What Can't You Do With History?
SVSU History Department
SVSU History Department
Note: The views expressed here are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the SVSU History Department or Saginaw Valley State University as an institution
Really, you do. You are already thinking a lot about the environment and your relationship to it. Flipping through photos of Hurricane Harvey’s, Irma’s, and Maria's devastation and wondering how many times this has to happen before cities fix aging infrastructures or nations get serious about climate change. Sopping out your own basement, salvaging what you can, after Midland’s June flood. Signing an anti-fracking petition at the local farmer’s market and then spending a little more on organic produce. Filling the tank and watching how quickly the dollars add up—do I need a new budget and more work hours just to drive to campus? Pondering the majesty of a buck as you pull the trigger, your mouth watering for venison. Lying on the grass, the fall sun warming the earth one last time, and reading a favorite book on the American Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, or Viking voyages—before your mind wanders to watch the bees and squirrels searching for sustenance. Environmental history can help you make sense of such experiences. Environmental history has something for everyone.
I discovered environmental history through a variety of topics and through the many hats I wear. When I publish an article, polish a book chapter, or speak at a conference, I am an historian of North America’s African diaspora; my passion is stories of freedom and family, especially the joys and struggles of African-American, African-French, African-Ojibwe, and African-Southeastern Indian individuals and larger kindreds. My teaching introduces students (in History 111) to historians’ methods of categorizing the past, assigning causation, and analyzing the sources past peoples left behind. I also emphasize connections between past and present (in History 110); we discuss natural disasters from the 1500s through 2000s and (in a different version of the course) work and socioeconomic class. Finally, my upper-level courses at SVSU (American Frontier History, Introduction to Public History, and Western Environments) and on other campuses (on African American and African diasporic history, and on women’s and gender studies) address the intersections of race, class, and gender on regional through international levels. Here is the common thread woven through this diversity: understanding humans’ interactions with, ideas about, and impact upon their natural environments is essential to understanding it all. And environmental issues sometimes surface in surprising ways.
So, what is environmental history? Donald Worster, a founding member of this exciting discipline, expresses concisely three of its many aspects: “natural environments of the past,” “human modes of production,” and “perception, ideology, and value.” (Worster, Doing Environmental History 4, 7, 10) Historians concerned with the first explore how plants, animals, microbes, and larger ecosystems change over time, as well humans’ role in causing or feeling the effects of these changes. (Worster, Doing Environmental History, 5-6) Whatever their focus, their arguments illustrate the premise that “humans have inextricably been part of the earth’s ecological order.” (Worster, Doing Environmental History 7) For example, they explain that medieval Dutch peat farmers’ and English fishermen’s skillfulness nearly wrecked the North Sea ecosystems upon which they depended. They address how nineteenth-century hunters nearly wiped the buffalo off the face of the Great Plains. They reveal the decimation of the sixteenth-century Aztecs by smallpox and other plagues of Eastern Hemispheric origin during the “Columbian Exchange.” (Pye 27-47, 169-91; West, Ways to the West 41-84; Crosby 41-54)
Scholars of human production examine nature’s role in how people work, what they make, and how they live. Material items and technologies—think everything from food, clothing, and shelter to footballs, pianos, snowshoes, axes, and atomic energy plants—loom large in their writings. So do analyses of environmental conditions’ impact upon social units, governments, economies, and cultures—and how modes of production shape those conditions. For instance, Arctic indigenous peoples could not farm, but they could fish and hunt by fashioning specialized hooks and harpoons. Such non-agricultural peoples generally form smaller societies than those who farm. (Worster, Doing Environmental History 7-10) Cheyenne Indians’ intensification of horseback hunting fostered expertise and wealth for some of these Great Plains people, but it also caused spiritual and socio-political fragmentation. (West, Contested Plains 63-95) Several generations later, white westerners’ intensive, mechanized farming of the 1920s stemmed from a capitalism that emphasized more land, more production, and more money. Such practices hastened soil erosion and fueled Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s. (Worster, Dust Bowl, passim)
Specialists in “perception, ideology, and value,” wish to “discover how a whole culture …perceived and valued nature. They study aesthetics and ethics, myth and folklore, literature and landscape gardening, science and religion.” They go to the zoo and the art museum—or they binge-watch “Ozark” and munch popcorn while viewing “Tulip Fever” or “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Looking back to the nineteenth century, New England factory workers retreated to untamed riverbanks to drink and play ball, all free of charge—until developers decided that a pay-to-enter manicured garden would better embody respectability and progress. (Johnson 41-78) Meanwhile out West, white settlers conflated prairie fires with alleged Native American savagery, refusing to see how such blazes could renew the soil upon which their farms depended. Decades later, those settlers’ ancestors looked with nostalgia at painters’ canvases that evoked the wonder of such fires and the vanishing frontier they seemingly represented. (Courtwright 157-79)
Other layers of environmental history concern the ways that nature’s splendor, fury and everydayness—lions, tigers, bears, horses, hurricanes, blizzards, cotton, cholera, waste water, waterfalls, oil, grains, and gold—intersect with race, class, and gender. Enslaved women from West Africa, we now know, played a key role in introducing rice cultivation to Georgia and South Carolina. (Carney passim.) Colonial Virginians’ very notions of race emerged, in part, out of confusion and concern about Native American women’s active agricultural role. (Brown 42-74) Those same women’s worldviews, and many of their counterparts’ across Indigenous North America, understood the spirituality and practicality of corn-raising and life-giving to be fundamentally linked and fundamentally female. (Perdue 17-40; Guitérrez 3-38) By the end of the 1800s, Theodore Roosevelt was crafting his own masculinity, grounded in hunting big game on the western frontier and carrying a big stick in world diplomacy. (Bederman 170-216)
