The Imagined Landscape
When it comes to land use, image is everything.
by Bob Thomas
Back in the 1840s, a small-town doctor in central Illinois penned a not-so-flattering description of his home turf. An "uninhabited waste," he called it. "A giant emporium of malaria."
Today that area, once known as the Grand Prairie, is an intensively developed agricultural landscape where farm after farm provides a harvest undreamed of by earlier generations.
This transformation didn't happen by accident, nor was it in any way inevitable, says Michael Urban, assistant professor of geography at MU. Grand Prairie became what it is today because people in the region saw beyond its pestilential beginning to a time when it would be orderly, fruitful farmland. And once they envisioned it, they found the technology, in Grand Prairie's case agricultural drainage know-how, to make it happen.
This phenomenon, in the parlance of geographers like Urban, is "anthropogenic landscape change." Understanding how it works, he says, is a key component in understanding how the world's increasingly crowded spaces will be used. Or, in some cases, abused.
"People's environmental perspectives drive their behavior," says Urban. "Do we value waterways as roads or as unique ecosystems? Is it right to dump chemicals into a stream? Are there social benefits to altering the landscape? How do you juggle these things? The answers to those questions ultimately drive public policy."
Urban's specialty is fluvial geomorphology, meaning he studies the effects of streams and rivers, along with the sediments they carry, on the Earth's landforms. Within this speciality Urban has made a name for himself by examining agricultural streams and ditches and their impact on intensely modified environments that many people don't consider natural at all.
Richard A. Marston, university distinguished professor and head of the Kansas State University geography department, calls Urban a "geographer with a capital G, by which I mean he is very good at bridging the physical and human sides of the discipline."
Urban looks at land use over time and how this relates to biological and physical changes in stream channels. It's something that others are doing in mountain landscapes, but not in agricultural landscapes, Marston says. "He attempts to separate human impact on streams from what would have occurred without human interference."
Urban is working to ensure that planners involved in these issues approach them with an appreciation of past "interferences." Hence his interest in agricultural drainage in the Midwestern prairies. His latest study, dealing with the Grand Prairie, appeared last summer in the Journal of Historical Geography.
Many physical geographers would not think of examining agricultural streams or ditches because they do not see them as natural, Urban says. This is a mistake because, as he puts it, man-made streams and ditches still function according to the laws of physics. The only difference is that they are intensively modified by people through either individual behavior or institutional behavior.
"It is disingenuous for environmental scientists to only examine natural systems or pristine systems or systems untouched by people. The systems that are most relevant to society are those impacted by people," Urban says. "If society values the exploitation of resources and landscapes, then there must be some sort of societal recognition that the consequences are long lasting."
Urban weaves his historical story in rich detail. In the early 19th century, the Grand Prairie, with its three-foot-tall grass and deep swamps, was seen as an uninviting, dangerous locale. Europeans had feared such places for centuries. "In medieval vision literature, hell is often portrayed as a frozen swamp," Urban writes. "English settlers in New England saw these landscapes as 'clearly sinister.' Settlers arriving in east central Illinois for the first time invoked many of these popular images to explain the awe-inspiring sight of the unbroken prairie."
In addition, Native Americans, mostly the Kickapoo tribe, hunted game and foraged for food across the Illinois prairie. Since Native Americans were often thought ungodly, white settlers considered native familiarity with the land as a sign that the prairie was evil as well.
Indeed, travel through the area was not for the "faint of heart." One early visitor, Samuel Burton, recounted how green-headed flies covered his horse's coat so completely that the unfortunate creature had to be "skinned with a knife" to remove the bloodthristy insects.
Over time, however, the lure of cheap land and the dawning realization that prairie soil was fertile changed earlier perceptions. This new point of view, in turn, opened the door to implementation of new drainage technologies. These physically altered landscape, reworking it to fit farmers' ideas about how productive farmland should look.
Now that the "giant emporium of malaria" has become "the breadbasket of the nation," residents have moved to permanently secure this new understanding of what the prairie should be by passing rules and laws, establishing drainage commissions and empowering environmental enforcement agencies. Nearly 90 percent of Illinois prairie wetlands have been drained. Nearly all the tall-grass prairies have been plowed under.
Parallel to his historical study, Urban conducted a survey study for the journal Society and Natural Resources in which Central Illinois farmers, landowners and district commissioners in the Upper Embarras River watershed were asked to describe how they viewed their effect on the land.
Urban found that farmers, surprisingly, consider themselves to be environmentalists or environmentally responsible. Of course, their idea of environmentalism, however, didn't always fit with that of environmental advocates who stress a hands-off approach to the landscape.
To the farmers, being "environmental" is not so much valuing a stable ecosystem, but rather valuing the productivity and sustainability of the soil, Urban says. "Without exception, farmers pointed to a tension ...between economic viability and their desire to act as good stewards of the land. This is misunderstood by the non-farm population and leads to farmers being vilified as environmentally insensitive."
