Landscape as a historic document

The things that struck me most about the readings for this week was the idea of landscape as a historic document. As I went through the other chapters, I found myself going back to this idea and wondering how “our” landscape would be read a few decades from now. Would graduate students from a “Intro to Thirdspace Studies” be wandering around, looking at what was left, constructed and preserved from the 20-teens? The Boise metro area, as it is now, has such as strange variety of landscapes/thirdscapes. Parts of the city strive to stay sheltered in their track-home, built-to-suit suburbia. Ranches, pastures, farms and fields seem to be in the most random places- acting as a reminder that Boise wasn’t built on microchips and french-fry empires. I hope that those places, from farms to mansions, will remain in place, giving something for students of landscape history something interesting to study. Maybe it would be just as revealing, though, if these spaces were gone in 60 years. Richard Schein discusses racialized landscapes, and says they “can be seen here as a kind of autobiography, in that each captures social or cultural norms, values, and fears.” (p.217) I don’t think this only applies to the racial boundaries within a city. Things that we find important enough to keep, or suitable to go away, says just as much about who we are.

If there are students looking at Boise a generation or three down the road, I think they will have their work cut out for them. Our landscape is a confusing, but telling document about who we once were and what we hope to be.

“It is a matter of learning how to see.”

The chapter that inspired and provoked the most thought for me this week was chapter 12 “Normative Dimensions of Landscape.” The discussion on Thoroughbred Park was of particular interest, as my thesis project has a great deal…actually everything to do with parks. From previous research and required historiographical papers I am well aware of urban parks utilized as dividers between commercial and residential areas, along racial neighborhoods, or gang territories. Schien describes this in relation to Thoroughbred Park in writing “The site is…a place that joins and separates several functional areas of the city” (214). What was in a sense revolutionary to me was when Schien went on further to describe that the “Thoroughbred Park hillside displaying the grazing horses was literally built for the park to effectively hide the East End [coded as the ghetto] from view for anyone approaching the central city” (214). I would like to think I have always been aware of public space having the potential to manipulate meaning or disguise/camouflage unwanted areas. But I have never before thought about my role in the larger scheme of things. This led to a slight panic attack where I sat frozen for approximately 5 minutes as my mind went a million miles an hour in every direction possible. All at once I came to the realization I have a responsibility to make sure the history and landscape interpretation I come up for my project encapsulates all dimensions—social, agricultural, political, etc. Fear crept in that Richard H. Schein would find the park proposal I will eventually write and point out all its discrepancies. I laughed at myself after I calmed down from my panic attack because that ridiculous quote from Spiderman popped into my head “Where there is great power comes great responsibility.” But if I’m being honest, public historians do wield some power in how we relay information to the public. Ethics and motivations matter when “doing public history.” At times I find this incredibly daunting, but if Spiderman can handle it, I’m confident I can too.

Landscapes, Pt. 2

The chapters selected for this week’s reading provided a good variety of material to think about. I got quite a bit out of Peirce Lewis’ “The Monument and the Bungalow.” I thought his two-part advice on how to begin evaluating and studying landscape was simple yet true, especially looking back at my familiarization with architectural history. Lewis suggested that we first need to be open, curious and ask unbiased questions, and to be sure to acquire the necessary vocabulary and background first. I’ve done quite a bit of work with inventorying residential neighborhoods, and too often I waited to study architectural types until after fieldwork. On another note, I had no knowledge of the Arts & Crafts style before this week’s reading.

I enjoyed Lewis’ musings on the fact that so many plantations stand while few sharecropper cabins do. The biased nature of landscape study and, often, historic preservation is an interesting aspect to touch upon. The “Great Man” school of thought is far-reaching.

I also really enjoyed Mark Fiege’s section on ecological commons. I read his book, Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West when working on my senior paper as an undergrad. That book dealt with the changing of the Southern Idaho landscape due to irrigation, the degree to which man could control nature, and the ways in which nature shaped the human environment. It does go into quite a bit of detail regarding the “rabbit drives,” which I wasn’t quite ready to hear at the time.

As for the Fiege piece included in the book – I thought it added to the argument that simple artifacts (such as the “No Hunting” sign) can convey endless amounts of information on places, or at least become important starting places when trying to understand the landscape around them.


When will the vampires of banality succeed at sucking dry the vitality of public history? It may be all too soon unless the normative and positive elements of public history-including the reading of cultural landscapes-can be brought to coexist. In order of value positive/objective judgements seem much more valuable than those which are normative/subjective.

