Six Quick Lessons in How to Read a Landscape
How does one teach a curious young person to re-see a place they think they already know? As Fall 2016 Teaching Assistants in Professor William Cronon’s brand-new lecture course, “The Making of the American Landscape,” we’ve compiled six tips drawn from our experience in the classroom and lecture hall.
1. Play with boundaries
One of the most difficult—and valuable—things to teach students as they learn to read landscapes is that boundaries shouldn’t be taken for granted. Because “landscape” is such a broad concept, identifying a distinct and nameable unit of space is an important early step in reading a landscape (it’s hard to craft a coherent narrative about a place without knowing what place you’re talking about). Existing physical and political boundaries work really well for organizing space—it’s easy to imagine a landscape reading about, say, Milwaukee’s Third Ward, or Madison’s State Street, or Isle Royale National Park—but when students accept boundaries uncritically, they risk overlooking potentially interesting geographic relationships and ignoring the fact that boundaries themselves are historical artifacts.
One way to help students deal with these risks is to encourage them to think about boundaries as tools and not inherent truths. Ask students to play with boundaries by zooming in/out: instead of focusing on State Street, try focusing on the microgeography of State Street’s intersection with Library Mall. Student might also blur the edges of boundaries: instead of focusing on either Gardiner, MT or Yellowstone National Park, try focusing on the landscape elements that link them or mark their separation. Lastly, guide students to historicize boundaries: instead of focusing on Picnic Point, try focusing on reading Picnic Point’s landscape for clues about how, when, and why it became the kind of landscape we know it as today. These strategies often yield unexpected and profound insights. Even if students wind up reading the landscape as contemporary, familiar boundaries define it, they will hopefully do so with a deeper sense of curiosity and a greater sense of confidence in the landscape narrative they create.
2. Look near; see far
Encourage your students to pay attention to the mundane stuff of our lives—the bike paths we use for our morning commutes, the streets lined with trees, the railroad tracks over the bridge. Landscape features that seem so commonplace that we take them for granted can be seen as part of regional and national systems that connect our own lives to others’ all over the country. And in this sense, these features are not mundane at all, for they are they are part of the very networks that connect fellow citizens to one another. Chris Wells’s Car Country: An Environmental History and Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States allow students to connect landscape features out their front door to national histories of United States infrastructure development.
3. Look up, look down
Remind your students to look up: at high-tension wires, at utility poles, and at urban skyscrapers built like layer cakes. Remind your students to look down: at manhole covers, stormwater grates, and asphalt cold patches dotting roads in wintry climates. Wonder aloud: What nearly invisible systems sustain your daily lives? Kate Ascher’s The Works and Infrastructure: A Guide to the Industrial Landscape from polymath Brian Hayes provide exhaustive answers to the simple questions of “why?” and “how?” in the built environment.
4. Compare then and now
Within Wisconsin, resources abound for assignments that send students out to collect historic birds’-eye view photographs. These resources include the UW-Madison digital campus atlas built especially for this past fall semester’s students; the UW-Madison Library’s digital photograph collections; and the Robinson Map Library’s impressive array of images. Beyond Wisconsin, the U.S. Geological Survey’s massive digitization effort means that more than 178,000 historical topographic maps are available for searching, cropping, and downloading. The simple act of comparing “then and now” can point students towards questions about drivers of change over time.
5. Make and interpret maps
Maps tell stories, and stories can be mapped. Important events in American history—events with which students may well already be familiar—can be seen anew when interpreted spatially. Questions such as “What caused the Dust Bowl?” can often yield surprising insights if students map and interpret maps of the events leading to and from dust storms on the Great Plains during the 1930s. Historical factors such as weather, erosion, population, land use, and economy can be put in spatial context. Anne Kelly Knowles’s Placing History: How Maps Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship is a wonderful companion to resources like the USGS’s map databases and Library of Congress’s cartographic archives in helping students consider the spatial and temporal scales of doing history.
Although “The Making of the American Landscape” concludes with a final exam, the place paper assignment is the part of the course in which many students do their most extensive and meaningful landscape reading. As the syllabus explains, the place paper asks students to select a place that they know well and then “read a small patch of landscape as a document of past environmental change.” There are countless lessons embedded in this wonderful assignment, but one of the most interesting occurs when students set out to write about where they grew up. Very often, these students’ early research leans heavily into explaining the symbols or themes that characterize their hometowns (since many students are from Wisconsin, themes like “logging” or “fishing on the lake” tend to dominate). It’s when students move beyond these broad symbols and blend them with particular details from their own observations, however, that landscape reading becomes a truly exciting and illuminating process. Asking students to think about how these symbols might be expressed in the landscape elements that matter most to them—the railroad tracks they walked along on the way home from school, the view of the lake from their grandparents’ cabin—can help them learn that there’s more to reading a landscape than chamber-of-commerce-style landscape history. The more the symbols of a place can be connected to particular details, experiences, and documents, the more meaningful the act of landscape reading becomes.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Jaime Martindale, Map & GIS Data Librarian, Robinson Map Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Daniel Grant is a Ph.D. candidate in Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Novel Ecosystems IGERT Trainee. His dissertation is an environmental history of the Salton Sea throughout the 20th century. Contact.
Spring Greeney is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the 2016-2017 Doan Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Her dissertation, a 150-year history of washing laundry, examines how commercial chemists, appliance manufacturers, and washing workers in the U.S. struggled to manage non-human nature in ostensibly domesticated washrooms, in the process remaking ideas about whether washing laundry should be “women’s work,” and why. Contact.
Ben Kasten is a graduate student in the History Department at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studies American intellectual and cultural history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and he recently completed a project that explores the intersection of communitarian social reform, free labor activism, and the founding of the Republican Party in rural Wisconsin. Contact.