Methodologies: How to Read a Landscape

Screen shot 2013-01-02 at 4.58.07 PMDiscard studies are often entwined with landscapes. Ruins, environmental contamination, xenogarbology (the study of trash in space), ocean plastics, global e-waste flows, and urban waste are all place or space contingent. Thus, reading landscapes can be a valuable methodology for us. A fantastic example is the landscape ethnography Beyond Passaic: Contamination, security threats, hobo encampments. A Meadowlands photo essay.

Most of this post is taken from William Cronon’s Learning to Do Historical Research, a website that aims to overview and overhaul the research process so scholarship and writing are more accessible to a general audience (as well as to emerging scholars!). The website covers many topics, but only one will be highlighted here: How to Read a Landscape: “the goal of this particular page is emphatically not to provide a comprehensive or systematic guide for those seeking to learn the craft of reading landscapes for the rich natural, cultural, and historical information they contain. Rather, this page is offered as an invitation to begin exploring this endlessly fascinating subject on your own.” The below excerpt from How to Read a Landscape has been altered to relate to discard(ed) landscapes in particular:

How to Read a Landscape: Overview

When preparing to read a landscape, know what to bring and what to leave behind.
Preparations for reading a landscape begin before the reader actually steps outside their door; the most practical consideration (aside from choosing a landscape to read) is deciding what to bring with you and what to leave behind. Figuratively speaking, you should remember to take with you a sense of curiosity and openness, while leaving behind assumptions, biases, and projections that inhibit experiencing the landscape outside of the comfort of our own disciplines. Literally speaking, you will want to bring a limited set of tools that will allow you to learn and record some components of the landscape, but leave behind anything that will inhibit or encumber your experience. Resist the urge to bring the library or the laboratory with you to the landscape, opting instead for a small, portable selection of only the most essential tools (perhaps a camera, a notebook, a small guidebook or two, or a pair of binoculars). Recognize that you will encounter a number of cultural, biological, and historical components to your area of exploration, and that it will take multiple visits (perhaps at times with knowledgeable guides) to create a thorough and meaningful experience. (Jacquelyn Gill)

Orient yourself to the landscape by walking and looking.
Take along a local map to help identify the region’s boundary lines, transportation corridors, sources of water and other prominently displayed features. Take note of the area’s major geographic features. Are any of the attributes on your local map noticeable from where you are standing? When experiencing the landscape, consider your vantage point including altitude and direction. Ask yourself a few basic questions about your surroundings: What is the most prominent color in your view? What smells and sounds do you notice? Is there any evidence of human settlement: roads, buildings or ruins? (Liese Dart)

Aldo Leopold's First Entry in the Shack Journal That Became A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold’s First Entry
in the Shack Journal That Became A Sand County Almanac

If you’re just learning a landscape, take a journal and pencil with you.
A journal allows you to record observations, craft drawings of trees, plants, animals and other features you may see, as well as capture the sounds in your landscape. Journaling requires you to observe the landscape with the naked eye, which requires focus on your surroundings. It also allows you to return home with careful documentation, from which you can carry out research through such items as guidebooks, town histories, and surveyors’ records to create a more thorough understanding of the landscape. (Cathy DeShano)

Take note of the types of land use in your landscape, such as crops, pastures, lawns, parking lots, [dumping] and so on.
One or two land uses may be dominant, or the landscape may be more like a patchwork. Are there many small patches of different land uses, or are there large patches? Imagine a map with different land uses shaded different colors (crops, animals, natural areas, residential areas, etc.). Consider how complex this map would be. Can you visualize any patterns?  Think about how the people in your landscape supply their basic needs (food, water, shelter, social relations, etc.), and how those needs might relate to the different types of land use. (Abigail Popp)

See the land through a surveyor’s eye.
Suppose you have been hired to produce a topographical survey of a portion of land.  Where would you begin?  The production of topographical surveys involves a very particular lens through which the land is viewed.  First, the surveyor distinguishes between important characteristics and unimportant land features.  Of primary importance are stable elements of the landscape and large physical features.  Trees, fence lines, building structures, and so on all need to be marked, recorded, and given a notation that serves as an abbreviated reminder of their size and orientation.  Furthermore, topographical maps are concerned with lines of elevation.  What the surveyor tries to do is to identify breaks and rises in the landscape and to mark their path across the landscape by recording as few points as are necessary to later produce a map from the several stored points.  This means looking for places where changes in elevation begin or cease occurring, breaks in gradient and beginnings of changes, whether gradual or rapid. (Stillman Wagstaff)

Kodiak's landfill in winter.

Kodiak’s landfill in winter.

