From International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education
, by John Morgan, Institute of Education, University of London.
"Nature and Identity in Cross-Cultural Perspective will be of great interest to students of environmental history and those who seek to recognise the variety of ways in which human cultures have imagined their relationship with nature."
Nature and Identity in Cross-Cultural Perspective
Anne Buttimer and Luke Wallin (editors).
Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers;
Berlin: Springer. ISBN0-7923-5651-9; 978-0-7923-5651-6.
Series: GeoJournal Library , Vol. 48, 1999, 343 p., Hardcover.
Over the past three decades the broad field of humanistic geography has
produced a wide-ranging and thought-provoking literature that is concerned
with the meanings that people in a variety of places attach to the natural world.
Gaining access to these meanings requires close attention to a variety of sources,
ranging from material artefacts, paintings, novels and the testimonies of people
themselves. Whilst humanistic geography has always paid close attention to the
specificity of human geographical experience and the long history of human
habitation of the earth, in recent years, humanistic geography has been influenced by the so-called 'textual turn' in the arts and humanities. The achievement
of Nature and Identity in Cross-Cultural Perspective
is to provide a fascinating
mixture of older and newer approaches to humanistic geography.
The book comprises a collection of 20 essays, organized into three sections. In
the first section the focus is on the relationship between culture and nature as
reflected in the geographical traditions of a variety of places. Thus, starting from
Clarence Glacken's magisterial essay on the history of Western attitudes to
nature, various contributions discuss the geographical traditions in East Asia,
Japan, India, and the Middle East. These essays thus range over the world's
major religions and serve to highlight the diversity of geographical thought
about culture and nature. These broad accounts of the relationship between
culture and nature are then examined more closely in the second section of the
book, whose focus is the contest between 'Official' and 'Folk' visions of nature.
These essays are concerned with highlighting the tensions that exist about the
meanings and use of nature within specific places. Thus, there are chapters on
how policymakers' assumptions about the use of water and forestry resources in
Spain floundered in the face of local beliefs, how the Mayan population of Guatemala opposed and contested the dominant conception of landscape imposed by
Spanish colonists, and the different geographical imaginations of the Arctic held
by the indigenous population and Western 'outsiders.' These chapters focus on
what might be called 'cultural politics,' that is, the struggle to define meaning
about the environment on the part of dominant groups and the attempts to resist
or contest those meanings by subordinate groups.
The essays in this section provide a useful bridge to the essays in the third section of the book that make use of insights from the 'new cultural geography' to consider the role of literature in constructing 'stories' or narratives about nature and culture. William Cronon's contribution focuses on how the history of the Great Plains has been represented in a wide range of texts. He illustrates how such accounts cannot be simply
judged 'true' or 'false,' but seen as situated productions that reflect the times and
visions of their storytellers. Cronon's essay is concerned with the implications of
postmodernism for how we construct stories about places. It quietly raises
important political questions about the contested nature of our geographical
imaginations, and these questions are taken up by other contributors. Thus
Charles Withers discusses how the Scottish Highlands have been constructed as
a myth, 'an assemblage of ideologically-laden signs and images.' He outlines
three ways in which the Highlands have been represented, first as an anthropological curiosity, populated by a 'savage' people closer to nature than people in
other parts of the Kingdom, secondly, as a landscape fit for royalty, and thirdly,
as a landscape subject to the competing moral claims of economists, ecologists
and populists. Withers's account points to the fact that questions of representation of landscape cannot be divorced from questions of political power, since
dominant representations of the Highlands invariably emanate from England.
Nature and Identity in Cross-Cultural Perspective
will be of great interest to
students of environmental history and those who seek to recognise the variety of
ways in which human cultures have imagined their relationship with nature. For
the general reader, the book contains a wealth of detail of specific examples and
case studies. Part of the appeal of the collection is its cross-cultural focus that
allows the reader to see how different cultures attach meanings to nature. There
are useful chapters that summarise the contribution of geographers across a
range of cultures that add to our understanding of the concerns of the discipline.
The cross-cultural focus of the book makes it relevant to a broad audience and the
editors have done a fine job in making a potentially disparate set of essays hang
Readers of IRGEE (International Research in Geographical and Environmental
Education) will find much to interest them in this book, though it is
perhaps the potential for undertaking postgraduate research that will be most
useful. In particular, the chapters in the third section of the book offer some good
examples of the types of discursive reading associated with the 'new cultural
geography.' As an example, Cronon's aforementioned essay on the Great Plains
would be an excellent essay for anybody seeking to understand some of the
issues associated with postmodernism. For this reviewer, two possible areas for
further research arise from a reading of this collection of essays. First, from the
point of view of geography and environmental educators, it would be interesting
to track how the broad understandings of nature and culture discussed in these
essays are reflected (if at all) in national systems of education, for instance, as
seen in national curriculum specifications and textbooks. Second, it would be
interesting to investigate to what extent these distinctive cultural understandings of nature are responding to the forces of globalisation we hear so much
about these days.
Note: This book has been acquired by university libraries throughout the world, and is available through inter-library loan.
Speaking Engagements: Universities and other organizations who wish to have Luke Wallin speak on Nature and Identity, Multicultural Understandings of Nature, and the impact of Creative Conservation Writing may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.