Lecture #7:
Periodizing Landscape Change: Which (and Whose) Narratives to Choose?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

William Cronon, "A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative," Journal of American History 78:4 (March, 1992), p.1347-1376.

Charles O. Paullin, *Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States* (1932) Please be aware that the entirety of this classic atlas is available online, and we strongly encourage you to spend some time exploring it: HTML

I. Introduction: History and Storytelling

This is one of the master lectures of the course: it steps back to reflect on everything that's happened thus far to draw lessons that can serve us for the rest of the semester. Today, we'll ponder how people narrate: how we tell stories about human lives, the world, the past, the future.

When we tell stories, we structure the flow of time, which in the geophysical universe has no clear beginnings and endings—yet as Aristotle long ago noted, people perennially impose a structure of beginnings-middles-endings to make sense of events. Organizing time into periods is absolutely essential to the telling of history, converting chronological time into narrative time. Periods are like chapters in a book. This class on the making of the American landscape repeatedly organizes the landscape into different series of periods, and this particular lecture explores the many different options we have available for doing so.

Periods serve as tools for making claims about the causes of landscape change, interpreting its meanings...and telling stories about it.

Let's look at these two quotations from the essay assigned for section this week, "A Place for Stories." That article is downloadable here: http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/cronon_place_for_stories_1991.pdf

Contrast Paul Bonnifield's book The Dust Bowl (1979) with Donald Worster very similarly named book Dust Bowl (1979).

Here's Bonnifield:

In the final analysis, the story of the dust bowl was the story of people, people with ability and talent, people with resourcefulness, fortitude, and courage.... The people of the dust bowl were not defeated, poverty-ridden people without hope. They were builders for tomorrow. During those hard years they continued to build their churches, their businesses, their schools, their colleges, their communities. They grew closer to God and fonder of the land. Hard years were common in their past, but the future belonged to those who were ready to seize the moment. . . . Because they stayed during those hard years and worked the land and tapped her natural resources, millions of people have eaten better, worked in healthier places, and enjoyed warmer homes. Because those determined people did not flee the stricken area during a crisis, the nation today enjoys a better standard of living.

Here's Worster:

The Dust Bowl was the darkest moment in the twentieth-century life of the southern plains. The name suggests a place - a region whose borders are as inexact and shifting as a sand dune. But it was also an event of national, even planetary significance. A widely respected authority on world food problems, George Borgstrom, has ranked the creation of the Dust Bowl as one of the three worst ecological blunders in history. . . . It cannot be blamed on illiteracy or overpopulation or social disorder. It came about because the culture was operating in precisely the way it was supposed to. . . . The Dust Bowl . . . was the inevitable outcome of a culture that deliberately, self-consciously, set itself [the] task of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth.

Cronon's article asks the following questions about these starkly different summary paragraphs:

As often happens in history, they make us wonder how two competent authors looking at identical materials drawn from the same past can reach such divergent conclusions. But it is not merely their conclusions that differ. Although both narrate the same broad series of events with an essentially similar cast of characters, they tell two entirely different stories. In both texts, the story is inextricably bound to its conclusion, and the historical analysis derives much of its force from the upward or downward sweep of the plot. So we must eventually ask a more basic question: where did these stories come from?

These books make two starkly opposing moral claims about the same event, the Dust Bowl. For Bonnifield, we can best understand the Dust Bowl as a test of, and testament to, human fortitude; for Worster, the Dust Bowl was the product of, and a testament to, insatiable human greed for natural resources. To support these two radically different points of view, Bonnifield and Worster organize and periodize their narratives quite differently.

So as we ourselves tell stories about landscape history, as each of you will be doing in your place papers for this course, what strategies are available to us for periodizing landscapes and places? What are our different options for narrating landscape change?

To think about periodizing landscape change, we consider the word "chronicle. What is a chronicle? According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary:

chronicle. noun. An especially historical account of facts or events that are arranged in order of time and usually continuous and detailed but without analysis or interpretation." A chronicle, in other words, simply lists out a series of events.

A chronicle, in other words, is a timeline without structure or form, without explicit analysis. So when you look at a chronicle, it gives no answer to the questions "What do these various events mean? What's the story? What is its conclusion? Why should we care about it?"

