Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Category: reading list (page 1 of 4)

NOLA book serendipity

Three books from my AAG trip to New Orleans

Three books from my AAG trip to New Orleans

Bookshelf serendipity strikes again! I can’t resist telling this story, though it was awhile ago. Appropriate to the geography conference I was in town to attend, I bought a compelling atlas of New Orleans by Rebeccas Solnit and Snedeker, Unfathomable City, part of a series at UC Press, at a small bookstore behind the Cabildo. Each map and essay tells an idiosyncratic story about the place, including human and river channel migrations, social and landscape erosions, including social clubs, seafood and sex. While excellent, it wasn’t an easy one to tote in my bag for idle moments.

The ‘take a book, leave a book’ shelf at my hotel filled the gap with But What if We’re Wrong, by pop seer Chuck Klosterman (sorry Columns Hotel, I’ll leave one next time). Klosterman is talking about the same thing that I was at AAG to talk about: climax thinking. He asks how we can learn to make decisions anticipating the many ways that we might be wrong, so we don’t box ourselves in. Instead we denigrate the people who made decisions or assessments we reflect upon today as folly, but assume against evidence that we’re going to be right. There is something to be said about doubt.

Having finished both of the above, I needed another book for the flight home. During a layover in Toronto airport I bought Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowicz. He is a computer scientist who thinks data mining has replaced social science, so a few sections (particularly the conclusion) grated, but this was a fun (and surprisingly dirty) introduction to how secondary online datasets like our Google queries help us learn what people are really thinking and feeling. I have since brought up his examples in a few social science contexts, like the energy incubator at Cornell. I’m loathe to hand it to students, given some of the icky content (people are, it turns out, gross), but as survey response rates drop, offensiphobia rules, and questions around sustainability cross the sociology/psychology boundary, such datasets may well be the only way we can really understand what kind of society we are really working with.

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.

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