Lecture #27: Practicing Landscape History

Suggestions for Further Reading:

W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (1955). (The great classic of English landscape history.)

A. Wainwright, A Coast to Coast Walk (1973).

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949). (Among other things, a great classic of American landscape history.)

Holling C. Holling, Paddle to the Sea (1941).

Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960); The Moon of Gomrath (1963).

Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961).

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-55).

C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (1949-54).

William Cronon, “‘Only Connect...’: The Goals of a Liberal Education,” The American Scholar (Autumn 1998), 73-80. Available online at http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/only_connect.html

Alex MacLean, Designs on the Land: Exploring America from the Air (2002). (MacLean is arguably the greatest aerial photographer seeking to depict human transformations of the American landscape; his work is always worth pondering)

Georg Gerster, Below from Above: Aerial Photography (1986). (Striking aerial photographs of landscapes with complex environmental transformations going on in them)

Carl E. Hiebert, This Land I Love: Waterloo County (2003). (Amish landscapes in Ontario)

Mark Hirsch, That Tree (2013). (Extraordinary photographs of a single tree in a field near Platteville, Wisconsin, taken by a master photographer using only his iPhone. See also Hirsch's website and Facebook page: http://www.thattree.net and https://www.facebook.com/photosofthattree/


This is a reminder that the exam is on Wednesday in our regular class slot. Recall that it is purely a bluebook exam with no objective identifications. We will include the Raisz map on the back of the exam and you are welcome to use that map as you see fit, but you are not required to label it or use it in any other way if you're not so inclined. You will not be not graded on the map. You will be graded on your essay, and how you integrate material from this class into your essay. The exam consists of four essay questions, of which you'll choose and answer one.

We are holding a review session tonight, in this room at 7pm. It should last 60-90 minutes. Please come to the review session having done a little studying for the exam, and come with any questions about how to prepare for this exam. In discussion section this week, we'll ask you to reflect on the question, "What do I now see or understand differently when walking down a street or looking out the window of a car or airplane than I saw before?" That sort of question will be useful to you as you prepare for the final exam.

I. Reflecting on Major Themes of the Semester

This final lecture reflects on what this class has been about. There are two broad ways to do this: one, by looking over all the lectures and asking "What are the grand ideas and particularly important details that I want to reemphasize for students?" But another main way to remind you what this class has been about is to tell you the story (or stories) of how I myself fell in love with doing landscape history. I'll try do both these things in this lecture, but more of the latter than the former.

In this course, we've spent a lot of time looking at Erwin Raisz's classic 1954 pen-and-ink map of the United States. When you now look at this remarkable map, I hope you see many places and patterns and processes that you didn't see before. These patterns operate at all scales, extending to include all sorts of relationships.

What are some major ideas and themes of this course?

I could review physical geography themes, reminding you the places of North America: a mountainous western section, oceans, a lower set of mountains in the east, the great central valley between these mountain chains, the rivers we pay so little attention to today, and the watersheds they drain. Then there are the physiographic provinces that group parts of North America into regions more alike than not: the coastal plains in the East, the Piedmont, the Appalachians, central lowlands, the Great Lakes, the Laurentian upland pointing us toward the Great Canadian Shield, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado plateau, Basin and Range, and the coastal and Cascade provinces of California. In each of these physiographic provinces, we find very different histories, geologies, and migration patterns. Those differences correlate with different vegetation systems: grassland, boreal woodland, temperate and mixed forests, semi desert, and scrubland. And these different vegetation systems divide the continent into landscapes that have profoundly influenced the kinds of choices that different groups of human beings from different cultural backgrounds have made about how to live in the places they call home. In building their lives, they have inscribed the land with their choices. The act of marking land with human lives is a part of history. So that's one grand set of themes: physical geography, and how it relates to human history.

