Greatest Hits in Canadian Environmental History, Part I

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When crafting syllabi, writing lectures, or helping students navigate through stacks of scholarly literature for their research papers, many of us will instinctively reach for newly or recently published books or articles, like magpies drawn to shiny objects. Yet, as the old campfire song goes, “Make new friends / but keep the old / One is silver / The other gold.” After a recent NiCHE editors’ meeting in which we discussed how we might bring new environmental historical publications to readers’ attention, my mind wandered, as historians’ minds will, in the opposite direction. I wondered which classic readings in Canadian environmental history still held pride of place not only on our shelves, but also in our classrooms.

I asked NiCHE editors which pre-1990 readings in Canadian environmental history (loosely construed) they were still actively using in their courses. Their answers not only bring forth favourite pieces from the vaults — with two votes for Maurice Careless‘ work! — but also reveal how those pieces influenced the thinking of subsequent environmental historians. They indicate, too, something of the difficulty inherent in tracing the contours of “Canadian environmental history” avant la lettre (to borrow Alan’s phrase from below).

Sean Kheraj:

J.M.S. Careless, “Frontierism, Metropolitanism, and Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review 35.1 (1954): 1-21.

In a version of my Canadian environmental history course, I focused on urban-hinterland relationships as a lens for thinking about environmental history. Obviously, this connected well with my own research interest in urban environmental history, but I invited students to think more broadly about interconnections between cities and their hinterlands as, perhaps, the most significant framework for understanding ecological change in modern Canadian history. We discussed Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, but I also had students read J.M.S. Careless’s original article on the concept of metropolitanism from the Canadian Historical Review in 1954. I first stumbled across the article while combing through Nature’s Metropolis and finding this Canadian connection. The article certainly does not represent the current field of environmental history in Canada, and Careless’s arguments were not exclusively focused on human-nature relations. Nevertheless, his arguments came to influence Cronon’s subsequent work and to provide a foundation for thinking about urban-hinterland connections.

Claire Campbell:

J.M.S. Careless, “Two River Empires: An historical analysis,” American Review of Canadian Studies 5.2 (1975): 28-47.

Big and sweeping, the kind of continental history spanning centuries that speaks to a certain era of historical writing (and for which, I admit, I’m sometimes nostalgic). I lead off with it, and it’s difficult for a first class – leaping from the upper Great Lakes to New Orleans in the eighteenth century, to Chicago and Toronto in the nineteenth, to historians at work in the twentieth – especially when my students have little or no sense of the broad national histories, or geographies, he’s referring to. But throw them in the deep end, amirite? It’s a great big-picture discussion of major river systems (the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi) and national historiographies; and tackles head-on the question of environmental determinism. It also gets them thinking about how our contemporary geographies both reflect and ignore these river-based expansions of power.

Graeme Wynn, “’Deplorably dark and demoralized lumberers’?  Rhetoric and reality in early nineteenth-century New Brunswick,” Journal of Forest History 24.4 (1980): 168-187.

I show the NFB classic animation The Log Driver’s Waltz (1979) to talk about how we depict the masculinity of resource industries. (The students are usually laughing, but a bit gingerly, as if they’re thinking, “OK, this is weird, and hilarious, but we can’t insult her, this is Canadian.”) Graeme’s article gets us talking about the relationship between environmental opportunity and social expectation; the ideals of agriculture embedded within colonization; the imperial imperative (so to speak) of a harvest or extractive economy; the different evaluations of “wilderness”; and the concept of occupational pluralism. Graeme’s Timber Colony (1981) is an outstanding example of historical geography, with lots of data; but I like this article in part because it foregrounds rhetorical analysis, and in one of my favourite expressions ever, acknowledges: “the answer lies in sentiment and symbolism: its roots are set in ideology.” Also, who doesn’t like expressions like “villainous and vagabond”?

Alan MacEachern:

Here is the pre-1990 Can-con & quasi-Can-con that has shown up in my most recent EH syllabi:

• George Altmeyer, “Three Ideas of Nature in Canada, 1893-1914,” Journal of Canadian Studies 11 (1976): 21-36. [A good, all-purpose starting point.]
• Carl Berger, “The True North Strong and Free,” in Nationalism in Canada, ed. Peter Russell (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 3-26. [Useful on relationship between nature, climate, and nationalism in Canada.]
• Calvin Martin, “The Ecological Impact on the Culture of a Northeastern Algonquian Tribe: An Ecological Interpretation,” William and Mary Quarterly, 31.1 (January 1974): 3-26. [Pairs nicely with Shepard Krech III, The Ecological Indian.]
• Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989), 277-291. [Can-con in terms of the subject, not the author. Great in terms of a defense of history.]

I am not sure any of these would have considered themselves environmental historians, even avant la lettre. (And it’s still the case that many of the very best works in Canadian environmental history are written by outsiders of one sort or another: political scientist Paul Kopas’ Taking the Air is maybe the best general history of our parks system; conservationist John Riley’s The Once and Future Great Lakes Country is a funky, sweeping account of historical landscape change; Yankee Stephen J. Pyne’s Awful Splendor the best (the only??) environmental history monograph that covers all of Canada. But maybe that’s for another post.)

Readers, what are your favourite pre-1990 environmental history readings for classroom use? Let us know in the comments below!

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Assistant professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. I research and teach Canadian and environmental history, with a special focus on the Arctic and Subarctic.

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