An Evening at The Uranium Drive-In

Courtesy Image © ReelThing Films

Courtesy Image © ReelThing Films

As my students are no doubt sick of hearing me say, my Environmental Issues and Insights course is very much about the collisions between science, policy, personal and communal economy, and culture. And because of my own disciplinary orientation I am drawn to case studies that have played out in the past and what they might tell us about the stormy present. Meanwhile, my history students are similarly weary of hearing me tell them that history has as much to do with the present as the past.

As good fortune would have it, that very history class meets in the evenings in the basement classroom of the Unity College Center for the Performing Arts—which also hosts an amazing film series in collaboration with the Camden International Film Festival and its founder, and fellow Unity instructor, Ben Fowlie. A couple weeks back I blew the whistle on class a bit early so my students, and their instructor could take in the film being screened upstairs. It was called Uranium Drive-In, directed by Suzan Beraza of Reel Thing Films. After the film Fowlie orchestrated a short Skype Q&A with Beraza, who took questions from students and faculty in the audience.

The film could easily find a place in the curriculum of any environmental studies course and for that matter any course in modern U.S. History, environmental or otherwise, as well. It centers on two communities in southwestern Colorado that grew abruptly in the mid twentieth century as technology created a marketplace for uranium, which the western slope of Colorado’s Rockies have in abundance. In the industry’s heyday, the product was so valuable and in such high demand that promotion of productive capacity outweighed concerns for worker safety. We had become aware of both the destructive military potential and the generative civilian energy-making potential of uranium—but hadn’t yet fully appreciated the devastating effects it might have on humans who came into contact with it, both directly and indirectly through ground and surface water contamination. The film depicts a community in which the suffering created by the uranium industry–its dangerous health effects, felt across generations, and the economic torture of its rapid growth and equally abrupt flight when high profile nuclear accidents and scares depressed the market for uranium–is profound. Somewhat shockingly though, much of the local community favors nuclear power and the siting of a new uranium mill outside their community, which will stimulate the reopening of the many mines in the surrounding hills. Their economic desperation is such that they are driven back into the arms of the very industry that created their plight in the first place.

Courtesy Image © ReelThing Films

Courtesy Image © ReelThing Films

In another interesting twist, that dramatizes nicely for students why environmental problems are so complex and difficult to unravel, it is the much wealthier resort community of Telluride, some miles north, but within the same watershed, that objects to the siting of the mill. In an odd sort of reversed NIMBY-ism, advocacy groups create barriers through lawsuits and injunctions to the siting of the mill, arguing that the likely contamination of groundwater will affect them as well. But this creates a troubling class divide between the lower class residents of these long-downtrodden communities, and the wealthier elites who have the means to think more about water quality than about mortgage payments and how to keep the lights on. In the film, the company seeking to establish the new mill almost fades to the background as the conflict that emerges is between desperate communities willing to cast their lot with any scheme that will create jobs and relieve economic hardship, regardless of its dubious legacy, and the elite environmentalists who attempt to sympathize with their situation, but inevitably come off a bit aloof and inauthentic in their concern. As Beraza described, and her film makes clear, her objective here was not so much to take sides, but to demonstrate the problematic nature of the sides themselves and how good people with the best of intentions all, come into conflict with one another over our emerging environmental scenarios.

But the most profound element of the film for me was nostalgia. As an historian I suppose it’s impossible to not have a somewhat honed radar for people’s uses and manipulations of the past for their own purposes—whether motivated by capitalism, comfort, or pride. This film looks backwards and forwards at the same time, while reporting upon a very troubling present. Rather late in the film we are shown footage from an old drive-in movie theater, which was called, yes, the Uranium Drive-In. As it happened the heyday of the drive-in movie theater matched up quite nicely with the prosperity and opportunity (albeit with heavy costs) of the uranium industry. Later in the film, when it becomes clear that any immediate plans for siting the mill have been abandoned and the community recognizes it will need to look elsewhere for more modest forms of economic opportunity, they decide to resurrect the old sign that pointed to and announced the drive-in. I was unclear as to whether they intended to reopen a drive-in movie theater, or merely to celebrate the sign as a landmark and a commemorative symbol of more robust economic times.

Courtesy Image © ReelThing Films

Courtesy Image © ReelThing Films

Either way, there’s a compelling ambiguity in the film because I get the distinct impression we’re supposed to be inspired by this—to appreciate the community’s resilience. But what I get is the exact opposite! After sympathizing with their plight for more than an hour, it’s here that I want to smack these people around! Creating a monument to the uranium industry and its era is as stupid as creating a monument to a drive-in movie theater…and this was BOTH! Nostalgia is a powerful force and one that can hold communities together. But at a certain point, are we using it to hold together communities that shouldn’t exist any longer? Industries and economies shift. I recently heard someone say (though I can’t remember who or where or in what context) that when the automobile became mainstream no on cried for the guys who made buggy whips! At what point do we need to accept that the past is past and that future prosperity is possible, but sometimes not in the same places, and certainly not by the sheer force of willing it to be so. And certainly not by trying to resurrect industries that became obsolete for a collection of very practical reasons—as both uranium and drive-in movie theaters did! I have the same reaction when I see disaster footage on TV, and people four and five times bitten by forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods promising to rebuild, for no other reason than because it’s what they’ve always done!

Perhaps it’s ironic for a historian to sit here and rail against nostalgia—maybe it’s actually unsustainable to do so. It’s the nostalgic who tend to be most interested in the things me and my friends have to say! Nonetheless, who better to notice its effects and warn against its potential to apply counterproductive force? Is it odd for an historian to advocate looking forward and not back?

The trajectory of the film nicely encourages the viewer to get lost in paradoxes such as these and debate internally and externally, as I, sometimes haplessly, encourage my students to do, the ethical dilemmas that circulate just above our toughest environmental questions and conflicts. Uranium Drive-In is a fantastic film that uses emotion and story-telling to challenge viewers assumptions and priorities and encourage a greater appreciation for nuance, and the complex place that history occupies in the sensibilities of environmental actors.