The priority of positive judgements exists on two levels. First they are needed to evaluate the value of normative opinions. If normative judgements are ever to transcend the needs and desires of individuals and have value for societies or groups of individuals, positive analysis will be necessary to commonalities of shared interests/needs. While it is not very popular to posit characteristics of ‘human nature’ or elements of a universally shared humanity that would transcend if not determine culture, the means and tools to do this are finally becoming available available. The second reason positive judgements are needed is so that cultural landscapes can be used to impact social structures. Advances in the empirical reading of cultural landscapes, including if and how cultural landscapes actually impact social structures, is necessary if planners actually want to effectively use cultural landscapes to change social conditions.

Somewhat Random Musings on Cultural Landscapes

One of the chapters that I enjoyed reading the most was Chapter 6 and its stab at trying to teach students how to read cultural landscapes, and how that can be compared to reading any historical document. Pierce Lewis writes, “landscape is a historic document that tells a story—actually, multiple stories—about the people who created the landscape and the cultural context in which that landscape was embedded.” Pierce also points out that there is no one single author in the landscape, and they are incomplete documents. This seems so obvious, but it takes someone like Pierce to point it out for all of us to have that “aha” moment. When thinking about how we can practice public history, I can see how looking to the built environment can help us retell a story, but that as scholars, we need to keep in mind the bias of the builder, and seek out other sources to tell the rest of the story. It’s just like any other historical research: be cognizant of your sources’ bias and beliefs, and be critical. The only difference is that some of our sources will be a different medium.

The rest of the readings helped to reinforce that as researchers we need to ask questions and be critical of our sources, and that if we can read the landscapes as objectively as possible, we can come to new and exciting conclusions about that place. The exciting part of this conclusion is that even in the simple and ordinary spaces, we can find profound reflections of ourselves, our community, and our region. In chapter 16 James Rojas explores how front yards are “exuberant vignettes of the individual owners’ lives.” I found this so interesting and poignant that I have started to pay special attention to everyone’s front yards on my walk to work/school in my new neighborhood. My yard, since we just bought the house, indicates that no one uses the space since it is in such disrepair. But my neighbors have nicely mowed lawns, and very few outdoor decorations or something that would indicate the personality of the residents. I hope as I look closer I might be able to come to know what my neighbors want the world to see. But more importantly, how am I going to plan my environment, and what will that say about me?


My ability to be provoked into a tirade over one word will never cease to amaze me. Today, this word is ‘fossil’. However, this is an agreeable tirade; more of an elaboration to what has already been read (presumably by everyone in the class… you know, considering it was assigned).

This trigger word occurred early in the reading, specifically on page 105. The term was initially used to describe the cultural significance of a structure, the bungalow, which was so commonplace that it was largely considered quite insignificant. This rant based on the word ‘fossil’ is two-fold. Peirce Lewis also describes the importance of vocabulary and preliminary research that greatly assists in discovering the true meaning behind these cultural landscapes. While he focuses mainly on alluvial fans and architectural terms, mine would be on the importance of how words can be used creatively in order to make the observer use a different approach in their analysis. In this case, ‘fossil’, when viewed as an analogy, can open up an even greater understanding of this seemingly unimportant structure and why any Historian would devote time and effort into its study.

In the archaeological world, a fossil is a window into the past. You get to see the biology, culture, and so much more in one imprint of anything from a footprint, to a leaf, or even remains. To connect this word with historical implications, something as modest as a suburban domicile can give a prepared inquisitor, a multi-layered view of the world that created said home. From looking at said bungalow in the same context as a fossil, the artistic movements of the period, needs and amenities of the suburban family, and any other culturally significant attribute could be discovered and would help paint a more accurate picture with far greater depth in a more expedient nature.

The reason I studied History as an undergrad, and gained employment in the field could be described through the word ‘fossil’. Every physical object in this world is a fossil – from my modest North End apartment, to the capitol building, or my friend’s rusty 1982 Volkswagen. If you approach every aspect of the cultural landscape that surrounds you with this mindset, an entirely new world will open up in front of you.

Attempting to pinpoint the development of the definition “culture” as it applies to landscape…

