Section 8: Landscape: Nature and Culture

John Brinkerhoff Jackson “A Pair of Ideal Landscapes” [1984]

Judith Carney “The African Origins of Carolina Rice Culture” [2000]

Wendy Wolford “This Land Is Ours Now: Spatial Imaginaries and the Struggle for Land in Brazil” [2004]

Michael Pollan “Beyond Wilderness and Lawn” [1998]

Louise Chawla “Ecstatic Places” [1990]

Many questions and concerns arise when we discuss the relationship between people and the material world of rocks, trees, earth, plants, animals, and oceans. For most, this non-human environment is the “natural” world, and “nature” is largely imagined as something prior to and separate from human activity. Yet there really is no natural environment in the sense of being untouched, and we are increasingly recognizing the impact people have upon the earth and well beyond. All places that people experience have, to some degree, been shaped by human activity. William Cronon (1983) demonstrates that all of human history has an ecological dimension, and Neil Smith (1984) makes this more explicit in his argument that nature is produced. This way of thinking about how the environment has been shaped by human activity invokes the title above, which suggests that landscape is produced through the everywhere and ongoing interaction of nature and culture (Cosgrove 1984; Cosgrove and Daniels 1988; Kaplan and Kaplan 1989).

In this sense, the term landscape denotes an environment that has been modified, cultivated, enhanced, or exploited through human activity. While this notion captures the dynamic process of shaping the earth, even landscape is not a perfect term: historically it has privileged the visual aspect of the environment and failed to fully address the other senses. Further, this concept tends to ignore areas that are not “land,” like oceans or icecaps, and has been oblivious to the nano-scale microbes and organisms that can have widespread environmental consequences (Braun 2007). Although landscape has been a term used traditionally to describe the geographic form and representation of the land, more recent scholarship has placed emphasis on the dynamic processes that occur through human manipulation and flows of information and materials across all kinds of spaces (Swyngedouw 2004). As such, landscape remains a useful term and tool for thinking about the interface between humans (“culture”) and the non-human world (“nature”) at a range of scales and across a variety of terrains. This understanding crosses disciplines and reaches into areas of political ecology, sustainability studies, landscape architecture, and cultural studies.

Landscape is employed in a variety of ways, sometimes to analyze macro-scale movements and global mobilities (Appadurai 1996) and other times in a more humanistic vein to understand the cultural meanings of particular places (Lippard 1998; Cosgrove and Daniels 1988). In fields such as landscape architecture, landscape describes a physical place that is designed and constructed to be inhabited and appreciated aesthetically (e.g., Wilson 1991). Landscape is an idea that artists and scholars have grappled with, and remains a term that is useful for the way it begins to show how places are connected across time and space because of the ground they share (e.g., Corner 1996). Some writers look closely at small, local places, while others have tried to make connections across the globe. What they have in common is an understanding that people act on and even produce the natural world, and in so doing cultivate a new relationship with the environment, one aspect of which is landscape.

As the pre-eminent scholar of the vernacular landscape, James Brinkerhoff (J.B.) Jackson was one of the first writers to articulate the important connection between landscape and culture in the US. His selection here provides an overview of landscape as an idea, and suggests how territory is defined physically and culturally. Jackson discusses two landscapes: one is political and defined by socially recognized markers and boundaries, the other is inhabited and understood through layers of meaning produced by people’s engagements with their environments and the spaces of their everyday lives. He suggests that the political landscape represented through symbols such as monuments, fences, and steeples is a manifestation of the social order. The inhabited landscape—often without formal markings— is where people feel an emotional connection to nature and a sense of belonging in the world. For Jackson, these landscapes are not separable; in fact, they come together in the way people have lived and learned to work the land.

Geographer Judith Carney sheds further light on the historical meaning of landscape and the intersections of culture and nature. Looking at rice cultivation in the US south, Carney traces the social relations and geographical implications of agricultural knowledge and practices, showing how these patterns are inscribed in the landscape. She argues convincingly that it was the environmental knowledge of African slaves that brought rice cultivation to the US. Carney looks at the origins of rice cultivation in West Africa and discusses how success depends upon growing rice in anaerobic wetland conditions. Knowledge of this system was foreign to most of those colonizing the Americas, but rather was introduced and advanced by involuntary black migrants to what became the southeastern US. She demonstrates how women were especially instrumental in rice cultivation, as the milling process required special care to export the product for international markets (see figure at the beginning of Section 8). For Carney, the landscape may be read as a text that connects and makes visible agricultural and social processes that span oceans and decades and discrete knowledge formations. Carney’s work compellingly demonstrates that transforming the American landscape, which made the US a world power, depended completely upon the work and knowledge of slaves and other historically marginalized people.

These power dynamics make clear that all landscapes are shaped through labor processes that are often changing and conflicted. Geographer Wendy Wolford examines landscapes that are defined by situations and issues that originate at the state level, but which are negotiated more locally through the decisions and practices of individuals and groups. Wolford’s work examines the Movement of Rural Landless Workers in Brazil from a political ecology perspective, and addresses the ways in which mobilization is shaped by the specific relationships people have with the land. She compares two groups, family farmers in the south and rural plantation workers in the northeast, and their reasons for and interests in joining the movement. She concludes that the degree to which people participated—and whether people saw space as open or closed—was shaped by how they had traditionally related to the land through their labor.

