TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. Februar 2010

Sektion 7.8. SeLandscapes in the context of societies / Landschaft im gesellschaftlichen Kontextktionstitel
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Helmut Pfanner (Lochau, Vorarlberg)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Relation between Landscape and Culture:
a Case Study of the United States of America

Nuray Önder (Dokuz Eylul University, Izmir,Turkey) [BIO]



A close look at the histories of different nations will easily verify the fact that civilizations have been deeply influenced by the land they have occupied and by the climate they live with.  Throughout history especially the water has been a determining factor in the success of the societies.  This paper will try to show the influence of the natural landscapes and the climate upon the culture formation of the United States.

According to the Census Bureau records the United States is generally divided into four different regions.  They are the Northeast, the Midwest, the South and the West regions.  Although geographically the Northeast is the smallest region in the country, it has more states than any other region.  The region has a landscape varying from the rocky coast of New England to the fertile farmland of the Ohio River Valley in Pennsylvania.  Jagged cliffs rise up to a hundred feet above the ocean on Maine's northern coast, the eastern-most point in the United States; the coastline subsides to sandy beaches which extend through the rest of the Northeast’s Atlantic coastline.  Between Cape Cod in Massachusetts and Cape May in New Jersey there are a series of large islands including Long Island, Manhattan, and Staten Island.  Four major rivers’ mouths pierce the coastline to empty into the Atlantic: the Delaware, the Hudson, the Connecticut, and the Kennebec.  The Lake Ontario in New York, the Lake Erie in Pennsylvania, and the Finger Lakes of New York are the major lakes of the region.  On an isthmus between the two Great Lakes on the New York/Ontario border near Buffalo there is one of the most famous waterfalls in the world, Niagara Falls.  Thus the Northwest region shows a rich variety of geographical formations in terms of rivers, lakes, mountains and valleys.  In fact, because of this reason, the first settlers lived in this area for a long time till they felt the need to move west.

Despite being geographically one of the smallest regions of the United States, the northeastern states posses a wide range of climates.  Rainfall and snowfall vary from one place to another.  The humid continental climate, with mild summers and snowy, bitterly cold winters in the north yields to the humid continental climate with moderately hot summers and moderately cold, snowy winters towards south; and the area around the Chesapeake Bay and the east of the Appalachian Mountains possesses a humid subtropical climate with hot, humid summers and more mild winters.  The variations in climate offer opportunities in patterns of daily life and in economy.  Due to the weather conditions, the population is mainly concentrated on the coast and in the southern states.  Even in urban states like Massachusetts, the coastline is more urban than western New England, which is typically rural.

New England, which is a subdivision of the Northeast, has played an important role in American history.  Since the region has many rivers and streams which offered natural landing spots, it was easy to anchor in this area and as the name indicates, they tried to beget a new England out of these lands.  For example, the great indentation of Delaware Bay gave ocean ships direct access towards inland.  In fact, from New York southward all of the nation’s big coastal towns were located at or inside one of the breaks on the coastal line.

With its rocky soil and variations in humid continental and subtropical climate, New England is not a substantial agricultural region.  Some New England states, however, are ranked highly among U.S. states for particular areas of production.  Maine is ranked ninth for aquaculture, Vermont fifteenth for dairy products, and Connecticut and Massachusetts seventh and eleventh for tobacco.  Historically, when the first colonies were founded as joint stock companies, they utilized the regions’ natural resources to gain immediate profit.  Thus the surrounding forests and the sea served for the very purpose of creating a market economy that skewed settlers’ activity toward lumbering, fishing, and producing the most marketable crops.  For example, settlers engaged in cod fishing in order to produce an income for repayment of investments in colonies.  In the long run, New England was the earliest region to industrialize. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Boston and Providence capitalists converted money from trade and shipping into textile manufacture.  America’s earliest textile industry developed at sources of waterpower such as in Lowell and Lawrence.  The industrialization of New England promoted urban growth and transformed many New Englanders from food producers to food consumers only.  Urbanization created a stronger market for dairy products and changed many New England farms from producing varied crops to focusing on a specialty such as dairies, orchards, or raising poultry for meat and eggs.

