Four decades of scholarship have revealed that maps were critical to the way in which transatlantic cultures imagined the Americas. Maps and views mediated the contest for empire and the emergence of new national identities and shaped evolving European ideas about American geography and natural resources, its landscape, and the nature of its people. These images registered encounters between radically different forms of topographic and historical representation and ways of understanding space. Later modern landscape art, topographical drawing, tourist mapping, and commercial cartography shaped imagination of America’s landscapes and promoted their settlement, development, and consumption. Yet, despite a rich literature on these and related subjects, and despite the common understanding that maps are tools that facilitate human interaction with the environment, the working relationship between maps and environmental knowledge is a relatively new field of study.
Environmental history is the study of the role of nature in the human past. It explains how nature has shaped human life and, in turn, how humans have shaped environments in which they lived. Though emphasizing a historical perspective, environmental historians come from a variety of academic disciplines, including social, intellectual, and political history; geography, art history, anthropology, and ethnology; philosophy, religious studies, and the social and physical sciences. Environmental history has broad ties to ecological and environmental studies, but expands upon and complements the work and methods of natural scientists by deploying the insights and methods of history and other humanities fields. It opens the door to a rich and multifaceted examination of the historical relationship between human society and its environment—in much the same way that historical study of mapping offers insights into the ways that humans perceive, interact with, and construct the world around them. Environmental history rejects the once conventional assumption that human experience is exempt from natural constraints; it also considers how “nature” itself is a human construction. The concept of nature embodies a long and complicated history which has ledhuman beings to conceive of the material world in very different ways. Mapping Nature across the Americas will consider how the objects, creatures, and landscapes that humans label as “natural” are intertwined with cultural concepts, and embedded in the maps used to describe them, reflecting the values and assumptions of different communities in various locations over time.
One of the most significant and persistent ways in which humans have expressed their constructions of nature and communicated them to others is through maps. Maps express spatial relations, but also convey knowledge of the material world in which people work and live. Maps represent the human-nature relationship on multiple scales and modes of expression, including the measured and geometric, the analytic, and the narrative and pictorial. As documents they illuminate ideas about nature, but they also are literally “down to earth,” plotting and describing the concrete referents of human ideas about nature in thephysical world (Figure 5). Environmental history and environmental studies utilize a wide variety of resources, including those from natural history, data on climatic and geological changes, and plant and animal life. However, this scholarship does not usually analyze maps as complex texts—as this seminar will—but instead utilizes them to provide geographical context for other sources rather than as carriers of ideas about nature and as participants in the human history of the environment.
Reading maps usually relies on a few concepts and conventions that most of us absorb early in our education. The presumption is that our comprehension of the meaning of a simple set of signs and notions of scale and map orientation are sufficient for a lifetime of effective map use. Throughout their education children are taught to write and to read cumulatively and with increasing complexity. Sound secondary school pedagogy builds on elementary skills by stressing the critical reading of the ideas and points-of-view underlying fictional and historical texts and the elucidation of the social, cultural, and historical contexts that produced these works. In most curricula, however, maps are treated as mere illustrations of geographical facts, references, and locational tools. While reinforcement of basic map reading skills should occur at all grade levels, a true facility with maps, both as historical sources and as tools of everyday life, also requires the development of the critical cartographic literacy these seminar will promote. Over the last three decades, the use of historical maps in classroom settings has benefited significantly as art historians, anthropologists, and literary scholars have begun to appreciate maps as cultural artifacts. The expanded online presence of teaching resources utilizing historical mapping has reflected these broadening perspectives, but issues related to environmental history have been poorly served by these resources.Concentrating on the Americas sharpens the geographic focus of the seminar while still allowing participants to garner a greater comprehension of how peoples with diverse histories developed distinctive traditions in their encounters with and mapping of nature. The chronological scope of the seminar emphasizes the historical variations in of environmental and cartographic knowledge. The breadth of the Newberry’s collection not only accommodates this, but also allows the seminar to take a long view of the interplay between mapping and the human-nature relationship, exploring how they co-exist in specific works and contexts to shape ideas about space, landscape, natural history, ethnography, economic exploitation, and politics. The hemispheric and broadly historical approach should be especially accommodating to the needs of teachers who serve an increasingly diverse cohort of students, in a wide variety of environmental and social contexts.
The seminar will be held virtually July 12-August 6, 2021. Though participants will be working remotely, the library and its collections will be integral parts of its design, which emphasizes extensive virtual workshops with historical maps and other documents and remote research projects assisted by digital resources.
On most mornings, seminar participants will attend two-hour virtual study and discussion sessions led by the co-directors focusing on readings and virtual workshops.
Participants will meet during the first week with the co-directors to identify and develop their research or curricular projects and during the subsequent weeks will confer with each other and guest faculty during informal brown bag lunches and early afternoon office hours. There will be opportunities as well to meet informally with other Newberry curators, archivists, librarians, and visiting scholars to enhance the use of the collection and develop their program of research.
A Preliminary Syllabus of Mapping Nature Across the Americas may be found here: Mapping Nature 2021, Syllabus
For a description of past NEH Seminars, see the NEH Summer Programs page.
Summer programs at the Newberry offer summer scholars superb opportunities to renew and develop scholarly interests and skills through access to the collections, online resources, and expertise of a premier research library. Accordingly, each participant will pursue a research project during the seminar. Although the projects may be continuations of work already begun and need not be completed during the seminar, we will ask each participant to prepare a brief report, including a bibliography. Use of Newberry Library items in their research will be expected, and meetings with library staff strongly encouraged, but we will also encourage participants to use online resources. The creation of web resources resulting from individual research projects will be welcomed.
These projects may develop new teaching materials or courses, promote the summer scholar’s growth as a scholar and teacher, or both. In the opening days of the seminar, participants will meet (virtually) individually with Akerman and Brosnan to discuss their projects and possible resources that will support their research. The co-directors will be available for regular office hours each afternoon.