History Carnival 111: Environmental History Edition


Hello and welcome to Stillwater Historians and to History Carnival 111.  As advertized this month’s event has an environmental theme, but tries in earnest to maintain the Carnival’s great tradition of breadth in bringing together amateurs and professionals, eggheads and enthusiasts.  While the Carnival Big Top is notably vast, environmental history is a similarly big tent, embracing interests in activism, science, policy, literature, agriculture, industry, resource extraction, use, and conservation, and landscapes ranging from mountains to plains to rivers to oceans to cityscapes.  Researchers consider topics focused on the smallest microorganisms to the largest whales, animals, vegetables and minerals, stories set on single properties and whole continents, and time sequences from momentary to millenial.

Part of the impetus for proposing an environmental-themed Carnival was to honor the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s iconic work, Silent Spring.  In our work of compiling this month’s Carnival we’ve discovered some other notable anniversaries as well.  Carson’s dual genius was that she managed to demonstrate interconnectedness and do it in terms that a popular audience could find both comprehensible and compelling.  Her chapters brought together the elements of nature that scientists so often study individually, and her book as a whole brought together audiences of scientists, citizens, politicians, and activists and moved them to address modern problems.  There are lessons there that far transcend Carson, her time and her topic, and can inspire us all as citizens and scholars, readers and writers.

We’ve selected a variety of different types of environmental history, some of which the writers themselves might not even think of as environmental history.  In many cases choosing but one post from these tremendous blogs was difficult–so we’d encourage you to spend some time scouring through each one to see what else folks are writing and thinking about.

Let’s start with some animals:  Johnathan Grandage has a blog worth watching at Florida Memory.  In addition to this post on stray animal legislation, he promises an upcoming story to accompany these great film clips from the Everglades in 1928.  Colin Tyner looks at horses in Japan, and conflicts over how the animals were used, and therefore bred, by competing stakeholders.  And at the NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment) blog, The Otter, Jennifer Bonnell looks at bees and beekeeping.  In each case the author is focused not only on the animal itself, but on its variously useful and uncomfortable coexistance with humankind.

And where you have animals you inevitably have, um, well… I’ll just let Natalie Bennet at Philobiblon tell you what you have.  From Grant Davies at Cheeky History we have a light-hearted tale on a similar theme, but one that touches on issues central to many environmental historians: urban planning, public health and epidemiology.

One common trend among environmental historians is the effort to historicize contemporary landscapes–to understand the historical impetus, be it industrial, natural, even geological, for scenes we see around us.  Some call this ground-truthing.  Catherine Knight at envirohistoryNZ takes us on a descriptive and photographic tour through time and Te Horo, New Zealand to understand the origins of the “turnips”.  Meanwhile, Mark Gardner takes on a similar type of romp through a rather different sort of landscape in Rhode Island, checking out some old mills.  Some of the ideas he’s thinking about, particularly the notion of streams and waterways as different kinds of borders, would be of keen interest to Adam Mandelman, who uses his own research on wetlands and “Porous Places” to think through some ideas about a “physical borderlands” approach.

Mark and Adam are both doing some mapping in their pieces.  Technology has enabled environmental historians to become much more sophisticated in using maps for visualization, storytelling, and analysis.  Some great examples, (because it’s about time we got a little salt water in our hair) are Matthew Booker’s piece at Ant, Spider, Bee, which looks at San Francisco Bay and a recent story by Craig McClain from Deep Sea News, which maps ancient coastlines, corresponding soil types, racial demographics and voting patterns in an extravaganza of GIS layering.  And finally, Josh MacFayden brings aerial photographs into his GIS and uses his findings to correct assumptions about historic land use on Prince Edward Island.

Natural boundaries and political ones don’t always correspond and have a cheeky tendency to complicate one another.  Canada and the United States share a long border and a long history of discord over Canadian resources and the American appetite for them.  Oil and water are two examples that crowd our history books and our newspapers (though the northern neighbour privileges them more in both places).  Dan Macfarlane’s piece on the Niagara region addresses such issues (and features this Carnival’s only trapeze artist!).  Sean Kheraj looks at the history of oil spills in Alberta, while Lauren Wheeler writes about local responses to such environmental catastrophes and the inability, in this case, of local activism to prevent them.

