Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Category: reading list (page 1 of 4)

The Cultivated Wilderness (1997)

Architect Paul Shepheard's (1997) volume, The Cultivated Wilderness.

Architect Paul Shepheard’s (1997) volume, The Cultivated Wilderness.

I was in Fredericton over Easter, for the usual egg-related festivities, and got a little time with my partner in its endless second-hand bookstore, Owl’s Nest. On and on we hunted, picking things up and putting them down. I had Feyerabend in my hand for awhile, and decided I’d never read it. Finally, way upstairs in a corner on natural history I found architect Paul Shepheard‘s (1997) volume The Cultivated Wilderness. Or, What is Landscape? I was not familiar with his name, but the title suggested it might be useful for my new project on climax landscape thinking. Another serendipitous discovery.

Shepheard writes conversationally but with great insight, and thankfully little tragedy, about “the ways in which we humans tussle with the wilderness and change it to suit ourselves” (p. 1).  Like many scholars he sees all landscapes as ‘cultivated’ to greater or lesser degress: as reviewer Christine Bucher observed, even the natural largely survives today “because of zoning, government regulation, and temporary and benign neglect”.

Unapologetically utilitarian, Shepheard reminds us that it is “easy to forget how beautiful utility can be” (p. 127). He reads in landscape – and describes for us –  a patchwork of shifting strategies at large scales: e.g. survival, reason, defense, economic exploitation, restoration. His epilogue is worth quoting at length (p. 233):

Cultivation—the work of humans—has a different sort of beauty [than Wilderness]. There is nothing else under the sun than what there has always been. Cultivation is the human reordering of the material of the wilderness. If it is successful, the beauty of it lies in the warmth of your empathy for another human’s effort.

Landscape is a huge subject, as big as the earth and its atmosphere and reaching out to the edge of the universe. The big moves in landscape happen very rarely. You will be lucky to see one during your lifetime and even luckier to be in the right place at the right time to be involved in the making of it. Incremental changes happen all the time, however. They gradually accrue to big changes in what there is in the world, and whatever you are up to, you will be involved in these already. My epilogue is: be aware of the strategy that governs what you do.

The Politics of Scale (2017)

A great primer on rangeland science as well as scientific hubris more generally.

A great primer on rangeland science as well as scientific hubris more generally.

I had a sunny lunchtime meeting with Nathan Sayre when I was in Berkeley a few weeks ago, and ordered his new book as soon as I got back. While I regularly devour fiction within days, rarely do I do it with non-fiction, which can be more of a plod with pencil in hand. But Sayre’s volume was a good read, as well as being a book that I needed to read. I have stumbled somewhat into rangeland research, through my post-doc in Australia, and now my new research on livestock grazing, including fieldwork in the Falklands. But I don’t have a rangelands background. Sayre’s book thus played a remedial role for me, as well as placing some of the scientific chauvinism that I have experienced in a broader context.

Ever the geographer (Sayre leads the UC Berkeley Department of Geography), the recurring theme is one of scale, including the poor fit between the scale of rangeland science (i.e. experimental plots and fields) and the scale of rangeland management. Moreover, however, he brings a critical perspective to unexamined assumptions and justifications in the study and administration of rangelands: governance can drive management priorities of land (e.g. overgrazing is great for fire control); that no commons can be sustainable; that equilibrium is inexorable and singular; or, that fences are better than shepherds. Sayre also illustrates the hubris of ‘command and control’ approaches to landscape, such as species eradication.

Allan Savory gets perhaps surprisingly little attention, but what is given is insightful. Sayre contrasts the grassroots though fringe popularity of Savory’s holistic management, which proceeds despite the alarm of range scientists, with the forceful, colonial and paternalistic division of rangelands in places like Africa (that  can lead to violence e.g. when drought pushes former pastoralists against imposed fencelines):

Holistic management’s popularity raises the possibility that a scientifically flawed theory–if willingly embraced rather than imposed–may in some cases induce improvements in range management for reasons that cannot be–or at least have not yet been–reducible to controlled experimental testing (p. 208, italics in original)

Sightlines (2012)

My softcover edition of Sightlines (2012) looks like this.

While my first Kathleen Jamie experience, Findings (2005), came serendipitously while browsing the Halifax Central Library, my second was bought for me for Christmas by someone who knows me well. Dedicated “for the Island-goers” this spoke directly to me, fresh from the Falklands. Jamie is also a poet, and it is with such carefully chosen yet spare and modest language that she tackles these essays that work the vein between human and nature. Several concern remote islands and outcrops like St. Kilda and Rona, with historic human occupation that speaks of human ingenuity and fortitude, and where novel landscapes persist as a result. A favourite one conveys the zen experience of the Hvalsalen, the ‘whale hall’ in the Bergen Museum, its history and its renovation, which is recalled later in a meditation on the use of whalebone as memorial and in craft. One called ‘pathologies’ explores the human body as a habitat, for bacteria among other challenging organisms, inspired by our tendency to be selective about what we consider nature worth saving, or worthy of our awe. Yet another talks about Jamie’s experiences as a young archaeologist, excavating to ‘save’ history from development while erasing it. These are some of my favourites essays in this collection, which also have others focusing on natural phenomena like orca, aurora and seabirds. My preferences are not surprising given my interest in things social: after all, when presented with colonies of rockhopper penguins and black-browed albatrosses on West Falkland, I asked, “Can we go back and watch the shearing?”.  Jamie needs to go next to the Falklands, given her fascination for remote islands, wind, and the  history of human industry including whaling and agriculture. I think I’ll write and tell her.