Another theme is how we came to know these landscapes: how we became able to map space, particularly to represent three-dimensional space on two-dimensional sheets of paper. So we've tracked a history of cartography: from Ptolemy's map of the world from Antiquity, a map rediscovered by the Arabs and then transmitted to Europe in the 15th century; maps of the African coast created by the Portuguese at the same time that the slave trade was coming into being;, the Mercator Map of 1569 with the solution it offered for maritime navigation; and maps focused more on coastal areas than in the interior of the North American continent. We tracked the story of how the interior of the North American continent came to be mapped: the voyage of Marquette and Joliet from the St. Lawrence River up the Fox, then down the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, carrying that name Ojibwa name "Mississippi" downstream with them and on into history so that it is the word we now use to name the vast river that defines the mid-continent of the United States. The extraordinary map from William Clark in 1810 captured knowledge about the interior of the United States just after Thomas Jefferson expanded the boundaries of the nation westward with his Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. Such efforts pointed toward subsequent governmental surveys of western landscapes, for instance in the 40th Parallel Survey in the 1860s under the direction of Clarence King--a man we encountered several times in thsi course--who would go on to be the first Director of the U.S. Geological Survey from 1879-81.

Topographic maps of sections of the U.S. begin to be developed in the late 1880s. Also developed in the years following the Civil War were thematic demographic maps to accompany the U.S. Census. It was based on such maps that the historian Frederick Jackson Turner would declare that the frontier, a line which he had seen as ever-moving west, was ending. Partly based on his work, the frontier became a defining colonial myth of American history which was nothing if not related to landscape—whether as depicted in Emmanual Leutze's 1861 painting "Westward the Course of Empire" or Thomas Cole's 1836 "The Oxbow." All of these maps and images were about the transformation of landscape. In them, the making of the American landscape was a defining narrative of American history itself.

Of course, all of these processes involved the transformation of Indian Country, the term that so many native peoples today use to describe the places depicted in Leutze and Cole's paintings. I reminded you that Indian Country is not just a part of the American past, as the myth of the "vanishing race" would you believe, but also of the American present. Native peoples remain just as central to the United States and its history today as any of the immigrant people who now also call America their homeland.

I made Thomas Jefferson do heavy work for us in this course: Monticello and the slave quarters that lay around it were an extraordinary vision of Enlightenment geography, and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance that he helped author defined the territories and how territories would become states. More important still for this course was the 1785 Land Ordinance that mapped the abstract Cartesian coordinate system of the Grid onto heterogeneous vegetation and ecology, turning land into real estate so it could be bought and sold at market. Jefferson was also a slave owner: so we thought about how the ownership of human bodies and the laboring of human bodies characterized not just the Southern states, but the entire U.S. economy along with our political system. The great struggle over slavery would lead to the Civil War, but also had implications for the kinds of intimate relationships that would and wouldn't be possible. Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings is a powerful sign of the intimate geographies and boundary crossings that are also part of American landscapes and social relations, as were the children and grandchildren of that union, some of whom lie in graves here in Madison's Forest Hill Cemetery.

The course also pointed us at industrial, political-economic, and technological activities that each left signatures on the landscape. One of those was mining, as epitomized by the California Gold Rush fanning out after 1848. Placer-based mining that would characterize the beginning of the gold rush was augmented by new technologies requiring more capital: more elaborate flume systems, hydraulic mining systems, culminating in large-scale quartz mining for silver and gold in Virginia City, Nevada, and base-metal mining for elements like copper, most famously in the nineteenth century in Butte, Montana. Governmental activity underwrote many of these mining activities in the form of transportation infrastructure and scientific surveys. We talked about Clarence King as the head of some of these land surveying efforts--his revelations of the Great Diamond Hoax in the early 1870s served as a symbol of new scientific approaches to geology and mapmaking--and we also learned the story of his secret marriage with an African-American former slave—again helping us understand the intimate as well as landscape meanings of the color line.

In addition to mining, we also talked about the movement of logs across the landscape, and wood as the essential material before iron and steel. Wood was the great material that up until the middle of the 19th century was central for buildings, fences, and fuel—and remade farming as well as many other activiites.

