Resituating and Resounding Interdisciplinary Research on Past Environments through Historical GIS

Scroll this

This is the fourth post in a five-part series showcasing the research coming out of three projects hosted at Nipissing University’s Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP) and supported by Kirsten Greer, Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Histories and Geographies of the Semi-Peripheries.

A few years ago, Kirsten Greer invited me to collaborate with the Empire, Trees, Climate team at the Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP). This invitation has since led to my involvement as a postdoctoral fellow in several interdisciplinary projects – from the environmental histories of climatological research stations to a community-based partnership with Dokis and Nipissing First Nations, museums, and northern Ontario universities. I am grateful to work in relationship with so many bright, caring people connected through shared interests in reparatory histories and reimagined archives.

I’m a cultural geographer with interests spanning sonic geographies, community-oriented research, and feminist and decolonial methodologies. Through my work at CUSP, I have become more involved in historical geography (and environmental history) projects, with particular attention to the colonial legacies of geographical knowledge production.

I came to the Historical Geographic Information System (HGIS) projects with some faded memories of GIS analysis from a couple of undergraduate courses at Brock University (I learned GIS on IDRISI from the late Alun Hughes, who was a local historian at heart). Given my critical-cultural geography training, I arrived with an appreciation for critical cartographies and place-based storytelling. And, I wanted to help bring a more multi-sensory experience to the storytelling through sound layers. I will return to this “re-sounding” of places and maps later in the post.

It’s impossible to distill such expansive projects holding years of interdisciplinary research and substantial data into one blog post (see previous posts by Megan Jee, Cary Mock, and Adam Csank for a more nuanced picture). In what follows, I reflect on what using the platform has taught me about doing interdisciplinary research, including its potential to (re-)situate and (re-)sound environmental histories.

(Re-)Situating Interdisciplinary Research

A key part of mobilizing research is situating research.

As a researcher on a team with many sprawling – but connected! – projects, I have frequently returned to these Storymaps when writing articles, grants, or presentations to help re-orient myself with key points of intersection and divergence. Here, when my weary brain cannot connect the dots, I will be reminded of what 19th century hurricanes have to do with the British North Atlantic timber trade, McGill field stations, eels, and/or Nbisiing Anishinaabeg territory. Often, the connections lie in historical processes of (de-)colonization, environmental change, and more-than-human assemblages.

Screenshot of a GIS interface with terrain map of Barbados (left) featuring pinpoints with photographs (below). Right: comparison of archival and contemporary photographs of a windmill.
Figure 1: Situating archival and field research locations on a basemap of Barbados. Megan Jee used a widget to create a “spatial slideshow” of photographs from a 2018 research trip alongside archival material.

The HGIS platform illuminates geographical connections not only within individual research but across multiple projects, contexts, and knowledges. Users can choose to engage in-depth with one specific research question, but they will also find conversations between places (Nbisiing, Halifax, Chicago, Bermuda, Barbados) and between different material elements (hurricanes, treaties, “talkative” trees, bird calls, and ship logbooks – as seen in the hurricane module below).

A picture of an archived ship logbook.
Figure 2: Ship logbooks as material histories, part of the Historical Geographies of Extreme Weather Events module.

The HGIS modules shape how I think about the spatial and temporal relationships produced in and through research. I typically think about my own contributions as “background” work, but upon revisiting the modules I realize that behind-the-scenes efforts become foregrounded at different times and through specific applications. Such fluctuations are often user-directed, but this dynamic sense of spatial awareness is also shaped by GIS technicians. This includes Megan Jee’s use of particular tools and widgets when designing the layout – transparency sliders, time sliders, embedded photo slideshows, cascading landscapes, audio-visual clips that play and stop as the user scrolls, and more. Indeed, so much of the work Megan did “in the background” has profound effects on the overall experience of the interface (see her post in this series for more on the tools and techniques she used).

Screenshot of a GIS interface with layers of maps, data points, pop-up images.
Figure 3: Vantages of Bermuda interactive map, which uses Basemap and Swipe widgets to layer, compare, and re-spatialize digitized research materials. (Screenshot via Megan Jee)

Working with the CUSP team has shown me that there are many different ways to communicate historical-geographical relationships through HGIS, blurring representation and creation, human and non-human, digital and material, then and now. The CUSP Storymaps respatialize and retemporalize the many research projects coming out of Nipissing – at times collapsing the myriad people, spaces, and energies of research into one “click” of a URL, while also opening up an expansive terrain of ideas, data, media, and voices. As I explain, sonic methods are also important components of re-spatializing historical research.

(Re-)Sounding Histories

Much of my past work has been dedicated to challenging the silencing of more-than-visual interpretations of place and space, with a specific emphasis on sound. Consider how the term “geovisualize” – which is used often when discussing HGIS practices – reveals the deep connections between geography, mapping, and visual knowledge production.

Without dismissing the importance of visual knowledges, we can ask: what does a longstanding focus on visualization do for other kinds of knowledges that exist beyond – or in conversation with – the visual? What might it mean to sonify environmental knowledges? How do maps listen, and how might we listen to maps? Who or what else might be included in a more multi-sensory telling of environmental history?

In establishing preliminary sound layers as part of the broader Empire, Trees, Climate project-archive, we invite users to help us think through those kinds of questions (and more).

