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What is ‘ecography’ and why do we care?

The term ecography refers to “the inscription of human history and agency in a place and its inhabitants, and a mutual reinscription of land, sea, and dwellers into human lives. This is done by way of place names, emplaced stories, ceremonial titles, and remembered ritual” (Young Leslie 2007).

Cross-culturally, many peoples include non-human beings as ‘persons’  with whom they
interrelate in emotive, cooperative and/or competitive, and productive ways. These other persons, whether animal, plant or mineral forms, are often conceptualized in ways fundametally different from the post-entlightenment, post-industrial revolution sense associated with contemporary modernity, and Euro-Western science-influenced societies in particular. The pattern in most ecological and environmental thinking of our particular historical era (modernity and post-modernity) is to classify nature as separate from culture, and to categorize humans as cultural beings, part of the wider, ‘natural environment’, embedded in an ecosystem, but of a different order than the other lives in the same ecosystem; This category classifies humans separately from animals, plants, land-forms, etc. In the usual sense of this way of thinking, humans are persons, but other life-forms are not. Humans stand outside of the environment, are free to use it as a resource to be exploited. They also have the right to manage nature, the environment, the ecosystem. Indeed, Judeo-Christian-Muslim adherents have claimed a moral obligation to do so.

This is a historically particular, cultural way of thinking about ‘the environment’, one sort of mythopoetic story we tell ourselves about our place in the living universe. There are other explanatory stories. The anthropologist Marie-Claire Bataille-Benguigui documented  that in Tonga, ocean denizens such as fish, sharks, and turtles should be understood as “partners” rather than prey (1988). Anthropologists working in northern locales have made similar arguments for decades: foraging and hunting peoples, such as the Cree of Quebec (Feit 1995, 1991), the Dene of Northern British Columbia (Brody 1981), or the many nations of the northwest coast of Canada and the United States (see, eg, Gunther 1928; Jenness 1955, 6–9) all describe moose, beaver, salmon, and other animals as sentient beings who give themselves as food to humans, often out of love. Even predators and humans have found that cooperation and respect is mutually beneficial, as Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s work on lions and Ju/’hoansi in the Kalahari demonstrates (2003), and as any Polynesians who count the shark as part of their ancestral genealogy may attest. There is less research on non-animal forms (ie plants and landforms) and human relationships, although the research on ‘place and space’ as understood in Australian Aboriginal nations (Bird Rose 1992, Rumsey and Weiner 2001), miners in Columbia and Bolivia (Taussig 1980), and Inuit using the arctic sea-ice (Aporta 2002, Nuttal forthcoming) compellingly indicates that places can also be understood to have volition, intention and act out of partnership or competition. Faroe Islanders make themselves kin to the landscape through naming (Gaffin 1996), in a process similar to the  tactic of using maternal family surnames as first names in patronymic societies such as Canada and the United States, where children usually take their father’s name as their surname.

However, in today’s world of commercial food mega-farming, where floating factories harvest in waters far from home, affecting local inshore fisheries in unprecedented ways; where harbours, mountain tops and open valleys are militarized for national security or solar science; where global warming and widespread contamination of the planetary ecosystem is denied rather than spook stock markets and jeopardize shareholders’ returns; where speculation on and gentrification of seasides, vistas and other pleasant ‘aspects’ creates homelessness; where aluvial deposits and rain forests are paved and parcelled into housing for urban citizens and relocated humans; In such a new world order,  ‘persons’ of all kinds, biota, lifeforms, landforms, sea lanes  and wind routes are evaluated on the basis of their percentage of the overall contribution to national economies and transnational shareholders’ profits. These contemporary geopolitics of desire are transfiguring the ecographies of our present and the mythopoesis of our future. The stories people use to put meaning into place, and places into ourselves are shifting. Ecography is the tactic for documenting and measuring the transfiguations.


Aporta, Claudio 2002: Life on the ice: Understanding the codes of a changing environment. Polar Record 38 (207): 341-354.

Bataille-Benguigui, Marie-Claire
1988. The Fish of Tonga, Prey or Social Partners. Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol 97:185-198.

Feit, Harvey 1991 The Construction of Algonquian Hunting Territories: Private Property as Moral Lesson, Policy Advocacy and Ethnographic Error. In Colonial Situations, edited by George W Stocking, Jr, 109-134 Madison: Wisconsin University Press.

1995 Hunting and the Quest for Power: The James Bay Cree and Whitemen in the Twentieth Century. In Native Peoples: The Canadian Experience, edited by R Bruce Morrison and C Roderick Wilson, 101-128. Second edition. Toronto: Oxford Press.

Gaffin, Dennis 1996. In place: Spatial and Social Order in a Faeroe Islands Community. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press

Gunther, Erna 1928. Further Analysis of the First Salmon Ceremony. (Doctoral Dissertation) University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, 2, 129-173.

Jenness, Diamond, 1955. Faith of a Coast Salish Indian. pp 6-9. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum.

Marshall Thomas, Elizabeth, 2003. The Lion/Bushmen Relationship in Nyae Nyae in the 1950s: A Relationship Crafted in the Old Way. Anthropologica 45 (1): 73–78.

Nuttal, Mark 2007. Paper delivered at the meetings of the CASCA & AES, Toronto, May

Rose, Deborah Bird, 1992. Dingo Makes Us Human: LIfe and land in Aboriginal Australian Culture. Cambridge University Press.

Rumsey and J. F. Weiner (eds), 2001. Emplaced Myth: Space, Narrative, and Knowledge in Aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea, pp 233-245. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Taussig, Michael, 1980. The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. University of North Carolina Press.

Young Leslie, Heather, 2007. A Fishy Romance; Chiefly Power and the Geopolitics of Desire. The Contemporary Pacific Vol 19(2):tba.

    Creating a Better View
    Trees cut in Manoa valley, O’ahu, to improve the view to the ocean.