The migration of farmers to North America shaped farming in this country as immigrants brought practices from their homelands. With the advent of new farming technologies and new ways of moving things to market, those farming strategies changed. In the books Nature's Metropolis and Car Country, we saw a whole series of landscape transformations that were foundational to landscape change--first driven by the railroads, then by automobiles and highways--since at least the 1830s and 1840s.

Charles O. Paullin's Atlas of the Historical Geogrphy of the United States (1932) -- well worth revisiting for the final exam: http://dsl.richmond.edu/historicalatlas/ -- showed pheneomena like changing rates of travel ushered in by changing transportation infrastructure. This pushed us to consider all the other infrastructure changes governing our lives today: electricity, fiber optics, telephone, broadcast television … all technologies changing flows of information. We forget how information flows change how landscape is used. The news of the California Gold Rush took months to get from Sacramento to New York, creating lags in landscape transformation—so different from the virtually instantaneous flow of information today. Car Country has been our symbol of the twentieth-century transformations of the United States, but electrical systems have been at least as important in remaking the daily lives we take for granted today.

We also spoke of the invisible landscapes that we typically ignore until they do not work: steam tunnels, water mains, sanitary sewers, storm sewers, utility distributions altogether. Most of us have little knowledge of how these systems work or even where they're located, since they are often underground and so "out of sight and out of mind." Yet they are no less a part of the landscape despite our ignorance of their existence and operations.

II. Personal Journeys Toward Landscape History

But I want to turn from highlighting major themes for this class, which has been a historical geography and landscape history class, to talking about one source of joy in a world that we sometimes take for granted. "How did this place get to be this way?" For me, this is one of the most interesting questions in the world. So I want to do is tell you how I came to hold that view and this passionate curiosity I feel about landscape history.

We can start with Wendell Berry, the writer and farmer. He writes: "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are." This class has been about thinking about where you are in the richest sense of the word. Each of you made different journeys to get to the places that mark your lives: to this room, to this University, to this state—as did your ancestors, who journeyed to the places that made your own life possible. These different journeys mean that we all share different ideas and values, and it also means that we also share enough values to call ourselves collectively residents of a country called the United States, or people who (among other names) call ourselves "Americans."

I am admittedly eccentic in my passion for landscape and its history. But each of you is eccentric, too. Remember that "eccentric" doesn't mean crazy, but rather it means "off center." These eccentrities that are uniquely your own allow you to see things and know things that no one else does. You see and know things that make you you. One of the things I hope this course has done for you is give you tools for taking your eccentric habits and using them to look again at the places that surround you.

I am a baby boomer, born into car country. My father had been an Eagle Scout, and my mother was willing to indulge him in taking us as a family on long car trips. So for much of my childhood, we spent vacation time going on car camping trips together. We lived in many different parts of the U.S.: New Haven, Connecticut; then Lincoln, Nebraska; then here in Madison. We used car-pulled trailers because my dad loved camping and wanted to share it with his family, but also because car camping was cheap and traveling by air was too expensive for middle-class families like mine in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1963, we made our first trip around Lake Superior, a formative experience for me. In 1965, we spent five or six weeks driving from Madison up through the Canadian Rockies, down to Seattle and along the West Coast to San Francisco and Los Angeles, then back through the Grand Canyon and the Grand Canyon. I probably would not do the work I do today were it not for that trip. That trip opened up the American West and the American landscape for me, and also helped me understand the time depth of landscape, the deep human and geological history that shaped that vast, beautiful countryside. The stories of the landscape were also opened up for me by my father, a historian. Grand Canyon, which we first visited on that 1965 trip is another sacred place for me, a place I've hiked and floated many times.

