Six Quick Lessons in How to Read a Landscape
How do you teach a curious young man to see a place he thinks he already knows? As fall 2016’s teaching assistants in Professor William Cronon’s new lecture course, “The Making of the American Landscape”, we collected six suggestions from our classroom and conference room experience.
1. Play with boundaries
One of the most difficult and valuable things to teach students while learning to read landscapes is that borders should not be taken for granted. Since “landscape” is such a broad concept, identifying a different and named unit of space is an important first step in reading a landscape (it is difficult to elaborate a coherent narrative of a place without knowing which place you are talking about). The existing physical and political boundaries work really well for organizing space: it’s easy to imagine a landscape that recites, say, Third Ward of Milwaukee, Madison State State Street or Isle Royale National Park, but when students accept uncritical limits, they run the I risk neglecting potentially interesting geographic relationships and ignoring the fact that the borders themselves are historical artifacts.
One way to help students deal with these risks is to encourage them to think of limits as tools and not as intrinsic truths. Ask students to play with the boundaries that come or go: instead of focusing on State Street, try focusing on the microgeography of the intersection of State Street with Library Mall. The student can also blur the boundaries of the borders: instead of concentrating on Gardiner, MT or Yellowstone National Park, try to concentrate on the elements of the landscape that unite them or mark their separation. Finally, guide students to historicize the boundaries: instead of focusing on the Picnic Point, try focusing on reading the Picnic Point landscape to get clues on how, when and why it has become the type of landscape we know today. These strategies often produce unexpected and profound ideas. Although students end up reading the landscape as defined by contemporary and familiar boundaries, it is hoped that they will do so with a deeper sense of curiosity and greater confidence in the narration of the landscape they create.
2. Look near; see far
Encourage your students to pay attention to the trivial things in our life: the cycle paths we use for our morning excursions, the tree-lined roads, the railroad tracks on the bridge. The features of the landscape that seem so common that we take them for granted can be seen as part of the regional and national systems that connect our lives with those of others across the country. And in this sense, these characteristics are not trivial, since they are part of the networks that connect citizens with each other.
3. Look up, look down
Remind your students to look for: high voltage cables, light poles and urban skyscrapers built like layers of cake. Remind your students to look down: on sewer covers, rainwater grates and cold asphalt stains that dot roads in winter climates. Ask yourself out loud: which almost invisible systems support your daily life? Kate Ascher’s Works and Infrastructure: A Guide to the Polymer Industrial Landscape Brian Hayes provides complete answers to the simple questions of “why?” And how? “In the built environment.
4. Compare then and now
In Wisconsin, resources abound for assignments that send students to collect historical bird’s-eye photographs. These resources include the UW-Madison digital campus atlas created specifically for fall semester students; Digital photo collections from the UW-Madison Library; and the impressive variety of images from the Robinson Map Library. Beyond Wisconsin, the massive digitization effort of the US Geological Survey. UU. It means there are more than 178,000 historical topographic maps available for searching, cropping and downloading. The simple act of comparing “then and now” can direct students to questions about the drivers of change over time.
5. Make and interpret maps
Maps tell stories and stories can be mapped. Important events in the history of the United States, events that students may be familiar with, can be reviewed if interpreted in space. Questions like “What caused the Dust Bowl?” It can often provide surprising insights if students map and interpret the maps of events leading to and from dust storms on the Great Plains during the 1930s. Historical factors such as weather, erosion, population, land use and the economy can be placed in a spatial context. The position of the story of Anne Kelly Knowles: how spatial data of maps and GIS are changing The historical scholarship is a wonderful company for resources such as database of USGS maps and cartographic archives of the Library of Congress to help students consider the spatial and temporal scales of making history.
Although “The Making of the American Landscape” ends with a final exam, the assignment of the location map is the part of the course where many students carry out their widest and most meaningful reading of the landscape. As the study program explains, the local document asks students to select a place they know well and then “read a small landscape patch as a document of past environmental change”. There are countless lessons incorporated into this wonderful task, but one of the most interesting occurs when students start writing about where they grew up. Very often, the first investigations of these students are highly inclined to explain the symbols or themes that characterize their hometowns (since many students come from Wisconsin, topics like “deforestation” or “lake fishing” tend to dominate). It is when students overcome these broad symbols and mix them with particular details of their observations, however, that reading the landscape becomes a truly exciting and enlightening process. Asking students to think about how these symbols can be expressed in the landscape elements that matter most to them (the railroad tracks that walked on the way home from school, the view of the lake from their grandparents’ cabin) can help them. ‘is more in reading a landscape than in the history of the landscape in the style of the Chamber of Commerce. The more the symbols of a place can be connected to particular details, experiences and documents, the more significant is the act of reading landscapes.