Review of ‘Uncommon Ground: Cultural Landscapes and environmental values’ by Veronica Strang

06th January 2014

Beck Book Cover 1998,jpg‘Uncommon Ground: Cultural Landscapes and environmental values’ by Veronica Strang, 1998, Berg, xiv + 272 pp. ISBN 185973-951-2-9 (pbk).

Review by Wendy Beck

Uncommon Ground: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental Values is about the ‘cultural values that underpin human-environmental relationships’ (jacket notes) and is a comparison between Aboriginal people and pastoralists in Far North Queensland. An outcome of Strang’s Ph.D. thesis, its four parts are thoroughly researched and well written: Part 1, ‘Landscapes of the past’, describes the historical invasion and colonisation of Cape York Peninsula, especially the Mitchell River catchment; Part II is ‘Cultural landscapes’, a detailed comparison of Aboriginal and pastoral land use; Part III ‘Learning environmental values’, deals with reading and mapping the country; Part IV is ‘Cosmological landscapes’, which deals with concepts of space, time and differing environmental values. Strang wrote the book to investigate ‘how people make different places, how the human environmental relationship is constructed, why it differs from one culture to the next … why and how different groups value and care for their land in completely different ways . . . ‘ (p.4). She is particularly concerned with addressing environmental issues that have previously been tackled with largely mechanistic solutions:

Since most environmental problems are created by social, economic and cultural choices, this approach seemed inadequate: what is the use of finding technological answers, if we don’t know what makes people care enough to act, to change their lifestyles and shift towards a sustainable interaction with their environment? (p.5).

This book has a lively style and is well illustrated with photographs and drawings, but it is fundamentally an academic text, designated for ‘anthropology, environmental studies and geography courses’. It could also be useful additional reading for a landscape archaeology unit (although there is almost no archaeology in this book).

Strang’s monograph is part of the Explorations in Anthropology series, which includes such books as Tilley’s A Phenomenology of Landscape (1994). Even though Tilley’s book includes a substantial chapter on hunter-gatherer (especially Australian Aboriginal) relationships to landscape (Chapter 2: ‘The social construction of landscape in small-scale societies’), Strang makes no reference to it.

The strength of Uncommon Ground lies in its meticulous research at a small scale, much of which is based on firsthand observation. Few other books about cultural landscapes focus on concrete examples in the way that this book does, nor do other books focus equally on Aboriginal and pastoralist views. For instance, in the chapter ‘Social space and social place’, the maps of homestead layouts are accompanied by discussions both on the construction of identity on cattle stations and the construction of Aboriginal identity. The book uses excerpts from interviews very effectively, quoting the words of Aboriginal and pastoralist residents of Cape York, to tell parts of the story. In addition, it cleverly incorporates both theoretical and practical examples within the argument. This would make it a particularly useful textbook for upper level tertiary students.

In my view, the book successfully achieves its aims. The comparison of values in the last chapter points to the two very different modes of interaction with the environment – the Aboriginal one, which is characterised for example as being ‘unboundarised, holistic, stable and small-scale’, versus the pastoralists’ ‘boundarised, specialised, transformational, large-scale’ relationships (p.285). While Strang is aware of the problems of simplification, she makes a convincing case that the ethnography she has collected supports these characteristics. The book provides less detail about how these conclusions could be applied to resolving environmental problems.

This book is obviously a product of careful and long-term research, both first-hand and from literature sources. However, as an archaeologist I think it would have benefited from some consideration of the archaeological literature on Aboriginal landscape. For example, Head and others focus on a longer-term view of Aboriginal socialisation of the northern Australian landscape, using alternative sources of material evidence, rather than interview data (Gosden and Head 1994; Head 1994).

Despite the absence of a diachronic perspective, I suspect that most readers of this book will be more interested in the present and the future, rather than the past. For archaeologists and anthropologists alike, Uncommon Ground provides a useful case study of how human-environmental relationships are culturally constructed.

References


Gosden, C. and Head, L. 1994 Landscape – a usefully ambiguous concept. Archaeology in Oceania 29(3):13–16.

Head, L. 1994 Landscapes socialised by fire: Post-contact changes in Aboriginal fire use in northern Australia, and implications for prehistory. Archaeology in Oceania 29(3):172–181. 

Tilley, C. 1994 A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths And Monuments. Oxford: Berg.

Beck, W.
Review of 'Uncommon Ground: Cultural Landscapes and environmental values’ by Veronica Strang.
December 1998
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