Visit your landscape throughout the year.
Pay attention to how the landscape changes each season. Note the species of plants or animals that you see at particular times of the year. It may be useful to talk to someone about the local ecosystem. Consider the ways in which the changing seasons might have affected other aspects of the landscape, such as the food people are able to eat, the physical location of structures such as dwellings, or the methods of human transportation. (Abigail Popp)

Understand the seasonal context of a landscape.
Visit a landscape in every season. Understanding the land in the context of its annual changes is a crucial component to a thorough reading; forests, fields, or streams do not pass a year in the stasis you might infer from the moment of a single observation. The animals, plants, weather, and land use activities you might observe can vary wildly from season to season. Acadia National Park’s Sand Beach is a very different place during the tourist throngs of July than right after a January gale. Ask yourself: “How are the components of my landscape (human, animal, plant, built) prepared to cope with the range of environments that the changing seasons provide? What migrates, what adapts, and what dies? How do immobile components like buildings or trees survive the range of conditions they may be exposed to in a given year?” A surprising amount of cultural and ecological insight may come from simply thinking seasonally. (Jacquelyn Gill)

Look at the landscape through a different lens.
When reading a landscape, people tend to look through a disciplinary lens that reflects their own education and experiences. This perspective can provide depth into your observations, but you should consider other ways of looking at the landscape that reflect different disciplines. Try to travel through your landscape with someone who is a specialist in a field other than your own. (Abigail Popp)

When reading American landscapes from a historical perspective…
documents such as land survey records, old photos, aerial photos and census records can tell you a lot about how the landscape has been transformed over time. These documents can best show pre-European vegetation histories along with information on the ethnicities of settlers and their occupations, which can provide insight into previous impact on the land. Good questions to ask yourself when assessing these documents are:

  • Why did settlers choose this location?
  • Does it have close access to transportation?
  • Is it near an urban environment?
  • What sorts of occupations did the settlers hold?
  • Is the land conducive for agriculture or are there resources in the area that can be extracted for profit?

Local historical societies can prove to be a great resource in local history as can state land bureaus for information on historical development and planning in the area. Be sure not to ignore changing trends over time and ask questions on how changes in transportation may have spurred or wrecked certain industries and practices. (Brien Barrett)

Toggle the scale at which you frame your attention.
Watch the Charles and Ray Eames’ film Powers of Ten. Download Google Earth, pick a place on the world map, and then zoom in and out. Notice the frame at which features become visible, recognizable, and discernible. Examine the legend of a map. At what scale has this representation been reproduced? Ask yourself about the significance of your map’s/site’s scale. Repeat this process in the field with your own eye. If your eyes are properly trained (and your lenses innovatively focused) the landscape can become meaningful at scales that you are unaccustomed to. (Stillman Wagstaff)

Look for many layers of meaning in a single place.
One way to think of a landscape is to see it the way that medieval exegetes saw sacred scriptural texts. For the medieval scholar of the Bible, there were four basic layers of meaning operating in the scriptures: the literal, the allegorical, the tropological (moral), and the anagogical. Reading identical texts in productively different ways requires two things: facility with different lenses, since you will find different things in the landscape depending on what you’re searching for, and belief that the text can teach several radically different lessons depending on the questions being asked. These textual approaches may also be applied to landscapes, with some modification. While you probably won’t try to read your landscape anagogically, the idea of a single text possessing features that can be understood according to several disparate senses is an idea that can be applied equally well to places and landscapes. Don’t forget that no single reading, no matter how original or insightful, is ever exclusive or comprehensive. (Stillman Wagstaff)

Landscapes always express and reflect relationships: learn to recognize and understand these.
Landscapes express the networks, connections, and mobilities that drive the ongoing process of place-making. This dynamism means that landscape is situated in a relational process and should never be regarded as pre-given, isolated, or static. For example, a seemingly ordinary landscape of a Wisconsin farm near a small town has always been affected by in-state markets, inter-state transportation systems, international trade, global flows of goods, and so on. Accordingly, landscape should always be understood as manifesting spatial relations on multiple scales. (Po-Yi Hung)

Look for what may be concealed in a landscape.
Landscape can operate as a veil concealing the historical truth of socioeconomic conditions, and thus manipulate people’s perceptions of a place. For example, while the Meriter Hospital in downtown Madison is evidence of earlier urban renewal, behind this landscape “curtain,” it may also hide a story about the mid-twentieth-century displacement of an earlier poor and marginalized community. Here landscape is not only a present setting for the inhabitants, but also a veil obscuring earlier struggles or achievements in history. (Po-Yi Hung)

