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Mapping the Cultural Landscape

A visit with Soren Larsen, Assistant Professor, Geography

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: geography environment GIS human geography floods

Going far beyond maps, as one might presume, “Geography is the study of human-environment interactions,” explains Soren Larsen, Assistant Professor of Geography at MU. The discipline as a whole covers activity ranging from physical geography (e.g., wind erosion and weather patterns), techniques (e.g., modeling air pollution with GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, to understand the interactions between humans and the environment), and something called human geography, a subfield that focuses on the political, economic, cultural, urban, and regional elements of human-environment interactions. Human geographers cast their eyes on “the impact of the environment on human behavior,” as well as “the impact of human activity on the environment.” Within human geography Larsen specializes in cultural geography. While traditionally that may have entailed mapping the distribution of various cultural traits to track changes over space and time, cultural geography today is much more process-focused, drawing heavily upon the methodologies and theories of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and philosophy.

Many of Larsen’s past research projects have been ethnographic in nature. One involved sharecroppers in the Tennessee River Valley who had been relocated by a TVA flood-control dam. Through interviews, Larsen sought to reconstruct the residents’ sense of place by learning about their place-naming practices, such as naming the hollows to establish familial claims along the river. A much larger project likewise involved looking at the cultural impact of flood control and hydroelectric projects, this time with the Cheslatta-Carrier Nation, “a small Indian band [equivalent to a tribe in the U.S.] in British Columbia, Canada, that had been relocated from its traditional lands in 1952 in order to make way for a hydroelectric project that was being constructed by the Aluminum Company of Canada.” To gather data via participant observation, Larsen drove up to northern B.C. and lived with the Nation on the reserves: “I slowly got involved with this band and I kept coming back.” In doing so, Larsen slowly began to understand the group’s traditional land use practices before the government flooded their land, forcing them out. “It was just fascinating listening to the elders talk about how they used the land…and the values that they attached to the land, and the ways that they named places, and so on, he reflects. “It was a wonderful opportunity for me to understand aboriginal relationships to the landscape.”

Over the course of the years, Larsen has worked on a variety of individual projects, creating a place-name lexicon that describes what the names mean and in what context they are employed, doing land-use and occupancy mapping where elders marked on a topographical map the areas they used prior to 1952, as well as what resources and sacred sites existed there prior to the flooding. The theme that runs like a river through his research is his interest in identity, relationships with place, and sense of place. “Overall, I’m interested in the human-environment interactions involving this Indian group as their circumstances changed quite radically,” he summarizes. Recently, with more job opportunities coming into the area, he has been watching how these relationships are changing.

In this connection he recounts the following example of traditional territorial practice: “One of the things I discovered working with the elders, which really goes right to the heart of the matter, is that they did not have maps of their territories, private property rights, or a written code of property law. Instead, they had this real elaborate system of developing, communicating, and enforcing territorial right that was oral. And one of the ways that this was achieved was through place-naming, usually related to some sort of event of which the family had first-hand knowledge.” Hence, while these names were subject to change, “they testify to their use and occupancy of that landscape,” showing therefore “that that family had been there, knew the landscape, and was using and occupying it, and in so doing, they were communicating this to other members of the group and outside of the group. So it’s a real dynamic, flexible system. These territories were always in flux. If you were to map them out spatially, as geographers like to do, they were in flux.”

As he explains further, “this information can be used in Canadian courts when they’re trying to establish ‘use and occupancy’ for the purposes of settling a treaty. You have to show you were there, that you were using the resources, and to what extent.” Interestingly, Larsen recalls, “When I asked the elders my first year up there to draw out the areas that were their family territories, I put a topographic map down with a sheet of clear Mylar film on top. I gave them some markers, asking them to use different colors to indicate where they would generally go to gather berries, trap fur, hold sacred sites, and so forth. Then with the black marker, they were to draw their family’s territory, and they’d just look at me, and say, ‘We can’t put a line around it because there were no lines.’ It was really instructive for me to see the western cartographic tradition coming head-to-head with this indigenous way of knowing place. And the two were not quite meeting!” Of course, “the whole challenge in the courts is to have them meet, because the court wants maps, documents.” The fact that the government of British Columbia had not signed treaties with the Indian nations is now allowing some Indian groups to negotiate treaties over surface and subsurface rights. “The trick,” he observes, “is how to use maps and GIS to take this indigenous knowledge and present it in a way that is intelligible to a western audience but does not sacrifice the integrity of the indigenous knowledge at the same time.” He has learned that there are no easy answers to this dilemma.

Larsen’s newest project is located just north of Canyon City, Colorado, at a field school facility run by the Geography department at the University of Kansas. Nestled in the mountains with a view of Pike’s Peak, the field school—known as Garden Park—overlooks these valleys that were until recently engaged in large-scale ranching, as well as some small-scale gardening and orcharding operations to support the mines. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Garden Park used to provide vegetables to the Cripple Creek mine. “Now, as you probably can guess, that land is worth much more on the real estate market,” Larsen says, and the old ranches have been subdivided into relatively large parcels (~ 35 acres) to take advantage of a Colorado state law that exempts property of that size (or larger) from county regulations. “As a student I was watching it happen right before my eyes…the ranchers moving out of the valley or dying of old age,” he remembers. And without children interested in continuing a ranching lifestyle, landowners began selling their ranches to people who “want to have these ranchettes, they want to have their 40 acres, they want to have a few cows and a horse and that type of thing.” This dynamic has created a sort of residential-rural sprawl. The question of interest to Larsen, the cultural geographer, is the impact of this change from ranches to ranchettes: “What’s the landscape going to look like in terms of vegetation cover, in terms of erosion rates, in terms of the cultural landscape?”

During the summers of 2005 and 2006, with the help of graduate students from the University of Kansas, Larsen and his team interviewed the residents of this “ex-urban” area “on the fringe, where residential development interfaces with wildlife,” in order to learn why they moved there as well as how they plan to use their land and build their houses. As he explains, “what we started to really hone in on was that these ex-urban residents actually knew very little about the dangers, the environmental limitations, and issues that they were going to face”—from wildfire, bears, and rattlesnakes to how to deal with erosion and localized rain events that turn suddenly into flooding. “They were coming from Dallas, from Chicago, from San Francisco. They knew very little about these things,” says Larsen. “So they were engaged in a process of learning about the environment and sharing this information with other people; and we want to know…how that process of sharing environmental knowledge is going to impact the landscape that we see, say, 50-150 years from now.” While sharing information with one’s friends and neighbors may produce a minimal impact, people who mobilize “could transform an entire 1500-acre subdivision or a 2000-acre collection of hobby farms along proscribed ‘folk’ traditions.” Because the geography field school sits in one of these valleys, the team enjoys sustained access to the area and can continue to be involved in participant observation, a situation that provides insight into how the residents learn so that they can “chart the effects of that learning on the ground.”