Claire Campbell and Graeme Wynn
One of the great things about being environmental historians is that we have to reach beyond texts, beyond archives; we have to raise our gaze from our desks and our laptops and actually look at the world we study.This summer, dozens of environmental historians from around the world submitted photographs and screenshots of where their journeys had taken them, from mountain trails to coastal seashores, from museums to mining sites, from New Zealand to Germany. And with these photographs came brief but eloquent descriptions about the scholarly, and personal, experience of these places. All thirty-two entries are posted on Flickr.
Choosing the “best” of these was extraordinarily difficult, because of this range but also because each was clearly so important in its own way and to its creator. (We each had lists of potential winners twice as long as the contest rules allowed.) That said, we were particularly intrigued by the following submissions:
Grand prize winner of the collection of all 20 books in the Nature | History | Society series, donated by UBC Press, is Jackie Mirandola Mullen for her biography of one street on Cape Cod National Seashore. The composite is a thoughtful, coherent excavation and interpretation of landscape change, an example of what Cole Harris in Geographical Review called “archival field work.” Written with a sharp eye for detail, especially the almost imperceptible changes in vegetation and landforms that, once observed, remind us of the dynamism of nature. Well-chosen photographs are here cleverly integrated into an accomplished image, allowing the parts to relate their own stories and adding up to a greater whole.
Jackie Mirandola Mullen, University at Albany, SUNY
South Wilson Avenue in Wellfleet, Massachusetts lies within Cape Cod National Seashore. When President John F. Kennedy signed into law a bill designating this new park in 1961, homeowners who had built their homes since September of 1959 were forced to sell their houses to the federal government.
When buying back houses, the federal government allowed residents to retain use and occupancy of the unit for 25 years or life. Once this period came to a close, the National Park Service assessed the structure. Based on its condition, the Park Service then either rented it out as seasonal employee housing or tore the house down, allowing trees, shrubs, and grasses to recolonize the scattered lots.
Wilson Avenue represents one street where heavy building occurred in between 1959 and 1961. Some houses on Wilson Avenue have been demolished, while others still stand. This collage is of three adjacent lots on South Wilson Avenue, facing east (beyond the trees at the road’s end, a steep cliff yields to the rumbling Atlantic Ocean below).
Closet to the ocean, the house at lot one no longer stands. Trees hover close to the earth here, where sharp salt sprays and energetic winter storms stunt plant growth. At a central clearing, grasses grow on a flattened surface. The house that once rose from the ground in this spot is gone, but its foundation provides open space for sun-loving vegetation.
For the full entry see Snapshots of the Storm.
The grand prize winning photo.
Second prize goes to Daniel Macfarlane, whose triptych of fine photography reminds us of the power of water to drown, drive and destroy. The ghostly allusions in the flooded highway and the ruins of the Ottawa River dam, coupled with the artistic view of an industrial anachronism, introduce a number of questions about our relationship to and impact on rivers and riversides. This is an understated but effective rumination on a theme.
Dan Macfarlane, Visiting Scholar in School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University
I picked photos that followed a theme of the ways that humans interact with rivers, turning them into hybrid waterscapes, which is what my research generally focuses on. These photos were taken on the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers.
This seemingly innocuous piece of asphalt is actually the remains of Highway No. 2. It used to be the main highway between Toronto and Montreal until it was flooded out in the 1950s by the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project. One can still easily walk out along the highway, as well as remaining sidewalks, into the Lost Villages. I found the juxtaposition of a road leading into water a bit jarring, a situation exacerbated by the knowledge of what it represents.
This row of gears is on the old Cornwall Canal. A number of the locks are extant because this portion was upriver from the dams that put the remaining old 14-foot canals on the St. Lawrence under water. I liked the texture, symmetry, and the opportunity to play with depth of field. I had initially envisioned this in black and white, but because of the mix of teal and rust I think I prefer it in colour.
This picture was taken on the Ottawa River at the Deschenes Rapids at Aylmer, across from the west end of Ottawa. The ruins are the remains of a century-old dam and hydraulic canal that channeled water to various mills and hydro-electric plants. I was attracted to the various contrasts at work in this scene: the juxtaposition of the foregrounded modern graffiti and apartment towers with old ruins and seemingly reclaimed rapids, as well the contrast of stark colours of the tags with the lines and forms of the dilapidated structures and the boiling water.
The third prize was a tie between Dolly Jørgensen and David Neufeld, whose submissions transcend the lines between inside and outside, public and private history, humans and nature. Both ask us to consider how we communicate our knowledge and experience of the environment; how effective these means are; and what happens when we explore other types of expression. Seemingly simple single photographs are layered with meaning and given resonance by the accompanying texts, which convey highly personal reflections about encountering our scholarly work in other places.
Dolly Jørgensen, Umeå University (Sweden)
On 23 June 2013, I was coming toward the end of a week and a half archival work / field visit driving tour through Sweden and Norway for my Return of Native Nordic Fauna project. A decided to make a short stop at the Vitenskapsmuseet in Trondheim, Norway, to see if it happened to have any of the animals I am researching on display. Within a dusty exhibit titled ‘Natur-miljø’ (Nature environment) on a dimly lit balcony-style floor, I saw this secluded muskox standing in the corner. It is a descendent of muskox caught in Greenland and reintroduced to Norway in the 20th century. It seemed to cry out for attention to break its dreadful loneliness with the words poignantly written by curators on the ground: ‘Just touch me!’ And indeed it appears to have been touched many times over the years, as almost all of its qiviut, the muskox’s softest and most valuable wool, was missing from the middle of its back. Like many other visitors to the museum, I touched the muskox, but in addition to hair, I could feel the cold plastic form over which the skin had been stretched to make the mounted specimen standing before me. In my tactile encounter in the corner, reaching out and touching the muskox exposed how unnatural nature often is.
Last fall I attended a community session on the Whitehorse shipyards. A number of seniors showed slides and remembered their youth. Interestingly these memories were not expressed as a series of events, things or places, rather it was the network of relationships with other people that had meaning. And these relationships made up place.
In my attempt to incorporate this idea into my art I considered how nature was an active partner in the creation of place or home. I queried our western predilection for structuring nature as a chrono-geographic matrix, in the process transforming the possibility of place into a platform for our human prowess and desires. How different from the memories of the seniors. How might nature see us?
By Thursday afternoon the gallery was ready. Last minute trimming and placing of work, artists hustling off for a shower and fancy opening clothes, it was a calm and ordered space. The staff of the YAC Gallery had been enthusiastically helpful and supportive as we worked to “fit” our pieces into the gallery. For me it was a pleasant surprise to have such unbounded help in setting up Mahsi cho YAC.
I was pleased with my “campsite.” Every item was real – a historian must work with facts after all. Equipment I decided I could spare for this season’s boating, but each item marked with the signs of its presence in and contribution to making place. The campsite is just being set up, the visitors have to figure out how to make it home. The doors open and the visitors begin their exploration of the different traverses made by the artists.
For the full entry see Yukon Rambles
Our warmest thanks to all the contributors for giving us one of the more enjoyable tasks of the past few weeks. We look forward to next year’s contest ….
Graeme Wynn teaches Geography at UBC, and is editor of UBC Press’ Nature | History | Society series. Claire Campbell teaches History at Bucknell University, and was the first author in the Nature | History | Society series.
Note: All thirty-two entries are now available on a Flickr Photostream and full collection of photos and captions are available here as a pdf: