The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore

The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore

by Laura Alice Watt

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Point Reyes National Seashore has a long history as a working landscape, with dairy and beef ranching, fishing, and oyster farming; yet, since 1962 it has also been managed as a National Seashore. The Paradox of Preservation chronicles how national ideals about what a park “ought to be” have developed over time and what happens when these ideals are implemented by the National Park Service (NPS) in its efforts to preserve places that are also lived-in landscapes. Using the conflict surrounding the closure of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, Laura Alice Watt examines how NPS management policies and processes for land use and protection do not always reflect the needs and values of local residents. Instead, the resulting landscapes produced by the NPS represent a series of compromises between use and protection—and between the area’s historic pastoral character and a newer vision of wilderness. A fascinating and deeply researched book, The Paradox of Preservation will appeal to those studying environmental history, conservation, public lands, and cultural landscape management, and to those looking to learn more about the history of this dynamic California coastal region.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520966420
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/22/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 14 MB
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About the Author

Laura Alice Watt is Professor of Environmental History and Policy at Sonoma State University.

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The Paradox of Preservation

Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore

By Laura Alice Watt


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96642-0


Landscapes, Preservation, and the National Park Ideal

An understanding of today's controversies at Point Reyes National Seashore begins with a broader look at the transformation that takes place when a landscape is preserved as a park — specifically, what exactly the public expects from parks and why. National parks are among the most popular destinations in the United States, and many of us carry fond memories of our camping trips with family, or backpacking with friends, usually augmented by loads of photographs. Yet most of us don't really think much about what parks are, or how they got to be that way — their role is anticipated but unspoken: there will be scenic views, interesting wildlife, trails, historic markers or interpretive signs, and rangers in funny green hats. But where do these expectations come from? How do we choose which places "should" be parks, and how does that designation and management affect what we find there? In many ways these expectations have been built or "written" into the landscape itself through the process of park preservation and management.

And yet these expectations for parks often do not easily accommodate working landscapes, places that have been shaped by the work and lives of many individuals over generations, maintaining a distinct character yet responding to the changing needs of their residents. Early parks, established in the nineteenth century, did not celebrate the working landscape, but rather overwrote it; Native inhabitants were usually forcibly removed, and new settlers prevented from claiming homesteads, so that the park's magnificent natural scenery could be preserved unchanging into the future. In the twentieth century, however, Congress established more and more parks in inhabited places. Understanding what happens when parks are carved out of lived-in landscapes, such as Point Reyes, first requires us to understand the complexity that any given landscape represents, to explore the preservationist impulse, and to see how preservation began to shape the earliest parks into an ideal, an image of what a park ought to be, that continues to influence park management today.


To start, just what is a landscape? If asked to imagine a landscape, many of us would envision a view, perhaps of rolling hills or a mountain in the distance, or even a city skyline. Defining that landscape is more difficult, as it is more than the physical ground itself. Even the most natural-looking of landscapes almost invariably include some degree of human influence — trails, campsites, or any other human-made structure or modification to the land — as well as elements of personal and/or cultural meaning. Two visitors standing side by side at a Civil War battlefield site may "see" landscapes with different meanings, if one visitor's ancestors fought for the Union while the other comes from a formerly Confederate family, or if one visitor is white and the other black. Similarly, a small town looks very different to a tourist stopping to buy gas than to a person who grew up there. Our experience of a landscape is a combination of what physically lies before us and what is in our heads; how we think and feel about what we see matters, and these issues in turn influence how we interpret, use, and change what we see.

Through constant reinterpretations and changes over time, landscapes gradually come to reflect the ideas and values of the people who live within their areas. Thus a landscape can be thought of as the "unwitting autobiography" of those people, filled with cultural meanings that can be read, if you know what to look for. In a recent survey of the field, Paul Groth describes landscape as "the interaction of people and place: a social group and its spaces, particularly the spaces to which the group belongs and from which its members derive some part of their shared identity and meaning." This idea of landscape draws attention to human actions that result in the constant, day-today manipulation, negotiation, and contestation of landscape meanings. As a tangible combination of the natural environment and its social, political, and historical context, landscape is "not so much artifact as in process of construction and reconstruction." Even an area designated as a national park and protected in perpetuity continues to shift, not only with such physical variables as changing management regimes or tourist densities, but also with variables of meaning, such as whether the nation is at war or peace, whether neighboring communities feel enriched or limited by the park's presence, and so on. As an element of study, landscape "provides a door to understanding how individuals and societies perceive their environs and how they behave toward them."