Historians in the Wild!

When we first began this blog some three years ago we came out of the gate with energy and enterprise but no particular direction.  We were interested in the possibilities that blogging presented both in terms of interacting with the profession and its players and in priming the pump of our own creativity and research.  But we quickly lost steam because what we discovered was that while we had energy we had no purpose—which allowed the blog to quickly become subordinated to other responsibilities whose purposes were more clear and immediate.


Papago Park on the border of Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona

A few months later after some soul-searching and a great deal of discussion, I wrote a post that, while never widely read, helped us to better understand what we were trying to do and articulate our intended place in the academic blog landscape.  It was a happy accident that spring conference season rolled around not long after and we were able to forge a readership among environmental historians that quickly blossomed into a more general higher ed audience as our posts varied from archival and field work reflections to commentaries on the work of other bloggers to think pieces on mentorship, peer review, research, writing, and teaching.  That key post that launched our subsequent wave of blog productivity was called Portage Ahead.  I attempted to recast our somewhat arbitrarily chosen blog name as more of a metaphor for our particular places in the industry—which while not identical, were pretty similar.  It described the Stillwater River as a slow moving backchannel to nowhere which offered some pleasant scenery at times, but to the paddler represented a laborious few hours spent making very little actual progress, while the main stem of the more robust Penobscot flowed with purpose towards a more obvious outlet.  We thought this nicely captured the sensibility of the advanced ABD and the recent PhD graduate cobbling together opportunities that really weren’t and facing choices between building CVs and actually making a living.

ASU downtown

Arizona State Downtown Phoenix Campus

However, as we kind of predicted it would, the orientation of the blog shifted as our own professional situations changed.  About a year ago something happened that complicated our originally articulated purpose:  Katherine got a full time job!  The Stillwater, it turns out, can actually lead somewhere if you navigate it the right way.  Who knew?

Suddenly the things we were inclined to write about just didn’t jive with the trajectory of the blog as it then existed.  But part of what makes blogs great is that they are fundamentally malleable.  They can advance and retreat as circumstances dictate and as their authors and editors see fit.  While the blog has gone quiet in recent months, the discussions that have always animated it have not.  And what we’re finding now is that another interesting potential theme has surfaced.

Katherine went to work at the Barrett Honors College of Arizona State University where she now teaches courses in an interdisciplinary honors sequence called Human Event.  She is also developing upper level honors courses in her area of research specialization—but these, also, are not technically or exclusively history courses.  I have begun teaching at Unity College, which proclaims itself to be “America’s Environmental College.”  While I did get assigned a history course for this semester, I was initially hired there because I had experience teaching sociology.  I was hired to teach an intro sociology course last fall, which then blossomed into an opportunity to teach courses in an emerging core curriculum sequence called “Environmental Citizen.”  This sequence focuses heavily on writing and communications and interdisciplinary approaches to environmental issues and problems.  I was considered an attractive candidate to teach the “Environmental Issues and Insights” course because I had a sense of historical perspective as an environmental historian and because I had taught writing intensive, interdisciplinary courses in the Maine Studies program at the University of Maine for several years.  That experience, no doubt, compelled the members of Katherine’s search committee as well—as we’ve both taught Maine Studies courses on and off for better than five years now.  It also hasn’t escaped our attention that, while we both come from the same place, Katherine now works within the largest university on the planet, while I work at a place where yelling might actually be more popular than text messaging because it’s not actually possible for anyone to be out of earshot!


Memorial Union at ASU in Tempe, Arizona

So it turns out that the things that have made us marketable are the things we have done outside the history department.  And, from our admittedly narrow experience, the best opportunities for historians like us (those with solid training but an absence of alluring institutional brand names) and probably many others, are also appearing outside the history department.  The department itself continues to scrape and grapple to sustain its very existence in the face of administrative consolidations and dwindling faculty lines that are seldom created and even more infrequently replaced.  Humanities advocates write hand-wringing op-eds, the President backhandedly disses art historians, and aspiring academics shiver while followers of #altac multiply before their very eyes!

We don’t believe that it is the mark of surrender for historians to hold fast to academia while looking beyond the traditional department structure.  Consolidated departments are looking for the more well-rounded thinkers and teachers who can meet more of their needs.  Research centers are being created every week with applied and interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems.  Many recognize the need for historical thinking.  Others have an enormous need for it, but also need someone to demonstrate that to them.  Historians can, have, and do insert themselves into medical schools, law schools, public administration schools, art and communications departments, climate change institutes, and any kind of project or initiative that purports to explore connections between problems, policies, people, and cultures.  Every time a new “studies” field gains office space and letterhead, a new opportunity is created for trained historians.

unity signIncreasingly, these historians—ones teaching honors courses, freshman orientation courses, composition courses, intro social sciences courses, gen ed sequence courses (see Ken Pomeranz’s presidential address to the AHA), any community college courses, or courses in cultural, Judaic, media, peace and justice, American, regional, African-American, women’s, or environmental studies—are reaching more students and creating more historical perspective and awareness in places where its most needed, than those in traditional history departments.  That’s not to say I think we should give up the ghost on the history department, but I think members of those departments and those who steer our professional organizations need to be mindful of this influence and seek to enhance it.  This involves promoting a culture wherein we have to advocate for our own worth just like everybody else.  The history department doesn’t deserve to die, but the notion that history has some sort of intrinsic value that is above evaluation, scrutiny, and critique needs to be eradicated.  And historians need to enter the profession with a more nuanced, better articulated narrative of their own importance.  And we need to begin to think about integration into other departments less as an administrative failure and more as an epistemological opportunity to advance historical understanding in places where we’ve so often maligned its absence.  We may also need to think about some adjustments to the basic culture and conventions of our discipline that will make our professionals compare more favorably with those in other disciplines –who may have taught more, published more, and been more involved in garnering grants.