One of the most famous chronicles in English is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, written by monks recording events in Anglo-Saxon England. Typical entries (in which a single event is often listed for an entire year, and some years are skipped altogether) look like these:

A.D. 965. This year King Edgar took Elfrida for his queen, who was daughter of Alderman Ordgar.

A.D. 966. This year Thored, the son of Gunner, plundered Westmorland; and the same year Oslac took to the aldermanship.

A.D. 969. This year King Edgar ordered all Thanet-land to be plundered.

A.D. 970. This year died Archbishop Oskytel; who was first consecrated diocesan bishop at Dorchester, and afterwards it was by the consent of King Edred and all his council that he was consecrated Archbishop of York. He was bishop two and twenty winters; and he died on Alhallow-mas night, ten nights before Martinmas, at Thame. Abbot Thurkytel, his relative, carried the bishop's body to Bedford, because he was the abbot there at that time.

A.D. 971. This year died Edmund Atheling, and his body lies at Rumsey.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is very different from what we now understand as history ... in part because it's very difficult to detect any story here.

How might we tell the story of the Great Plains as a chronicle? Cronon offered one possible (and rather silly) example in "A Place for Stories":

If we consider the Plains in the half millennium since Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic, certain events seem likely to stand out in any long-term history of the region. If I were to try to write these not as a story but as a simple list - I will not entirely succeed in so doing, since the task of not telling stories about the past turns out to be much more difficult than it may seem - the resulting chronicle might run something like this.

Five centuries ago, people traveled west across the Atlantic Ocean. So did some plants and animals. One of these - the horse - appeared on the Plains. Native peoples used horses to hunt bison. Human migrants from across the Atlantic eventually appeared on the Plains as well. People fought a lot. The bison herds disappeared. Native peoples moved to reservations. The new immigrants built homes for themselves. Herds of cattle increased. Settlers plowed the prairie grasses, raising corn, wheat, and other grains. Railroads moved people and other things into and out of the region. Crops sometimes failed for lack of rain. Some people abandoned their farms and moved elsewhere; other people stayed. During the 1930s, there was a particularly bad drought, with many dust storms. Then the drought ended. A lot of people began to pump water out of the ground for use on their fields and in their towns. Today, Plains farmers continue to raise crops and herds of animals. Some have trouble making ends meet. Many Indians live on reservations. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

A chroncle looks more or less like this: "This happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. Then this and this and this." And so on and on and on, ad nauseum, with the result that we're left wondering "what's the point of all this? Why should anyone care about it?"

If we don't aspire to write unstructured chronicles in this class, what then is history? Here's Webster's Third New International Dictionary again:

history. noun. A narrative of events connected with a real or imaginary object, person, or career; especially such a narrative devoted to the exposition of the natural unfolding and interdependence of the events treated.

And what is a story? Webster's Third New International Dictionary has many definitions, but here are a few that seem most relevant to today's lecture about landscape history:

2 a) : an account of some incident or event

2 c) : a detailed account of the career of a particular individual or of the sequential facts in a given case

2 e) : the events in the history of a person or thing that taken together are of sufficient interest and significance to serve as likely subject matter for an account

2 f) : background information that clarifies a situation or affair

3 a) : a prose or verse narrative of incidents arranged according to their time relationship: a fictional work that recounts objective events or a stream of thought or interactions of these

3 c) : the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work

9 : an arrangement (as of pictures or tableaux) that in sequence and often with the aid of accompanying text tells a connected narrative

So here's what this lecture is all about: How do we take a changing landscape and discover the stories it has to tell? How do we narrate changes in landscape? How do we set a map in motion to reveal the narrative(s) it depicts?

Our hope is that by the end of this course, you'll be unable to look at, for example, the Erwin Raisz 1954 map of the United States without seeing stories and examples of historical change leaping out at you.

So how do we do that? How do we take space and turn it into narrative? This lecture offers strategies we can use to describe landscape change over time. Here are some tools:

II. A Toolkit for Landscape History: Storytelling Shapes

Below are some possible shapes a narrative might take:

  1. A series of benchmarks with consequences: To do this, you first have to select a thematic thread for which these benchmarks will serve as turning points. Once you've done so, you'll make a series of judgments about which events are significant, and which have consequences worth analyzing and narrating. Choosing benchmarks is itself an analytical act. Identifying the significance of a series of events requires you to think like a historian. It's among the most essential acts of doing history.