Farmers in the study also expressed concern about a disconnect between them and the general public. Some farmers blamed the media for characterizing them as environmentally insensitive and not good stewards of the land, which is how they see themselves. Urban says they may have a point: "Many environmental issues can't be reduced to normative rights and wrongs that diminish the complexity of the issues. Too often the dialogue becomes reduced to rights and wrongs, where everything is always black and white."
One thing does seem certain: environmentalists and farmers see the landscape differently. In his study, Urban describes a unique "farming aesthetic" characterized by visual cues of order and neatness. Agricultural drainage is an important component of this aesthetic. Straight drainage ditches express an orderly aspect that helps define what farmers consider an efficient operation. Such ditches are also important in communicating these values to the rest of the farming community.
The farming aesthetic is reinforced by economic necessity. Every farmer interviewed, Urban says, said farms were becoming more orderly and businesslike. To survive, they felt they needed to bring more land into production. In other words, "Get big or get out."
Intensifying drainage systems is one popular strategy for increasing yields and decreasing the risk of crop loss. This usually means installing subsurface tile to speed the dissipation of spring rains, a practice that allows farmers to get crops planted and established before the summer weather turns hot and dry. It can also mean intensive usage of chemical inputs.
Nevertheless, Urban found that most farmers did acknowledge that environmental concerns were becoming more important. They understood too that, if the agricultural community did not learn to self-regulate chemical usage, farmers would probably be forced to deal with further government and industry regulations. "Adoption of conservation practices, in this sense, is not due to a high value placed on water quality and the integrity of the ecosystem," Urban says, "but rather on a farmer's independence."
William Graf, professor and chair of geography at the University of South Carolina, says such insights are becoming increasingly important to geographers. By investigating the way in which an environmental system changes over time, scholars are learning that human influences are so important that it is not possible to get a clear picture of the system by simply studying natural processes.
"One has to have a clear picture of both working together, and I think Professor Urban demonstrates the way to do that. His ability to combine two approaches, one from the social science side and one from the natural side, is really effective," Graf says.
In this regard, Urban represents a new generation of geographers, he adds.
"Researchers in the 1960s and 1970s were trained to be analytic. In other words, take the system apart piece by piece and explain how each individual piece works. The newer generation of researchers is schooled in approaching things from a much more systematic standpoint," he says. "Frankly, the environmental and social issues we face globally and here at home are so complex that I'm afraid we can't take them apart piece by piece. The whole-cloth picture is the way we are going to come to some understanding of the costs and benefits of decisions we make."
For his part, Urban has taken this global perspective to heart. Recently, for example, he accepted a Fulbright grant to lecture for a year at Northeastern University in Shenyang, China, where he is teaching three courses -- environmental ethics, sustainable environmental management and environmental philosophy.
At Northeastern, Urban says, he's addressing a new generation, a modernizing cohort looking to reverse China's environmental status quo. He is confident the Communist government will give him a free hand in his lectures, although he may touch on some delicate issues. Urban says he's also enjoying a loosening up in student-teacher dialogue, saying China has come a long way in the last 20 years in allowing more open discussions. "I do not think there are significant government restrictions in the classroom," Urban says. "Because of this, interactions with students -- in the safe environment of the classroom -- can be an ideal way to have difficult discussions about thorny environmental issues."
Two earlier visits to China gave him an indication of the exploding economy and the need for new environmental thinking. "You read about these things, but you can't understand the scale," he says. "There is nowhere else in the world where this is happening at such a dramatic pace and scale. What happens in China today and in the next few decades will have impact on the U.S. and other countries across the world. We have a stake in understanding what's going on in China."
The good news, Urban says, is that the Chinese government is now spending a great deal of money on environmental issues. "They do not want to be embarrassed on the world stage. They have entered the World Trade Organization. They will host the 2008 Olympics and can't have world cameras showing people coughing from the polluted air hanging over Beijing."
Worsening environmental conditions and problems such as unsafe drinking water or air pollution from coal-powered industries may also provide a potential for grassroots movements to develop, so long as these don't threaten government control.
Still, China isn't the U.S., Urban says, where environmental issues are spearheaded by local pressure groups. "I don't know that such movements are possible in China," he says. "The way the Chinese value individual aspects of the environment are frequently different than the way we do in many respects. If you don't have electricity or clean running water, it will affect how you think about things," he says.
People must pick and choose priorities, Urban says. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example, is doing the same kind of thing to the Missouri River as the Chinese are to the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. Still, Urban acknowledges, China has a lot of work to do before it achieves anything close to the environmental protections most Americans take for granted.
One thing that might help is establishment of a Chinese version of the land-grant universities that have helped American farmers, and the geographers that study them, better understand the land. "It certainly wouldn't have been possible for me to concentrate on these issues," says Urban, "if it weren't for the land-grant system."