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  • Climate Change and Landscape PreservationRethinking Our Strategies
  • Robert Z. Melnick (bio)

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Figure 1.

Although located in the same designed landscape, the birch and hemlock hedge at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site (NH) are experiencing different stresses believed to be caused by long-term changing climate patterns and impacts on the larger ecological system. 2014. (Photo by author)

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As we lean into the headwinds of this era of climate change, preserving cultural landscapes can sometimes seem confusing, difficult, and thorny. How might those who are committed to resource preservation, protection, and continuity respond and adjust to these long-building but only recently acknowledged developments? We live in a time when it might be easier to deny or avoid the reality of the impact of climate change on our resources, both natural and cultural. This issue of Change Over Time directly addresses, through theory and practice, the ways in which climate change is already affecting cultural landscapes that are significant, in some cases precious, and in all cases worthy of our attention, protection, and caring.

The response to climate change’s impact on cultural landscapes cannot be refined without considering a number of deeper and, in some cases, more deeply rooted issues and concepts. These stem not only from our collective frustration with forces that are well beyond our control, but also from long-held contradictions as we seek to contain, redefine, and disassemble the nature/culture dichotomy. In most cases, these issues could not have been anticipated in the Venice Charter (1964), the Historic Preservation Act (1966), the Burra Charter (1979), or other fundamental declarations of preservation/conservation tenets. In the dedication to protect critical and valued resources, climate change issues require that we be nimble and flexible, yet adhere to basic beliefs and ideals.

Cultural landscapes are a relatively recent addition to the historic preservation glossary. That issue has now been effectively settled, and does not need to be reargued here. Nonetheless, it is instructive to remember that cultural landscapes are often on the verge of historic preservation orthodoxy, even as the term has reached a level of often illinformed use and popularity. Not all old structures are historically important; not all cultural landscapes are significant.

Perhaps the most challenging concept in cultural landscape preservation is the fundamental understanding that change, unlike for most other cultural resources, is not merely tolerated; it is often an inherent and desired characteristic. “Landscape” is a noun and a verb; it is a “thing” and it is an “activity,” a “development,” or a “process.” Into this already complex mix comes climate change, those big, broad, often subtle, and sometimes overwhelming forces that moderate the very processes that have informed the cultural landscape.

As we settle more deeply into the twenty-first century, questions and concerns around climate change are clearly ever more pressing. Although it may seem that some [End Page 175] seasons are cooler, or wetter, or drier, or just as they have always been, the overwhelming scientific evidence is that we have, in fact, embarked on a period of substantial humancaused climate change. We need to look at and comprehend the impact of environmental change on the world we know and love. In many ways, it is a bonding of a humanities perspective and a scientific lens.

As with much science, research in climate change is as much an art as it is an exact discipline. We have come to expect, through lifelong indoctrination, that science most often has the right answer. This is, at best, an unreasonable expectation with which to burden those who experiment, take intellectual and professional risks, and seek answers that are often unimaginable or outside our accepted worldviews. We hear of “paradigm shifts,” but, as Thomas Kuhn reminded us, these are really revolutions in our thinking, not merely shifts.1 We need a revolution, and not merely a shift, in our thinking about historically significant cultural landscapes, their preservation or protection, and our response to human-inflicted changes to robust ecological systems.

The best science, it would seem, expects and accepts many errors, mistakes, and miscalculations on the way to establishing new understandings, new paradigms, and...


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pp. 174-179
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