Lecture 2:
What Is Landscape and Why Should We Care About It?

Suggested Readings:

John Wylie, Landscape (2007).

Curt Meine, "Reading the Landscape: Aldo Leopold and Wildlife Ecology 118," Forest History Today (Fall 1999), 35-42. http://www.foresthistory.org/publications/FHT/FHTFall1999/readinglandscape.pdf

Look up the definition of "landscape" in the Oxford English Dictionary to trace the history of the word.


This lecture pairs with last Wednesday's lecture as an introduction to the class. Last week's lecture was a "show me" lecture featuring Portage, Wisconsin and the Fox River: showing you how to take a place and rendering it meaningful using historical context, storytelling, and analysis. Those activities are very much what this course is about. Today's lecture is the "tell me" lecture, telling you what this class is about and what it aspires to teach you.

To begin, today's lecture will go through the syllabus. We recommend bookmarking the course website: http://www.williamcronon.net/courses/469/

On the course website you'll find the following resources:

  • An HTML and PDF link to the course syllabus. (If we modify any items on the syllabus, this will happen in the HTML version. So check the HTML version for any modifications, rather than the PDF.)
  • Copies of email announcements that were sent out to the class listserv.
  • Notes from each lecture (posted under "Handouts").
  • Information about the Place Paper assignment.
  • Any other materials we decide to add as the semester progresses (e.g., copies of exemplary blue book essays for the midterm exam).

Within the syllabus you'll find the following information:

  • Contact information for course staff. Email is the best way to reach Bill and TAs Daniel Grant and Ben Kasten. If you set up a meeting time with BIll other than his usual office hours (9:30-11:30am in 5103 Humanities), he almost always holds such appointments in 443 Science Hall, NOT in the Humanities Building. Ben Kasten's office is in 4268 Humanities, and Daniel Grant's office is in 404 Science Hall.
  • A list of book-length course readings (three total). All non-book assignments—i.e. articles and PDFs—assigned for the class are available on electronic reserves accessed via your my.wisc.edu page. To access these, sign into your MyUW page, click into the "My Courses" tool, and navigate your way to the 469 course reserve. Alternately, you can add a "Library Reserves by Department" module to your MyUW homepage, click the drop-down menu to "Fall 2016-2017," then navigate to History OR Geography OR Environmental Studies, then add the course "469" to your MyUW page. Plus: Learn@UW should now access our library e-reserves under the "Materials" menu.
  • Course grading policy.
  • Information on course examinations (two total). The midterm exam is on October 19th in class; the final exam will be held in class on the last day of classes (December 14). The final exam will be a 75-minute final covering the material since the midterm exam, not a comprehensive exam.
  • Information on the written assignments, including many digitized historical images that will likely prove useful for both papers in this class.
  • Course warnings and resources: Plagiarism policy, information on the History Lab, in-lecture screen policy, and accommodations to ensure accessibility for McBurney students.
  • Weekly outline of lectures and assignments, including number of pages assigned to be read per week in parentheses at the end of each week's title.
  • Additional scheduled events: UW-Madison Archives tours in Steenbock Library are happening this week and next week; Map Library exercise will happen for section two weeks from now; Wisconsin Historical Society tours will happen in mid-October, after the midterm exam.
  • Major assignment due dates. You should mark the evening review sessions for the midterm and final exams on your calendar and try to protect those times: 7:00-8:30pm on Oct. 17 and Dec. 12 (both Mondays).

Final word: How should you take notes in this class?

  • Draw on the lecture notes we will be posting online within ~48 hours of lecture, which will include significant details (names, places, dates) that serve as evidence for the central arguments of the course. The lecture notes will also include important images from the class. The "Suggested Readings" section on the notesheets are not assigned reading, but simply that: suggestions for texts you can consult if you're interested in learning more about the subject of a particular lecture.
  • DO take your own hand-written notes on themes, big arguments, questions, or detail that strikes you as you are listening to lecture. You can couple your own notes with the more detail-oriented lecture notes that we'll posting online.

With those logistical details out of the way, let's dig into course material:

Why Study Landscape History?

