–L. P. Hartley
In my introduction to the undergraduate history major, we read John Lewis Gaddis’ The Landscape of History, wherein he discusses the fundamental problem of trying to put ourselves in the shoes of people we can never meet and whose thoughts we can only guess at. My recent research trip to Argentina highlighted for me a related problem that environmental historians must face: the difficulty of looking at a present environment that can be just as fundamentally different from the past as historical people were.
The course of my research trip took me crisscrossing the pampas and northern Patagonia on double decker busses with big plate glass windows opening up a sweeping panorama of the areas I passed through. Although it was my first substantial experience outside Buenos Aires, I had read enough travelers’ accounts to recognize most of the names of the places we stopped – the colonial frontier guard of Luján, the outpost city of Carmen de Patagones, founded thousands of kilometers from the next settlement, and the seat of a powerful indigenous group at Trenque Lauquén. Despite the tacit knowledge that these places had grown into bustling modern cities I found myself somehow surprised by the parking lots and electronics shops. Even more than that, I was disappointed to not be able to experience the vastness of the Pampa that evoked sublime horror in European visitors (at least in the places I passed through). Instead of the unending sky and open plains I found lights in every direction, chic modernist houses, and the famous native grasses tall enough to hide a man on a horse replaced by alfalfa, soy, and corn (Fig. 1). The harried frontier soldiers who spent days or weeks on horseback carrying the messages that ended up in the archives I visited would scarcely recognize my experience of zipping from the capital to tierra adentro in a matter of hours in an air-conditioned bus.