    • You've already seen me do this numerous times in this course. Recall the story I told of the cumulative linguistic influences on English language brought by the successive invasions and colonizations of the British Isles, from the Celts to the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons to the Vikings to the Norman French. The language in our heads as individuals who speak English—at whatever level of fluency—is quite significantly a historical document of the changing landscape British Isles as different cultural groups invaded and controlled it.

    • You've also seen me identify benchmarks and consequences in my lecture on the history of cartography: I narrated Ptolemy's geography of the world as antiquity understood it; the challenge posed to this Ptolemaic world by the Columbian voyages; then the progressive mapping of the Americas; which led to new ways of making maps (Mercator's projection as an aid to navigation); growing knowledge initially of the coasts of North America; then the solving of the longitude problem with John Harrison's clocks; then governmental expeditions into the interior of the continent (with Lewis & Clark as the most famous single example); then the institutionalization of cartographic knowledge (via the U.S. Geological Survey).

    Remember: the analytical and rhetorical task of a narrative is to:
    a) Identify the thematic strand that holds the elements of the sequence together;
    b) Identify benchmark moments that represent turning points in the narrative flow;
    c) Put those benchmarks in the context of their time and place so we understand their meanings;
    d) Tell their story in such a way as to engage the attention and interest of the reader or listener;
    All these together answer the "so what?" question: Why should we care?

  2. Organic life story: (Conception, Birth, Growth, Struggle, Achievement, Maturity, Aging, Death, Legacy) This storytelling shape is familiar in the life cycle of almost all organisms — and the shape you see in almost ever biography you've ever read. We also often project this shape onto stories about institutions like the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the case of institutions, the life cycle sequence often follows a pattern like this: Conception, Political Negotiations, Creation, Growth, Challenges, Achievements, Maturity, Obsolescence, Closure, Legacies.

  3. Evolutionary sequence: This shares much with the "organic life story" shape but applies to groups, institutions, and collectivities more than to individuals. (One danger in evolutionary sequences is telelogy, i.e. structuring the story to argue that whatever happened in the past occurred in order inevitably to become a particular thing in the future.) One key example of an evolutionary way of periodizing time was that of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." As you'll recall, Turner made this overarching claim: that '"The existence of an area of free land, its continous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development."' Turner claimed that a place like Wisconsin (its landscape and its society) was the product of a series of what he called evolutionary "stages," which in the context of this lecture we might call "periods" or "chapters." Importantly, he writes about the recurring nature of these stages, declaring that what happened on the Atlantic coast could be seen a century later at the Cumberland Gap and later still on the South Pass of the Rockies. Turner offered evolutionary metaphors for how the American landscape changed. Here are the key paragraphs in which Turner did this most explicitly:

    The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read this continental page from West to East we find the record of social evolution. It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system. This page is familiar to the student of census statistics, but how little of it has been used by our historians. Particularly in eastern States this page is a palimpsest. What is now a manufacturing State was in an earlier decade an area of intensive farming. Earlier yet it had been a wheat area, and still earlier the "range" had attracted the cattle-herder. Thus Wisconsin, now developing manufacture, is a State with varied agricultural interests. But earlier it was given over to almost exclusive grain-raising, like North Dakota at the present time.

    Each of these areas has had an influence in our economic and political history; the evolution of each into a higher stage has worked political transformations. But what constitutional historian has made any adequate attempt to interpret political facts by the light of these social areas and changes?

    The Atlantic frontier was compounded of fisherman, fur-trader, miner, cattle-raiser, and farmer. Excepting the fisherman, each type of industry was on the march toward the West, impelled by an irresistible attraction. Each passed in successive waves across the continent. Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file—the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by. Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between. The unequal rate of advance compels us to distinguish the frontier into the trader's frontier, the rancher's frontier, or the miner's frontier, and the farmer's frontier. When the mines and the cow pens were still near the fall line the traders' pack trains were tinkling across the Alleghanies, and the French on the Great Lakes were fortifying their posts, alarmed by the British trader's birch canoe. When the trappers scaled the Rockies, the farmer was still near the mouth of the Missouri.

