railway compartment.”

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Westbury Horse, by Eric Ravilious, 1939
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Train Landscape, by Eric Ravilious, 1940

According to Powers, “Train Landscape originally showed the Wilmington Giant from a similar viewpoint (both figures overlook railway lines near the foot of their hills), but was altered by Ravilious who cut away the window area and almost invisibly inserted three new panels.”

Around the same time, Ravilious painted a separate work featuring the Wilmington Giant. Here again we see (what might be) the view from a railway compartment, dynamic and static: the monument caught by the eye just before it passes.

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The Wilmington Giant, by Eric Ravilious, 1939

Autumn in Washington Irving Country

We recently moved out of New York City to leafier climes in the Hudson Valley. This is my favorite part of the world. I have roots here. My mother grew up in the town where we settled. My grandparents were ceramic artists and figures of some importance in Midcentury Modern design. They had their studio and factory here. I went to school about an hour north. My wife and I are expecting our third child now. I am grateful for this to be their home.

Fall is in the air. Cold weather seems to have followed me back from England. There is a fire blazing in the hearth. This is the finest season in New York: comfortable, nostalgic, melancholy, beautiful.

Washington Irving, our greatest writer, sets the scene:

It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet…As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye…ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn.

The English Garden

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Victorian Garden, by Henry John Yeend King, undated

The Victorians inherited from the Georgians a glorious tradition of landscape gardening, both in the Neoclassical and the more naturalistic Romantic styles. The landscape gardens of the eighteenth century had been projects of the nobility, located on the great country estates. These projects were of course ongoing in the nineteenth century, but the Victorian period witnessed a blossoming of horticulture in the commons, characterized by the proliferation of public gardens and small-scale formal gardens in middle-class homes.

According to English Heritage, “An extraordinary number of innovations in the study, cultivation and display of plants were made during the Victorian period. At the same time there was an explosion of interest in gardening, which became a national obsession.” Most notably, “Advances in the way plants were transported and transplanted meant that botanists were able to raise specimens imported from all over the world.”

Early Victorian gardens were characterized by formalism and artifice. The influential garden designer, botanist, and writer John Claudius Loudon led fashion away from the Romantic style which had accentuated and imitated nature. Loudon believed that garden design should be asserted as an art with bold use of exotic plants and geometric design. He popularized the term “landscape architecture.”

Loudon was an advocate of public gardens and greenbelts. Like his American counterpart, Frederick Law Olmsted, later in the century, he believed that parks should be incorporated into cities through urban planning. Loudon designed what is often described as Britain’s first public park, the Derby Arboretum. According to English Heritage, “Urban parks” were “created in response to concern about overcrowding and the condition of the poor.” These public gardens were similar to their private counterparts in “layout and planting, but with amenities such as bandstands and tea houses.” Loudon coined the word arboretum for a botanic garden in which trees, both indigenous and exotic, were cultivated and studied.

The systematic cultivation of plants became a serious endeavor throughout the British Empire in the nineteenth century. Botanic gardens were established in colonies throughout the world to meet agricultural, medicinal, and economic needs. The earliest of these had been established in the eighteenth century. Jim Endersby writes, in The Financial Times, that

St Vincent, in the West Indies, was the first colony to found such a garden (in 1765), and Britain’s East India Company decided it would be profitable to found one at Calcutta soon after (1787).

Eventually, there would be a network of gardens that spanned the globe, which would prove vital to the British Empire, allowing vital crops like rubber and cinchona (the tree from whose bark quinine was extracted) to be collected outside the empire and moved to colonies where they could be grown profitably. (Think about all those rubber trees that now form forests in southeast Asia; their scientific name is Hevea brasiliensis, meaning “from Brazil”.)

Back in England around the same time the royal pleasure gardens at Kew were being transformed into a center for scientific cultivation under King George III. That great monarch (much maligned by the wicked) appointed his horticultural advisor Sir Joseph Banks to the directorship of Kew Gardens in 1797. Banks envisioned Kew as the “great botanical exchange house for the empire.” To that end he coordinated ambitious programs of exchange between the many fledgling botanic gardens throughout the colonies.

By the time Queen Victoria ascended to the throne Kew Gardens had fallen on hard times. After King George III they had been neglected. The government was considering a plan to close Kew in order to save money. Endersby writes,

In 1838, the botanist John Lindley was asked to report on the plan, but instead of closure, he proposed the government should remove the garden from royal control and run it directly. His rationale was that there were already “many gardens in British Colonies and dependencies . . . in Calcutta, Bombay, Sahranpur, in the Isle of France [Mauritius], at Sydney, and in Trinidad, costing many thousands a year”. Yet, the value of these gardens “is very much diminished by the want of some system under which they can all be regulated and controlled”. Yet if proper co-ordination could be established, the empire’s gardens were “capable of conferring very important benefits upon commerce and . . . colonial prosperity”.

The government accepted Lindsey’s recommendations and in 1840 Kew was adopted as a national botanic garden. Under this arrangement it flourished as the “great botanical exchange house for the empire” first proposed by Banks. The scale and efficiency with which exotic plants were imported during the nineteenth century made them available to individual home gardeners as well as professionals.