Another appeal of environmental history is the chance it offers to explore familiar events in fresh ways. Take the American Revolution. It is hard to imagine a more studied, more essential conflict in our nation’s past. Taxation, representation, and declarations, as well as military maneuvers brilliant and bungled fill our textbooks—and rightly so. But innovative scholarship tells us to pay attention to livestock, wood, and germs. As David Hsiung explains, “military stalemate, construction of barracks, [and] the search for food…defined the first year of the War of Independence in New England.” (614) Indeed, Red Coats and Patriots alike scrambled to find cattle to slaughter, horses to pull wagons, hay to feed those same animals, and wood to build and heat housing, and to fuel cooking fires within them. Without such things, neither side could retain soldiers, let alone fight to victory. Shortages and desperation were ubiquitous. By winter 1775, such forced a freezing, famished British army to abandon its strategy of nipping the revolution in its Boston bud; instead, they moved on to New York, where more readily obtainable provisions awaited. That plan and many others that hinged upon command of natural resources—which Hsuing details in his larger work—would ultimately fail. So would the British. (616, 637-38) According to Elizabeth Fenn, smallpox played just as big a role in shaping the American Revolution. Colonists had lower rates of immunity to the dreaded disease than their British counterparts, a state of affairs that grew ever more terrifying to the Patriots as outbreaks swept the eastern seaboard throughout the war. Reports of British-inflicted biological warfare during Pontiac’s Uprising of 1763—they traded pox-infested blankets to Ojibwes—filled George Washington with fear. He himself had survived the pox as a young man, but he hesitated to inoculate the Continental Army. Eighteenth-century practitioners of “variolation” lacerated the arm down to the bone, inserted a bit of cloth contaminated with the variola major virus, and then hoped for the best: a mild infection that would spare the patient, not spread to surrounding people, and confer immunity. (14-33) Inoculating one person was costly and risky enough; inoculating thousands seemed like madness. Ultimately, Washington took the risk. In winter 1777 and 1788, he initiated the first large-scale government-sponsored inoculation program in U.S. history. It helped to secure the victory that gave us a “U.S.” in the first place. (80-102)
Finally, environmental history benefits from wide-ranging disciplinary perspectives; even if you are not a history major, environmental history is bound to offer you something—and you can offer your own expertise in return. Worster’s, “natural environments of the past,” is most closely allied to the hard sciences, such as botany, chemistry, geology, and especially ecology. “Human modes of production” scholars owe great debts to anthropology. Likewise, the fields of philosophy, art, aesthetics, and literature have inspired innovations regarding “perception, ideology, and value.” Linnda Caporael, who blames the Salem Witchcraft Crisis on an outbreak of convulsive ergotism—a painful and hallucinogenic illness caused by ingesting grains laced with ergot fungus—is an evolutionary psychologist and has authored numerous scientific and medical texts. (21-26) Judith Carney, whose pioneering work put West African women center stage in our understanding of the colonial South’s rice production, is a geographer. Angela Woollacott’s Gender and Empire draws on political science, animal studies, gender studies, and literary criticism to explore how everything from big game hunting in Africa, Australia, and the Indian subcontinent to Victorian boys’ outdoor sports and wilderness adventure literature helped support the British Empire’s militarist ideals and acts. (59-73) An SVSU engineering major I had the pleasure of teaching recently authored a fine paper on the structural and historical differences between eastern and western U.S. dams.
If this has not been enough to convince you, stay tuned. There is plenty that environmental history can contribute to connections we make between past and present. If you are a public history minor, there is much to learn about preservationists’ responses to environmental challenges—from transforming European cathedrals or wartime no man’s lands into wildlife refuges to balancing the needs of flood protection with historic district zoning requirements. If you have been hit by the Flint Water Crisis, it is important to understand that lead poisoning and toxic exposure in communities of color and among people struggling to make ends meet is nothing new. If you have tracked Harvey’s, Irma’s, and Maria's havoc, it is equally important to know that such devastation stems not only from weather patterns but also from larger webs of government denial and corporate mismanagement, shot through with racism and classism. Future posts will explore these phenomena, and more.
Associate Professor of History
Saginaw Valley State University
Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1870-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Caporale, Linnda R. “Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?” Science 192 (April 1976), 21-26.
Carney, Judith A. Black Rice: the African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Courtwright, Julie. “‘When We First Come It All Looked Like Prairie Land Almost’: Prairie Fire and Western Settlement, Western Historical Quarterly 38 (Summer 2007): 157–179.
Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2003.
Fenn, Elizabeth A. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill and Wang, 2002.
Guitérrez, Ramón A. When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Hsiung, David C. “Food, Fuel, and the New England Environment in the War of Independence, 1775-76” New England Quarterly 80 (December 2007), 614-654.
Johnson, Paul E. Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper. New York: Hill and Wang 2012.
Perdue, Theda. Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
Pye, Michael. The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Penguin, 2012.
West, Elliott. Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado. Wichita: University of Kansas Press, 1998.
-------------. Ways to the West: Essays on the Central Plains. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Woollacott, Angela. Gender and Empire. London: Palgrave, 2006.
Worster, Donald. “Doing Environmental History,” in The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives in Modern Environmental History. Alfred W. Crosby and Donald Worster, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
------------. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.