Interface of GIS layer called "Echoes of Bermuda" including splash screen with text and album cover image of oil barrels on a beach.
Figure 4: “Echoes of Bermuda” submodule with a splash screen introducing the layer. On the left, an image of an album cover provides further context for the title and draws connections between Caribbean soundscapes, imperial hauntings, and energy landscapes.

We started with a modest goal of building our own project archive of sound recordings available through existing digital archives. For the Echoes of Bermuda layer, most recordings were of the Bermuda petrel (or “cahow”), a bird considered a key part of the island’s cultural identity, particularly through the sonic environment. Working with Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, we assembled audio recordings, attribute data, and visual material for all Bermuda petrel recordings in their digital database. The library’s detailed spreadsheets (including recordist’s name, equipment, location, species names, types of calls, weather conditions and more) were lightly edited and entered into the GIS. These written and oral notes accompanying the audio clips serve as their own environmental historical records that might have otherwise gone overlooked.

As I wrote in a previous Empire, Trees, Climate post, soundmapping is one method for engaging sonic imaginations of the past. It also presents alternative ways of remembering sounds and sound-makers (e.g., Bermuda petrel); mapping biodiversity loss (in conversation with historical geographies of imperial trade and settler colonialism); and documenting and possibly directing conservation efforts (e.g., spatialities of the Cahow Recovery Plan prepared by conservation officer Jeremy Madeiros).

Screenshot of GIS pinpoint with audio pop-up box, image of a Bermuda petrel (bird).
Figure 5: Clicking on a data point in the “Echoes of Bermuda” layer opens a box with audio recordings of a Bermuda petrel accompanied by attribute data. Historical bird recordings have also been used in recent conservation efforts. Click the image to hear this recording through Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library.

The HGIS platform therefore serves as a small archive or repository of digitized auditory material, a sonic form of spatial analysis, and a space for multi-sensory storytelling. The projects also present opportunities to think critically about the historical role of sound, listening, and vibration in environmental knowledge production (see, for example, Kanngieser 2015). If users listen carefully, they can hear much more than the mediated sounds of the recorded birds. The layer also amplifies a more-than-human sense of polyvocality through: a) “ambient” environmental stimuli (gaining a sense of wind patterns and how roaring winds contribute to the island’s sonic environment); b) the voices of both archivists and sound recordists, including William (Bill) W.H. Gunn, one of Canada’s most prolific recordists (Figure 6); and c) “vibrant materialities” (Bennett, 2010) of sound recording and recording equipment, which can be heard through the audio clips from 1968-onward.

Screenshot of GIS pinpoint with audio pop-up box, image of a Bermuda petrel (bird).
Figure 6: Listeners can also use the sound layer to hear and compare histories of field recording, primarily settler listening. Click the image to hear Bill Gunn and David Wingate’s recording of Bermuda petrels in 1968 through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library.

An appreciation for the modules’ functional capacities to host and layer a variety of auditory media cannot dismiss the importance of critical listening to such media. These projects are in many ways tied together through an objective to document and critique historical geographies of settler colonialism, which also silenced Indigenous knowledges based in orality/aurality.

As Laura Cameron and Matt Rogalsky urge through their work on the life geographies of settler-recordist Bill Gunn (2017; hear also “Into the Middle of Things”), analyzing past recordings as a way to understand histories of (settler) listening-recording must be done with a critical ear and an acknowledgement of listening positionalities and relationships. Like Cameron and Rogalsky, my thinking on “settler listening” this has been enriched by Dylan Robinson’s brilliant book, Hungry Listening (2020), which insists on attending to critical listening positionalities as part of decolonial listening practices.

If HGIS presents opportunities for (counter-)mapping environmental histories, then critical listening must be part of the process – regardless of whether or not auditory media is consciously integrated.

Remaining critical about the violent histories of colonial cartographies, we can also use platform to trace, document, and actively counter-map the legacies of settler colonialism (see Hunt & Stevenson, 2017), including scientific knowledge production. Users can think critically about repurposing colonial geographical tools and spaces, such as maps, recordings, and archives, to reimagine or reclaim place. For some, this means re-purposing aerial photography for a community beading project of Lake Nipissing as an act of relationship and reclamation. For others, it means amplifying previously silent – or silenced – cartographies.


Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.

Cameron, L., & Rogalsky, M. (2017). A Day in Algonquin Park: William WH Gunn and the circadian audio portrait. Organised Sound22(2), 206-216.

Hunt, D., & Stevenson, S. A. (2017). Decolonizing geographies of power: indigenous digital counter-mapping practices on Turtle Island. Settler Colonial Studies, 7(3), 372–392.

Kanngieser, A. (2015). Geopolitics and the Anthropocene: Five Propositions for Sound. GeoHumanities, 1(1), 80–85.

Robinson, D. (2020). Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. U of Minnesota Press.

Feature image photo by the author

The following two tabs change content below.

Katie Hemsworth

Dr. Katie Hemsworth is a settler scholar and current postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP) at Nipissing University, situated on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg and within lands protected by the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850. She collaborates on several community-based projects through a partnership with Dokis and Nipissing First Nations, museums, and northern Ontario universities. Her postdoctoral work, “Sonic historical geographies: Listening for soundprints and echoes of the past,” explores sonic imaginations of past environments, with a focus on listening and de/colonization. She has a PhD in Human Geography from Queen's University.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.