Why study landscape? Why care about it? This lecture will describe the intellectual lineage of this course. One obvious question to ask when asking "Why study landscape?" is definitional: "What is landscape?"

Definition from American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000:

American Heritage Dictionary definition of landscape, 4th ed, 2000
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed (2000)

Notice in particular definitions 1 ("n. An expanse of scenery that can be seen in a single view") and 4 (n. The aspect of the land characteristic of a particular region).

The origin of the word "landscape" is Dutch, from late 16th-century Holland when landscape painting was emerging as a major artistic tradition. The roots of 19th-century Romantic landscape painting go back to 16th-century paintings. Notice from this lineage that the term "landscape" refers to representations of things in the world, rather than a more recent usage reflected in the title of this course: to refer to the world itself. The etymology of the term "landscape" also suggests a bias in the word towards that which is visual—places that are seen, constitute a scene, thus are framed. This privileges a visual aesthetic.

Landscape as a word has an intellectual lineage that goes back to elite viewers of landscapes who wanted to bring representations of places that they thought were beautiful, often while traveling, back to their homes. So notice that the term has a class bias built into it: a term originating with those who had access to the means to travel and the leisure time to enjoy touring.

By one definition (#1 in the American Heritage Dictionary's listing'), "landscape" can refer to any expanse of scenery that can be encompassed within a single line of sight. This means that the tradition of landscape has a bias towards the local, akin to what we discussed in lecture on Wednesday: studying landscape means paying careful attention to one place (e.g. Portage, Wisconsin) and then linking that one small place outward. Notice: this class treats place as a starting point and then reaches outward geographically and downward temporally. We will never be satisfied in this class to just look at the local—but neither will we be satisfied only with abstract generalizations. Like the discipline of history itself, this class prizes complexity and heterogeneity, and will almost always to try ground its generalizations in particular places and objects and events. Holding the local and global in tension with each other is very much at the heart of this class.

This class is about the making of the American landscape, but given the immense diversity of regional landscapes in the United States, it might be more accurate to refer to landscapes in the plural. This course title is an homage to the 1955 classic The Making of the English Landscape by local historian William George Hoskins, which is a reminder that although we can refer to the landscape of the entire nation as if it were singular, that singular noun contains within itself a near infinitude of diversely plural landscapes.

A few key observations about landscape:

  • Landscape history brings to bear everything you know about a place: no discipline is irrelevant.
  • Bodies of knowledge that are clearly relevant include history, geography, gology, ecology, botany, zoology, economics, sociology, engineering, architecture … virtually every discipline for which we have a name.
  • Equally relevant to this course are questions of identity: class, gender, ethniticy, age, occupation, education, etc., and how these relate to land.
  • Don't be intimidated by this list!
  • Landscape is also intensely personal: what you experience in landscape is profoundly tied to your own past and what you care about.

This class will encourage you to ask (and to keep asking): Where am I from? We encourage you to think about how your own sense of self is connected to geographical places that have changed historically through time. We would like for your experience of this class to be as personal as it is intellectual.

How is this course structured? It's worth considering how it could have been organized:

  1. By time period;
  2. By processes of landscape change (e.g. "geological processes," "colonial and imperial processes");
  3. By places/regions;
  4. By objects or landscape elements (e.g. "fire hydrants," "forts," "railroad and waterways");
  5. By stories.

Our syllabus leans towards the last of these options as a vehicle for an eclectic mixture of all five options. Throughout the semester, we'll be seeking out rich stories to help us understand the periods, processes, places, regions, objects, and elements that have constituted the American landscape as it has changed through history.

