Category Archives: nature

154: Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire

Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West is a history of the development of the American West through the lens of water management technology.  Building on substantial archival research, Worster argues that

The West, more than any other American region, was built by state power, state expertise, state technology, and state bureaucracy.  That is another way of saying that it has been, and is, the most thoroughly modern of American regions, and therefore that its experience, particularly in the matter of water, has been most instructive for deciphering the confused messages of that modernity.

By positioning water as technology rather than nature and the West as a federally-funded, man-made landscape, Worster both deconstructs the West’s self-image as independent and free of government control AND reconstructs the region not as a colony of the East but as the seat of a global American empire.

For Worster, the American West is a “modern hydraulic society,” a “social order based on the intensive, large-scale manipulation of water and its products in an arid setting.”  Versus Thoreau’s vision of a Western society based on free, self-defining individuals and egalitarian community organization, the West as hydraulic society is “coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical,” run by the elite owners of capital and business.  In addition to a sharply divided class structure, the West also has a sharp division between technology and nature, as evinced in the irrigation canal, whose smooth, abstract flow is fenced off from animals, humans, and life in general, while the communities that surround it are in comparative disarray.  Worster traces the development of this “techno-economic” landscape by first contextualizing it among other hydraulic societies, where elites used irrigation and flood control to control the social order, and then tracing the 150 year intensification of water control in the American West through 3 phases:

  • Incipience (Mormon migration in 1847 to 1890s): dependence on local skills and means, isolated communities and limited of small rivers, failed attempts by private corporations to harness rivers
  • Florescence (1902, when the Federal government took control of Western rivers via the National Reclamation Act, to WWII): Federal government provides capital and engineering expertise to “lift the region to a higher plateau of development;” corporations and quasi-corporations finally succeed in farming rivers for profit; a sharply divided class structure develops
  • Empire (1940s to the present): government and private wealth form a powerful alliance and bring every major river under their unified control; goal is to create an unparalleled hydraulic society.
Capitalism was critical to the development of the West because it moved rivers from a riparian system with usufruct rights (only people who live along a river can lay claim to it) to a system of prior appropriation (whoever gets to a river first can have it, even if s/he doesn’t own property along it).  It also rewarded destruction of some landscapes and relocation of some people to harness water for others – a remarkably anti-democratic project in the name of democracy.  Further, because water in the arid West was scarce, social power was tied to toil and large capital investments, which some saw as rugged individualism but Worster sees as American empire: absolute domination of nature by elites who spout individualism but take money from the Federal government to support their power.
By constructing the West as a “hydraulic society” and an American empire, Worster successfully demythologizes the West.  He also makes me never want to live much further west of the Mississippi than I already do, even if LA is the center of a global cultural and economic empire, because that empire is based on total technological domination of nature.

134: Carl Sauer’s Morphology of Landscape

Carl Sauer’s “The Morphology of Landscape” argues unambiguously that geography is the morphological study of cultural landscapes; it is the systematic study of both the ways in which humans have manipulated the physical landscape, and the ways in which physical landscape shapes the cultural landscape.  This article is one of the foundational articles for the Berkeley School, human geography, and cultural geography; Sauer wrote it partly to get the environmental determinists off his back, and partly to stake out some territory for geography.  Here are a few highlights:

  • the “morphological method” involves describing the hell out of physical and cultural landscapes, and then looking for formal patterns across landscapes to determine the connections between culture and the landscape.  The goal is to create composite types, so that you can measure future landscapes against them.  

  • landscape, like area, is an organic whole; unlike area, its boundaries and composition are subjectively determined by the geographer based on experience with other landscapes
  • Geography is not an abstract, rational science; it accepts the subjectivity of the geographer, as long as that subjectivity is made somewhat objective by long experience with reading and writing patterns in the landscape.
  • the cultural landscape is the combination of humans and nature, where the natural landscape provides the materials, culture provides the shaping force, and the “mind of man” creates culture; however, it is “man’s record upon the landscape,” not “the energy, customs, or beliefs of man.”
  • history of the landscape is important, but it’s mostly just included as a “descriptive convenience”
I realize that there was a pretty fierce debate in the 1990s over whether Sauer’s theory of culture was “superorganic,” or a force independent of humans.  There is one paragraph in this whole essay that alludes to a superorganic theory of culture in here, but I think that the problem is more that cultural theory was a lot more complex in the 1990s than it was in the 1920s than that Sauer thought culture was an autonomous force.  He was trying to shift the geographical paradigm away from environmental determinism, not invent a spatially-informed theory of culture in the process.

