Twelve Days of Christmas and Cowboys (II)

Ranching country, south of Longview, Alberta

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This is the second half of twelve “lessons” from a new class I team-taught this semester with a professor in Film and Media Studies, on environments of the North American West: “West, Cowboys, Nature, Myth.” Read the first half here, and then submit your own thoughts/experiments/triumphs to or post a comment.

And happy holidays, everyone.


Topic: The West in Politics
Film: James Benning, Deseret, 1995.
Lesson: Teaching American environmental history is still teaching environmental history.

Benning is a well-known independent filmmaker with a particular interest in landscape and what filmmakers call slow film. He trawled the New York Times from the 1850s for articles about Utah, or Deseret (the original name for the Mormon state), and had these read aloud against long shots of the scenery. So students got to “hear” historical voices, as they articulated eastern perceptions of the West; the politically charged – competitive, at times combative – relationship between East and West; their mutual interest in the industrial developments of its resources; and their different views on that signature American value, liberty. Deseret is a great example of structural film, but it was also one of my favourites of our off-Hollywood films, and a great way of accessing primary sources.

Students find my Canadvocacy amusing, but the truth is, at least half my teaching is American history. This week’s class, for instance, was about cowboy presidents, and the Sagebrush Rebellion. As much as I resent it sometimes, I have to admit it’s interesting, and relevant, and good for me in thinking about Canadian environmental history. And frankly, the students need it. Like their counterparts in Canada, they seem to have focused on the world wars in high school. So whether or not I’m qualified to be teaching about Ronald Reagan and the Bureau of Land Management, at least they’re hearing about the Bureau of Land Management. Plus, it led well into the next class, sitting at the axis of resources, sovereignty, and national evolution.


Topic: Resource Conflicts (Oil and Gas)
“Film”: Suncor Energy Tour (2015) and “Canada’s Energy” [Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers [CAPP]] (2013).
Lesson: Take a step back.

This class focused entirely on the Athabasca tar oil sands, with Rebecca talking about the lines between documentary and propaganda, and screening Peter Mettler’s Petropolis (2009). This was another moment of head-scratching American insularity. The tar oil sands are one of those things, like Timbits, that you just don’t have to explain in Canada. Our students here knew about Keystone, which had just been vetoed, but nothing about the whatever sands or from where the U.S. imports its oil (i.e. Canada). Nor did they seem to really connect the dots about drilling somewhere else – Alberta, Alaska, off-shore – and their own fuel demands.

We devoted an hour each week to some kind of activity, such as an archival search on LOC or Artstor, a film analysis, or a debate. One of the most engaging was analyzing these two short clips to see how corporate messaging cast nature, technology, progress, and national sovereignty. (The clips are so wildly unsubtle it’s relatively easy to do.) It was interesting to hear their reactions to what is the environmental question of my country, because even as consumers of Canadian oil, they are doubly removed from its production. For reasons of art and politics, Petropolis and the photographs of Edward Burtynsky and National Geographic are shot from the air, distancing us from the effects on the ground. At the same time, these students do not have Canadians’ feeling of investment in the success, cost, or symbolism of the oil sands.


Topic: Food Production and Agriculture
Film: Office of War Information, Black Marketing, 1943.
Lesson: The personal is political, but is it pedagogical?

One theme this week was the characterization of beef as “All-American”: whether the family roast beef dinner on Sunday, meat rationed to supply troops overseas, or the hamburger date at McDonald’s. (This was also parodied by The Simpsons as “Meat and You, Partners in Freedom.”) Black Marketing cautions citizens to watch for ways in which the food supply line can be hijacked by unsavoury characters: from the rancher who sells his beef on the side to the butcher who holds back good steaks for the housewife who pays in cash. (The loyal housewife with ration stamps, denied a steak, goes into a phone booth around the corner and rats him out to the feds, which the students found hilarious).