So Stillwater Historians 3.0 is all about historians in the wild!  Historians who don’t teach history.  Historians who might actually have better job security while lacking tenure.  Historians doing jobs their mentors may not have envisioned for them.  And historians who feel they can create greater historical literacy amongst students and other scholars without dragging the cinder block of antiquated departmental structures.  We’d like to promote a conversation about how historians and their professional organizations might both support their departments and encourage them to prepare their progeny for academic careers in other ones and in new forms of administrative structures.  The people who study change for a living need to be better at recognizing it and adapting to it in their own backyards.

We have submitted a proposal to the AHA for 2015 for a discussion of just such issues.  We’ll be blogging about some of them between now and then.  And if our panel doesn’t get picked up, we’ll use Twitter to convene that discussion in the hotel bar instead—since we’re talking about adjusting conventions, that might be a more appropriate venue anyway!

Stephen King’s Green Frog: 5 Things I Learned from On Writing

FrogI drove by Stephen King’s house today to take a picture of his frog.  It’s about three feet tall and a blue-green color.  The sculpture, in the corner of King’s front lawn near a cluster of small shrubs and manicured flower beds, is my favorite part of his landscaping. King’s house in Bangor, Maine attracts lots of tourists and I doubt many of them see the frog in the corner.  Every time I drive by there are a few cars with out-of-state plates snapping pictures of the big red house and metal gate.  The house probably looks spooky to visitors but if you’ve spent any time up here and paid attention to Bangor’s “eclectic” architecture you’d realize that if it were two streets over King’s house would be carved up into fifteen apartments and rented out to  Husson and UMaine undergraduates.  The house is surrounded by a metal fence with a beautiful gate that serves as a backdrop to hundreds of tourist snapshots.  The gate is, I imagine, what visitors expect to see when they drive by King’s house.  It’s about five feet high, arched and tastefully decorated with gargoyles and spider webs.  I doubt Stephen King’s green frog makes it into most of the tourist snapshots yet it is well worth checking out as it will surely bring a smile to your face. S King 2

King has been on mind this past week as I just finished his fabulous book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  I haven’t read that many of King’s novels.  I can think of three: Carrie, The Eyes of the Dragon and half of The Shining and that was way back in high school.  I assign a King short story, “The Reach,” in my Introduction to Maine Studies course (one of my student’s favorite assignments) but beyond that King doesn’t cross my radar that often.  When he does it’s usually because of his philanthropic work and generosity to the local area.  On Writing isn’t a typical King novel.  In fact it isn’t a novel at all.  It’s a very personal and highly instructive meditation on writing.  The book is as much autobiography as it is writing manual and that’s where the appeal lies for me.  King’s immense body of work has wide appeal but this book, like the green frog, tends to get lost between the metal fence and the red house.

fanceMaybe it’s just that this early in the summer I’m still under the illusion that I’ll get some great amount of writing done before the semester starts back up or maybe I’m doing some subconscious fall syllabus planning already.  Either way, this book is resonating with me right now and I have pulled out a few important pieces that are, I think, worth pondering.  These points are applicable to everyone who puts finger to key in an attempt to communicate with others and I think the rhythm and style of this book make it accessible to everyone from first-year students to seasoned writers.  Although King is writing about fiction his points are universal and nonfiction writers could learn a lot from On Writing

Kings’s book is full of ideas worth spending some time on but I will mention five that I wrote in my notes:

1. “If you write. . . someone will try to make you feel lousy about it.” And it will probably be more than one person.  There is, I think, an overabundance of pointless criticism especially in academia.  I’m not talking about legitimate critique here or rigorous analysis of argument and evidence; both are of great value and very instructive. I’m talking about the criticism that boils down to: “Why didn’t you write this book/article instead of the one you wrote” and the implied end to that sentence “if I wrote that book/article it would be so much better than yours.” We spend so much time ripping things apart that we forget how to put them together (just ask any ABD mired in year seven).  This is a problem.  It’s easy to miss value when our default position is to devalue.  I worry that we model this behavior for students and suck the joy out of their lives.  Teaching critical analysis is important but don’t be a joy sucking academic; stop mistaking critique with intellectual insecurity. I think it makes students (and colleagues) tentative in their own writing.

2. “When you write a story [or monograph or journal article], you’re telling yourself the story. . . When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” This one seems self-evident but we are all guilty of it.  It’s hard to let go of a great footnote or colorful story.  It helps if you have an editor and a strict word count but it’s still hard to let go.  The ability to let go is a learned skill, especially important for grad students trying to finish a thesis of dissertation.  If you can’t let go of the extra stuff you will never finish. Stick to the story!

3. “[P]ut your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” I’m wondering how many of you reading have your desk in the middle of the room? I don’t even have a writing desk.  I wrote the beginning of this post at Giacomo’s in Bangor sitting at the only available table and I am finishing it in bed.  For me writing is a job, not a passion.  Like doing laundry and picking up the dog shit in the back yard it has to be done. It isn’t my life and it isn’t my love and it isn’t my baby (that would be my dog Piper).  For others writing is the very essence of life and they think my mechanical approach is sacrilege .  Writing propels many people I know and they anguish over every word, sentence and paragraph. Writer’s block might as well be physical paralysis. As graduate students we learn a very skewed and  demoralizing set of things about writing: (1) I should be writing all the time (2) when I am not writing I am proving that I am nothing more than an impostor (3) my value as a human being directly correlates to the number of words I write each day.  It’s hard to move out the number-of-words-equals-my-value model but I don’t think it’s possible to write anything of value if you don’t. Even if you like having your desk in the middle of the room give King’s point some thought.  You may find it liberating.

4. Writing is telepathy. King takes all of four and a half pages to explain what writing is and really, he is just expanding on the point that it is a telepathic experience. “We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room. . . except we are together. We’re close. We’re having a meeting of the minds.” I think what resonated with me here is that this is really a statement about the importance of conceptualizing audience.  For most of us the audience for our written work is five other people (plus our moms).  More people read my blog posts than will likely read all of my academic work combined.  I think academics would do well to spend time thinking about readers and potential audiences.  We certainly don’t spend enough time writing for broad audiences.  Thinking about writing as a meeting of the minds not bound by time and space is powerful.

