The Aerial Muse & Maine’s Fallow Fields of History

By Lune Ames

November 29, 2019

Yvonne Jacquette, Little River Farm (1979). 198.1 x 162.6 cm. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Robert E. Carroll, 1982. Image courtesy of The Met.

In Yvonne Jacquette’s pointillistic oil painting Little River Farm (1979), small dabs of oil paint muddle the line between known and strange. Brushwork blurs the details, though portraying enough that the eye still perceives a blueberry bush. In this aerial landscape near the artist’s summer home in Maine, all the elements of a farm are there: fields, gardens, small bodies of water, farmhouses, barns, and diverging country roads. Land plots create a patchwork of industrial crops; each patch its own plant. Leaves resemble those of potatoes, oats, and blueberries, common Maine cash crops. Everything has sprouted, suggesting the season is summer and fruits are close to ripe. Coniferous windbreaks shield the crops from the wind and prevent soil erosion. Faint shadows cast left indicate it is not quite midday, but close. The verdancy also gives the feel of late morning, when the dew has evaporated but the soil remains moist, not yet dried out by the heat of the day. Patches of dirt in some of the fields indicate too much or too little rain. The painting is at once a specific place-study and a ubiquitous rural landscape.

Amidst the greenery, one field lies fallow, its untilled dirt resting from yielding crops in order to protect its fertility. Agriculture strips the soil of nutrients, and its replenishment requires downtime. Three decades have passed and the rectangle remains unsown. Time allows the two-dimensional to open into a broader history of land use beyond agriculture and into Maine’s persecution of its earliest inhabitants, the Wabanaki Confederacy. The painting cuts off the rest of the field, allowing the imagination to wonder exactly how big the fallow plot is, and how frequently these fields go unplanted.

Jacquette positions the viewer not as a god looking down but as an active observer in a liminal space. The angle accounts for the Earth’s tilt. Born in 1934 in Pittsburgh and raised in Connecticut, Jacquette painted Little River Farm in the same decade that the Boeing 747 was invented, which made air travel even more economically accessible. In a 2008 interview with art critic John Yau for the Brooklyn Rail, she explains her moment of realization: “It happened by accident, of course… I was in a plane… and I started to see that the clouds were amazing when you’re right in them.”

Jacquette paints the familiar with the perspective of one who does not pass through, but over. Yau describes the perspective of her paintings as such:

The view is completely specific and particular to one individual; it’s not like a public or mediated view. And at the same time, someone else could have this view. It’s not private either. It’s in this zone that we don’t seem to acknowledge, which is that there are places that are neither public nor private or they are both… You don’t feel that there’s a self insisting on this view, it’s not “I see this, so you should see this.” There’s something that says that this is here… It’s not that romantic “I” intruding into the scene or framing it.

The perspective in Little River Farm is curious, not conclusive. One can imagine a farmer working around the barn or a family eating lunch inside the farmhouse. Yet no person is visible, only the remnants of their labors. Lush greens suggest bounty, yet the fields’ dirt patches reveal the difficulties of achieving high crop yields, often due to failed irrigation or stripped nutrients. The uncultivated rectangle reminds the viewer of agriculture’s toll on the land.

Yvonne Jacquette, Study for Little River Farm II (1979). 42.5 × 34.9 cm. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Robert E. Carroll, 1982. Image courtesy of The Met.

Little River Farm depicts an agrarian landscape already revolutionized by industrialization and now at the cusp of the Digital Age, which transformed agriculture at the turn of the 21st century. The painting hangs in the Modern and Contemporary Art gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a snapshot of this liminality. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms had already dramatically decreased from its peak of 6.8 million in 1935 to two million in the 1970s, which is a similar number to today. Within two centuries, agriculture shifted from a heavy reliance on slave and indentured labor to reliance on machines, sharecroppers, and prison labor. A recent farming technology timeline on ThoughtCo highlights how the time to produce 100 bushels of wheat decreased from 250-300 hours in the 19th century to just over three hours in the 1970s when Jacquette painted Little River Farm. That same decade, one farmer supplied food for over 75 people in the United States and abroad, compared to just under 10 people in the 1930s.

