Mapping Nature Across the Americas: Institute Description

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 the physical world.

Four decades of scholarship have revealed that maps were critical to the way in which transatlantic cultures imagined the Americas, from the first Euro-American contact. Maps and views mediated the contest for empire and the emergence of new national identities. Geographical imagery 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 and the environment. Later modern landscape art, topographical drawing, tourist mapping, and commercial cartography shaped imagination of America’s landscapes and promoted their settlement, development, exploitation, 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 in the Americas has rarely—if ever—been addressed as we hope to do in Mapping Nature across the Americas.

In bringing together environmental history and the history of cartography, this institute will illuminate their essential relationship, broadening participating summer scholars’ understanding of how maps and depictions of nature shaped and were shaped by the diverse cultural and historical contexts. The Pan-American approach will support examination of this relationship across a broad of range of environments and historical circumstances, whose study are well-supported by the Newberry’s collection, allowing participants of varying geographical and historical specialties to share and broaden their knowledge.

Environmental history explores the important role played by the environment throughout human history. Environmental historians have abandoned stark divisions between nature and society, instead describing hybrid worlds that embody the complex interactions of cultural processes with those of nonhuman nature. 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 led human 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 the cultural concepts, and embedded in the maps used to describe them, reflecting the values and assumptions of different communities in various locations over time.

Against this conceptual backdrop, our institute will take a long view of the interplay between mapping and the human-nature relationship over a span of five hundred years, exploring how they co-exist in specific works and contexts to shape ideas about space, landscape, natural history, ethnography, economic exploitation, and politics. The institute will stretch comfortable disciplinary boundaries, introducing participants to perspectives they seldom encounter in professional gatherings or within the confines of their own academic departments. At the same time, our concentration on the Americas sharpens the Institute’s geographic focus 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.

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