S Kings books5. “Writing fiction [or a monograph or journal article], especially a long work of fiction [or nonfiction], can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self doubt.” Fear controls so much of our actions especially when it comes to writing. It makes us turn to the thesaurus for a $10 word because we doubt our vocabulary (King discourages this) and causes us to trot out reams of adverbs to temper every claim we make (King will come to your house and scare the crap out of you if you don’t lay off the adverb usage). We show our drafts to others begrudgingly and always couch our submission in apologies that the format isn’t perfect or the narrative isn’t polished or the conclusions are still tentative.  Being tentative, like being scared, or suffering from imposer syndrome is exhausting.   Be realistic and brave.

And next time you are in Bangor, Maine go take a picture of yourself in front of Stephen King’s green frog.

Academic Clean Sweep



Over the course of the semester I acquire tons of paper. I have stacks on the kitchen table, on my nightstand, even in my car.  The stacks live at home with me. I dust the stacks on Saturday mornings and I rearrange them the other six days of the week. The stacks are towers of notes, papers, homework, articles I should read, forms, flyers for events I did and did not attend, handouts, folders, left over copies of the syllabus, essays and God knows what else.  I don’t know how it’s possible that I still have stacks considering that I do virtually all my communicating electronically and my students submit all their work electronically. I get invited to events electronically, look for articles electronically, read electronically and fill out forms electronically.  The accumulation of stuff and psychological implications of hauling things around are on my mind this summer as I get ready for a cross country move.  Just how much of this stuff do I need to take with me and how do I avoid similar such accumulations when I arrive?

All of these televisions are nicer than mine.

All of these televisions are nicer than mine.

At the end of every semester I go through the stacks and I cull.  I have been performing this pseudo-religious rite since the end of my first semester in college.  As an undergrad and graduate student I looked forward to the May day when I could go through a semester’s worth of crap and organize it into binders with neat handwritten labels.  I arranged my binders and then sat back and marveled at how much knowledge I had (theoretically) added to my brain.  Binder day is second only to the first day of classes in my hierarchy of best days of the year.  As a faculty member my ritual is very similar.  I revisit the semester, I organize and I file, I shred and I store. But this summer I am on a slash and burn mission consolidating binders and throwing away as much as humanly possible while trying to create a plan for how to effectively go paperless.

Plastic things to carry other plastic things

Plastic things to carry other plastic things

For others the end of the semester is not so much about filing and labeling as it is about ditching, dumping and donating.  Students don’t have much time to clear out of their dorms up here on the banks of the Stillwater.  As soon as finals are over they have about a day to vacate (graduating seniors have a bit longer).  What remains in their wake is an epic first-world wasteland of consumer goods.  The overworked and underpaid custodial staff sorts and clears what remains and gets the dorms into some sort of livable shape unreasonably fast so that the first rounds of camp kids, visitors, and summer program residents can move in.  Some students simply walk away from the semester, hands in pockets.  I don’t just mean they leave half-used containers of shampoo.  For some, leaving it all behind and walking out the door is the best way to organize one’s semester.  But maybe I’m not giving enough credit.  Maybe some leave with a flash drive in hand containing all they need to know from Spring 2013.

Oh the many homeless books.

Oh the books…so many homeless books.

Some years ago the universities decided to start selling off all the left over stuff that the custodial staff removes from dorm rooms.  The Clean Sweep sale, as it is called, is a fascinating event that I attended for the first time last week.  I bought the two volume set of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages for $1.00 and had my sights set on a new desk lamp but without luck.  The sale attracted dozens of people who could purchase everything from textbooks to televisions, clothes to crutches. There was a table devoted solely to wires and cables for connecting everything from iPods to car batteries.  Another table covered in desk organizers and more shower caddies and bed risers than you could shake a stick at. There were rugs, shoes, appliances, kids toys, stuffed animals, decorations, enough  Christmas lights to decorate the coliseum and so many clothes (many still with tags) that the staff must have trucked them in by the bale on a forklift. And there were books; so many books.

Crutches and vacuums

Crutches and vacuums

If this is what they leave behind what do students take home? My guess is laundry and as little else as possible.  Is this stuff they brought with them, or stuff they accumulated over the course of the year?  What process of culling and sorting do they use? Have students figured out how to reduce a semester to a flash drive’s worth of space and, if so, why the hell am I still creating binders?

In upcoming posts this summer I will be writing more about my move from the University of Maine to Arizona State University.  The logistics of an academic move are complicated and, like moving from any other job, require some planning. Added to the logistics of a 2,900 or so mile drive from Vacationland to the Grand Canyon State it all makes for a wide array of blog topics. I’m currently deciding how to manage the flow of student work as this cross-country move offers an opportunity to ditch old methods of storing, scoring and sorting.  I do virtually all my grading digitally and students submit work to me digitally but I know there are areas where I can increase efficiency and streamline processes.  As I put together the syllabus and reading lists for my fall classes workflow will be on my mind and the opportunity for an academic clean sweep will be the goal.

Have you moved recently? Did you make changes to your work life? How did it go?

Reimagining the North Atlantic: Marine #Envhist at #ASEH2013

Just back from this year’s American Society for Environmental History conference in Toronto.  As always it was a tremendous conference and all the more interesting to me given the emphasis on Canadian issues and landscapes and the increasing proportion of marine environmental history panels being featured.  One of them I was fortunate enough to participate in–called “Reimagining the North Atlantic: Borders and Boundaries” featuring Bill Parenteau, Suzanne Morton, and myself with commentary from Richard Judd.