The service industry is also highly important, including tourism, education, financial and insurance services, plus architectural, building, and construction services.  The U.S. Department of Commerce has called the New England economy a microcosm for the entire United States economy.  Fall in New England is known for its bright and colorful foliage, which comes earlier than in other states and attracts lots of tourists.  The mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire are popular destinations in the winter, with numerous commercial ski resorts.  Likewise, the smaller fishing towns, like Gloucester, are popular tourist attractions, as they tend to retain their historical character and often have colorful pasts.  Cape Cod is lined with sandy beaches and dotted with bed and breakfast tourist lodgings.  The picturesque and rugged coast of Maine is best known for its beauty and for lobster.  New Hampshire, which has the shortest coastline of any coastal state, is home to Hampton Beach, also frequented by visitors to the region.  In the late nineteenth century the original forest was cut for lumber to build houses for the nation’s booming industrial and commercial cities.

The second subdivision of the Northeastern region, the Mid-Atlantic States (also called Middle Atlantic States) of the United States traditionally refers to that section of the Atlantic Seaboard between New England and the South. Since the temperature moderates towards southward, the settlers discovered an environment suitable for farming purposes.  They cut off the original forest to make farmland.  As Pierce Lewis says, ”It was here that America first developed its reputation as a kind of agricultural New Jerusalem”. (58)  Over two centuries with the arrival of millions of people in this area, cities grew along major shipping routes and waterways.  Such flourishing cities included New York City on the Hudson River, Philadelphia on the Delaware River, and Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay.  The Middle Atlantic states also provided the young United States with heavy industry supported by the raw material from the coal in Pennsylvania.

In many ways, the South is the most distinctive region among all.  Biologically, it is a vast, diverse region, having numerous climatic zones, including alpine, tropical, subtropical and arid.  Since the frost-free period exceeds 180 days, many crops such as tobacco and cotton grow easily in its soils.  Especially in the nineteenth century cotton imprinted the South.  It was the raw material to start the industrial process along with the coal found in the Appalachian Mountains.  Until the early twentieth century the South had a virtual monopoly on the world cotton trade.  Since most of the world’s inexpensive cloth was made of cotton, both the demand and the profits were enormous. As a result, the cotton plantation owners grew rich and formed a self-appointed aristocracy dedicated to maintaining the status quo economically, politically, and socially.  Moreover, the cotton raising system rested upon heavy labor, which necessitated the importation of slaves from Africa.  Thus, the South had a semi-feudal system economically and socially having the rich on the one hand and the slaves on the other.  Moreover, the agricultural way of life did not encourage the growth of cities so that the South remained rural.  However, without erosion control and crop rotation the monopoly of cotton came to an end in the early twentieth century leaving the people and the soil poor.  Many of these poor people, most of whom were black, moved to northern cities to find jobs in the factories.  In the meantime most of the cotton country reverted to piney woods, although more recently some of the land has turned into pasture to support a considerable cattle industry.

The South was also distinctive for its production of tobacco, which earned premium prices from around the world.  Most farmers grew a little for their own use or traded with neighbors who grew it.  It was the main cash crop in North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and Maryland.  Pennsylvania and Delaware also grew tobacco but to a lesser extent.  Commercial sales became important in the late 19th century as major tobacco companies rose in the South, in cities like Durham, North Carolina, Louisville, Kentucky, and Richmond.  In 1938, R.J. Reynolds marketed eighty-four brands of chewing tobacco, twelve brands of smoking tobacco, and the top-selling Camel brand of cigarettes. The subtropical climate in the South gave rise to the foundation of different industries.  For example, the most popular American soft drinks today, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper, originated in the South.  Since World War II, the South has become increasingly industrialized.  High technology (such as aerospace and petrochemical industries) have boomed, and there has been impressive growth in the service, trade, and finance sectors.

The Midwestern United States (or Midwest) refers to the north-central states of the United States.  This area is now called the "East North Central States" by the United States Census Bureau, and the "Great Lakes" region by its inhabitants.  The region generally includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.  The United Sates Census Bureau divides this region into the East North Central States (essentially the Great Lakes States) and the West North Central States (essentially the Great Plains States).

The Great Lakes provide access to the Atlantic Ocean via different ways. Indeed, Chicago, the division's largest city, is by far the largest fresh-water port in the United States, and one of the largest such ports in the entire world providing various job opportunities to the surrounding areas.  Whereas the East North Central States are seen by the vast majority of Americans as being synonymous with the Rust Belt, the West North Central States are regarded as constituting the core of the nation's "Farm Belt" due to the fact that the area contains very good farmland.  The region’s minerals are legendary.  America’s first large scale venture into metal mining began in the 1840s in Michigan and iron mines of Minnesota provided America with about four-fifths of all the iron she has ever used for the industrial purposes.

