115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

NASA, Literary Landscapes, and a Fair Amount of Mischief

Patricia Hackbarth, Independent Scholar

The landscapes featured in many works of literature have been greatly altered in the years since they were written, by anthropogenic change, from resource extraction to development to climate change. Thus literature can be a powerful gateway for exploring the relationship between humanity and the environment we depend on. Online tools using satellite imagery offer a fascinating approach to exploring these changes. This presentation will demonstrate some uses of these tools to illuminate the human impact on the places at the heart of our literature and our lives.


Among the many roles that a landscape can play in a work of literature is that of a marker of the human impact on the land. Many works that were written years ago prominently feature landscapes that have become fundamentally altered in the years since, by a variety of anthropogenic processes. Steinbeck’s San Joaquin Valley has been made unrecognizable by many years of drought, driven in large part by climate change; Byron’s “deep and dark blue ocean” is more acidic, full of plastic, and losing its fish; Momaday’s grizzly, the very image of wilderness, is in trouble due to habitat loss, as is the glorious tiger of William Blake and Yann Martel. And sometimes, long-vanished landscapes like Cather’s tallgrass prairie and Faulkner’s bottomland hardwood forest are brought back, with great effort, in small parcels. Thus literature can be a powerful and revealing portal for exploring the relationship between humanity and the environment we depend on.

One of the best ways to investigate this relationship is through web-based satellite imagery. There are many user-friendly websites that feature both an immense forty-year-plus archive of images from around the world and a variety of tools for examining what they can reveal about the ways in which we have turned our vast and rich planet into an artifact of our presence here. Among these websites are some that display before-and-after versions of the same landscape, or a series of flipbook-style time lapse images; some focused on climate change; one with a measuring tool to better grasp the extent of the human impact; and one focused on literature itself.

We will take a look at some of these websites in connection with selected literary works and the alterations to their landscapes, to see what each can reveal about the other, and what our response might be.