Journalist and sustainability activist Michael Pollan argues that the United States has made two important contributions to understanding landscape: the wilderness and the lawn. Pollan suggests that in order to develop our understanding of and relation to the landscape, we need to move beyond this dichotomy. For Pollan, these two types of landscape represent contradictory understandings of the natural environment. On the one hand, there is an insistence on the preservation of an ideal wilderness untouched by civilization, while on the other is the lawn—nature utterly dominated by civilization, an industrial product in many ways. In telling the history of these opposing relations to nature, Pollan argues that dispensing with both lawn and wilderness and replacing them with a notion of the garden, as a place of careful cultivation, might offer a better alternative and a more appropriate model for the human relation to nature.

In addition to considering the making of social and cultural landscapes, researchers are also attentive to how the landscape is perceived and experienced. Environmental psychologist Louise Chawla argues that experiencing landscape as place is valuable because it is sensory- rich, restorative, and character-forming. She examines autobiographic accounts to discover what types of places stay in our memory and inform who we are as adults. Chawla suggests that these places create ecstatic memories which sustain and delight us, and, as places remembered, are the landscapes that have been most intensely felt. Her work explores how these experiences are connected to people’s creative abilities, inspired by the strong correlation she found among artists, poets, and authors who wrote about ecstatic landscape experiences.

The selections we have included are intended both to help us understand our relationship to the environment and suggest more sustainable directions for our interaction with the natural world in which we may more thoughtfully and carefully work with the landscape. At the same time, these selections only begin to explore the research and scholarship that looks at the place of people in the world. Bruno Latour’s (2007) actor-network theory offers a novel approach to understanding our relationship to things around us, arguing that “objects too have agency.” Paul Cloke and Owain Jones (2002) use this idea to look at role which trees play in our lives. Bruce Braun’s (2002) work also draws upon these ideas, but takes us closer to political ecology, a field that studies how our environment is produced through political, economic, and social processes at a variety of scales (see also Escobar 1999; Robbins 2007). Recent studies have mapped the origins and transportation of food to construction materials, as a reminder that everything comes from somewhere (McDonough and Braungart 2002). Lucy Lippard (1998) and Dolores Hayden (Section 3) expanded on the cultural landscape work of J.B. Jackson by looking more closely at layers of history and politics ingrained in the landscape. The list goes on, but we encourage you to use this view of landscape to inform your experience of place and understand that our interaction with the environment is dynamic, sensory-rich, and intimately tied to our futures together on this planet.

– reproduced from Gieseking, J.J., W. Mangold, C. Katz, S. Low, & S. Saegert (eds.). 2014. The People, Place, & Space Reader. New York: Routledge.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

Appleton, Jay. 1975. Experience of Landscape. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Betsky, Aaron. 2006. Landscrapers: Building with the Land. London: Thames & Hudson.

Braun,Bruce. 2002. The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Braun, Bruce. 2007. “Biopolitics and the Molecularization of Life.” Cultural Geographies 14:6–28.

Carney, Judith A. 2002. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Carson, Rachel. 2002. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Castree, Noel. 2013. Making Sense of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Cloke, Paul, and Owain Jones. 2002. Tree Cultures: The Place of Trees and Trees in Their Place. New York: Berg Publishers.

Corner, James. 1996. Taking Measures Across the American Landscape. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cosgrove, Denis E. 1984. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. London: Croom Helm.

Cosgrove, Denis E., and Stephen Daniels. 1988. The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design, and Use of Past Environments. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cronon, William. 1992. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Cronon, William. 2003 [1983]. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, revised edn. New York: Hill and Wang.

Escobar, Arturo. 1999. “After Nature: Steps to an Antiessentialist Political Ecology.” Current Anthropology 40(1)(February): 1–30.

Kaika, Maria. 2004. City of Flows: Modernity, Nature, and the City. New York: Routledge.

Kaplan, Rachel, and Stephen Kaplan. 1989. The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2007. “Objects Too Have Agency.” In Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, pp. 63–86. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lippard, Lucy R. 1998. The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. New York: New Press.

McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press.

Olmstead, Fredrick Law. 1870. “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns.” Presented at the Lowell Institute, Lowell, Massacheusetts. Reprinted in Civilizing America’s Cities. A selection of Fredrick Law Olmstead’s Writings on City Landscape. Edited by S.B. Sutton. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1975.

Robbins, Paul. 2007. Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Saunders, William S. (ed.). 2008. Nature, Landscape, and Building for Sustainability: A Harvard Design Magazine Reader. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, Neil. 1984. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Savannah: University of Georgia Press.

Swyngedouw, Erik. 2004. Social Power and the Urbanization of Water: Flows of Power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thoreau, Henry David. 1966. Walden. Peter Pauper Press.
Williams, Raymond. 1975. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Alexander. 1991. The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez. London: Between the Lines.

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