Jacquette’s angled perspective of the fallow field fosters an expansive gaze at the effects of industrial farming and its direct connection to colonial destruction, in this case the land on which the Wabanaki have lived for 12,000 years. Since right after the Laurentide Ice Sheet melted, the Wabanaki, or People of the Dawnland, have inhabited and carefully cultivated the land that is now Maine. The five tribes include the Passamaquoddy, Penobscott, Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) Nations. Wabanaki agriculture incorporates the Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash—in addition to sunflowers, ground cherry, Jerusalem artichoke, and tobacco or sweetgrass. These plants comprise the Seven Sisters, which Wabanaki ethnobotanist Dr. Frederick M. Wiseman details in his 2018 book Seven Sisters: Ancient Seeds and Food Systems of the Wabanaki People and Chesapeake Bay Region. In the spring, a cluster of stars, known in the West as Pleides, rises with the sun and signals the time to plant the Seven Sisters.

Before colonists arrived, the Wabanaki relied on the Little River as part of their watershed, [1] and in 1862, a farmer who settled near Little River wrote a letter about his conviction to share the land because it has been “home to them for so long.”[2] However, the brutality of capitalist agriculture superseded this sentiment, and just over a century later, the uncultivated rectangle of Little River Farm lays bare the challenges that the Wabanaki faced in Maine even as Jacquette painted.

Wabanaki Country pre-18th Century Map.jpg
Map of Wabanaki Country from ancient times to the early 18th century. Image courtesy of

In 1964, more than a decade-long legal battle for the Wabanaki Confederacy land reacquisition in Maine commenced, the account of which the Passamaquoddy Tribal Government details. William Plaisted, a citizen who was not Native American, “won” Passamaquoddy land in a poker game, on which he began building new cabins. After the Passamaquoddy protested, they filed a lawsuit, which eventually snowballed into a larger suit in conjunction with the Penobscot claims. In 1975, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the State of Maine on behalf of the Wabanaki. After five years, the State finally granted the Wabanaki $85 million to reacquire 300,000 acres of land in the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Agreement. After centuries of enduring genocide, forced removals, violations of hundreds of treaties, exploitation and termination, there seemed to be the possibility of reparations. However, the Bangor Daily News describes how, though the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act initially seemed like a victory, controversy erupted when Section 1735(a) was added as an amendment without the Nations’ knowledge. The amendment has since been interpreted to deprive the Wabanaki of sovereignty, revenue, water quality, and hunting and fishing rights. In July 2019, the Maine State Legislature established a Tribal-State Task Force, with five tribal chiefs, each representing their respective Nation, to oversee the implementation of the act as a protection of their rights rather than as a limiting of them.

Amidst this political maneuvering, the Portland Press Herald recently reported that Wabanaki are sowing conserved indigenous seeds across New England. After centuries of resisting colonial brutality through cultural preservation, those who carefully cultivated these seeds for millennia are reclaiming the land.

Jacquette, the “aerial muse,” challenges collective memory from atmospheric heights. Her shift in perspective from horizontal to vertical also represents a cultural shift. Today, just as the Wabanaki are reclaiming the soil with their own seeds, the majority of American industrial farmers are shifting to “aerial farming,” according to a recent New York Times article. This is a type of digital, or precision, agriculture, in which sensors monitor soil moisture, temperature and nutrients, and report the data to software on computers and iPads. This map of digital Manifest Destiny exists in a new sunless atmosphere—“the cloud”—and is used solely for increasing efficiency and crop yields. Depicted by Jacquette just prior to the advent of these technological developments, the dormant rectangle in Little River Farm offers a critique of this gaze. Jacquette may mean her gestures to remain abstract, but these formal considerations are nonetheless fertile. She resists a singular, romantic viewpoint, as Yau describes, and instead cracks open a fullness that aerates the soil of American memory. Little River Farm achieves a presence that allows the viewer to time travel, to weigh the costs of the imperial, obsessive pursuit of “more” and “future” without acknowledging past and present atrocities. Jacquette’s pointillism captures an active, alternative “now” that lets fields of colonial history lie uncultivated as indigenous, ancestral seeds are being re-sown.

[1] Edward Bassett, “Cultural Importance of River Herring to Passamaquoddy People,” Sipayik Environmental Department, September 5, 2014, 10.

[2] Micah Pawling, “Wabanaki Homeland and Mobility: Concepts of Home in Nineteenth Century Maine,” Ethnohistory 63:4, October 2016, 635.

Lune Ames (Class of 2020) was raised in the Midwest and is now based in New Jersey and New York City.

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