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[Detail] Yosemite National Park, Mirror Lake and Mt. Watkin

5. Humans and the Environment

This collection offers a unique opportunity to explore the complex relationship between humans and the environment in the early modern era of United States history. Browse the Subject Index for a sense of the variety of land uses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sample items from subject headings such as arboretums, Chinese gardens, factories, forest reserves, open spaces, playgrounds, skyscrapers, and streets and consider the following questions.

  • What do these images reveal about Americans' relationships with, and attitudes toward the environment?
  • What evidence is there of an attitude toward the environment as a supply of natural resources?
  • What do the photographs suggest about people's awareness of their own impact on the environment?
  • Do the images reflect a belief that the environment is something to be protected or managed by humans?
  • Is there evidence of reckless disregard for the environment?
  • What do the images suggest about people's opinions about the beauty of nature?
Ford Steel Factory

Ford Plant Steel Factory, River Rouge, MI.

Chinese Garden

Chinese Garden, Canandaigua, NY.

You can consider these materials and the attitudes they reflect within a broader historical context through the collection, Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920 and its Special Presentation of a timeline. What does the timeline tell you about the effects of economics and politics upon land use? For example, how did these factors effect the creation of national parks? Search on the term national park in American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920 to retrieve representations of federal parkland in the United States.

  • What is the nature of the relationship between people and the environment, expressed in the creation of national parks?
  • How does this relationship compare to your own experiences in national parks?
  • What values and economic and political conditions do the existence and uses of national parks reflect? Do the parks attempt to preserve or conserve national landscapes?
  • Which communities do national parks serve? Is access equally available to all Americans?

The American Memory collection Mapping the National Parks can be used in further research of national parks.