I am Ian Firth and I’m originally from England from Yorkshire in the north of England. I’m living in Athens Georgia where I’ve been for over thirty years. My current job – I’m retired, I’m a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia and I’ve been retired for seven years.
How did you become interested in landscape preservation?
Being English, I was involved from a very young age. I was raised in a suburb of a northern city, Leeds, looking out onto a patch of ground which was in fact part of a medieval monastery, a grange of a monastery, and when I was about fourteen the city council in its wisdom decided to bulldoze the entire area and build housing all over it without any reference what so ever to the historic qualities, let along the environmental qualities, of that farm land. I think that made, obviously, an enormous impression on me and so when I became interested in geography, history, it seemed to lend its self right away to being involved with landscapes and their preservation.
When I came to Georgia to teach at the University of Georgia, I got involved with a very interesting character over at the Institute of Ecology, an ecologist who was interested in historic landscapes and her name was Susan Bratton. She invited me to bring a class down to Cumberland Island of the coast of Georgia and start work on looking at some of the historic landscapes associated with the Carnegies on Cumberland Island. We had lots of interesting adventures and I started to approach historic landscapes with a very strong ecological interest because of Susan’s involvement.
I think that was a really good start into the field because it always bothers me the separation between natural and cultural and the difference between an ecological perspective and a historical perspective, when they are obliviously complimentary and bound together and should remain bound together. It’s the interaction between the ecology and the history that really interests me. So that was a very good start into the field over here in America.
What types of projects are you working on now?
This past year I’ve been working again on the Blue Ridge Parkway National Park, this time working on a cultural landscape report for one of the recreation areas – Mt. Pisgah. I’ve also been involved in working on a much smaller scale a farm in north Georgia, the Shields-Ethridge Farm, which the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation visited when it came to Athens a few years ago. We’ve been developing an interpretation program and trying to avoid the traps of putting signs over places which really should be seen in their original condition rather than with the interpretation being so obvious. I was asked to get involved with a very interesting project in northwest Georgia, one of these folk art gardens -Howard Finster’s garden: Paradise Gardens. I went and looked at it and thought it was absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, it’s in a terrible condition and it needs an enormous amount of money to spend on it if it’s going to be restored in any significant way. So, thinking about how to do that without restoring it has been a real challenge and decided that perhaps with all of this technology that’s now available to us we don’t need to restore it. I’ve succeeded in getting the College of Environment and Design [University of Georgia] involved in this and I don’t think I’m going to play much of a role, but I think conceptually its one of the most interesting projects that I’ve been involved with in the last year.
How did you become involved in the Alliance for Landscape Historic Preservation?
My first meeting of the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation that I attended was 1991 in Acadia, Maine. I went to the meeting because I was working on a project which involved carriage roads, the Moses Cone Estate on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was very interested in the carriage roads that the Rockefellers’ had built on Acadia. So I went up with that rather narrow focus and discovered that the Alliance was a much more interesting organization than I had given it credit for and got involved in a lot of very interesting conversations about all sorts of topics other than carriage roads, thought the carriage roads were very interesting as well. That same meeting we went on to Canada and I think the connection with Canada is one of the great strengths of the Alliance.
What does the Alliance Mean to You?
I think first and foremost it is the opportunity for informal conversations with people from different backgrounds, stimulated by the environment that you are in, which have been very varied environments that we’ve been in the last twenty years.
Recorded at the2011 Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation Annual Meeting in Forth Worth, Texas