Thesis snippets: how we write ourselves on landscapes

Roderick Nash, one of environmental history’s foremost scholars, recalls telling a college student that rather than devoting the semester break to scholarly reading, the time would be far better spent exploring the landscape.[1] Nash was convinced, as am I, that observing, questioning and considering places – and the impacts of human beings – would allow deep understandings about people, land, and the complex interplays between them.[2] He went so far as to say that the landscape itself is a source, arguing that it represents the past ‘just as clearly as orthodox written evidence’.[3] This reading of place, as a living material archive, is central to my research approach. By doing so, we can ‘recover histories from landscapes and material remains themselves, and also see what has been remembered, and what forgotten’.[4] Raymond Williams says the same thing, that history is ‘written visibly into the earth […] material inequalities […] are literally inscribed’.[5] While these ideas sit well with me, in their elegance they belie the complexities of reading a landscape, particularly one as profoundly altered as the Los Angeles River. To Roderick Nash’s argument that a landscape communicates ‘just as clearly as orthodox written evidence’, I would counter that neither written nor physical evidence is ever all that clear to the discerning historian. Clarity is not inherent in the source, but rather in the historian’s craft of seeking and evaluating evidence, comparing across multiple sources wherever possible, reading against the grain, and taking the past on its own terms. Just as some voices, and materials, are much more likely to end up protected and surfaceable within the linear feet of official archives likewise particular impacts on a physical landscape will be infinitely more legible to historians than other changes might be. Raymond Williams is right that history becomes inscribed onto the earth, but some protagonists write with broad-tipped indelible magic markers and others have only a pencil stub with which to leave their mark.

[1] Roderick Nash, “The State of Environmental History,” in The State of American History, ed. Herbert J. Bass (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970), 250.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 249.

[4] Karskens, “Seeking Sydney from the Ground Up: Foundations and Horizons in Sydney’s Historiography,” 184-5.

[5] Raymond Williams cited in Rodney James Giblett, Landscapes of Culture and Nature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 142.

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