Toward the end of that 1965 trip, we stopped at a national monument in the Black Hills—Jewel Cave. It had no electricity in those days, so the park rangers led our tour using Coleman lanterns. When we came out of the cave, I bought a paperback book in the park shop: Franklin Folsom's Exploring American Caves. Among other things, that book listed all of the caving organizations in the U.S., and it was in that book that I first learned of the Wisconsin Speleological Society based here in Madison, Wisconsin. Though all college students and older, the members of the group proved amazingly generous in letting an eleven-year-old boy come join their explorations. I spent the next several years wandering the rural Wisconsin countryside looking for caves and spelunking. In particularly, my fascination with caves motivated me to first learn to read the landscape: trying to figure out how to find openings in the ground that might lead to a cave in the dolomites and sandstones of Wisconsin's Driftless Area. I also learned to do historical research in the Historical Society, just as you've done for your place papers. One of my most treasured possessions was Lawrence Martin's The Physical Geography of Wisconsin (1916). One of the ways to find caves was by talking to farmers, so my interest in caves also helped me learn more about what it means to live on a farm and in rural America. Going down into caves was one of my childhood delights.

Even then, back in junior high school, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Writing and storytelling were central to my life. So there are other texts that lie behind this course than the historical works I've named for you in past lectures. These other books, primarily works of fantasy, are not trivial, because they actually helped define who I am as a scholar and how I write the kinds of historical narratives that most engage me. C.S. Lewis finished The Chronicles of Narnia in the year of my birth, 1954; I read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) when I was in 4th grade and slowly accumulated the other books in the Lord of the Rings (1954-55) series over subsequent holidays. What those two series have in common is a map; and both involve journeys across landscapes where the landscape is absolutely foundational to how the story works and what the story does. So the descriptions of landscapes found in Lewis's and Tolkien's books became foundational to my imaginative life. Even today, some of the stories that most resonate for me concern people or objects journeying across landscapes. Other formative works fit this description: Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), one of the most whimsical fantasies ever written; Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963), with their extraordinary ability to find magic in the actual landscapes of Cheshire's Alderley Edge, south of Manchester in England; and Holling C. Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea (1941).

Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea is the story of an Indian boy living on Lake Nipigon, north of Lake Superior, who carves a model canoe with an Indian seated in it; on its bottom, he carved the words "I am Paddle-to-the-Sea. Please put me back in water." One of the things that is wonderful about the book is that it includes diagrams that give you a lesson into the geography of the mid-continent. It is, as you can probably recognize, a sawmill landscape—and in the story the model boat is rescued and dropped back into the watershed multiple times as it continues all the way down to Duluth, through the Soo Locks, over Niagara Falls, and then finally past Montréal and the Gulf of St. Lawrence until finally it is picked up by a French fishing boat and taken all the way to France.

So notice how a story makes a map come alive: logging, forest fires, the flow of the Great Lakes, the fur trade, and Canada and United States and North America in what may not be a brilliant work of literature but is still a story for young people that does a remarkably effective job of making geography come alive. It filled me with enthusiasm. So in 1971, my best friend and I cycled up from Madison, around Lake Superior through Minnesota, Ontario, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a 2000-mile bike trip. I spent the trip writing in a journal and taking photograph—which, you'll notice, is what I still do. It is a big part of who I am, and it is what I have sought to share with you in this course.

After that bike trip, I came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My love for the world of J.R.R. Tolkien encouraged me to take a class with Dick Ringler, a faculty member in English and Scandinavian Studies who taught English 360, "The Anglo-Saxons." It was in that class that I began to learn Old English and eventually Old Norse, the languages in which Tolkien himself had been expert and that served as the foundations on which he constructed his story in The Lord of the Rings. It was also there that I learned the linguistic knowledge I shared with you in the lecture on place names, where I talked at length about English as an accretive language where its vocabulary and syntax—as with place-names in England—reflect the history of the British Isles. It was in that class that I came to understand what I've argued to you in past lectures: that the names we give the world are one of the ways we attach human meanings to the world so we can tell stories about it that make our own lives meaningful.

I thought I would be scholar of Old English until my senior year in college, when I took a class on the history of the American West. After graduating, I spent two years studying at Oxford on a scholarship. In preparation for that trip, I read the book The Making of the English Landscape (1955) by W. G. Hoskins. It is now dated in some of its content, but it remains a classic. More than anyone else except possibly Aldo Leopold, Hoskins taught me how to read and periodize landscape. He shows the ways you can read the English landscape many layers down, palimpsest-like, from the Neolithic to the Celts to the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons to the Normans to the Black Death to Henry VIII's destruction of the monasteries to the enclosing of common lands in the eighteenth century to the coming of the industrial revolution to the rise of modernity. He arrays all these changes on his timeline and reads them all in the landscape.

