(With apologies to the Smallest Turtle)
On August 12-13, the North East & Atlantic Region Environmental History group (NEAR-EH, formerly the Northeast & Atlantic Canada Environmental History Forum, itself the child of the Historians of the Environment of the Atlantic Region) convened for the fifth time in Halifax. Basically, we’re a bunch of people who think there are some really fascinating, and important, stories about the environment of eastern North America, from the Chesapeake to Labrador, from Montreal to the Grand Banks. The workshop has met in Boston (just ahead of Hurricane Sandy), Orono, Charlottetown, and Lewisburg – and it is always a delight.
Generously hosted by the Gorsebrook Institute for Atlantic Canada Studies at Saint Mary’s University, participants discussed a series of pre-circulated papers that dealt with everything from the mysterious absence of scurvy in the sixteenth-century fishery to the inescapable presence of toxins in twentieth-century Whitney Pier; from the strategic devastation of Acadian villages during the Seven Years War to the near-complete occupation by Canadians of Gloucester’s “American” fishing fleets; from the deft diplomacy of a little Island amid national ambitions and anxieties to the modernist hubris of reservoir construction for metropolitan Boston; from the massive culling of Quebec timber for American newsprint to a new investigation by the Empire, Trees, Climate project into the provenance of beams in iconic Province House.
This workshop format is one key to its success, I think; participants have the chance to really consider these pieces ahead of time, and the group essentially acts like an unusually genial process of peer review. Papers have appeared in dissertations (Kris Archibald defended last week!), journals, and manuscripts. In addition, we seem to be unusual even in environmental history as a bi-national working group, finding comparators and commonalities along the shore.
And we cover a lot of ground, and water. Indeed, this year we talked again about the need to examine the terrestrial nature of maritime environmental history – how experience with the sea affects our experience on land. Led by the provocative thinking of Matt McKenzie, we are planning a collection on the environmental history of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, edited by Brian Payne, Edward MacDonald, and myself. (Please contact us if interested in participating.)
We also take a cue from CHESS by having field trips. First there was a ferry to Dartmouth – the best way to understand Halifax Harbour.
Then, guided by local knowledge and Weather Underground, we spent a glorious afternoon at Grand Pré National Historic Site, an amazing place to consider coastal agriculture, imperial warfare, Acadian history, and public memory.
Finally we headed to the Look-Off at Cape Blomidon over low tide in the Minas Basin and the Annapolis Valley. There was ice cream.
Next year we’ll be meeting May 20-22 at the University of Connecticut (Avery Point) with onsite work at Mystic Seaport. Watch for the call for papers, and plan a trip to the shore.