Walking a Plow Layer: Insight and Inspiration

Laurel McSherry


“Most maps aren’t about how to get from point A to point B, but rather about how we as a civilization, as different cultures, perceive our lives in this box that we live in.” –– John Hessler


For landscape architects, relations between the content of stories and the structure of their telling raises interesting questions, such as, how are past stories about places (memories) anchored in the present day? And what is the relationship between the natural order of events (chronology) and the order of their presentation in landscape? This presentation exposes these and other questions through a current project in New Jersey, which employs a method borrowed from archaeology called field walking. Similar to line sampling, the method uses equally spaced transects as datums to guide surface artifact collection and mapping. A 1898 map of impacts from coastal subsidence inspired the geographical scope of my walking at the regional and site scale. Authored by former state geologist George Cook, the map illuminates a line in the relief of the Coastal Plain; a datum as much temporal as topographic. Using archival drawings and contemporary GIS, this line, 2,678 miles in length, was located and mapped relative to the eight sub-watersheds it traverses, providing the framework for a series of localized ‘readings’ of the plow layer. Averaging 12” in depth, the plow layer, known locally as the Ap soil horizon, is the zone that most reflects natural processes and cultural practices. Marked by the continual and simultaneous addition, removal and transformation of material, this living surface invites studies of relationships between the natural environment, material culture, and time. A 3-mile test walk within the Raritan River subwatershed illustrates the number and location of a series of sampling ‘cuts’ relative horizontally to soils sequences and vertically to soil depths. By juxtaposing a continuous horizontal plot against discrete vertical ones, this investigation illuminates that local differences matter, and that sometimes reconciling the same and the different is a dialogue between knowing when to move and when to simply stay put.



McSherry_HeadshotLaurel McSherry

Director + Associate Professor

Graduate Program in Landscape Architecture

Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center

Virginia Tech

601 Prince Street

Alexandria, Virginia 22314