From left to right: Suzanne Morton, Bill Parenteau, Robert Gee, and Richard Judd

Tina Loo and Tina Adcock were good enough to share some thoughts and highlights of the panel on Twitter.  I have compiled those into a Storify that can be found here.  Also, if you’re interested in the Twitter stream from the conference generally, Sean Kheraj has aggregated it and made it available at his own blog at For anyone more interested in our panel now than they might have been at 8:30 on a Saturday morning, I have provided the text and audio from my own paper below and I’d invite comments, feedback, and continued discussion in the comments to this post.  You can find some of my earlier thoughts on research at Grand Manan in Burning the Church: High Drama and Elusive Truth in Local History

“A Vile Calumny”: Local Fisheries, International Waters, and Scientific and Institutional Theories and Practices at Grand Manan

Grand Manan Map

Map generated from

As may be fairly common, I have some profound frustrations with what I feel are shortcomings of my dissertation project—and this is a manifestation of a couple of them.  The work looks at nineteenth century fisheries management in New England and the Maritimes and develops three parallel narratives that trace the developments of marine science, the development of institutions, and the implementation of enforcement mechanisms from the 1820s to the 1890s.  While I identified these as the three critical ingredients to management and this approach, I think, enables me to satisfy the demands of my most basic argument—that fisheries were, in fact, managed during the 19th century—the approach inevitably leads to what often strikes me as somewhat hapless efforts to parse out the three into unique narratives, when, in fact, they are inherently intertwined in a variety of complex and colorful ways.  So I need an approach that enables me to make the basic argument, but to also explore with greater depth and nuance the relationships between these three basic components—and of course add the complexity and the color back in.  Nancy Langston just the other day challenged us to “think like a microbe,” and while I hadn’t thought about it in those analogical terms I think the picture I’m proposing and that I’ll try to provide a preliminary sketch of here today is in that spirit.  Sean Kheraj followed up with a somewhat awkward use of the term “biogeography.”—though I’m not sure if the awkwardness was in his delivery of the term or the way it rattling around in my head.  But my sense was that what he was really driving at was not biogeography so much as a geographical biography—and the need to perhaps mold a snappier term around that concept.  But what Kheraj and Langston were advocating, in the context of explorations of Canada and the United States in environmental history, was precision of place and acknowledgement and interrogation of ecological eccentricities but with a continual awareness of the social, political and diplomatic dynamics of the border.  In short, that’s what I’ve been wanting too.

The development of institutions in management regimes requires deploying the best available knowledge and information about the resource and the area in which it’s extracted.  Very often we find science and policy related because science begets policy that is, ideally, informed by its findings.  But frequently we also find scientific inquiry initiated by policy and the need to assess the effectiveness of management regimes or minimize transaction costs.  This was the case for the Royal Commission that visited Grand Manan in 1836.  The Commission was made up of six assemblymen of the Province of New Brunswick, two of whom represented Charlotte County, in which jurisdiction the island lay.  In 1831, responding to calls from island fishermen, the Province enacted a law preventing fishing at certain seasons in an area that was identified as a spawning ground for the herring.  The Commission hoped to determine what, if any, positive effects had resulted from passage of the law in an effort to discern the origins of local herring.  In the absence of precise classifications of fish, it was known that fish very similar if not identical to the local herring of Grand Manan frequented a wide range of shores and near-coastal banks both in North America and Europe.  What couldn’t yet be known was whether these were locally specific stocks in which the same fish migrated to and from the same spots or if herring were universally the same, emanating from some great northern herring place and migrating indiscriminately about the northern hemisphere.  If it could be shown to be the former, it would then need to be accepted that local stocks could be irreparably damaged by interruptions in those critical annual cycles.  If the latter theory held, there was little to legitimate laws to protect local abundance when that abundance was dictated by dynamics far beyond any local jurisdictional authority.  The Commission interviewed local fishermen, predominantly elders, who could speak to fluctuations in abundance before and after passage of the law.  A couple things emerged.  On the one hand there seemed to be some consensus that catches of herring had improved in the first three or four seasons after passage of the law, but that those improvements had been tempered more recently as lax enforcement and disinterest, in their view, resulted in declining abundance once again.  But what also emerged was a set of distinctly self-interested theories of ecological abundance.  Elders seemed to think that around 1822 was when islanders and fishermen from away began to introduce larger nets into their herring fishery.  Prior to that they had primarily fished by “torching”—a technique pursued at night and based on the theory that herring were attracted to light, fishermen mounted a torch at the bow of an open boat and took the fish in dip nets when they came towards it.  Not surprisingly by the mid-1830s Grand Mananers were wedded to competing theories of resource decline:  the torch fishermen blaming it on the nets, the net fishermen chalking it up to torching.(1)  Even in 1836 stock assessments were as political as they were scientific.  But the Royal Commission also noted that here was a fishery with abundance far beyond the ability of islanders to exploit it, that it had already attracted outsiders from St John, the Annapolis Basin, the southern coast of Nova Scotia and the United States.  This would problematize management efforts for generations.


From the Univ. of Washington digital “Freshwater and Marine Image Bank”

The geology, geomorphology, and hydrology of the marine spaces adjacent to Grand Manan make them comparatively nutrient-rich.  Vertical and horizontal mixing of currents of various origins, temperatures, and salinities due to the drainage of major river systems in the region, the position of the island at the outlet of Cobscook and Passamaquoddy Bays and the Bay of Fundy, and the ecological dynamism occasioned by the planet’s most dramatic tides and tidal currents make the region enticing to small fish like herring—and as islanders noted regularly in their petitions to the legislature and their testimony to the several commissioners, surveyors, and natural historians who visiting the island, the health and abundance of small fish like the herring ensured them access to larger fish like cod, haddock, hake, and pollock, which pursued the herring into near coastal spaces and within the range of the small scale fishermen of the island.  They recognized that by acting to protect spawning grounds for the herring, they were, by extension, protecting both the diversity and sustainability of their fisheries more generally.

