Monday, April 18, 2011

landscape vs. environment

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

A well-known historical ecologist once commented on a paper of mine, essentially, "if you just replaced the word 'environment' with 'landscape', you'd be an historical ecologist. Try it, it's easy!"*

He was (kind of) kidding, but he brought up a good point. Does an environment by any other name have the same analytical usefulness?

"Landscape" and "environment" have profoundly different connotations in English, ones that mirror the different foci of historical ecology vs., say, behavioral ecology, or other "environmentally" focused theoretical perspectives. We, as American or European archaeologists, are steeped in the Western binary worldview that separates "nature" from "culture", the "raw" from the "cooked". Even though we are often aware of the ways in which this worldview is incomplete or misleading, we still fall into fallacies based on this perspective. The word "environment" has long had connotations of "nature", in opposition to "culture". While we now discuss "urban environments", and we recognize that "environmental influences" includes more than climate and vegetation regimes, the binary thinking is still present, unless very explicitly combated.

"Landscape", on the other hand, includes connotations of the embeddedness of people within their physical and social world, and the on-going dialectic between people and their surroundings, just as classic landscape paintings included "natural" and "cultural" elements, if only because the painter's eye brought the image to canvas and interpreted it for the audience. "Landscapes" can be heavily anthropic, or lightly modified; they can be vast or minute; they can be imbued with symbolism or meaningless backdrops to daily life. As such, I argue, they represent a more significant and useful analytical tool than environments.

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*I tried it. It was easy. I now consider myself an historical ecologist (but not just for that reason!)

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