Monday, October 19, 2009

Landscapes: the real, the imagined, the digital

My high school Drama teacher once asked our class to describe our favourite place in the world. The technicalities of where it was or how you got there were to be avoided; she wanted us to give a feeling of the place itself. It wasn't easy. In describing my favourite place, a region called Go Home Bay in Southeastern Georgian Bay, I struggled to find words that would help others to understand why I loved it so much. I talked about how, to quote my mother, the place was "the Atlantic one day and the Greek islands the next". About the rocks, sloping and jagged pink and black formed by lava and glaciers.

But connecting with a landscape involves more than just visuals. Yes I love the rocks that retain the heat of the sun long after it has set, but would I love them as much had I not lain against them at night with my sisters and cousins? In my Drama class most of the students mentioned family as being a crucial feature of their favourite places. Landscapes are shaped by people and memories, even those that aren't our own. My family cottage has stood in the same location since the 1930s and while I've only lived through the last twenty-odd years of its history I've inherited memories that shape how I view the place. They kind of have a mythic quality, like the romance of the cold room, delicate china plates and curling nautical maps.

David Glassberg writes of the interaction between nature and culture in his article "Interpreting Landscapes" and how past generations affect the meaning of place (23). "Landscapes are not simply an arrangement of natural features, they are a language through which humans communicate with one another" (29). Communication, I think, is key in our understanding of landscapes, and in particular, how we claim ownership over them.

During my undergrad degree I took a course on the development of the Atlantic World and wrote a paper on British perceptions of the New World and how they claimed sovereignty over North American territory. Through mythic propaganda, including claims that King Arthur had already discovered it before (yeah, that surprised me too) and through careful use of maps and renaming places after British locations, ownership, in the European mindset, was established over the land.

In this example we can see both the cultural and natural elements that Glassberg speaks of. By painting flags and drawing maps that included ships and other symbols of British authority the imperial forces "staked their claim." But that, of course, was the European way of looking at land and it's clear that the Native Peoples of Canada had and continue to have a very different perspective of landscape and ownership. How can you own something that is used and shared by so many people? Land that changes from season to season in terms of its resources and climate? A place that is the "Atlantic" one season and the "Greek Islands" the next?

I'm not sure if you can. Though I call that little section of territory on Georgian Bay "mine" I know that before my great-grandfather bought the property there was another owner before him who purchased the land from the local Native population, a people whose history is largely unknown but is certainly as fluid and diverse as what followed it. Elizabeth Renzetti commented in her blog The London Eye that the city of London is a palimpsest, and I think that description is true of all landscapes. Public Historians can help to bridge the often controversial line between physical ownership and cultural ownership. Though the government or an individual may own the physical property we can still flesh out the meaning that lies within that land; that has existed there for centuries and that continues to shape the way that land is appreciated and used. As Glassberg says we are not only protecting the physical heritage but the less tangible rights to it; the right of association and memory that shapes the interaction between humans and our environment. To "help [people] to ordinarily see what cannot be seen" (33).

Is the internet a landscape? We have giants like Google and Amazon that own more "property" than others, but there is still a lot of traffic on the sites and individuals use their resources to profoundly shape their own experiences. We describe the internet as a physical place: pages and documents, sites and visitors. What is owned and what is free use is becoming increasingly difficult to determine as the internet challenges traditional copyright laws. Why do we need ownership? Does it give us a sense of security, just as ownership of land gives us security? The landscape of the internet is fluid and public and yet companies are setting restrictions on materials that others argue should be open to all.

On her blog The Wild Surmise Sue Thomas asks, "If the internet were a landscape, what kind of landscape would it be?" The responses include a jungle, the underwater world, the universe. One visitor, Martine, writes, "Boxes upon boxes, behind boxes, boxes within boxes. Boxes connected by silvery spider webs(unsticky)." Naturally, I had to quote that last comment.

Another visitor,
Paul B. Hartzog, says that "the landscape of the internet IS the landscape of the world. We return to being connected, to being landscape-literate. But this time around, instead of one landscape, we exist in many landscapes simultaneously". Perhaps we have always lived in many landscapes simultaneously, but the internet helps us to see the multiple levels of experience more clearly. Public Historians can help to chart the way through this new era of exploration and discovery so that we may protect the meaning and integrity of historical sources online. Everyone is an author and a creator within the landscape of the web. Here there is possibility for a truly public forum connecting past and present without the restrictions of ownership that have become a necessity on the face of our physical world.

Sources: Glassberg, David. "Interpreting Landscapes." Public History and the Environment. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino. Florida: Krieger, 2004, 23-36.


  1. Was that with Prof. Jainchill? I loved that class. The year I took it it was called European Expansion into the Atlantic, and the year after Jainchill changed it to The Atlantic World.

  2. Same course but a different prof.- still a great course though. I think Jainchill was on sabbatical because he came back the year after.