Freedom Rangers and Landscapes that Move People

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2020 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Daniel Schniedewind, University of California at Santa Cruz §

The present-day county government seal for my primary field site, Ulster County, New York.

ABSTRACT: The Hudson Valley of New York state is a region with a tradition of landscape valorization and conservation that figures prominently in the history of U.S. environmentalism. For a generation, land conservation organizations have reacted to a trend of farm closures by purchasing agricultural land. They justify this expansion of their prior commitment to preserving only “wild” landscapes through allusions to regional agricultural heritage. In this paper, I consider what is carried forth into the present through the pastoral landscape and efforts to preserve it. Since the dawn of the colonial period in the Hudson Valley, agriculture, especially animal agriculture, has constituted a powerful landscape-making assemblage, one both deeply dependent on racial slavery and uniquely implicated in (never-complete) attempts at Native displacement. Importing European farm animals and their associate organisms recomposed the region ecologically, enabling the proliferation of colonial settlement. Then as now, the remaking of the land is itself a site of politics and a means of realizing possible futures. Drawing from long-term ethnographic research, I describe how the affective experience imparted to some by the pastoral scene affirms a sense of place and belonging that obscures the indelible impressions of racial slavery and ongoing settler colonialism, legitimating segregation and the centrality of Whiteness in this celebrated landscape. Long-running, generative violence flows through everyday practices and affects, delivering the present despite blending into the seemingly ahistorical scenery. Addressing the persistence of settler colonialism, antiblackness, and White supremacy requires attention to a wider range of political scenes and actors than are often considered in studies of these formations.

This paper begins and ends with reflections on a fraught attempt to conduct ethnographic research with captive chickens, paradoxically called Freedom Rangers™, who lived on small-scale, organic animal farms in the Hudson Valley. Species difference and the violence of confinement led me to question the promise of interlocution and instead attend more expansively to the conditions of possibility of our undeniable if unsought relation.

I began with a basic question: why were the chickens here? Although my farmer interlocutors leased land from regional land conservation nonprofits, there was no obvious ecological rationale. Indeed, although the nonprofits generally prided themselves on operating in accordance with scientifically informed best practices, reports were all the time raising concerns about the role of agricultural expansion in exacerbating global biodiversity crises. There was no reason to think the situation was any different locally. Among other impacts, the native plant communities found in open areas in this part of the world cannot endure regular grazing and are rapidly replaced by European pasture plants once farm animals are introduced. Nor was the reason for the chickens primarily economic. While the farmers were capable and extremely dedicated, they had other career paths available to them that would have been more lucrative and less exhausting.

This recognition led me to ask what else the chickens yielded beyond a relatively small amount of meat and a modest profit. Local residents and tourists’ repeated descriptions of the sense of affective rightness they experienced at the sight of pastures like these led me to Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s (2004) insistence that animal agriculture in early colonial North America was never merely a matter of subsistence alone but rather a practice understood to exemplify Christian civilization. Pursuing this insight through regional historical accounts, I engage Ashley Carse’s (2014) proposal of landscapes as infrastructure in which materiality and more-than-human relations are reworked toward specific economic and political ends. Such endeavors, I argue, have an essential affective component. In the Hudson Valley, the achievement of this agrarian landscape infrastructure has moved some people literally, as through Native displacement and Black banishment, and others figuratively, such as through the visceral pleasure of beholding the consecrated scene. Through a discussion of how contemporary invocations of the cute and humane in relation to small-scale animal agriculture stabilize White self-understanding and perceptions of the past, I return to the prospects for my would-be more-than-human ethnography with the chickens. Here I suggest that the freight of history both limits the capacity for such research while also obligating specific forms of accountability.

This research comprises a portion of my broader dissertation project which altogether addresses long-term processes of Hudson Valley landscape generation through their entwinement with settler colonialism, racial slavery, and its aftermath. Beyond agriculture, I also studied alongside regional anti-invasive species practitioners as they contended with the accumulated fallout of centuries of species introductions motivated by colonial goals of biological improvement and replacement. Here too, particular practices of comprehending the past bore directly on the pursuit of present-day landscape ambitions.

Through this paper and the larger project, I engage scholarship from feminist science studies, Black studies, and Native studies in an attempt to stage a conversation about multidimensional legacies of violence, the figure of the human, and the power of its constitutive exclusions. Approaching the materiality of the landscape as a crucial site of politics and U.S. racial formations enables new insights on the extent to which White supremacy and settler colonialism bear on, for instance, the urgencies of species loss and habitat degradation. Finally, following the notable writing of Juno Parreñas (2018) and others, I was motivated to foreground the stakes of ethnographies of captive nonhumans given that, in the United States today, roughly as many birds live in conditions of confinement as do not.[1] Through pursuing a multiscalar approach, I try to mediate what sometimes seems like a tension between multispecies studies that either focus on the lived experience of small groups of nonhumans and those that address whole species or populations through a more sweeping historical register.


[1] The National Chicken Council (NCC n.d.) reports that over 9 billion chickens are killed in the US each year, whereas about 7 billion individual wild birds are estimated to breed in the continental US in a given year (Rosenberg et al. 2019).

Works Cited

Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. 2004. Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

National Chicken Council. N.d. “Broiler Chicken Industry Key Facts 2019.” National Chicken Council (blog). ( Accessed Feb. 8, 2021.

Parreñas, Juno. 2018. Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rosenberg, Kenneth V., Adriaan M. Dokter, Peter J. Blancher, John R. Sauer, Adam C. Smith, Paul A. Smith, Jessica C. Stanton, et al. 2019. “Decline of the North American Avifauna.” Science 366 (6461): 120–24.

Daniel Schniedewind is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of California-Santa Cruz. His current research addresses the human/nonhuman interface as a pivotal site of politics in relation to U.S. racial formations and nation-building.

This post is part of our series, 2020 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.