But this particular class swung from the comical to the grotesque, because we talked about industrial agriculture, and its brutal expenditures of animal life, land, and resources as well as dignity of human labour. As with the discussion about oil, though, I wasn’t sure students recognized their place in this system of consumption/citizenship. I’ve said before that students here seem less interested in environmental activism; environmental courses are a curricular requirement, rather than a campus mobilization. When one student said, “I mean, I’m still going to eat meat,” I admit my heart sank at how shrug his reaction seemed. Was it bruised ego, to feel like I hadn’t reoriented his ethical compass? Is that even desirable, in an academic setting? Does my own vegetarianism – to which I am completely wed, after this class – matter here? Or had I failed to make a strong enough academic argument about the costs of meat production?


Topic: Water
Film: The Winning of Barbara Worth (tagline: “While building an irrigation system for a Southwestern desert community, an engineer vies with a local cowboy for the affections of a rancher’s daughter…” 1926).
Lesson: We need to spend more time peeling back the layers of the places they think they know.

This week we watched several government films from the 1930s and 1940s about Boulder (Hoover) and Grand Coulee Dams: all triumphant in tone, heroic in accomplishment, and, as it turns out, devastating in impact. But we began by showing a film about the collapse of a dam, and the social chaos that results. Barbara Worth recreates a key moment in the history of the American West: when the Colorado River overran a series of irrigation canals in Imperial Valley to create the Salton Sea. (Gary Cooper, in his first role, is one of the ranchers who rides to warn the townsfolk of the dam’s breach, as they flee in panic. Cowboys to the rescue.) Imperial Valley became the nation’s vegetable garden, but at enormous cost to water supplies, and it remains an indispensible yet impossible agricultural region.

Filming the silent Barbara Worth was itself was a huge project, and like Imperial Valley, required building another fiction in the West: in this case, constructing a faux-town-set in the Nevada desert to stand in for Imperial Valley. So much of the west is the product of enormous effort – and energy, and water – to create something that was not meant to be there. Look at any aerial photograph of California suburbs or Las Vegas golf courses. It sounds obvious to many of us, but for undergraduates brand-new to environmental history this is a radical concept. So much of the West they know is actually a mirage, and utterly unsustainable.


Topic: Consuming Landscapes (Tourism)
Film: Thomas Edison, tourists going around Yellowstone, 1899.
Lesson: Historians really can throw a wrench in the works (of usual thinking).

An embarrassment of riches, especially for someone who dabbled in park history: Edison at Yellowstone, vintage ads from Ford and Chevrolet extolling “roads to romance,” and some pretty fantastic films from the American National Park Service. We tackled the concept of wilderness by having the students look up historical visitor numbers to various parks, both iconic and unfamiliar. They were … kind of shocked, both by the numbers themselves and how they fluctuated over time. Even better, at a school that trumpets its program in managing for sustainability [/oxymoron], they were flummoxed by the history behind and debates over the term “conservation.” When a management student caught himself – “So with conservation … wait … that’s not what I mean, I guess?” – everybody laughed and I cheered.


Topic: “Nature’s Gentlemen”? Sustainability in the West
Film: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, Sweetgrass, 2010.
Lesson: Teaching EH is my intervention.

Sweetgrass follows two herders in Montana as they make a last drive onto public lands historically used for summer pasture. Is there a future for this ranching? the film asks. In fact, there have been cycles of nostalgia for an “old-style ranching” since the 1880s. Is anything different?

Yes. I write this as the climate conference in Paris concludes. I write this a few blocks from the Susquehanna River, which drains into Chesapeake Bay, where there is a group of islands that will be flooded by rising sea levels caused by global warming. I write this with my window open in mid-December. It doesn’t seem enough anymore to make the environment one, and optional, choice of subject or lens, in history or any other field.

We didn’t really care if the students expected John Wayne, because ultimately, John Wayne isn’t as important as water, energy, consumption, or displacement. John Wayne isn’t going to help people on the Chesapeake. Maybe we need to be more forceful in requiring historical, environmental thinking across courses, departments, and curricula. If we’re putting our foot down on carbon, maybe it’s time we ask more of ourselves and our colleagues, too.

(I know. This would never happen. But it’s a Christmas wish.)

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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