Understanding the Cultural Landscape

Understanding the Cultural Landscape

Understanding the Cultural Landscape

Understanding the Cultural Landscape


This compelling book offers a fresh perspective on how the natural world has been imagined, built on, and transformed by human beings throughout history and around the globe. Coverage ranges from the earliest societies to preindustrial China and India, from the emergence in Europe of the modern world to the contemporary global economy. The focus is on what the places we have created say about us: our belief systems and the ways we make a living. Also explored are the social and environmental consequences of human activities, and how conflicts over the meaning of progress are reflected in today's urban, rural, and suburban landscapes. Written in a highly engaging style, this ideal undergraduate-level human geography text is illustrated with over 25 maps and 70 photographs.

Note: Many additional photographs related to the themes addressed in the book, and a link to updates keyed to each chapter, are available at the author's website (www.greatmirror.com.)


Geography is a strange subject. You may think you know what it's about, but stick around.

To begin with, geography is primitive. It starts with every child looking around and making sense of the world. What's this? What's that? Why is it this way? Why here? Even when an adult takes it up, geography remains terminally childish. How do a dozen farmers in India share the water that runs periodically in the tiny ditch that irrigates their fields? Why do suburban streets in America curve? Why, wherever you look, are old airport terminals painted the same color?

Primitive, geographers begin and end with tangibles. This makes them a disgrace to the sophisticated branches of learning, which grapple first and last with intangibles: the historian's documents, the chemist's formulas, the mathematician's equations. Pity the object-driven geographer. Muddy boots never won anybody a Nobel.

And that's not all. Geographers are magpies. Even when they limit themselves to the cultural landscape, by which I mean the elements of landscape created by people, geographers trespass over a multitude of well-groomed disciplinary turfs. The Eskimo belong to anthropology, but human geographers are interested in them because the Eskimo are outside that mental window that geographers—all of us, really—have on the world. The Great Pyramids of Giza belong to history, but they're also in human geography because those stone-block mountains are outside that window. Fast-food restaurants are a topic for business school analysis, but they're in human geography, and you know why.

Look at a map legend. There are symbols for natural features: rivers, mountains, deserts, swamps. Call them the stuff of physical geography. Then there are symbols for cultural features: boundaries, roads, buildings, parks, monuments. They're the stuff of human geography. Look out an airplane window on a clear day and you see the same division. Natural features slide by: Niagara, the Grand Canyon, Cape Comorin at the southern tip of India. Overlaying them are the cultural ones: bridges, roads, villages, cities. Fly over the American West on a good day and with a good seat, and you can hardly miss the overlay of the cultural landscape atop the natural one. The High Plains are an immense natural table set with cultural center-pivot irrigation systems, neatly gridded towns, and lonely roads. It passes so slowly that it seems inconceivable you're going 500 miles an hour.

So much to look at, whether you're a physical or a human geographer. And you likely suffered at the hands of an embittered physical education teacher who was forced to teach geography on the side. Thanks to him, you habitually associate this grandly primitive, tactile, unrestricted inquiry with the dumb memorization of state capitals. Not likely.

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