The term landscape can refer to the physical earth itself, with the combination of natural and human elements upon it, or a view of the same — or it can mean a representation of a landscape, such as a photograph, painting, or description in a novel. The physical landscape itself may also be symbolic of cultural ideas, either local or more generally held. A landscape is not just a passive stage on which people act out their lives, but a representational and symbolic space in which the dominant social order is materially inscribed and, by implication, legitimized. By way of example, French sociologist Henri Lefebvre asks whether religious ideology would be nearly as compelling "if it were not based on places and their names: church, confessional, altar, sanctuary, tabernacle?" Lefebvre also asserts that the spatial practices of everyday life contain traces of older traditions otherwise obscured, constrained, and reshaped by powerful societal influences, such as corporations or government agencies. These traces represent the possibility of recovery from the ways in which modernity and capitalism alienate us from our own lives. This desire to recover the past suggests one reason why "everyday" landscapes have recently become the focus of many preservation efforts; it also suggests why those efforts — particularly via landscape planning and design, including parks management — can have troubling consequences.

Thinking of a space as a "landscape" changes assumptions about who, and what, belongs in it. The process of creating a particular landscape framework through which to view the world puts the framer in the authoritative position of defining who or what is "in" or "out" of the picture; it also sets up the framework as something that seems "to exist apart from, and prior to, the particular individuals or actions it enframes. Such a framework would appear, in other words, as order itself." Defining the world as a series of landscapes allows those with power to define certain aspects of the world as important, while ignoring others, thus shaping and controlling which social relations may be expressed or reproduced. In terms of national parks, NPS management selects certain aspects of park landscapes as the primary focus of each place, while overlooking or downplaying others, thus shaping and controlling which meanings may be expressed or reproduced.

Official landscapes not only reflect power relations, but also function to "naturalize" those relations, to make them appear to be unquestionable, taken-for-granted parts of reality, rather than social relations that could be altered or improved upon. The word landscape, like nature, culture, and nation, historically contains unspoken or unrecognized meanings that bolster the legitimacy of those who exercise power in society. These meanings can also, of course, be manipulated to create new power relationships. All four words, according to geographer Kenneth Olwig, "tend to be used as if their meanings were unambiguous and God-given, thus 'naturalizing' the particular conception which remains hidden behind a given usage." By freezing the constant shifting of social struggles into material form, landscapes "solidify social relations, making them seem natural and enduring."

Marxist and Hegelian theories separate the concept of nature into two categories: "first nature," that which is original and prehuman, and "second nature," which consists of human alterations that overlay and remake first nature. When second nature is confused with, or defined as, first nature, the human activities and intentions that produced it become veiled, blending into the primordialism of first nature. Yet the identification and management of universalized "natural" objects is always political; that which is natural is "'fixed' in specific ways from particular perspectives and with particular implications for how we might behave toward 'it' and each other." Because they are defined as natural, those political associations and exertions in the landscape are disguised and made to appear as elemental as the rocks and trees found there.

Several landscape scholars have shown how powerful social actors obscure their actions by associating second-nature manipulations of landscapes with pristine first nature. Olwig, for example, shows how sixteenth-century courts in northern Europe redefined traditional conceptions of custom and law by creating popular presentations of landscape scenery, both in artistic works, such as paintings and theater, and in the physical landscape, with formal gardens and estates. These efforts, which emphasized geometry and spatial aesthetics according to the idealized past of imperial Rome, created "'natural' surroundings while simultaneously erasing the memory of custom's common landscape uses which stood in the way of gentry 'improvement.'" Similarly, NPS management reshapes local landscapes into "parkscapes" — overwriting the older appearance and meaning of local memory, so that understanding of the place as a "park" overtakes all previous understandings, often even for the locals themselves — and yet only rarely acknowledges or interprets its own presence in the landscape, as if NPS management is somehow "outside" the land's history.

Discussing the eighteenth-century development of private parks (precursors to U.S. national parks in many ways) in Britain, literary scholar Raymond Williams finds the intent was to "make Nature move to an arranged design ... [as an] expression of control and command." The existence of the estates depended on the working agricultural land around them for income to support the landowners, yet all traces of work and labor were removed from the estate grounds themselves, even though considerable work was required to create and maintain these aesthetically controlled spaces. These two separate landscapes — pastoral lands and private park — remained connected economically, yet "in the one case the land was being organized for production, where tenants and labourers will work, while in the other case it was being organized for consumption — the view, the ordered proprietary repose, the prospect." The owners and designers of these park landscapes aimed to make them appear unworked and "natural," thus obscuring their origins as the productions of actual landscape design and manipulation. Public parks like Point Reyes that aim to protect working, lived-in landscapes, therefore, contain an inherent tension, between NPS staff supporting agricultural operations on the one hand and aiming to produce more natural-appearing, "unworked" scenes for tourists and recreation users on the other. The NPS unconsciously disguises its own land management efforts by emphasizing natural resources and downplaying traces of local history.