John Robb visited Grand Manan in 1840 and described the population there in the most wretched terms—a place favored by incalculable richness in marine resources but a population so lacking for basic education, public health and necessities of life that it was unable to sustain the spirit of enterprise and industry required to access it.  Robb was a Royal Navy Commander charged with fisheries protection, and from his view, the islanders inability to adequately participate in their own fishery was a problem in its own right, but the bigger related problem was that other users groups were filling the void and were inclined, as outsiders, to exploit in irresponsible ways.(2)  What’s more it was creating informal definitions of access rights that it would be very difficult to undo without an overwhelming investment in enforcement to impose new institutional arrangements.

Fishing the Herring Weirs, from the "Freshwater and Marine Image Bank" at the Univ. of Washington

Fishing the Herring Weirs, from the “Freshwater and Marine Image Bank” at the Univ. of Washington

In 1851 Moses Perley was on Grand Manan—also at the behest of the provincial government to conduct his noted survey of the Fundy shore, which was the chronicle of a journey that took him and his son from Grand Manan to Brier Island, circling the entire shore of the Bay of Fundy and describing its several fisheries.  Perley’s descriptions of the Grand Mananers could not be more different from Robb’s.  Perley described an industrious people carrying on a robust fishery despite laboring under disadvantages of scale with respect to their neighbors across the channel.  Part of his objective was to make recommendations to the province for how to both expand and protect the fishery—a seemingly paradoxical mandate that would be systematically cast on every fisheries commission and committee throughout the nineteenth century and at just about every jurisdictional layer. (3)

In the early 1850s Grand Manan was not only building itself into a minor fishing power, it was also becoming a diplomatic football in ways that would have both geopolitical and local significance.  The British objective was to gain trade concessions from the Americans and many, though certainly all, in the Maritime colonies of British North America were willing to trade access to their inshore fisheries for access to the ever-growing American marketplace.  But before they could sell that access to the Americans, they needed to demonstrate that they could actually prevent them from just taking it.  They needed to assert their ability to restrict American fishermen from the territorial seas around the region—Grand Manan and the Fundy Isles became a particular focal point of this effort, due not only to its proximity to the border (itself only clarified 10 years earlier by the Webster Ashburton treaty), but to the fact that islanders had more extensive kinship connections to Maine than to New Brunswick, and that based on these they had built informal commercial networks predicated on co-ownership, cooperation, and smuggling.  When the British Navy assigned a fleet to go to the Fundy isles and impose order and a strict interpretation of the Convention of 1818, which defined access rights on paper, if not so much in practice, they were asking them to dismantle some intricate informal networks of collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and commerce that were two generations or more in the making.  Their task was virtually impossible, but the paper trail of their hapless efforts to perform it, are absolute gold!!(4)  They found vessels that were co-owned by British subjects and American citizens, with split crews so they could justifiably fish in Canadian waters and sell their catches at Eastport, Maine.  They found British vessels with American registries, American vessels with British registries, vessels with dual registries, vessels with no registries, and vessels with multiple forged and fabricated registries that were carrying multiple flags to boot.  They seized American vessels in British waters only to get to the admiralty court in St John and find everyone on board was from Grand Manan—and because you can only try a person and not an object, it was difficult to argue that islanders were fishing illegally within sight of their own homes.  On top of which, the Royal Navy patrols were ill-suited to duty in the Bay of Fundy.  They didn’t know the area and had difficulty navigating in and out of the tiny inlets and harbours of the coast with their over-sized men-of-war.  The much smaller schooners evaded them with ease.  Fog and heavy winds, which natives of the region recognize as near constant, gave them fits, and, as several commanders complained, they had no support among the locals whose interests they were there to protect.  In some cases, the islanders were more invested in noncompliance with fishing laws and treaty provisions than the American were.  Just when Navy commanders managed to bank some local knowledge of the coast and of the people, they were reassigned to duty elsewhere in the vast empire.  Commander Kynaston reported that the cause of protecting the fisheries would be greatly advanced by enabling protection patrols to gain some familiarity and remain in their duty long enough to actually use it.(5)

The Reciprocity Treaty, I argue in my dissertation, needs to be reimagined as a resource management treaty.  Economic historians have pretty well exhausted the questions of who benefited from its trade arrangements and why.  We need now to understand the various dynamics relating to the redefinition of access rights in the fishery.  The opening of the inshore grounds by international agreement, created (or at least exacerbated) serious problems at the local level in the Maritimes, and Grand Manan was no exception.  With other user groups allowed inshore, islanders needed to take further steps to ensure the long term viability of stocks—which meant more vigorous protection of the spawning grounds.  The Charlotte County wardens appointed Daniel McLaughlin an overseer of the fisheries.  Like the Royal Navy commanders, though, his troubles were many.  His payment was slow in coming when it came at all.  As a subcontractor he was paid out of the salary granted to the Charlotte County wardens James Brown and John Alexander—which meant he wasn’t paid until they were.  Often wardens pay was supplemented by receiving a cut of the taxes collected on weirs and other fishing apparatus and fines levied against offenders.  But there was nothing and no one to make fishermen pay the taxes when they were levied—and if the warden wanted to get a constable to help him collect, that cost came out of his own pocket.  As did the legal fees paid to magistrates when they brought offenders up on charges.  So they only collected if they secured a conviction…short of that they lost money on performing their duties.  Magistrates were often unable to be found, and even more often unwilling to convict or even try offenders.  As was the case on Grand Manan, the magistrates were invested in the fishing industry…some of these guys worked for them.  Daniel McLaughlin attempted to keep trespassers off the spawning grounds off the southern head of Grand Manan by rowing, each night around the grounds, often seizing nets set there illegally.

