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Socially Constructed Geography
As a society, humans by nature relate to the world and define norms by identifying with the environment around them. In America for example, the foundation for the society was built on idealisms that suggested that the first entrants into this society were pioneers, overcoming a vast wilderness and pristine landscape in order to build the foundation upon which modern society now reigns supreme. People by nature identify with social constructed realities that bring them together in a communal and socially responsible manner. In order to help civilians learn about society and social norms, it is often necessary to deconstruct and reconstruct the geographic landscape of a land to build a culture from a blank template.
Human beings have socially constructed the view that the landscape of this nation prior to discovery was naked, raw, virgin; basically one might conclude that it was a pristine wilderness based on the documentation of historians and early explorers such as Columbus (Denevan, 1992). Many assume that the first explorers discovered a land and landscape that up until that point in time had not been impacted by any one society's traditions, lifestyles and social interference. Such supposition would allow the creation of a society from a "blank slate," a society that is forgiving and allows for idealisms to penetrate the creation myth of a land and people.
Much evidence has surfaced however, that the idea of America as a pristine wilderness that was conquered and tamed by colonialists is fallacious in nature. Rather the reality suggests that the idea of a vast pristine wilderness tamed and shaped by mankind is merely a construct of social imagery designed to place in the minds of man a more fantastic view of the way the world should be "perceived." Such a deconstruction of the natural geography of the land has enabled people to envision a society built from nothing, one that endured fierce obstacles and overcame much to establish itself as a rising, civilian and accomplished power.
Human perceptions of nature and space are often socially and culturally "constructed" concepts, provided as a mechanism to help man learn about his world. In some sense one may argue that man is obligated to deconstruct the actual true geography of nature and the planet in order to place sensibilities and realisms that are more akin to comfort and fantastical experience. The true nature of geography is often not nearly as appealing and fantastical as that which is socially constructed; rather, man often socially constructs the landscape and new of nature to best suit his needs.
One simple example of the way man has socially and culturally constructed his view of nature, thereby deconstructing actual knowledge of geography, is evident in the way that Americans describe their heritage as crafted and formed from a state of "wilderness" (Denevan, 1992). This idea has become ingrained into the hearts and minds of many Americans. Often the idea of wilderness is associated with the "heroic pioneer past in need of preservation" (Denevan, 1992). America was in part founded on the idea that people had the opportunity to make a new beginning, or a fresh start. What better an environment to set up such a situation than that which is pristine, untempered and unexplored?
The idea that the geography in America was ancient, primeval and undisturbed simply plays into the cultural idealisms that promote a heritage of man overcoming extreme obstacles to attain glory and recognition. According to actual historical information related to the geography of nature and the landscape in America, Indian populations in the Americas "were substantial" at the time of early settlements (Denevan, 1992). Already the forests had been plundered and altered and the landscape had been changed to suit the needs of daily commerce and public change and intervention (Denevan, 1992).
Texts however, often paint the image still of America as a conquested paradise, a land that was wild and conquered by champions and pioneers of freedom and adventure (Denevan, 1992). How we learn about the world however, often impacts our motivations, sense of self security and drive to pursue endeavors as life progresses. Stories of conquering adverse natural landscapes and overcoming obstacles are far more likely to result in motivated souls and spirits than a story of simple acquisition or moving in. The need to adjust the nature and landscape of geography arises from mans need to be inspired, motivated and feel drawn to a common communal cause or outcome.
Stories of heroics and success over adversity supply the impetus necessary for man to continue the desire to achieve, conquer and discover new things.
A great deal of evidence exists that indicates that nature and geographic space have been altered to suit the needs and desires of historians and lecturers. According to research, in 1492 at a time when America was otherwise considered "pristine" evidence indicates that Indian communities had already modified the forest "extent and composition, created expanded grasslands, and rearranged microrelief via countless artificial earthworks" (Denevan, 1992). American Indians had in fact laid an extensive groundwork for agricultural fields, houses, towns, roads and even trails, all of which impacted the local soil, microclimate and wildlife of the geographic landscape (Denevan, 1992).
Interestingly, studies suggest that the landscape post 1492 specifically that of 1750, when colonization was rising to its peak, was in fact less humanized than it had been during the 1400s when Indian villages predominated the landscape (Denevan, 1992). Perhaps one reason to socially deconstruct the landscape is to draw attention away from the demise of the indigenous populations that died as a result of colonization. Some scholars estimate that as many as 40-100 million Indians lived within the North American hemisphere up until the late 1500s, suggesting a rather large geographical accommodation for a great society, until the native peoples populations began to decline largely as a result of epidemic disease brought into the nation by immigrants (Denevan, 1992).
In 1750 there were but 1.3 million Europeans and slaves populating the greater portion of North America. According to the estimate of native Americans that had previously inhabitant the land, this is a marginal number to say the least (Denevan, 1992). Population studies suggest that the population of North America during 1750 was only "about 30% of what it may have been in 1942" (Denevan, 1992).
Culture and social perspective influence geography and idealisms of geopolitical and cultural perspective to a great degree (Hanson, et. al, 2002). Shifting views of governance, terrain and the impact and rhetoric of geopolitics all influence assertions related to borders, "fixities of globalization" and the nature of space (Mittelman, 2000; Kelly, 1999; Hanson, 2002). According to one analysis, culture differentiation from a global scale may be attributed to an interpretation of multidimensional cultural-geographic space, which constitutes a "differentiating checkerboard of culture" (Dicken, 1994). Global cultural differentiation relies in part upon the ability of nation states to affect locational names and build heritage based on their interpretation of the nature of the geographical landscape in which they live.
Research suggests that the nature of the geographic landscape had in fact by the sixteenth century reverted back to a more natural and forest like condition within 150 years after forced abandonment by native tribes (Denevan, 19922). Agricultural fields that had been heavily worked over by native Americans were in fact "changed to scrub and forest, and earthworks grown over" by the time of 1700 (Denevan, 1992). A large portion also of the "agricultural terraces in the Americas" by the early colonial period had been abandoned (Denevan, 1992).
The transformation of the geographical natural landscape that occurred at the time of native inhabitant cannot be denied. Substantial examples exist indicating a vast population of community and culture dating 1492 and beyond. Clearly the land that Columbus and future explores embarked upon was in all actuality "humanized" and the nature of the landscape and geography altered by early settlements (Denevan, 1992). In some regions such as Hispaniola and Tortuga the population might even be characterized as "densely populated and completely cultivated" (Denevan, 1992).
Therefore one can only conclude that the idea of the natural and wild landscape of America in 1402 was merely a socially constructed myth related to the geography of the land; that the land was not as perhaps described as "impassable" but rather quite "inhabitated" by native peoples, and the geography was actually deconstructed and subsequently reconstructed to meet the needs of modern day civilians who seek communal bond via the history of a landscape (Denevan, 1992). Evidence suggests that in fact a great deal of clearing and burning had occurred by the time of Columbus's arrival (Denevan, 1992). This occurred at the hands of native farmers and communities which were populous in nature. No doubt these communities had there own stories related to the geography of the land as they first found it when settled upon. These stories enable a rich learning and passage of values, morals, idealisms and belief systems to next generations.
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