As the international community has moved to understand and address global environmental crises, so have historians sought to chronicle and critique its efforts.  The environment, we find, plays its role in issues of diplomacy, as it does in matters of war and peace.  Mike Egan’s brief post looks at the landmark UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm on the occasion of its 40th anniversary.  Jamie Lewis of the Forest History Society, or the “Mad B-Logger” if you prefer, tells the story of Archie Mitchell and his experience of two wars, one of which featured the little known Japanese balloon-bombing designed to spark forest fires in the American interior and the efforts of the “Triple Nickles” to prevent them.

What I find most compelling about environmental history is that it is forever looking both inwards and outwards–thinking about its own boundaries and thinking about the efforts of humans and historians alike to construct nature and interact within it.  Alice Bell provides a nice example in a very recent post, in which she ponders fabrication, what is real and what we make to look real.  At AmericanScience, Dan Bouk offers a blog post in the form of an interview with Michael Pettit, whose interesting work on raccoons and psychology nudge those boundaries ever outward.  And Jacob Hamblin provides a nice introduction to a roundtable on Evolutionary History at his blog, which includes links to the contributions of the four panelists as well.  Just as many are using mapping technologies to explore new questions, environmental historians are also using social media to share their work, interact and collaborate.  Wilko von Hardenberg’s piece on the use of these tools is a great example of environmental historians being introspective as well as retrospective.

No exploration of environment today could be considered complete without some mention of climate change.  Fortunately, environmental historians have risen to this challenge as well, exploring numerous complex scientific and perhaps even more complex political elements of climate change.  Dagomar Degroot’s piece at Historical Climatology goes back a couple months but provides valuable historical perspective on data and perception of climatic conditions.  At Green Gambit, Alex Hall tries to convince me that Halifax, Nova Scotia is, in fact, not the rainiest place in the known universe!  And that people from Manchester are actually called “Mancunians.”  I’m not sure I believe either one!

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About Rob Gee

I am an international environmental historian who focuses on marine and fisheries policy in the Atlantic Ocean. I currently teach history and environmental studies at Unity College and the University of Maine. I have interests in the connections between geological and quaternary histories of watersheds and coastal ecosystems and their modern development of settlement patterns and economies, the dissemination of scientific knowledge through communities of scholars, resource users, and government officials, and a rapidly growing interest in systems of food production and distribution. I'm also a fascinated observer of evolving relationships between technology, knowledge, and education, and our sometimes hapless efforts to knit them meaningfully together!
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12 Responses to History Carnival 111: Environmental History Edition

  1. I really am NOT trying to be a smart aleck here, but a picture of a river (very beautiful) is not stillwater. Loved the post, will comment on it after I have fully digested it.

  2. Hi. The banner is a picture of the Stillwater River which flows through Orono and Old Town, ME. I took the picture from the UMaine campus on the Stillwater’s banks. The Stillwater is indeed a beautiful river.

    • to continue what promises to be a really silly thread, why would anyone name a river “Stillwater”? Obvious Biblical reference aside – a river RUNS from one place to another and is never still. Please know that i am just communicating here, and no offense or smart remakes are intended. The river is beautiful, and your work is greatly admired.

      • Harlan Seyfer says:

        But yet, the water is still there today.

      • Ah, Harlan, listen to the words of Heracletus (fl. c. 500BC),
        “No one ever steps in the same river twice”
        “Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers .”
        “All entities move and nothing remains still”
        “Everything changes and nothing remains still … and … you cannot step twice into the same stream”
        The water may still be there today, but it is not the same water. A Stillwater River remains an oxymoron,very beautiful, but ever changing. Actually in an environmentally themed thread, we may have stumbled into something here.
        Jerry Laiche

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  6. Great post. And I would add Anna Zeide’s wonderful food blog, Dining and Opining, http://www.diningandopining.blogspot.com/ — which often includes wonderful essays on this history of food and environment. She is currently writing a dissertation on the history of canned food! A really cool topic!

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