In 1853 Samuel Buchanan, a fisherman from St John, complained to the Provincial Secretary that not only had McLaughlin seized his nets on the spawning grounds, he had, in doing so, deliberately overlooked the nets of Grand Manan fishermen set nearby.  “Mr. McLauchlan does not give the same Law to all parties,” Buchanan wrote.  He openly admits in his letter that he was fishing illegally on the spawning grounds, but asks that Partelow open an inquiry into the uneven conduct of the local overseer.(6) McLaughlin promptly answered Buchanan’s charge, proclaiming that he had never heard of Buchanan, let alone seized nets from him—“a vile calumny,” he called it.  The only nets he had seized that season on the spawning grounds belonged to Captain John Trecarton of the schooner Princess, also of St. John.  As evidence of his own impartiality, and of the inherent difficulties of his work, the Princess was actually being piloted at the time by Randall Smith of Grand Manan.  Smith was not only a neighbor of McLaughlin’s, he was also the Deputy Sheriff of the island, one who might be expected to be more of an ally than an obstacle when it came to enforcing the law.  McLaughlin also stated that since the law had passed in 1851 he had seized a total of eight nets, half of which belonged to residents of his own island.  McLaughlin’s zeal and watchfulness when it came to the spawning grounds was widely hailed by the wardens to whom he reported, the captains of Royal Navy cruisers who patrolled the region, and local fishermen.  He told the Provincial Secretary that “if Mr Buchanan lost any nets it was not by me & if he Fished on the Spawning ground unknown to me he must be a skillful poacher.”(7).

The need for specificity of place is not something we need to remind ourselves of as environmental historians generally.  But as marine environmental historians, I think a nudge in that direction is not without some utility.  We have made some noble efforts to dismiss the notions of vastness and mysticism in which the ocean was so long wrapped.  We need to go further and recognize that marine locality is critical to understanding a fishery.  Even just the limited observations of Grand Manan that I’ve provided here demonstrate how science, policy, and enforcement were intertwined in numerous ways…in the nineteenth century very often those charged with enforcing the laws were best situated to make systematic observations both of ecological phenomena and the human behaviors that accompanied them. Such forays into not just bioregionalism but a more focused “geo-biography” (still clunky) enable us to place collective action dramas into the more complex narratives that are better reflective of the stages upon which they actually took place.  Connections between science and policy become more realistic and nuanced, but we also make more room for TEK and LEK systems and the importance they held within communities and the ways they shaped more conventional approaches to advancement and dissemination of scientific understanding.  It enables us to better understand resource communities that sought to maintain moral economies while at the same time escalating management responsibilities to higher authorities with more power and means but less ecological sensitivity and far less local credibility.  It even opens pathways for marine environmental historians to begin to incorporate gender as some of the anthropological studies of eastern fishing communities in Canada For all its analytical merit, bioregionalism can easily lead to a homogenization of fishermen, a simplification of their motivations, their interests, their complaints, and their conflicts.  A collection of ecological biographies of place that depict the evolving relationships between people and resources offer more promising prospects for my own work and may provide an effective avenue for making better sense of the various ecological, national, jurisdiction, territorial, and organizational lines we draw through the sea.

1. The Royal Commission report can be found in a number of places, but a good compilation of the committee report, the rebuttal of the two Charlotte County representatives (who refused to endorse the conclusions) and the testimony of the fishermen from Grand Manan is in The Grand Manan Historian volume 8 (1964) under the title: “Report of a Royal Commission on the State of the Grand Manan Fisheries (1836).”
2. John Robb’s report to the assembly  appears in the 1841 Journals of the Assembly of the Province of New Brunswick and in The Grand Manan Historian volume 9 (1965), under the title: “The Robb Report: state of the fisheries, the condition of the lighthouses, the contraband trade, and various other matters in the Bay of Fundy (1840)”.
3. Moses Perley, Report Upon the Fisheries of the Bay of Fundy, (Fredericton: J. Simpson, Printer, 1851).
4. Many such reports appear in printed form in the Journals of the House of the Assembly of the Province of New Brunswick for 1852 to 1854.  Several more such reports, however, can be found in the collections of Provincial Secretary relating to fisheries: RS 564 A 1852, 1853, and 1854.  Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.
5. Kynaston to Seymour, October 22, 1852. RS 564 A 1852. PANB.
6. Buchanan to Partelow, October 11, 1853, RS 564 A 1853. PANB.
7. McLaughlin to Partelow, October 28, 1853, RS 564 C 1853. PANB.

Thanks to Rob Gilmore of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick and especially to Ava Sturgeon of the Grand Manan Museum and Archives for their research assistance.  Also to Mark McLaughlin, Jason Hall, Teresa Devor, and Katherine O’Flaherty who have listened to me work through some of these ideas and contributed their valuable thoughts and ideas.  And to the Alice Stewart Lecture Series of the University of Maine’s Canadian American Center for giving me an opportunity to test drive an earlier version in advance of the Toronto meeting of the ASEH.

Digital History Notebook

And just like that, January is over…only three and a half more months of winter to look forward to up here in central Maine!  I would prefer some snow to the frigid cold of last week and unseasonable warmth of this week.

I declared January Digital History month here at Stillwater Historians in part because I am in the early stages of designing and planning an undergraduate and graduate course which will incorporate digital history and digital tools (more about those later in the semester).  To wrap up what turned out to be a fabulous month of thought and planning I wanted to provide a set of links that will prove useful as you think about your relationship to and place within the digital humanities.

Add Some #digitalhistory to your class

Aha! Moments at AHA #THATCamp

Now Trending in Scholarly History Journals: #eternalreview, #cycletosubjugation

5 Ways Blackboard can Help You (and Your Students) Stay Organized and Engaged

Am I a Digital Historian?

History Carnival 111: Environmental History Edition

Digital History Hoarder

Digital Ecology: Landscapes of Learning

Microblogs and Metahistory

QR Codes

Digital Humanities Related Texts/Articles I read this Month (and may incorporate into future classes):

Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees Verso, 2007 (ISBN: 978-1844671854)

Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005 (ISBN: 0812219236)

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What is Digital Humanities and What is it doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010)

Michel, Jean-Baptiste, et al. “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books.” Science 14 (January 2011): 176-182.

Sample, Mark. “The Digital Humanities is Not About Building, It’s About Sharing”, May 25, 2011


Thoughts on Public & Digital History: Measuring the Diversity of Immigration using the Old Bailey Online 1674-1834

Debates In the Digital Humanities

DH Grad Course Reflections

Online Teaching: For Naught or Skill to be Sought?

