Carl Sauer Essay

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Carl Ortwin Sauer was an influential American geographer and has been characterized as the father of cultural geography. He received his doctorate in Geography from the University of Chicago in 1915. Prior to this he worked as a geologist with the Illinois Geological Survey, a map editor for Rand McNally, and as a teacher in Massachusetts. Sauer developed a great appreciation for the work of the French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache and others in France who espoused the importance of regions to geographical analysis.

Sauer contended that all regions have their unique landscapes that reflect the social processes and physical modifications within them over time. One of Sauer’s most important writings is “The Morphology of Landscape,” in which he presents a model of the derivation of a cultural landscape. Sauer insisted that the occupying culture group makes its distinctive imprint on the natural landscape of the region. The cultural landscape, Sauer contended, is fashioned from a natural landscape by the culture group. This article not only set the concept of the cultural landscape squarely in the center of the geographical arena, but also effectively ended the dominance of environmental determinism.

Sauer served on the geography faculty at the University of Michigan from 1915 to 1923 before relocating to the University of California, Berkeley, where he spent the remainder of his career. His work on the cultural landscape drew heavily on anthropological theories put forward by Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, Sauer’s colleagues at Berkeley, and the integration of ideas from the Kulterkreise School in Europe. His program centering on cultural landscape and human impact on the environment later evolved into cultural ecology.

Sauer was a dedicated and enthusiastic field worker. He believed strongly in the immersion of the geographical analyst. 0bservation of the environment and holding discussions with occupants of the region were invaluable, Sauer contended, in gaining insights about the land and people. In his article, “The Education of a Geographer,” Sauer reflected on his approach to fieldwork: “Locomotion should be slow, the slower the better; and should be often interrupted by leisurely halts to sit on vantage points and stop at question marks.” He was also an outspoken critic of governmental efforts to destroy wilderness areas. Sauer advocated against the forest industry practice of clearcutting, and he wanted a system in place to inventory valuable resources and to ensure their wise use.

Sauer’s work on agricultural origins was highly regarded. He theorized that southeast Asia was a likely center for agricultural development because of its extensive inventory of plant life. He also suggested that the cultivation of plants occurred in a number of different regions. This idea ran counter to the prevailing argument, which favored the notion of a single source region for particular plants. Sauer wrote on urban places too, and suggested that they were also cultural landscapes and reflected human society’s response to the natural landscape. His research on one occasion extended to the study of gerrymandering and the reapportionment of an unusual congressional district in Missouri. Sauer was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Alexander von Humboldt Medal from the Berlin Geographical Society in 1959, and the Victoria Medal from the Royal Geographical Society, London, in 1975, the year of his death.


  1. Carl 0. Sauer, “The Morphology of Landscape,” University of California Publications in Geography (v.2/2, 1925);
  2. Carl 0. Sauer, Agricultural Origins and Dispersals (American Geographical Society, 1952);
  3. Carl 0. Sauer, “The Education of a Geographer,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (v.46, 1956);
  4. Carl 0. Sauer and John Barger Leighly, Land and Life: A Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer (University of California Press, 1963).

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