Editors’ Picks, 2014-15

Lying otter looking back, Tambako the Jaguar, Flickr.

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As a new academic year approaches, it seems fitting to pause and appreciate, once more, the many terrific posts that we’ve been fortunate enough to publish here at The Otter ~ La Loutre over the past twelve months. Here, NiCHE editors choose their favourites from the year that was.

Alan MacEachern:

My favourite post of the past year[1] was Sara Spike’s “Phenology and Local Knowledge in Early Twentieth-Century Rural Nova Scotia.” It is the story of the clashing of two ways of knowing nature: bureaucrats and would-be scientists seeking to compile data on recurring natural phenomena and students and teachers contributing their own colloquial knowledge – and being berated for it. And yet thanks to those bureaucrats, those would-be scientists, we have a great historical record for comparing the turn of the 20th century Nova Scotia climate to today. A cherry on top: Spike lets us see samples of the primary documents up close.

[1] With the possible exception of “Perfect: Ten.”

Sean Kheraj:

Stephen Bocking, “Landscapes of Science”
In one of the most widely-read posts on The Otter~La loutre this year, Stephen Bocking kicked off our series on the intersections of environmental history and history of science. I thought this was one of the most thought-provoking pieces we published and it kick-started a terrific series of posts that examine the environments in which science takes place. Bocking argues that scientific practice itself has an environmental history. The material conditions under which scientific work is conducted can reveal new insights into the history of science. I selected this post because I found it to be a great example too of how The Otter~La loutre can be a venue to try out a new idea and start a discussion with the rest of the research community.

In late January, George Colpitts published an excellent article about a single historical primary source, William McKay’s character book. This rare nineteenth-century fur trade document offers historians numerous insights into the exchange relationship between Indigenous and European traders in the Northwest. Again, I found this to be a great use of the medium of the blog post. In this short article Colpitts examines one source in depth, a biography of a document, in order to tease out broader themes and arguments in his research. It is also an excellent way to show how historians use historical documents to understand past environments and human relationships with the rest of nature.

Claire Campbell:

How do I choose just one?

There were many great posts this past year about the practice and purpose of environmental history. Some were about finding new sources in unusual places (underwater!) or in conversation with other disciplines and new audiences. But I especially liked those that historicized current problems, and demonstrated how environmental history can contribute to planning and policy debates. What do we do with this information? What should we keep doing, and what might we do differently? (Isn’t that why we study history?) I liked Forrest Pincher’s post on the city of Halifax’s response to last year’s brutal winter because it reminded us how our car-based landscape made snow a ‘problem,’ and then asked, “how should a city respond?” Pincher doesn’t answer the question, but his post shows the value of bringing an historical perspective to discussions about civic governance. Plus, it brought me back to my much-missed old home, and I didn’t even need my boots.

Then there were the post-cards: posts that carried me back to favourite places and taught me more about them. I never knew much about the part of Toronto where I grew up until I read Andrew Watson’s story of Leaside. (This post was also part of a series framing last year’s CHESS, one of NiCHE’s great legacies.) Will Knight asked how Go-Home Bay in the Georgian Bay “offers opportunities to connect science, recreation, place, and privilege in finer-grained detail.” And Jess Dunkin’s epic travelogue had me back on the prairie, which I have no right to miss but do anyway.

But most of all, I like the moments when we reveal bits of ourselves: places we love, places that shaped us, issues we’re passionate about. Why we do what we do. Intellectual curiosity propelled by, infused with, glimpses of our real selves. How we seek – in so many different ways – “a clear sense of our place in the world.” Which is why I’d choose as my favourite post Alan MacEachern’s “Ninety Acres.” It has maps, Prince Edward Island, deep roots, Nancy-Drew-esque discovery (finding stuff buried in an old closet!) … and also a generosity of sharing emotion, history, and a home place with the rest of us.

Tina Adcock:

I enjoyed the many thoughtful posts on teaching that we published this year, especially Claire Campbell’s series on the power of images. As environmental historians, we rail against a notion of history that treats landscape as static wallpaper for human action. Yet it’s all too easy for lecture slides to become just that: pretty pictures hastily assembled to provide visual relief to our perorations. Claire’s posts nudge us toward selecting and unpacking our images more carefully for a fuller, more memorable learning experience. I also liked Jennifer Bonnell’s refreshingly honest post on trial-by-fire teaching. It reassures new and aspiring lecturers that their best will be more than good enough, even when they’re worried it won’t be.

My two favourite posts from this year exemplify the elegant, eloquent tradition of environmental history writing present in the writings of William Cronon, among others. They give voice to overlooked spaces and seasons in Canadian environmental history. With precision, nuance, and warmth, they articulate important and, at times, underappreciated changes in these settings. Andrew Marcille’s meditations on a “postmodern” prairie harvest highlight different embodied and technological engagements with agricultural landscapes in the past and present. Many of us have familial ties to farms (as the comments in Alan’s recent post make clear), but few of us have been able to engage so directly or viscerally with them. This is a post with dirt beneath its fingernails. Teresa Devor’s post about winter and cold in the nineteenth-century Maritimes is vivid and funny, yet erudite. It ranges widely over land and sea; it delights in particularities, yet makes important and wide-ranging assertions about climate. Both posts remind us that getting out there and knowing Canadian environments, hot and cold, through work and play, lends grip and grit to the narratives we write.

A big thank you to all of our writers in 2014-15! We are always looking for new contributions. Drop us a line if you’re interested!

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