What Is the Upper Valley?
Research project explores where the Upper Valley begins and ends.
Last month Garrett Dash Nelson posted the following message on various listserves in the Upper Valley:
The Observer was curious as to why someone would pose such a question. He got in touch with Nelson and posed a few questions of his own.
The Observer: Can you tell me something about yourself and the project? What do you hope to learn?
Garrett Dash Nelson: I just finished my PhD in geography at the University of Wisconsin, and my dissertation was about how people come to recognize some area as a "single" place. For instance, should we think of the area around the Boston Basin as just one place, a metropolitan Greater Boston, or is it better described a collection of many different places—Boston and Brookline and Revere and so on? That's a particularly thorny question for planners, because they need to define the scope of their work in terms of a whole area that makes sense to treat as a single object, both practically and politically. So my research focuses on the historical processes that give geographic areas a unitary identity, whether that's in terms of political borders, administrative zones, or a more popular sense of neighborly togetherness.
The Observer: Why are you studying the Upper Valley?
Garrett Dash Nelson: This fall, I began a postdoc position at Dartmouth College, and, when I moved, I noticed just how common it is for people here to refer to their sense of place in terms of a geographic object called the "Upper Valley." It's ubiquitous: in names like the DailyUV, the Upper Valley Land Trust, the Upper Valley Music Center, and so many others. But beyond a vague sense of the area being centered on the Connecticut River, nobody can really point to where the Upper Valley exactly begins or ends.
Now, one way to approach that question would be to conduct a kind of statistical geographic study: you could look at features like commuting patterns, social interactions, or even soil types to make a "scientific" decision about how to delineate a region. And geographers have been doing studies like that for a long time. But increasingly researchers are interested in understanding what people think about the places in which they live. Geographers have begun using interactive web sites where people draw their own neighborhoods (in Boston, for instance), or explain what they think makes up a metropolitan region (like in London). That's what led me to put this project together. Most of these other projects that use participatory mapping are focused on major cities, and I was curious what I might learn by doing the same thing in a rural area.
The Observer: Does your research have practical applications?
Garrett Dash Nelson: As far as the practical applications go, I think what's most important for regional planners to realize is that a sense of common feeling in the region being planned is absolutely essential for ensuring that the work of planning rests on a broad base of political support. This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for planning across wide geographic areas—the people in the planned area may not feel that they all belong to the same place. For instance, municipalities are often hesitant to develop recreational areas near their own borders, out of fear that the benefit will flow to the people who live (and pay taxes) in the next town over.
Planners may try to appeal to a larger community—the benefit of the whole region, or whole state, or whatever other geographic area. But if ordinary people don't feel part of this alternative definition of wholeness, they're unlikely to be convinced by these appeals. From a planner's perspective, then, it's absolutely crucial to understand the maps that people draw in their heads. That doesn't mean, however, that public opinion is a static, immovable thing; planners (and politicians, and educators, and artists, and so on) can shape the way people think about how their lives fit into a nested geography of neighborhoods, municipalities, regions, and the world at large.
For instance, in the administrative logic of the State of New Hampshire, most of this area belongs to something called the "Dartmouth–Lake Sunapee" region. But maybe, for instance, people in Plainfield might feel like they have more in common with people in Hartland, whereas people in Warner might feel like they have more in common with people in Concord. It's never possible to draw an absolute border that makes perfect sense—not even on an island. But paying attention to the ways that people imagine their own geographic connections helps suss out regional delineations that, even if they're not absolutely perfect, match with how people feel.
The Observer: You describe yourself as a “historical geographer.” What is historical geography?
Garrett Dash Nelson: Historical geography is all about understanding how places, and the people living in them, change over time: both how people transform the landscape and how those landscapes that we've created shape how we're able to live. Explaining the creation of regions from both a physical standpoint (like bedrock geology or forest ecology) as well as a cultural standpoint (like farming practices or land-development patterns) has been a concern for historical geographers since the discipline began to form in the late nineteenth century.
The Observer: What's the history behind the name and the concept of the Upper Valley?
Garrett Dash Nelson: I can't give an authoritative history of the Upper Valley, since I've only just begun to explore it in depth, but I do know that it's rare to see the term "Upper Valley" used in our modern sense before the early twentieth century. But certainly people were thinking about the upper valley of the Connecticut River as a geographic descriptor centuries ago. In fact, before the interstates and before railroads, the Connecticut River was an even more important orienting axis, so the towns in what we now call the Upper Valley were once really part of a cohesive whole where the river system formed the primary structure for settlement and development. The more modern concept of regionalism took hold in the first decades of the twentieth century, and river valleys were seen as one of the most promising templates for regional organization—both because of the technological promises of flood control and hydropower, but also because they seemed to offer a kind of cultural authenticity that was seen as countering the mass-market homogeneity that was coming out of cities at the time. In our case, the need for interstate cooperation between New Hampshire and Vermont made the Upper Valley a prime target for regional experiments, and it's around that time that our current thinking about the area as an integrated whole began to take shape.
The Observer: What has been your reaction to the responses you've seen so far? Has anything surprised you?
Garrett Dash Nelson: We've got about 25 responses so far, though I'd love to see more (the Boston and London projects, for example, have hundreds of user-drawn maps). It's striking how just about all of the maps bulls-eye the Lebanon–White River Junction area as the core of the Upper Valley. But there are some pretty different answers to how far out the region extends. Another interesting thing is the way that many people choose to follow town borders. I deliberately chose to overlay the town lines on the map to help people orient themselves. But I wonder whether if people might have drawn different shapes if they didn't have the town lines as a framework—if they only had a satellite or topographical map as the base layer, for instance.
The Observer: Is the Upper Valley mapping project part of your post-doc work at Dartmouth?
Garrett Dash Nelson: I’m continuing to work on participatory mapping and the way it helps us understand the way people imagine what kinds of areas they have “in common” with others. I’m not yet sure exactly how I will use the material from the Upper Valley site, but it’ll surely be incorporated into that research.
Where does our region begin and end? Draw your map of the Upper Valley at http://matinic.us/defining-uv/
Norwich, Hanover, Hartford and Lebanon are at the center of the Upper Valley.