NiCHE New Scholars do not meet in December. Starting in the new year we will turn our attention to the practical work of environmental history including discussions on scholarly activism, writing workshops, and digital methods. Watch your inbox for details.
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November Summary: Northern History
Michael Clemens and I led an extremely popular northern history discussion this month. Participants were: Blair Stein, Caitilynn Beckett, Crystal Fraser, Jeanette Carney, Johnathan Luedee, Mark Stoller, Sarah Pickman, Glenn Iceton, and Linnea Rowlatt. The sheer volume of contributors overwhelmed several internet connections, but the conversation continued on Google Docs well after we had disconnected!
This month’s discussion started on the challenges scholars face when researching “the north” as both a cultural/ideological construction and as a material place. “North” exists imaginatively in the minds of documentary film makers, government officials, and southern citizens. But “north” is also a physical location inhabited by thousands of northern people and defined (however loosely) by its distinctive geography and climate. Participants shared some anecdotes from their research related to the disconnection between ideas about the north and northern reality – including stories of failed industrial equipment, shattered expectations, and physical hardship. Ultimately, as scholars engaged in writing northern histories, we decided that we each need to carefully consider how we define “north” in our work while acknowledging that our definition is only one of many.
In light of the fact that many of this month’s participants joined us from south of the forty-ninth parallel, we spent some time thinking about American versus Canadian experiences of “north.” While America has several northern states, its national identity is clearly not tied to the north in the same way as Canada’s. However, we thought there were some interesting parallels to be drawn between the American West and the Canadian North – both were mysterious, poorly understood frontier zones which physically and ideologically shaped the nation. Yet there are also big differences between the two in terms of their mythological and practical place in our national histories: For example, while the American west is characterized by the mass importation of settlers, the Canadian north has been more closely associated with massive industrial equipment and technological effort.
At the end of the discussion we turned our attention to the future directions of northern history and its place in contemporary debates about climate change. Climate change is perhaps the major point of intersection between northern history and environmental history. We talked about the tension between technology as environmentally destructive versus technology as a savior of threatened northern human and ecological communities. We also reflected on the vested interests of those living, working, and investing in northern landscapes, and about the potential of envirotech as a promising new direction in northern/environmental scholarship. At the end of our discussion we brained-stormed some “hidden” sources of climate data within expedition records and other historic sources which we, as environmental historians used to “reading between the lines,” are uniquely positioned to find and interpret for wider audiences.
Thank-you to participants on both Google Hangouts and Google Docs!
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