I came back to the U.S. to study American history, and I was part of a movement to start a field called environmental history, which tracks the history of changing human relationships with the non-human world. The books I have written to-date have landscapes featured centrally in them, but are not really works of landscape history. It took another experience to persuade me to teach this course and write a book focused centrally on landscape as opposed to environment.

In July 2015, I made a long-distance hiking trip with my son Jeremy. We decided to take a coast-to-coast walk across Northern England, a three-week exercise in reading the landscape. Alfred J. Wainwright, in the 1950s, began to hand-write guides to the walks of the Lake District of England, with routes for climbing and traversing all the peaks and ridges in the park. He self-published these guides and sold them in local grocery stores until their popularity made them the single most famous guidebooks in the 20th century sold anywhere in England. He finished these books in the late 1960s, and in 1973 he published a book called A Coast to Coast Walk. The route laid out in the book out is not a national park like the Appalachian Trail here in the U.S. Instead, Wainwright had to find old medieval rights of way and link them together into one unbroken and largely unmarked trail. You can read more about the route here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coast_to_Coast_Walk and http://www.c2cpackhorse.co.uk/walking-c2c.

My July 2015 trip was a wonderful father-son experience, and but also a wonderful experience in reading the landscape. It let me visit at walking pace all sorts of places that I cherish: the Lake District as home to the poet William Wadsworth, whose works and ideas of nature I've been teaching for years; the ruined abbeys that W.G. Hoskins blamed Henry VIII for destroying; abandoned farms; a lead-mining landscape that reminded me what parts of southwestern Wisconsin may have looked like in the early nineteenth century. All sorts of markers are scattered across the landscape waiting to be found: marks of an iron-age community 2500-3000 years ago; abandoned railroads; agricultural lands; wheat fields; pastures whose boundaries are hundreds of years old. Jeremy's and my two-hundred-mile coast-to-coast walk convinced me to teach this class and undertake a similar guidebook-writing effort for the landscapes of North America.

III. Closing Thoughts: Learning to See

On the second day of class, I posited to you that everything you know, do, and care about can be brought to bear on understanding the places that you live. I also built the course as an explicit homage to Aldo Leopold's Wildlife Ecology 118 course, nicknamed by his students "Reading the Landscape." Recall these words from Leopold's Sand County Almanac:

"We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in."

Landscape is something we can see and feel and seek to understand. So to close, I'm going to share with you images that seek to remind you of what landscape looks like on multiple scales.

One scale is landscapes photographed from above: aerial images. I'd argue that, as we can see in these photographs, one of the topics this class has been about is "kith" from the phrase "kith and kin": kith as knowledge, one's native lands, and friends and neighbors.

But landscape from above is not the main way we experience place. Far more intimate are the places we call home, where we live and work and spend our daily lives. The Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday has a wonderful passage in his 1969 book The Way to Rainy Mountain where he describes the journey his main character makes to reground his life in local landscape:

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk. 

For me, a beautiful symbol of this intimate relationship to small, local landscapes can be found in the work of Mark Hirsch, a professional photographer who makes him home near Platteville, Wisconsin. In 2012, Hirsch bought his first iPhone and snapped a spontaneous photograph of a tree he was driving past on his way home. Hirsch decide to post a picture of that single tree on every day of the subsequent year. The results are a breathtaking array of images of one small landscape, from so many different perspectives and in so many different seasons. To sample his remarkable photographs, see http://www.thattree.net and https://www.facebook.com/photosofthattree/

This course has been a course on landscape history, and it has also been a course on storytelling. More than anything, it has been a course on trying to make sense of the place where we are. To close, I offer you this line attributed to the French novelist Marcel Proust:

"The voyage of discovery lies not in finding landscapes but in having new eyes."

I hope this class has given you new eyes. Thanks so much.