The style and philosophy of landscape gardening changed subtly at the fin de siècle. The gardens of the Late Victorian period emphasized the vernacular and domestic. Designers eschewed the extreme artifice of both the Classical and faux-natural Romantic styles in favor of the homely, practical, and lovely. “Let there be some formalism about the house to carry on the geometric lines and enclosed feeling of architecture,” advised Henry Avray Tipping, the architectural editor of Country Life magazine, but let us step shortly from that into wood and wild garden.” Tippering was speaking in 1928 but he was describing an ideal that had been established in the 1880s and 1890s. The primary influence was the Arts and Crafts movement associated with John Ruskin and William Morris.

Helena Gerrish in The English Garden writes, “Beyond the formal ‘outside rooms’ that were viewed from the house, the Arts & Crafts garden gave way to the landscape, with rock gardens leading to woodland glades, and wild areas with rustic paths and water gardens.” According to English Heritage, “The interest in vernacular architecture encouraged by the Arts and Crafts movement led designers to imitate cottage gardens by reviving long-neglected plants…It embodied the respect for the past which the Victorians maintained, even at their most innovative and experimental.”

The closest thing to an artistic manifesto of Victorian horticulture can be found in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden. Written at the end of the Edwardian era, it tells the story of a young English girl, Mary, who is sent to live with her uncle at his estate, Misselthwaite Manor, in Yorkshire, after her parents die in India. Her uncle, Mr Craven, is frequently absent and Mary is left to her own devises. Exploring the grounds of the house she discovers a walled garden that has been locked. She learns that her aunt died in an accident in the garden years before and her uncle had it closed off in his grief. With the help of a local boy named Dickon, she opens the garden and begins to tend it. Meanwhile at night Mary hears mysterious cries coming from somewhere in the manor. She searches the halls by candlelight and discovers her cousin Colin, a sickly boy confined to his bed, and treated as a hopeless invalid by the servants.

What thus begins as a Gothic novel with all the classic elements of the genre soon blossoms into something entirely different. In her essay, “Re-Reading The Secret Garden,” Madelon Gohlke writes, “The conversations between Mary and the uncanny Colin in which she systematically opposes his conviction that he is going to die parallel the coming of spring and the awakening of life in the garden.” Mary and Dickon draw Colin out of his sick bed and into the garden where the three children spend an idyllic season and nature works to restore them body and soul together with the vegetation. Mr Craven returns to find his son healthy and the garden in bloom. Gohlke write, “At the center of this image, of course, is the garden, the place where the secrets of life, growth, and all the richness of feeling are located and then revealed.” The garden “is both the scene of a tragedy, resulting in the near destruction of a family, and the place of regeneration and restoration of a family.”

These were the ideas associated with gardening, then as now: the symbiotic relationship between man and nature, its cycles, and its latent spirituality.

Sources:

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. (1911) The Secret Garden. New York: Frederick A. Stokes.

Endersby, Jim. (July 25, 2014) “How botanical gardens helped to establish the British Empire.” Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/dcd33da0-0e69-11e4-a1ae-00144feabdc0

Gerrish, Helena. (September 1, 2016) “Edwardian Garden Style.” The English Garden, http://www.theenglishgarden.co.uk/expert-advice/design-solutions/design-edwardian-garden-style/

Gohlke, Madelon S. (April, 1980) “Re-Reading the Secret Garden.” College English. Vol. 41, No. 8.

Various. (2017) “Victorians: Landscape.” English Heritage, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/victorian/landscape/

Villages, Genetics, Genius

In The New York Review of Books this month Freeman Dyson reviews Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West. Dyson offers insight into why small cities and villages have historically produced men of genius and why the present-day trend toward mega-cities is almost certainly dysgenic.

If a small population is inbreeding, the rate of drift of the average measure of any human capability scales with the inverse square root of the population. Big fluctuations of the average happen in isolated villages far more often than in cities. On the average, people in villages are not more capable than people in cities. But if ten million people are divided into a thousand genetically isolated villages, there is a good chance that one lucky village will have a population with outstandingly high average capability, and there is a good chance that an inbreeding population with high average capability produces an occasional bunch of geniuses in a short time. The effect of genetic isolation is even stronger if the population of the village is divided by barriers of rank or caste or religion. Social snobbery can be as effective as geography in keeping people from spreading their genes widely.

A substantial fraction of the population of Europe and the Middle East in the time between 1000 BC and 1800 AD lived in genetically isolated villages, so that genetic drift may have been the most important factor making intellectual revolutions possible. Places where intellectual revolutions happened include, among many others, Jerusalem around 800 BC (the invention of monotheistic religion), Athens around 500 BC (the invention of drama and philosophy and the beginnings of science), Venice around 1300 AD (the invention of modern commerce), Florence around 1600 (the invention of modern science), and Manchester around 1750 (the invention of modern industry).

These places were all villages, with populations of a few tens of thousands, divided into tribes and social classes with even smaller populations. In each case, a small starburst of geniuses emerged from a small inbred population within a few centuries, and changed our ways of thinking irreversibly. These eruptions have many historical causes. Cultural and political accidents may provide unusual opportunities for young geniuses to exploit. But the appearance of a starburst must be to some extent a consequence of genetic drift. The examples that I mentioned all belong to Western cultures. No doubt similar starbursts of genius occurred in other cultures, but I am ignorant of the details of their history.

West’s neglect of villages as agents of change raises an important question. How likely is it that significant numbers of humans will choose to remain in genetically isolated communities in centuries to come?