A few of these things I have read before, so I was prepared for what I was getting myself into; but a few things, admittedly, I was not prepared to get so frustrated over!
Naming J.B. Jackson as the ultimate in defining cultural landscape would be a correct statement, as long as we continue on from what he studied and not keep it as he left it, which is what I fear has happened in some cases.
I suppose things didn’t get too frustrating for me until chapter 12-“Normative Dimensions of Landscape” by Schein. From the beginning of the chapter the process of cultural identification via landscape becomes far too over-complicated and almost has more of a political feel to it than anything for me. Bringing the idea of economic and ecological history into defining a space, as well as admitting human activity plays a huge role, is completely agreeable. This all becomes too compicated, and continues to do so, when we are told that seeing landscapes through race, gender, or sexuality colored glasses is the true way to define a cultural landscape. (202)
The discussion of the red-lining in the 30s is a completely valid argument, as well as the African American population having to rely on self-governance and provide their own economic security within their community prior to the human rights movement. However, tying the idea of red-lining districts to the modern construction practices or new neighborhood areas is a stretch. Being angry about a bronze statue of a Confederate General in center sqare, or a part of the city keeping the name of “Cheapside” over the years, doesn’t necessarily mean Lexington is a city full of closet racists waiting for their chance to unleash it. These things all have historical significance. The final example from this chapter is the anger that seeps through the words when he writes about having no monument to ANY jockey in the park or former race track, I forget which (216). Either way, it states in the text there was no mention of any jockey, so why is the author only mad about the black guy not getting any recognition? Yes, Murphy does deserve a memorial. Why doesn’t anyone else?
That is my rant about that!
I fully agree with Jackson’s statement on page 86 about a landscape being an historical document; we will never be able to strictly define a cultural landscape because we will never be able to fully define a culture; everyone will see things differently.
The chapter on defining culture and landscape through streets and yards in L.A. forces you to do so of your own home, and I enjoyed reflecting on things I never thought about before landscape as a cultural aspect was brought to my attention. In all honesty, I wasn’t enthralled by Ecological Commons the first time, and it didn’t rattle my boots this time either. Medicine in the Mall felt like more of a lecture on preservation and development v. anti-development (much like Boise and its redevelopment issues, just sayin).
Soooo I guess that’s all I have to say!
Thanks for reading, fellow blog readers! Or just Leslie M-B, cause ya hafta. =)

Reading Landscapes

I agree with Peirce Lewis’ argument that students can be taught to “read” landscapes, developing the “necessary skills and vocabulary” for doing so if they don’t possess them already (86). However, with regard to historical landscapes, I wonder if the direction that public history is taking—particularly the trend towards technology—is making it more difficult rather than more efficient for people to develop the skill of reading landscapes.

Lewis states that students “need to develop and cultivate the habit of using their eyes” and questioning the landscape they are observing (93). Interpretive signs and mobile devices, for example, may serve well to give people the necessary “vocabulary” that Lewis mentions. However, if the landscape they are observing employs an overabundance of signs, or if observers need to focus intently on a mobile device in order to learn facts about the landscape, does all of the reading and technological stimulation hinder them from truly “using their eyes”–i.e. actually observing the landscape itself?

Technological innovations can of course be crucial in conveying information about a particular landscape, but I sometimes wonder if too much technology isn’t more likely to get in the way of students’ “readings” of the physical—as opposed to the digital—landscape. (As helpful as I think it may be to have mobile tours of national parks, for example, the prospect of visitors staring at iPhones while the scenery passes them by worries me.) Although I may be somewhat of a Luddite when it comes to the use of technology in education, I am by no means completely pessimistic about it, and I look forward to seeing what comes of our attempts to impart knowledge of various cultural landscapes through our mobile public history projects this semester.

Racial Landscapes

While reading Chapter 12 in Everyday America about the racial landscapes I gave some thought to the few ethnic neighborhoods in Boise’s past and those that may be developing as refugees are placed in certain Boise neighborhoods. This explanation of racialized landscapes from page 203 brought to mind another Idaho connection: “American cultural landscapes that are particularly implicated in racist practice and the perpetuation of (or challenge to) racist social relations.” After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and we entered World War II, Idaho became home to the Minidoka War Relocation Center, a.k.a. an internment camp complete with barbed wire fences and watch towers.

If anyone is planning a trip to Burley to see the wagon ruts swing off the highway east of Jerome and Twin Falls to a little place called Eden. On some maps the site of the camp is referred to as Hunt Station. I’ve heard a few stories on Boise State Public Radio in the last several years about the camp site. It made the news partly because it was made a National Historic site which is overseen by the National Park Service. More recently there has been some controversy because a cattle feeding operation wants to build a facility about 1 ½ miles from the site. Ironically, the camp held about 13,000 internees and the feed lot is proposed to handle about 13,000 head of cattle. Those opposing the permit feel that smell and noise would greatly effect the experience of visitors to the camp. Last fall I heard that the decision to grant the permit was upheld in court.

Coincidentally, last fall I picked up a novel called Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. The main characters in the book lived in the already segregated Chinese and Japanese sections
of Seattle, Washington at the start of WWII. Part of the story centers on the relocation of the residents of the Japanese section to camps, many specifically to Minidoka. If I remember correctly 2/3 of those interned were American citizens by birth. What was barren, southern Idaho desert landscape…very cold in winter and very hot in summer became for the years 1942 to 1945 a racial project. Now it is an area about which decisions have to be made as to what is valuable to preserve.