Reflections On CHESS 2015 From A Recently-Converted Environmental Historian

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As a PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan I spend a great deal of my time surrounded by young and inspiring Environmental Historians. So when the call for applicants for this year’s Canadian History and Environment Summer School came out in March I received some gentle and not so gentle nudging from my fellow PhD students to apply. They made a strong case; that my work on military and naval nurses in the West Indies had many components of an environmental history.

If I’d needed any more persuading to attempt to attend CHESS the theme — “Ottawa: Environmental Capital” — had me sold. In my application I compared the environmental influence of Ottawa with that of London on its periphery. By April I had received the happy news that I was going to CHESS! Yet buried under my excited exterior was a deep-seated trepidation: Would these environmental historians accept me as one of their own? Was studying the influence of climate on the use of Black nurses enough to label myself as someone who does environmental history? These questions still plagued me, even through repeated internal and external reminders that all categorizations of historical study leak; surely I could be an early modernist, a medical historian, a social historian, and an environmental historian all at once? As it turns out I need not have worried. My fellow CHESSnuts (a term coined, I believe, by either Andrew Watson or Sean Kheraj) were welcoming, open, and had backgrounds and interests as diverse as my own.

While my CHESS experience started with some wildlife encounters on the Carleton Campus:

 

The real beginning was a keynote by Ian Badgley, an Archaeologist with the National Capital Commission.  The presentation highlighted the importance of Ottawa as a meeting place over the past 6000 years, and highlighted the confluence of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers as a trading hub.  In Badgley’s words, “everyone went up the Ottawa river,” and there was plenty of archaeological evidence to prove it.

Badgley also highlighted the theme that would run so well throughout CHESS: Ottawa was more than just a city it was a capital city.

Many of us often forget the importance of industry to capital cities, and our first stop on day two served as a stark if sometimes terrifying reminder. We were likely some of the last people to tour the former Domtar mill site below Chaudière Falls, before it is repurposed and turned into condos by Windmill Developments and Zibi. The mill had stood abandoned since its closure in 2007. After a short orientation presentation we were led under the caution tape by David McGee, an archivist with Canada Science & Technology Museum and Greg Searle with Bioregional North America.

The mill had a haunting quality to some of the buildings:

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Even though it had lain vacant for less than a decade there were places like this windowsill where insulation peeked through.

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This great room where a papermaking machine once stood was eerie in the way our voices carried and our footsteps echoed.

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Through some of the tunnels between buildings and the partially hidden stairways water could be heard through the walls. A constant reminder of how the Domtar site had been constructed through the damming of the Falls and the redirection of natural waterways.

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Most surprising of all was the view of Parliament Hill from the roof, a representation of the coexistence of the industrial and the governmental, the financial and the political capital.

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As for Chaudière Falls themselves, they could only be glimpsed on our way back across the Ottawa River. Motorists, cyclists, and some pedestrians streamed by us on the bridge without a second thought or a glance, while we sought to take pictures of the taming of the water. In light of such an experience I can see why there is a movement to free the Falls from their hydroelectric prison and restore them as a spiritual site for the Algonquian and Anishinaabe people.

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Our afternoon was spent examining Ottawa’s influence on the surrounding region. First, at Gillies Grove, an old growth forest turned nature preserve that used to be, with no small touch of irony, owned by a pulp and paper baron. After being on the prairies for so long my Maritimer heart was in paradise. Mosquitos what mosquitos? I was surrounded by trees and could not have been happier. The drizzle that filtered through the canopy of leaves only made it feel more like home.

 

Art Goldsmith was an excellent guide who pointed out the largest tree in Ontario, a 154-foot white pine.

To round out the day we received a tour of the Diefenbunker. Andrew Burtch, a curator at the Canadian War Museum reminded us all how close to home the Cold War came, and Canada’s ultimate unpreparedness for the nuclear apocalypse in his talk “Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence.” The museum itself was fascinating; full of old technology, an operating room, and sex-segregated bunkrooms. While all the furnishings are period appropriate, they had to be refurbished from a variety of sources, as none of the originals survived the decommissioning of the site by Canadian Forces in 1994. Most surprising of all for me was the roof, apart from a shed and a ventilation shaft, you would have no inkling that you were standing atop a four-story building buried beneath your feet.

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The final day at CHESS was spent at the Central Experimental Farm, a site that cemented for me the influence that Ottawa had on agricultural development throughout Canada. Our tour, through the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, Arboretum, and the Central Experimental Farm, was led by Pete Anderson and Joanna Dean. Both asked us to consider the ‘naturalness’ of our environment. Especially in the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, where supposedly natural features like this pond and bridge built over a hidden dam, vied for space with native plants designed to showcase their suitability for use in local landscaping.

 

We retreated to the warmth of the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum to hear presentations, which all highlighted the importance of the capital environment. Susan Ross, in “Deciphering an Urban Palimpsest: Lowertown’s Macdonald Gardens,” examined the changing landscape of the Macdonald Gardens and what this said about the gardens and the citizenry who surrounded them. Anne Dance considered the environment of Parliament Hill in “The Hill beyond politics: Exploring histories of accessibility, identity, and the environment at Canadian legislatures.” Specifically dealing with the ramifications of the October 2014 shootings on Parliamentary Privilege, and highlighting how while the institutions of Parliament have been heavily studied very little work has been done on the environment of the Hill itself. Nari Shelekpayev brought the previous two days together in his “Visible Power: Elaboration of Postcolonial Capital Cities, 1850-2000.” A comparison of three capital cities: Ottawa, Brasília, and Astana, showed how capital cities are constructed and conceived by their nations. His ‘capitality’ was a useful framework with which to reflect on “Ottawa: Environmental Capital,” and was used as such by the closing roundtable of Jennifer Bonnell, Colin Coates, and Alan MacEachern.

CHESS opened my eyes to the breadth and near unlimited scope of environmental history. It has made me consider the world around me in different ways, defied my expectations, and increased my scholarly connections. I am both proud and humbled to be a part of what might well be the last of the Canadian History and Environment Summer Schools in its original incarnation.

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AMS Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford. Studying late 18th and early 19th-century military and naval medicine, nursing, and hospital ships.

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