Think about the relation between landscape and modes of production and consumption.
Modes of production and consumption constitute many elements and spatial relationships that you will find in landscapes, so the ways landscape functions have changed in different times and spaces. These can be traced by thinking about changes in production and consumption. The drive-through facility in fast-food restaurants, for instance, may reflect a history of Fordist car production, highway construction, and mass consumption. These in turn have helped create the fast food culture now embedded in contemporary American landscapes and the lifestyles that go with them. (Po-Yi Hung)

Read landscapes from the perspective of representation
Landscape consists not only of the physical and material elements we encounter in a place, but also therepresentations of these things via texts, including arts, maps, and pictures. Understanding landscape in terms of its representations leads to questions about power and authority. Reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Alamanc, for instance, readers experience landscape descriptions that represent Leopold’s choices, values, and beliefs. At the same time, readers may also discern more hidden codes and meanings, the assumptions imposed on landscape by the historical context during which a given representation was produced. (Po-Yi Hung)

Pay attention to the relations between landscape and identity
Landscape use and change could signify the beliefs and perceptions of different human groups about who should or should not belong to a particular place or community. Landscape thus contributes to an individual’s identity, which is often defined in opposition to other social groups. For example, different styles of farm houses and barns denote the different identities of ethnic immigrants in Wisconsin; the glacial geology combined with idyllic farm scenes to produce a “Wisconsin” or “Midwest” identity. In other words, landscape defines normative understandings of “self” and “other,” “inside” and “outside,” for various social categories and the human beings who dwell within those categories.  (Po-Yi Hung)

If you want to experience the landscape like a yogi, begin with an intention.
Choose one element that you wish to engage with deeply. If you know ahead of time what that will be, take a guidebook with you. Perhaps you want to know better trees of a particular landscape. Look at the leaves to help you identify the particular species. Get to know their names, since familiarity creates possibilities for richer connections. Notice any pattern to the ways trees are planted and consider what story this may tell about why any patterns may exist and what functions the trees may serve. By focusing on a particular feature of the landscape, you can become more deeply familiar with its interconnectedness to physical and cultural aspects of a landscape. (Cathy DeShano)

What is your purpose in reading the landscape?
Are you trying to generate broad questions, narrow down an area of focus, or examine particular features? Defining your purpose can guide you as you plan your itinerary, but it can also help you figure out what kind of research you need to do before you go. Leave yourself open to the possibility that the field trip itself might fruitfully disrupt your plans.  (Michelle Niemann)

Read the landscape with more of your body than usual.  

We almost always read landscapes with our physical bodies, coming to understand places by way of our senses. This engagement with the physical world is achieved primarily through sight, sound, hearing, smell, and taste. Usually, the knowledge we gain about a place is acquired by way of combination and conjunction of several senses. However, our sense of sight (and the visual elements of landscapes) is often privileged over other ways of knowing a place. When in a new place, ask yourself: what can I know about this landscape with my eyes closed? What does the landscape you are considering smell like, sound like, feel like, even taste like—and what are the sources of these smells, sounds, textures, and tastes? How and why are these sounds and smells produced? Our ability to sense things that can’t be seen also functions as a useful metaphor for history itself, the search for ghost traces left in and upon things by vanished forces. (Stillman Wagstaff)

How do I learn from the locals?
Sometimes the local people serve as a better (or at least more colorful) source of information on the landscape than the guide books, especially about the history of the town and the importance of local landmarks. Here are a few tips to making the most out of your talks with local people:

  • Engage and listen.—Your vacation or travels will be much richer if you make an effort to meet the local people and listen to what they have to say about the place that they are attached to.
  • Older is better.The most colorful stories come from the area’s inhabitants with the longest history there. Stop at a spot that looks like there are a lot of locals and listen to people’s stories.
  • Have some questions in mind.—You will get the most out of your interactions with people if you at least have some idea of what you are looking for in the landscape. Ask questions about roads going up, development in the area, how people used to get around, etc.
  • Look for local leaders—Elders, park officials, librarians, or local politicians probably have the best grasp of the local history. (Kevin Gibbons)

If you want to read a landscape but have no idea how to start, try these strategies.

Look at the physical features of the environment, such as geology, soil, or water. These items can provide clues about the types of creatures that have lived in the area and why. In Wisconsin, glaciers determined much of the state’s surface geology. When the glaciers retreated, for example, they left behind glacial till, gravel and sand. These affect soil and can influence what crops, if any, will grow well in a region. Water also is an important resource to understand because it provides transportation routes for humans, as well as sources of energy. Trade often took place near water sources because loading and unloading was easier for merchants. As society evolved and new means of traveling and producing goods developed, businesses and towns that relied on water may have been abandoned or taken on limited roles. Watch for dilapidated structures or other signs that bustling activity may once have taken place in a landscape. (Cathy DeShano)

Collapsed Chimney, Abandoned Farm Sand Island, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (William Cronon)