  4. Progress: This is a particular version of an evolutionary narrative in which events and conditions become better and better over time. We call such narratives progressive. Paul Bonnifield's The Dust Bowl, quoted above, is a good example.

  5. Decline: This is a converse evolutionary narrative in which events and conditions become worse and worse over time. We call such narratives declensionist. Donald Worster's The Dust Bowl is an example.

    Notice that progressive and declensionist narratives are at work in today's presidential race. Candidates are offering very different answers (and telling very different stories about) the question "Where is the country headed?"

  6. Crisis or turning point: In arranging a sequence of events to build a narrative, we often set them up to build toward a crisis that is explained by the events preceding it. That crisis or turning point can have two sets of relationships with adjacent events:

  7. Multiple causes leading up to an event. In one, multiple threads of causes point toward an event or crisis or turning point, so that narrating those threads helps explain the causes of, for instance, the Civil War or the Dust Bowl.

  8. Single event with multiple consequences. In the second, a particular event or crisis or turning point generates multiple threads of consequences, so that narrating those threads helps us understand the myriad ways in which the causal event changed the course of history.

  9. Sequence of interconnected, multicausal benchmarks and turning points and crises leading to the landscapes we know. When we link the two sets of relationships in #7 and #8, we see a kind of hourglass shape, in which events preceding and following the central event are united into a single narrative. This hourglass shape binds together many different historical narrative, linking causes with effects, past with future, history with prophecy. History is in just this way joined at the hip with prophecy: how we tell stories about the past is profoundly influenced by what we fear for or hope for the future. This hourglass shape with many causes and consquences on both sides of an event is favored by most professional historians, who in general are highly skeptical of single-causal claims. This diagram may aid your thinking:

Causes and Effects Diagram

In the nearly infinite web of causes-events-consequences, we select particular causal pathways among sets of events to build the historical stories we narrate.

III. A Toolkit for Landscape History: Themes and Processes

For the last 20 minutes of this lecture, I explore a series of possible thematic sequences exemplified by the sequences of maps in Charles O. Paullin's classic Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States (1932). Here are the themes I identified with maps drawn mainly from Paullin, all of which are available for you to peruse in the complete digital version of that book that is available online: http://dsl.richmond.edu/historicalatlas/ You will likely find it very helpful to explore while thinking about the different ways of periodizing landscape listed below.

What are possible thematic, periodizing threads to get a sense of landscape change in the United States?

  • Ecological change over time, or changing land uses and their ecological consequences (Examples: deforestation of the United States from 1620-1930; the spread of the boll weevil after its arrival in the U.S. in 1892)
  • Territorial change (Examples: Competition among European empires; territorial expansion of the United States)
  • Transformations of Native America (Contestations over Native lands and peoples, from warfare to treaty cessions to removals to reservations)
  • Slavery (Examples: spread of slavery onto new lands with new agricultural products; political contestation between free and slave states over whether slavery would expand into the western territories, and whether it should be abolished altogether; migrations of enslaved peoples from Africa, and migrations of African-American peoples in response to oppressive laws and practices in pursuit of freedom)
  • U.S. Population Expansion and Concentration (Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier; shifts of population from rural to urban areas)
  • Immigration (Population Movements from all over the world as migrants came to North America and settled and concentrated in different areas, influencing regional development with the different languages, practices, and cultural traditions they brought with them)
  • Natural Resources, Political Economy, Agriculture, Industry, Technology (endless thematic examples for landscape history here: industries like coal mining or iron manufacturing that depended on geographically concentrated raw materials; migration of particular crops to different regions; diffusion of new technological systems; etc., etc.)
  • Transportation Networks (This set of technologies is so foundational to everything else that it constitutes one of the most important and influential threads of landscape history, linking harbors to rivers to canals to roads to railroads to highways to airways. We'll pick up those stories in an upcoming lecture.)

This list of tools for landscape history could go on and on, but the underlying principles remain constant and will serve us throughout this course: the webs of causes and consequences we identify to link together events and processes and changes in the forces that shape and reshape landscape provide the raw materials for the stories we tell about the Making of the American Landscape.