Methods for Many Anthropocenes with Andrew S. Mathews

The August 2018 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Landscapes and Throughscapes in Italian Forest Worlds: Thinking Dramatically about the Anthropocene,” by Andrew S. Mathews, who is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This Teaching Tools post is designed as a resource for using the article to explore visual techniques for ethnographic thought and to consider the environment as a capacious concept. The post includes suggested learning goals, in-class activities, and supplemental readings, as well as an author interview.

Learning Goals

Students will develop and practice modes for ethnographic inquiry by analyzing visual and phenomenological methods and applying them to familiar contexts. After the lesson, they should be able to:

  • Analyze how ethnographic thought can reveal multiple aspects of one phenomenon, using the concept of the Anthropocene.
  • Experiment with visual methods and understand how they can be used to diagram and develop ethnographic materials, while demonstrating how different methods can produce dissimilar results.
  • Use the method of wondering to understand anthropological strategies of attunement and noticing in interactions between humans and nonhumans.

Analysis Exercise and Discussion

Deconstruct and reconstruct the two throughscapes—distinct landscape patterns that exist across and within a landscape—presented in the article via ethnocharette, using this helpful guide from the Center for Ethnography at the University of California, Irvine. Discuss the extent to which these throughscapes provide examples of an Anthropocene multiple, and use the concept of throughscape as a means to understand the article’s argument.

Comparing forests in 1843 and 2014: dominant tree forms on a transect walk from Cima di Vorno to Monte Faeta, Lucca. Images by Andrew S. Mathews.

Drawing Exercises

Drawing Infrastructure

Pick a charismatic building or statue on your campus, and have students draw a form of it, inviting them to identify details of the object that reveal aspects of its history or use today. Have students compare their drawings and use the drawings to tell stories about the object and its use or importance to campus life. Invite students to reflect on the ways that drawing infrastructure can reveal processes at multiple temporal and spatial scales, as well as how their practices relate to Mathews’s discussion of the anthropology literature on infrastructure in his article.

Discussion Questions/Writing Response Questions

Which features of the structure stood out, and what do these suggest about the processes of its creation and use on campus? How has its infrastructure changed over time, and how are these changes evidenced in the built form itself? How does your structure relate to others in its immediate vicinity, and in what ways do relationships between structures help reveal social relations? What traces of past events are embedded in infrastructure or its memories, and how can we render these traces present?

Drawing of a cultivated chestnut tree. Image and text by Andrew S. Mathews.

Drawing Plants

This exercise is modified from one that Mathews uses in his own courses. Have students split off into groups and go on a walk to investigate some natural objects. Have them hone in on one plant or other organism, taking a photo of it as well as creating a line drawing. Consider using social media tools from our post on “Teaching With Digital Technology” to collate students’ responses.

Discussion Questions/Writing Response Questions

How did your perception of the object you chose change between first noticing it and examining it more closely? How did completing your drawing change your understanding of the object, and in what ways do its depictions through photography and drawing reveal different aspects of it? What kinds of temporal processes does this object evidence, and what kinds of relationships between people, plants, and soils does it reveal? How has the object—and the features that you emphasized about it—changed over time, and through what kind of processes?

Author Interview

Julia Sizek: In much of this Cultural Anthropology article, it seems that drawing leads to wondering. How did wondering become a way of describing your method of investigation into the histories of landscapes and throughscapes?

Andrew S. Mathews: You are exactly right to notice wondering and wonder as what drives this piece. In fact, the wondering comes before the drawing. This is because I find that description is always incomplete, always speculative, and there is always more to notice. So form emerges as a pattern that captures part of what I have learned to see, and I try to show this as a drawing. What I like about drawings is that they show the incompleteness of knowing and representing. Drawing is a strategy for showing form and indeterminacy at the same time, for showing the instability of perception.

JS: While reading the article, I was also struck by how wondering’s near-homophone, wandering, came to mind despite not appearing in the article as such. What is at stake in wondering and wandering?

ASM: What I do is not quite wandering, because in the case of human/plant/soil interactions, I have a pretty good idea that the watershed will be a major source of more-than-human responses. High elevations are colder, have thinner and poorer soil, less in the way of human presence, and so on. I was deliberately walking from the valley bottom up to the top of the mountain and down to the valley floor on the other side.

However, it is wandering in the sense that when I started doing this, I didn’t really know very much about the landscape, so I was just guessing that this was a way to learn about the greatest possible range of plant/human/soil interactions. Watersheds are good places to think about human relations with the environment, even in cities. For example, a couple of years ago I walked from the top of the mountain outside of Oslo, where the ski jump is, down the mountain more or less all the way to the middle of town, and then from the middle of town all the way to the harbor, following the river. I got to see a tremendous slice of life, from expensive suburbs to repurposed mills, to urban squares in immigrant neighborhoods, to the opera house down by the sea. All in all, watersheds are a good way to get at human response to a range of slow (soil, geology, plant form) and fast (plant seasonal behavior, weather, human responses to all of these things) processes.

In all, this is a kind of structured wandering (like ethnographic research in general), where I allow myself to draw close to things I notice. I would use other preliminary structures of wandering to investigate cities, mines, ruins, and so on.

JS: Your article ends with a turn to the dramatic, asking readers to entertain multiple worldviews through the many storylines of the Anthropocene. In some ways, this is a call to both maintain irreducible complexity and to recenter historical processes as central to understanding contemporary politics. Whose work has inspired you in theorizing relationships between history and drama?

ASM: There is a strong tradition in science and technology studies of thinking about facts as enacted and performed before audiences. I learned to think this way from Sheila Jasanoff and Stephen Hilgartner. I have continued to see knowledge as performed, staged, and enacted in my work on climate change policy in Mexico. The thinking about drama comes from my own love of opera and theater (which I don’t get to see enough of).

I have been thinking for a long time about how to tell the dramatic lives of people who work in agriculture and in forests, and how we have to be very conscious of how we tell their stories, including those of the nonhumans with which they interact. More recently, literatures on the more-than-human and multispecies ethnography have made it possible for anthropologists to focus on relations between nonhumans as well. Oliver Rackham (2006, 9) has a beautiful line in his book, Woodlands:

This is not a book about the Environment. It does not pretend that trees are merely part of the theatre of landscape in which human history is played out, or the passive recipients of whatever destiny humanity foists upon them. This is a book about Ecology. It deals with trees as actors in the play, and with the multiple interactions between trees and the environment, trees and other trees, trees and other plants, trees and fungi, trees and animals, and trees and people. Unlike my previous books, it deals more with investigations than with results. For good or ill, I have no particular theory to promote.

But all of the thinking on drama is really just me reflecting on how theater, in particular, seems to allow us (me, at least!) to entertain multiple points of view. For me these could be pines, chestnut, soil, farmers. This also requires us to think about history as being multiple, that is, as not having just one storyline.


Rackham, Oliver. 2006. Woodlands. New York: Harper Collins.

Supplemental Readings

Carse, Ashley. 2014. Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hilgartner, Stephen. 2000. Science on Stage: Expert Advice as Public Drama. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Hustak, Carla, and Natasha Myers. 2012. “Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of Plant/Insect Encounters.” differences 23, no. 3: 74–118.

Jasonoff, Sheila. 2004. “Ordering Knowledge, Ordering Society.” In States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order, edited by Sheila Jasanoff, 13–45. New York: Routledge.

Wessels, Tom. 2010. Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape. Woodstock, Vt.: Countryman Press.