The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Mapping Habitats

It can be difficult to conjure a mental picture of a place that existed over a century ago, but even places that are distant in time and space are made of the same elements that shape the world we inhabit.

One of the most important characteristics of the flora data is that it documents the habitat(s) in which each species of plant grew. The language of the primary source gives us a clear sense of the elements that composed the area around Odessa in the 1890s - of the meadows, sand, and coastline. There were marshes and rocky areas, gardens and riverbanks. We can almost smell the salt.

But here's the catch.

We don't know which meadows Shesterikov studied. We don't know which "sandy areas" he explored. We don't even know where the sandy areas were in the 1890s. When Shesterikov tells us he saw German madwort (Asperugo procumbens) growing in abundance along a roadside near the village of Gro├čliebental we can map the village but go no further. It's the equivalent of telling someone to go find the maple trees growing on "the street" in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If we don't know where the plants were, how can we map them?

This was the central conceptual and methodological challenge of the project. Our solution? We created a pairing between geographical and abstract space. To understand the approach, begin by consulting the treemap of the frequency of habitats listed in the Flora Odessa. Click or hover to reveal the number of occurrences of a particular habitat. Click again to clear the selection.

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