Black-browed albatrosses patrol the rockhopper penguins, guarding their eggs, on a cliff at Dunbar, West Falkland.

A black-browed albatross patrols the rockhopper penguins, who are guarding their eggs, on a cliff at Dunbar, West Falkland.

2016 in review

Everyone else is padding out holiday media with year-end lists, and so shall I.

The best landscape-related books I read in 2016:

  1. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss (2003)
  2. Kathleen Jamie, Findings (2005)
  3. Ronald Blythe, Akenfield (1969)
  4. Jonathan Raban, Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990) – somehow I neglected to blog this one
  5. Graham Swift, Waterland (1983)
  6. Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley (2016)
  7. Alexandra Harris, Weatherland (2016)

My most popular posts of the year were those focussed on the Mactaquac decision and process:

  1. Mactaquac commentary abounds, June 17
  2. Mactaquac bathymetry, Oct 7
  3. Open and transparent? May 27
  4. CCUEN conference, May 13 (someone must have tweeted this one)
  5. Mactaquac recommendations, May 28 (tho not officially a blog post)

My favourite yet most underappreciated post (IMHO) was When to call a social scientist (or how to fool one), Sept 20

My favourite scholarly experiences of the year:

  1. Falkland Islands fieldwork (blogged here, here, and here)
  2. World Congress on Silvo-Pastoral Systems in Evora, Portugal (blogged here and here)
  3. International Symposium for Society and Resource Management, Michigan (blogged here, here, and here)
  4. Yan Chen’s thesis defense (blogged here) and spinoff thinking and new collaborations around Culturomics (starting here)
  5. Engaging in the Mactaquac process through papers (blogged here and here), storymap coverage (here), and commentary (see popular posts above, as well as here, here, here, and here)

Here’s to a fun and productive 2017.

Weatherland (2015)

My softcover edition of Alexandra Harris' Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies

My softcover edition of Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies

Becalmed in Heathrow after a cancelled flight returning from Portugal this fall, I picked up Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland (2015) to ease the wait. Last night I finished it. Why so long? Well, it was a busy time, and I dipped in and out between work travel and renovations. Frankly, at times like that, nothing other than fiction gets more than a page read at bedtime before oblivion. But I also savoured it. This is not a book to be rushed. It’s a beautifully written liberal arts education in paperback.

Harris goes back centuries to track the influence of weather and seasonal cycles on art and literature, and in doing so, tracks changes in awareness as well as public preferences fads in scenery. For instance she records Robert Burton’s observation in the early 1600s, in Anatomy of Melancholy, how “thick, cloudy, misty, foggy air or such as comes from fens, moorish grounds, lakes and muckhills” (p. 120) uniformly lower spirits. (Rod Giblett would say not much has changed in public perceptions of wetlands.)

Later, in the 1700s, the English idealize the Italian landscape, and painters like Richard Wilson tried to capture those moments when the English light matched that of the Mediterranean, like the paintings of Claude Lorrain from the previous century. I loved Harris’ description of the ‘Claude glass’ which was a small mirror carried to help late 18th century tourists get the painterly effect on a dreary day. Comically, users turned their back on the landscape and viewed it in reflection, the light changing toward the sublime thanks to the mirror backing. We cannot look back in anything like superiority given the popularity of the selfie stick.

Fast-forward a hundred years to the Victorian tourist for whom the fad was not light but shade, and public ferneries and the miniature, dappled, dripping landscapes they foster. I can relate. This attention to small scale makes me think of Macfarlane’s revelation in The Wild Places, as well one of my favourite quotes about Sable Island, in the Introduction of McLaren’s 1981 Birds of Sable Island:

A much travelled colleague has remarked that he has been in places more beautiful than Sable Island, but has seen more beauty there than anywhere else. The expansive seascapes and dunescapes, magnificent yet ‘dreary’ to some 19th century writers, soon force one’s attention to the smaller scale.

Harris moves forward to the poetry of Ted Hughes in the 20th century, for a distinct lack of the romantic in weather. Rather, life and death, as well as livelihood: of mending a tractor in the cold: “Hands are wounds already / Inside armour gloves” and “Between the weather and the rock / Farmers make a little heat”. She finishes in this century, as was inevitable, on climate change and how we should respond. There is little art and literature yet to draw upon here, but again scale is evoked (p. 386): “small alterations in familiar places can disturb us more than dystopian visions”. She invites us to savour and record now for remembering later: “certain plants in certain places, the light in the street after rain”, what she calls ‘intimate elegies’, reminding us that “in the sadness there is room for celebration.”

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