Unlocking the Potential of Place in the Brandywine River Valley

In Spring of 2016 I had the opportunity to take a short course at Schumacher College on bioregionalism and the story of place with Pamela Mang and Joel Glanzberg of Regenesis Group, as well as writer John Thackara and locals from South Devon, England. This project has been for me a revelatory experience of rediscovering my home in the Brandywine River Valley after returning from abroad with a new perspective on place and our role in its future. As a personal inquiry, it draws from my lifelong relationship to the area but is of course limited to my own perception and experience. Incorporating intersecting threads from the new economy movement, cosmology, and historical ecology that I have been exploring over the past two years, my hope is that this offers an invitation for deeper dialogue into our shared membership and collective role in the places we inhabit.

The Brandywine Valley. Photo: Mark Phillips

When I tell people I’m from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, they are often already familiar with the area through its relationship with the Wyeth family of artists. Andrew Wyeth is perhaps the most notable of the painters, but before him came his father N.C., the great American illustrator of works like Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, and after him his son Jamie, who continues to inhabit and paint on the same land his father and grandfather did here in the area. The rest of N.C.’s family, though often seated in the shadows of Andrew’s spotlight, developed remarkable skill-sets as well. Henriette and Carolyn were also exceptionally talented painters, Ann a composer, and Nathaniel the inventor responsible for polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, the plastic widely used in drink bottles today.

A major allure of the Wyeth’s artwork is its remarkable commitment to place — while N.C.’s illustrations required him to source his material from another place or culture, the natural beauty and cultural legacy of the Chadds Ford area clearly inspired him and nourished his artistic spirit. Andrew went well beyond this, painting almost exclusively the land and people of his home in Chadds Ford and in Maine, where the family would typically spend the summer season. And while the oeuvre of Andrew’s son Jamie includes time spent with Andy Warhol in New York and travels to Europe for study, his work is nonetheless rooted in Chadds Ford and Maine.

The Brandywine River in Winter. Photo: Mark Phillips

My geographic affiliation with the Wyeths has always been a source of pride when revealing my home to others, and it continues to grow as I learn more about this place. And yet it is unlikely that I would ever have enjoyed this association if Howard Pyle, illustrator, author, and mentor to N.C., had not moved to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1900 to start his own art school. N.C. moved here from his home in Needham, Massachusetts, in 1902 and within a couple of years had established himself as one of Pyle’s most promising pupils. Students spent time between Wilmington and Chadds Ford, just twelve miles distant, and the area’s lush agricultural landscape and cultural heritage provided a rich environment for developing as young, impressionable artists.

Most notably, the location was (and is) known for its direct connection to the American Revolutionary War that had occurred some 125 years prior to the establishment of the Howard Pyle school, but which nonetheless remained embedded in the cultural ethos of the place. On September 11, 1777, American and British soldiers converged along the banks of the Brandywine River in the longest single day battle of the war. The Battle of Brandywine occurred up and down the river, whose fording places determined specific points of contact between the two armies. The river’s location actually influenced the convergence of forces, for it was here that both armies could cross the river en route to the city of Philadelphia. The battle was one of the worst American losses of the Revolutionary War, the American defeat leaving what was at that time the country’s capital vulnerable to its subsequent capture and occupation by British forces until June of 1778. It left a deep cultural impression on the people of the Brandywine Valley and, despite the loss, became a defining historical event in the area that would come to inspire the artwork of Howard Pyle and his students, and even the character of this place today.

“…I was attracted more and more by the beautiful effects of nature, which were made very dramatic having been the identical fighting grounds on which was fought the Battle of Brandywine. I would sit for half an hour at a time in some beautiful poetic spot which bore the scars of an earthworks thrown up by the Americans or Redcoats, thinking of the wonderful contrast between the bedraggled, ragged, bloodstained soldiers of Washington, and the clear, pure, cheerful babbling brook…”
— N.C. Wyeth writing from Chadds Ford to his brother Ed on July 14, 1903

Growing up in Chadds Ford, I was connected to people and events that had changed the world simply by living on the same land, in the same place. In one poignant memory, I recall learning that my neighbors uncovered revolutionary war era artifacts when digging out the pool in which we spent so many summer days. The events were impossibly distant, but that anecdote connected me to their reality in perhaps the way Howard Pyle’s illustrations of the events would have for others in his time. As a child I would fish the Brandywine together with my father near the original fording place, just five minutes down the road from our home at the time. The Brandywine River Museum of Art that houses much of the Wyeth body of art was visible downriver from the banks where we would cast our lines. Across the street was Hanks Place, the local diner my dad would take each of his three children to before school in the morning as a family tradition. And there on occasion, when my dad took my eldest sister some ten years before me, there would be Mr. Andrew Wyeth at the counter with his breakfast, left to himself for the local he was.

While I never had the opportunity I always dreamed of, to sit with Andrew at the counter and talk over coffee, I am nevertheless fortunate in that I may also call the Brandywine Valley home. These rolling agricultural fields and forests, shaded brooks, and winding back roads are as characteristic of this relationship as the creative output of the artists they inspired. My deepest memories are stored in the landscape of this place, whose woodlands and waterways entertained me in my childhood without asking for anything in return. I remember the summer taste of honeysuckle from our yard and wineberries from the hedgerow, and the fallen leaves of Autumn that layered the ground with crunchy droppings from our red maple, birch, and oak trees. Looking out at the hills reminds me of that winter morning joy of snow freshly fallen and the hope that school might be cancelled so we could spend the day sledding. And when Spring comes I am greeted again by the fragrance of this place and the annual process of rebirth that always accompanied me, without pause or expectation, throughout my development into the person I am today.

Summer in the Brandywine Valley. Photo: Mark Phillips

These and other memories of the land and its seasons are integral with the cultural heritage of the Wyeth family and the Battle of Brandywine, and together they add depth and meaning to my personal identity. And while these experiences have nourished my imagination and sense of self, I’ve now begun to learn the deep history of this place and the people it sustained before those events that led up to the Revolutionary War. This is a history distinct from the American cultural narrative I grew up with, and even the landscape of fields and forests that Andrew painted and which makes me long for home after time away. It’s a history that goes back beyond the early Quaker settlers who came here from Europe, and even before the Native Americans who inhabited this region for generations prior. The story of this place includes this history, of course, but is ultimately sourced in the evolutionary development of this land over the millions of years leading up to its present day form.

This piece was produced for Capital Institute’s Field Guide to a Regenerative Economy. Click here to read the entire piece, where I go on to explore the indigenous cultural history of the Brandywine Valley, the effects of colonial and industrial political-economy on the landscape, and a new vision for what it would look like to become true inhabitants of a place.

Like what you read? Give Mark Phillips a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.