Digital Humanities, Academic Camps and Boundary Commissions

Add some #digitalhistory to your class

Edith Knight Moulton, ca. 1900

Image available at The Maine Memory Network

It’s the first week the semester up here in the snowy north and classes are underway. I’m teaching four this semester: two are small, great books courses in the Honors College and two are larger, focused on the state and cover a range of topics.  This week I talked about the Aeneid,  Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” and Maine’s open land tradition and it’s only Thursday!  Next week it will be Zimbardo, Weber, more Aeneid, and Maine geology.  The diversity is fun, the reading is time consuming but the great students I see every day make it all worthwhile. I bring bits and pieces of one class to the next and I use examples from one discipline to make points in another.

I use lots of examples and show students lots of visuals in my History, Sociology, Honors and Maine Studies courses and I am always on the lookout for interesting ideas and new ways to present information.  I think there is something really powerful about sitting down with students and going through a complex text or set of documents and then taking a look at some of the ways others have analyzed that same text or document set. Take the Aeneid for example.  The text is fascinating and we could spend an entire semester going through it. But equally fascinating is the life the Aeneid has had over the centuries. Take for example Aeneas’ Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci or “Dido’s Lament” sung by Soprano Jessye Norman which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  Anneke van Giersbergen does a version that is equally haunting.  Then there’s that scene in Troy where Orlando Bloom gives Aeneas the sword or the part in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the Trojan rabbit.  There are hundreds more but these all crossed my mind this first week as I sought ways to make an ancient text come to life and to remind my students that they are not the first ones to enter a dialogue with this text.  For centuries creative people have been using new tools to understand the Aeneid and to add layers to its history.

I really like having students think through the use of “tools.”  By “tools” I simply mean things that help us accomplish tasks.  Tools could be theoretical frameworks employed to analyze an issue, casting Orlando Bloom as Paris because he is kinda dreamy and his face fills theater seats, close reading of the opening stanza of the Aeneid and comparing it to the opening stanza of the Odyssey to see if there are differences.  Tools help us know additional things and we have to decide if what we learn augments our understanding. The key with students I think is to point out the tool, talk about the tool, historicize the tool and point out other tools that produce different results.  I have used images, maps and audio video clips since I taught my first class way back in 2003 but over the past few semesters I have integrated more examples of digital history–examples that go beyond the tried and true image/video/audio and allow me to talk a bit more about how historians do their work. Whenever I can find examples of scholars using new tools I try to keep a list.  Those bits and pieces can fit so nicely into a lecture or discussion just like a painting or a piece of music or a YouTube mashup.

In honor of January being Digital Humanities Month here at Stillwater Historians I thought I would share a few examples of digital work that I introduce my students to and find particularly useful in a range of classes.  There are quite a few ways you can integrate these pieces into your class to augment discussion.  These examples are very basic and don’t require you to have any advanced technical skill to use.  Your own content expertise and a little research on the tool and creator is really all you need to creatively add these, or similar pieces, to your course.

If you are interested in some very basic tools that will get you started in the world of digital history you can read about six easy to use tools that will form the basis of any digital history toolbox at Summer Project: Start a Digital History Toolbox . You can also read a little about my recent trip to THATCamp AHA 2013 here and follow along with me over the next several months as I begin to think through my courses for fall. I would love to hear about examples you use that work in your courses.  Please feel free to add links and ideas to the comments section.

Many interesting digital projects use historical data sets to visually  communicate change over time and place. These visualizations can be more effective than static images or even videos in communicating scale to your students. In addition, these kinds of visualizations allow you to talk about the sorts of information sets historians use and what they (and we) can learn from manipulating data.  Visualizations also offer a great way to start a conversation about the limits of data manipulation.  I think students enjoy these kinds of conversations  and learn quite a bit while becoming more digitally literate.

1. Westward Expansion: A really nice example of a historical visualization in Derek Watkins’s Visualizing US Expansion Through Post Offices. Watkins explains on his blog that he: “scraped post office location information from the USPS Postmaster Finder, and then extracted lat/long coordinates  by correlating place names to the USGS GNIS.” The result is a dynamic map that my students really like. I have used this with undergrads and graduate students successfully.  Undergraduate students at UMaine are fascinated not so much by westward expansion but by what they called “northern expansion.”  Not surprisingly, many were more focused on the number of post offices opening in Maine than in the mid-west. They did try to follow the post offices as they opened along the transcontinental railroad and were surprised by how many post offices opened on the west coast when there were relatively few in the mountain west. Watkins provides a bit of information about the limitations of his data on his blog and provides quite a bit more information in the comments section underneath the post.

2. Drop the Bomb(s): One of my favorites is the Nuclear Detonation Timeline. It runs about ten minutes and comes complete with creepy sound effects.  Pop it up on the screen in your US II class and let it run in the background while you talk about nuclear testing.  The Timeline shows over 2,000 nuclear tests between 1945 and 1998, a staggering number of which take place in the  American Southwest.  The volume of tests and explosions is sobering and I think will raise lots of questions in your class.  I also like this visualization because the map the creators use places the Pacific Ocean and not the US in the center, something that students don’t often see.

3. Spatial History: You can find a nice set of projects at Stanford’s Spatial History Project.  I particularly like the Chinese Canadian Stories project which is a collaborative endeavor that is designed to be “a one-stop web portal dedicated to collecting, digital archiving, accessing, and distributing information about Chinese Canadian history.” In an immigration history class or even a survey this type of information is a great way to talk about movement…that is the physical space migrants cross.  I also like to use this example as it allows me to talk about Canada and the US in comparative fashion, something I think is essential when discussing immigration.

Again, these sources (like all sources) have limitations and talking about those shortcomings with students is very useful.  We all want to help our students be critical consumers of information and this is a good place to start. Get them talking historically and encourage them to consider sources, perspectives and presentation of data.