124: Duncan & Duncan: Landscapes of Privilege

In Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb, James Duncan and Nancy Duncan examine the landscape of Bedford, a wealthy community in Westchester County, to understand the relationship between aesthetics and the production of place and identities, and to think through the “wider social consequences of such an aestheticized view of the world.”  Via interviews and first-hand landscape observation, they explore several interrelated issues:

  • the ways people produce their identities in and through places, especially homeplaces, such as houses, gardens, and home communities,” particularly some of the more “conservative, defensive attempts at using one’s surroundings to establish individual, family, and community identities…. against and in contrast to an outside world” or ‘constitutive outside.’
  • the effects, intended and unintended, of a virulent, reactionary politics of anti-development in Bedford in response to all the stars moving in and buying up properties
  • the role of Bedford landscapes as symbolic resources used in the quest for social distinction: how residents are invested in Bedford socially, psychologically, economically
By focusing on the creation and maintenance of exclusionary landscapes in Bedford, Duncan & Duncan show that “such a high degree of attention on the part of suburban residents to the visual, material, and sensual aspects of place and place-based identity leads to an aestheticization of exclusion.  A seemingly innocent appreciation of local landscapes and desire to protect local history and nature can act as subtle but highly effective mechanisms of exclusion and reaffirmation of class identity.”  In other words, making a landscape look a certain way always excludes some people even as it includes others.

The particular landscape that Bedford residents work to maintain is that of a pre-globalization rural village, with rolling hills, manicured lawns, horses, wealthy gentlemen’s estates, a quaint village downtown, and a self-contained community that is economically independent.  Unfortunately for them, this nostalgic landscape derives its meaning (and its economic sustenance) from the global economy: against the placelessness of globalization, it claims to have roots in the past, an air of authenticity and a whiff of history; it’s more an aestheticized landscape than a living one, and anyway, it’s only 44 miles from New York.  No wonder movie stars buy houses in Bedford, and no wonder residents are so virulently anti-development: Bedford is both a retreat from the world and an integral part of it, a way to escape the present by consuming the past.
Scratching the surface of this aestheticized landscape reveals just how much work (and how much contradiction) goes into its production.  While the Bedford newspaper happily conflates Jeffersonian farmers with aristocratic estates and celebrates the beauty of Bedford’s “natural” environment, Central American laborers from nearby Mount Kisco maintain the lawns and gardens; highly restrictive zoning laws regulate lot size and types of construction; the Historical Preservation Committee maintains the white wooden shops in Bedford Village; and conservationists have worked to create nature preserves around Bedford that restrict future growth.  Creating this aesthetic of local privilege requires both integration with the global economy and exploitation of the very people Bedford seeks to exclude.
While Bedford can’t truly stand for all small country towns, the contradiction between the aesthetic of rural, pre-globalization wealth and the ways that landscape is constructed surely speaks to many places, as does Bedford residents’ treatment of the laborers from Mount Kisco as unwanted, but necessary, eyesores. 

27: William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis

In Nature’s Metropolis, Bill Cronon shows that the rapid growth of Chicago in the 19th century – from a few thousand residents in 1837 to some 300,000 in 1871 – was directly connected to the massive environmental restructuring of the western half of the United States at that time.  Chicago grew so quickly because it was surrounded by the magical combination of ridiculously abundant natural resources (forests in the north, rich soil in the plains, fish in the rivers, and so on), a growing transportation network, a series of technological developments (railroads, refrigerated cars, grain elevators, mechanization of grain and meat processing, etc) that reduced both travel times and spoilage of goods, and a relatively unregulated capitalist economy.  Thus, businesspeople razed entire forests in the upper midwest for housing timber, then cleared the land and used it for farming and husbandry; shot all the bison on the great plains, quarantined the Native Americans on reservations, and fenced in the land to create an elaborate system of factory farming; and turned much of the midwest into corn and wheat farms.  Railroads carried animals and produce from the hinterlands to the centralized stockyards and grain elevators in Chicago, where it was processed and shipped east (or back west) as needed.  And Chicago, which had become the center of a vast agricultural production and distribution network, boomed overnight.  The city and the country had become inextricably linked.

This is truly a fascinating book, and so well-written that even the technological and economic processes by which massive wheat production eventually led to the creation of the stock exchange are interesting.  The only criticisms I’ve seen are that Cronon doesn’t spend enough time looking at the cultural productions in 19th century Chicago – and yes, that’s true, he spends much more time in the stockyards, the railyards, and the stock exchange than at the theatre.  But really, at over 600 pages already, I think the book is lovely the way it is.