In its most expansive definition, the western U.S. is the largest region, covering more than half the land area of the United States.  It is also the most geographically diverse, incorporating geographic regions such as the Pacific Coast, the temperate rain forests of the Northwest, the Rocky Mountains, the western Ozark plateau, the western portions of the southern forests, western Gulf Coast, and all of the desert areas located in the United States (the Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin, and Chihuahua deserts.  The West has several long rivers that empty into the Pacific Ocean while the eastern rivers run into the Gulf of Mexico.  Some of them are the Missouri River, the Snake River, the Columbia River and the Colorado River, which at one point forms the Grand Canyon attracting tourists throughout the year.  The Colorado is a major source of water in the Southwest and has many dams, such as the Hoover Dam.  The Rio Grande forms the border between Texas and Mexico before turning due north and splitting New Mexico in half.

Agriculture varies depending on rainfall, irrigation, soil, elevation, and temperature extremes.  The arid regions generally support only livestock grazing, chiefly beef cattle.  The wheat belt extends from Texas through the Dakotas, producing most of the wheat and soybeans in the U.S. and exporting more to the rest of the world.  Irrigation in the Southwest allows the growing of great quantities of fruits, nuts, and vegetables as well as grain, hay, and flowers.  Texas is a major cattle and sheep raising area, as well as the nation's largest producer of cotton.  Washington is famous for its apples, and Idaho for its potatoes.  California and Arizona are major producers of citrus crops, although the growing metropolitan sprawl is absorbing much of this land.

In the Pacific Coast states, the wide areas filled with small towns, farms, and forests are supplemented by a few big port cities, which have evolved into world centers for the media and technology industries.  Now the second largest city in the nation, Los Angeles is best known as the home of the film industry; the area around Los Angeles also was a major center for the aerospace industry by World War II, though Boeing, located in Washington State would lead the aerospace industry.  Like Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area has enjoyed the economic advantages of being situated on the seashore and thus California has become the most populous of all the states. Oregon and Washington have also seen rapid growth with the rise of Boeing and Microsoft along with agriculture and resource based industries.  The desert and mountain states have relatively low population densities, and developed as ranching and mining areas, which are only recently becoming urbanized.  Most of them have highly individualistic cultures and have worked to balance the interests of urban development, recreation, and the environment.

The entire Western region has also been strongly influenced by Asian, Native and Latino culture because of their proximity to the said cultures.  The way of life, mainly the culinary habits are strongly influenced by these cultures. Another important characteristic of the westerners stems from their background.  Since the Americans experienced the sense of being relieved from all the restraints of the eastern traditions and customs in the west, the prevalence of libertarian political thought can be  widely observed.  For example, the majority of Western states have legalized medical marijuana and some forms of gambling (except Utah); Oregon has legalized euthanasia; Utah has a long history of former polygamous territorial leaders; and most counties in Nevada have legalized prostitution.  There is less resistance to the legal of recognition of same-sex unions, for example California and Hawaii recognize them.

A wide variety of minerals has been found throughout the Cordillera.  These minerals have played an important role in human history.  The gold from the Sierra Nevada caused a massive flow of miners into the area in 1849 and California earned the statehood in 1850.  Gold and silver rushes not only produced the first major immigration of Americans to Colorado and Nevada, they, as well as the baser minerals like copper and lead, also influenced the American economy.  However, The Cordillera’s main mineral wealth comes from fossil fuels.  Oil and natural gas in California and extensive deposits of coal in the Colorado Plateau are important in shaping the life and the economy of the people of the area.

The natural landscape with dimensions resulting from geologic processes in the crust of the earth and the other dimension determined by the meteorological processes dictate the sociology, economy, and history of the inhabitants of the area.  When the United States is taken into consideration, natural landscape and the climate have directed the course of events and the patterns of life led by the inhabitants.  America’s wealth of resources made the settling easier and large variety of geographic environments provided the nation with a lot of opportunities.  The size and diversity of the land encouraged optimism:  if one failed in one place, there has always been another place to start anew.



7.8. Landscapes in the context of societies / Landschaft im gesellschaftlichen Kontext

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For quotation purposes:
Nuray Önder: The Relation between Landscape and Culture: a Case Study of the United States of America - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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