Cultural Landscapes: More than Visual Assets

In a sharing circle about cultural landscapes, an indigenous woman from a Californian tribe spoke up. When pressed about her thoughts about cultural landscapes as discussed during the George Wright Society conference, she reminded the group that westerners mostly conceive landscapes as something that is visual, while other cultures do not.

"Cole Thomas Landscape 1825" by Thomas Cole - The Athenaeum,. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Cole Thomas Landscape 1825” by Thomas ColeThe Athenaeum,. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She’s right. Think about how obsessed we are with capturing panoramic views in pictures so that we can prove that we were there and share these experiences with others. I recall from my art history classes the nineteenth-century artists who intersected Romanticism and landscape painting to convey scenes that were picturesque or sublime. Then, there was Ansel Adams who doggedly photographed some of America’s most iconic national parks in black and white. His personal concern for nature and wilderness prompted him to use his photos to further the environmental cause and advocate for these places.

"Adams The Tetons and the Snake River" by Ansel Adams - (hi-res)This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 519904.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.English | Español | Français | Italiano | Македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | Polski | Português | Русский | Slovenščina | Türkçe | Tiếng Việt | 中文(简体) | 中文(繁體) | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Adams The Tetons and the Snake River” by Ansel AdamsThis media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 519904Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Landscape photography has increasingly become more democratic as technology has evolved. I have a function on my iPhone where even I can take a panoramic photo, which I did the other week at the Golden Gate bridge.

The woman in the sharing circle told us that in her culture, landscape is something that is experienced through all the senses. It is feeling your feet in the bare earth and knowing that connection to the land.

Image from


I started thinking about other sensory experiences when I’m in a landscape. I think about summer days on the Cacapon River when I’m in the water and can feel the gently tug of the water as it moves downstream, the fish nibbling my legs, and the smooth rocks under my feet. I also know what that place looks and feels like in all the seasons, not just summer.

Kayaking on the Cacapon

Kayaking on the Cacapon

Her point and others made in the sharing circle raises the question if the term “cultural landscape” is inadequate or even too limiting. Having the word “cultural” in the title already denotes a difference between the natural environment—a bifurcation cultural landscape studies tries to unify. The word “landscape” also places an emphasis on the visual assets of a place rather than other sensory perceptions. What might be a suitable replacement for the term cultural landscape?

One possible idea I had came from a session on climate change. Climate scientists have released a report with the title, “Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the Twenty-first Century.” Could we borrow the phrase “Humanity’s Life Support System” somehow? But again, this sounds a bit too science-y and keeping the word “cultural” in “cultural landscape” remains appealing. Going back to indigenous conceptions of cultural landscape—they have none. I have heard a number of indigenous people express that this is something not in their language.

Maybe we can leave it to something as simple as “Place Keeping.” To me, “place” is something that is distinct and pulls at you in unexpected ways. “Place” is neither natural nor cultural, rural nor urban. Place can be large or small. Furthermore, a place isn’t just visually distinctive, but often embraces other tangible and intangible assets and values. I like the term “keeping” over “preservation,” because it recognizes that these places are still dynamic and subject to change. It also acknowledges that as human beings we are only around for a short time so let’s try to protect the important qualities that make a place special so that we may pass them along to future generations. Whether or not these generations will find the same value that we have in these places is up to them.

As a scholar and a former resource manager, I question if “place keeping” is a serious enough term to convey the necessities of vigorous study or legal protection. “Cultural landscape” sounds serious and important and something we should be doing. “Place keeping” sounds ambiguous, and gray areas are not welcome in management. I’m sure that cultural landscape once sounded strange on the tongue, so maybe with time “place keeping” or a better phrase will become more familiar and accepted in both academia and in management, but won’t be off-putting to the public. I will stick with cultural landscapes for the time being, but let’s keep experimenting with new terms to see what “feels right” and try to be more mindful that landscapes are more than just visual assets.

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1 Response to Cultural Landscapes: More than Visual Assets

  1. David sirna, sr says:

    How about cultural ecology. I always thought that not considering the human impact as a natural part of ecosystem was incorrect. Just today for example I was in Pocahontas Co, WV so I stopped at a small conscience store and inquired about buying ramps. A man stepped up and said follow me and I will sell you some. This guy was just what you would expect a ramp digger, Sanger, hunter, fisherman and shroom hunter would look like. Dressed for the elements,gaunt, ruddy completion sure of himself and to the point with few words. Now to me he is part of the Pocahontas landscape and diffently part of both the cultural and ecological landscape.

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