This course as two primary objectives:

  1. To give you an understanding of how the American landscape has changed over time. It will argue that the U.S. is dynamic nation whose many peoples have all left signatures on the land. This class will tell stories of place-making and landscape-shaping, explaining the what ("what changed?"), the how ("how did it change?"), and the why ("why did it change?").
  2. To hone your ability to read the landscape yourself. In a place, how do you orient to seeing what's there? What evidence can you see in the landscape that can help you understand how the place came to be? This course argues that landscapes are among the richest of historical documents, too often underappreciated in their richness.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison as an institution has a surprisingly dense history of supporting what today we could call the study of landscape history. Many individuals associated with the UW have contributed to fields relevant to this course, and we are part of continuing a long tradition. Because of the 1862 Morrill Act, which gave land to the states to create universities devoted to the agricultural and mechanic arts (hence, colleges of agriculture and engineering, initially resisted by the Madison faculty), UW-Madison is "land-grant institution" committed to both the liberal arts and the applied sciences. This dual personality helps explain why this school has in its history so many individuals committed to studying landscape change in place:

  • John Muir, nature writer and conservationist.

  • Frederick Jackson Turner, UW History. Turner argued that U.S. history was a story of land-taking, and that the nation was forged in the long process of migration and—in his language—"struggle with the wilderness." We now recognize this phrase as misleading because the so-called "empty land" of Turner's "frontier wilderness" was well populated by a great many native peoples when white settlers began to occupy it. Despite the many problems of Turner's frontier thesis, though, we should also recognize that his work laid the foundations for a way of doing history that paid close attention to the role of land in shaping of the American past.

  • Edward O. Birge, UW Limnology and former UW President. Pioneering studies of Lake Mendota that continue to this day. Birge did pioneering research that helped create the science of lake ecology by studying the body of water right next to this campus: science in place.

  • Charles Richard Van Hise: UW President who, along with his roommate Robert M. La Follette, Sr., pioneered "the Wisconsin Idea" that "the boundaries of the University are the boundaries of the state." Van Hise was also author of the first textbook on conservation history published in the U.S., The Conservation of Natural Resources in the United States.

  • Benjamin Horace Hibbard, UW Agricultural Economics and author of A History of the Public Land Policies about U.S. laws governing distribution of the public lands, a topic we'll study later in the semester.

  • John T. Curtis, UW Botany, who pioneered place-based rather than species-based studies of local biota, especially his classic 1959 book The Vegetation of Wisconsin.

  • Norman Fassett, UW Botany and director of the UW Herbarium. Author of Spring Flora of Wisconsin.

  • Andrew Hill Clark of UW Geography, author of pioneering works on people-environment interactions in his native Canada and elsewhere.

  • James Willard Hurst, of the UW Law School, one of the nation's most influential legal historians, whose research often focused on land and natural resources, and whose classic Law and Economic Growth was a massive study of the role of law in the lumber industry of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Wisconsin.

  • Aldo Leopold, founding member of UW-Madison's Wildlife Ecology department. You know him as one of the most important American conservationists in the first half of the twentieth century, author of A Sand County Almanac. He joined the UW as chair of the Department of Game Management. In 1938, Leopold taught for the first time his famous class Wildlife Ecology 118. Its syllabus declared: "The course aims to develop the ability to read landscape, i.e. to discern and interpret ecological forces in terms of land-use history and conservation." Our own class, History / Geography / Environmental Studies 469, is in part an homage to Leopold's course.

    How do we know what Leopold taught? Leopold's own course records haven't survived, but we do have detailed notes taken by two of Leopold's students: Lawrence G. Monthey (in 1938) and Grant Cottam (in 1946) who have deposited their course materials in archives where scholars can consult them. We see from their notes of Leopold's diagrams that the course modeled the type of place-based thinking that he and his students prized: deeply place-based. See, for example: "Progress on the Prairie;" "Central Wisconsin Marshes;" "History of Northern Wisconsin." Incidentally, Grant Cottam was for many years a Botany professor here at UW-Madison, and his notes for Wildlife Ecology 118 are available online (careful: this file is 358MB and will take a long time to download): PDF

  • Jim Zimmerman, naturalist at the UW Arboretum who was trained by Leopold, and his student Virginia Kline, also of the UW Arboretum.

  • Notice: all of these thinkers focused their research on local places and local processes in order to draw conclusions that proved of broader relevance and importance. This class, following the lead of these thinkers, will try teach us to do the same.

    We'll pick up again here on Wednesday.