If landscapes are created by continually changing social forces, what does it mean to preserve one? What is preservation? To begin to explore this process, imagine a pickle — a classic dill pickle. Now think of a fresh cucumber — are they the same? Of course not: we all know that the pickle started out life as a cucumber, but that the thing that once was a cucumber, through the presence of vinegar and salt and the passage of time, has changed in some fundamental ways in the process of becoming a pickle. In the same way fresh fruit is transformed by preservation into jam, or fresh pork is transformed by preservation into bacon or salami or ham, landscapes are transformed by preservation into parks and protected areas. The second state has a relationship with the first, but they are not the same.

Heritage is literally that which we inherit: the stories, meanings, and tangible evidence of the historical past that survive in the present. Heritage can include buildings, furniture, pieces of art, myths, cultural traditions, even language itself. The natural world is also often referred to as the heritage of mankind; advocates for the protection of biodiversity, wilderness, and other aspects of the environment have all appealed to the need to preserve our common heritage. In recent years the ranks of what is defined as heritage have changed markedly, "from the elite and grand to the vernacular and everyday; from the remote to the recent; and from the material to the intangible." Because heritage can include almost anything, it is vulnerable to constant redefinition. Despite this, distinctions are usually made between natural and cultural heritage, and preservation efforts for each are almost always considered as distinctly separate concerns, although they actually share much in common.

Specifically which resources deserve deliberate preservation, however, is an open question. For after all, if heritage is simply that which is passed down from history, why the need to preserve it? Preservation implies protecting something from harm, damage, or danger. For most of humankind's existence, people generally either rebuilt and reused old structures, continually adjusting or reinventing them as circumstances warranted, or ignored them, allowing them to fall into ruins, sometimes disappearing entirely. Starting in the sixteenth century, however, a series of elites began to embrace classical antiquities as desirable links to the great Greek and Roman cultures, which they considered superior to their more recent history. By the eighteenth century, this attitude had developed into a widespread upper-class aesthetic visible in architectural styles, art, and literature. Because this developing interest in heritage put such a primary emphasis on material items, deliberate preservation became crucial as time and social change caused artifacts to fade or crumble, buildings to be replaced, and old ways of life to disappear. Heritage could then be visited and viewed by tourists, in museums or at official historic sites, where the visitors' sense of connection with the past would be learned and/or reinforced. For those in power, for whom change was a threat, preservation formed an important way to reassert and protect relics symbolic of their social prestige and control.

This desire to prevent change makes a kind of intuitive sense: known objects and stable spatial configurations allow us to maneuver through our daily lives more easily. Simply put, people often tend to want their surroundings to stay as they are now; we have a fundamental discomfort with change, preferring our world to be predictable and constant. Hence many forms of change, particularly those that are unexpected, make many people ill at ease. As a result we tend to try to fix things in both time and space. Historical durability is often interpreted as a sign of worthiness, according to a sense that if "it lasted this long, it must be good." While the future is murky and unknown, the past is usually thought of as tangible and clear, unalterable, providing a sense of stability, familiarity, and security. Thus it also appears to be one unbroken, uncomplicated chain of events, rather than a continually reworked narrative.

Preserving material objects is not the only way to conserve a heritage. In Ise, Japan, for example, the Shinto Grand Shrine is disassembled every twenty years and an exact replica, rebuilt of similar materials, is assembled in the same place. In this form of preservation, perpetuating the building techniques and the ritual act of re-creation matters more than the physical continuity of the structure. Similarly, the ancient White Horse of Uffington in England was "re-created" for centuries by locals, who scraped the chalk figure every seven years to keep it from being obscured by growing vegetation. Cultures that rely on oral traditions retain their sense of cultural heritage without any tangible objects at all, but rather by retelling stories from the past. These and other traditional or "folk" ways of retaining heritage bring the past and present together, fused in a repeating, cyclical sense of custom through use and interaction in everyday life.

Despite these alternative approaches to preservation, the most prevalent modern conception of preserved heritage remains focused primarily on physical artifacts, set aside and ostensibly protected from change. Yet this kind of evidence only reveals the limitations of this vision of history, according to which anything that didn't take material form can be left out. The high visibility and accessibility of relics, especially old buildings, tends to cause people to overemphasize — and overestimate — the stability and homogeneity of the past. For example, places where many artifacts survive from one particular epoch, as if they had been pickled, can give the impression that time has stood still, that the places are perfectly unchanged since the era the artifacts reflect, regardless of what the actual historical experience may have been. Nor can material relics tell their own stories. They require interpretation and explanation, adding another layer of present-day attitudes and values to the understanding of the past.


Excerpted from The Paradox of Preservation by Laura Alice Watt. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Foreword by David Lowenthal

Introduction: A Management Controversy at Point Reyes
1. Landscapes, Preservation, and the National Park Ideal
2. Public Parks from Private Lands
3. Acquisition and Its Alternatives
4. Parks as (Potential) Wilderness
5. Remaking the Landscape
6. Reassertion of the Park Ideal
7. The Politics of Preservation
Conclusion: Point Reyes as a Leopoldian Park

Selected Bibliography

Customer Reviews