EH+: Minus the Pacific?


I try reading — and listening — across fields as much as I can. Last week I had a chance to eavesdrop on the conversation between much of the environmental historian community in Canada. EH+ was a symposium where some 50 environmental historians from across Canada got together to talk about the state of the field of Canadian environmental history.

I was able to “listen in” to the conversation through the constant stream of tweets thanks to the participants who were using the #EHPlus hashtag. (The hashtagged tweets are archived here.) From what I could read through the hashtags, the discussion about things environmental history in Canada was rich and varied.

One of the conversations threads that I was interested in tracking was the discussion about developing international connections between Canadian and non-Canadian researchers and topics. I was hoping to get a peek into how many people were following the ways in which human and nonhuman movement (migration) connects Canada with people and things hailing from elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean. However, most of “conversation” seemed to focus on circumpolar connections and the material and “cultural” stuff that connects Canada to the North Atlantic. While I got word that one of the participants in the international breakout groups sounded out that it was important not to lose sight of Pacific Rim potential when thinking about Canada and the world, it sounded like the topic didn’t get much traction with the participants. (Please tell me if I am off base on this.)

This surprised me. It is not like there are no connections to be made. Here are a couple of examples that I am aware of. The anthropologist Anna Tsing is leading the multi-participant, multi-sited “Matsutake Worlds Research Group” project, which is looking at the trans-national matsutake mushroom industry and the commodity chains that link Japan with the Koreas, China, Canada, the U.S., Morocco, Mexico, Bhutan, Sweden and Finland. (Here is a link to a series of short videos on the project.) At least two of the researchers of this project are working at Canadian universities.

While this project is being done by people who don’t brand themselves environmental historians, I know that a few of them have participated and presented at the big tent which is the annual meeting of the American Society of Environmental History. I have a friend, who is also an anthropologist, who is playing with the idea of presenting her work on history human-salmon relationships in U.S., Japan, Chile, and Canada. Might NiCHE open up the door wider so that scholars or new scholars who are not disciplined as environmental historians or geographers can participate? (The EH+ call limited the call for participants to people in those disciplines, I think) Or is there a concern that the state of the sub-field is too “precarious” to do so?

I think that there are plenty of topics to take up alone or collaboratively with other scholars that would allow scholars to further Pacific world Canada. Here are some ideas that I came up with while writing this post. (It took me just over an hour.) There’s an environmental history article that could be written the roles that Canadian protestant missionaries had in introducing biota and agricultural methods to farming communities in Asia in the late 19th century. More could be written (ethically) on the contemporary history of the Canadian mining industry in Indonesia and Peru, and in the ways in which these places enable to exportation industrial practices that could never happen at home. (There is an excellent chapter written by Tsing on the ways in which “Canadian” mining was performed in Indonesia.) An article could be written on the ways in which the first-generation Japanese Canadians adjusted their labour practices to the local terrestrial and marine environments. And someone (me?) has got to write a history on the ways in which certain local marine ecologies along the east coast of Vancouver Island have been altered — made transnational — through species introductions from Japan, and in the ways in which “product” from these marine environments is routed throughout the Pacific onto people’s dinner plates. This is a project that I would like to do with researchers doing fisheries history in Canada and Japan.

While Canada is connected to the non-Atlantic world through commodity circuits and migration, there have, I think, been few studies written on these connections. The short and very open-ended question that comes to mind is:

Why not?

Is it because these kinds of studies would have difficult fitting within the historical geography (historiography) of Canadian history? Is this a training issue? Are there a lack of Canadian historians out there that are trained in non-European languages? Do people talk to their colleagues working in other national fields? Are there just bigger projects, or more obvious connections with other places, that need to be done first?

[Take a look at Colin’s blog where a number of people already commented on this post]

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