Fall 2010

Reading Nature


Nicola Courtright (Sections 01 and 02)
Rick A. Lopez (Sections 01 and 02)


One of humankind’s greatest ambitions has been to understand, measure, and control nature, as well as imitate its appearance and harness its powers.  Scientists and artists labored over millennia to discover what they believed were principles and fundamental truths embedded in natural phenomena.  Rulers and citizens, masters and servants, scientists, craftsmen, doctors, cartographers, artists and historians traversed landscapes and seascapes. They mapped familiar and unfamiliar territories, documented their fauna and flora, wrote descriptions of them, and created microcosms and macrocosms of these spaces for the privileged to possess.    

The seminar will raise issues of how we know what we know about the past and about the world around us, and about how we think about, look at, and experience material culture and landscape. We will think about how we ask questions about human experience, about accumulated histories of power relations, and about change over time. We will hike through altered landscapes in the area, and walk around Amherst College to consider its design and place in the universe of education when it was founded.  We will visit Historic Deerfield and analyze its relationship to ideas about nature in the early history of the colonies, and contrast it with Louis XIV’s gardens at Versailles and their role in early modern absolutist control within Europe. We will examine how nature and the products of nature have been understood in the past, looking at botanical drawings and photographs in Frost Library’s Special Collections, rocks in the Natural History Museum, and art in the Mead Art Museum.

 Throughout the semester students will do close readings of visual and printed material, weekly will write brief analyses of historical sources, spaces, and images, and will design interdisciplinary projects of inquiry.  Students will be asked to hone and critique their own writing, speaking and thinking skills as the course progresses.

Fall semester.  Professors Courtright and López.


2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2010