Collapsed Chimney, Abandoned Farm Sand Island, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (William Cronon)

An element of landscape reading that is often overlooked are ghost landscapes.
Ghost landscapes are clues left behind from the past that show what a previous landscape may have looked like and how it was altered to achieve its present state. They can be as noticeable as the remnants of an abandoned highway (i.e.: Route 66 across the American West or stretches of Route 38 in California) or as unnoticeable as varied growth patterns in trees—which can signify recent planting or, if grown in parallel lines, traces of an abandoned road. When looking for odd growth patterns among foliage, characteristics to look for are trees with low-lying expansive branches growing in high-density areas next to tall, branchless trees with a high canopy. This kind of growth pattern shows that the tress with low, expansive branches probably matured in the area when the landscape resembled that of a savanna and not a high density forest, and the high-canopy trees were planted after the formers’ maturation and grew in a high density environment—perhaps as a reforestation project. (Brien Barrett)

If you want to see a ghost landscape, let a place haunt you.
Walk that place repeatedly; watch it over time; read old maps and accounts of its history. Go to cemeteries; notice residues and ruins. Seeing a ghost landscape means not only learning to recognize the features that mark a road, building, or settlement now abandoned, but also intuiting that change as a loss, even if not a personal one. Remnants tell of a present that is missing something as well as of an absent past. (Michelle Niemann)

To read the landscape, look for ruins.
Ruins are the faded records of the past still apparent on the landscape. Look for building ruins. Sometimes they remain partially or even wholly intact for long periods of time, depending on the environmental conditions of the area, the material of which the building was made, and the human demand for the land or materials for other uses. Look for unusual shapes in the landscape, or strange stone piles or berms. Chimneys are also common. Ruins are also holes in the ground, the remains of basements or cellars. Machinery, automobiles, and boats find their way to ruin eventually, the metals gradually consumed by rust. Infrastructure ruins range from old bridges, roads, and railways, either as the remains of the material, or the imprint of the material on the landscape, as with railroad beds. (Genya Erling)

Gravestone of Charles Richard Van Hise  Originator with Robert La Follette of "The Wisconsin Idea" and Author of Early Textbook on Natural Resource Conservation Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, Wisconsin (William Cronon)

Gravestone of Charles Richard Van Hise Originator with Robert La Follette of “The Wisconsin Idea” and Author of Early Textbook on Natural Resource Conservation
Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, Wisconsin (William Cronon)

Explore cemeteries.
Cemeteries contain a wealth of cultural information, and can reveal insights about both the history of human habitation on the land and also of the changing demographies of those communities. A small family plot in an overgrown forest tells a very different story than the orderly rows of graves in a churchyard in town. The graves themselves are clues to the human history of the region; Puritan gravestones look very different than those of Jews. The graves of important social and political figures are often distinguishable because of their design or placement. Pay attention to artwork and motifs, the kinds of names on the stones, and the dates of birth and death; clusters of deaths may indicate regional experiences with disease, war, or disaster. The graves of veterans as far back as the American Revolutionary War are still decorated with flags. Exploring cemeteries is a quick and simple way to be exposed to a range of cultural insights about the past human habitation of a particular place. (Jacquelyn Gill)

Monuments perform an array of crucial functions , and you can follow these simple guidelines when you want to use them to read the landscape.
Since antiquity, communities have used certain sites to commemorate, mourn, remember, and reflect in various ways.  When approaching one of these places—be it a statue, grave, mound, or simple stone tablet, it is helpful to ask how it is situated in relation to the people who live and work near it.  Its relationship in space to other sites of meaning to the community will reveal the kind of power the monument yet retains, disclosing its enduring force in the community’s collective telling.  If you can, also try to identify what exactly the monument’s function is.  What does it seek to remember, celebrate, or mourn?  In answering this question, you’ll be clued into a complex set of values, morals, and beliefs central to both past and present actors.  After all, those who today allocate resources for the monument’s maintenance and protection see some value in keeping this element of the landscape stable, but they also see some need to keep the meaning of the past—at least in this particular version of its telling—alive as well.    As a site of deep meaning, the monument is a treasure trove of information for those who want to trace changes in the land over time. (Jesse Gant)

Consider the relation between monuments and politics of memory
Monuments as an important element of landscape can offer evidence of social values, and therefore convey memories about the past as well as expectations for the future. Although not necessarily always seen as a monument, a place like Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin, reminds visitors of people in the past who shaped Madison with their actions and values. Particular historical narratives conveyed by monuments also raise questions about the politics of memory. It is always worth asking about memories that may have been forgotten and how the return of those erased memories can change the ways we think about modern landscapes. (Po-Yi Hung)

Photo by Ryan Linke.

Photo by Ryan Linke.