Nature’s Metropolis 25 Years Later: A Conversation with Bill Cronon

“I want to take boring things and make them unboring.” This is how venerable environmental history scholar Bill Cronon described a key part of his raison d’être as a historian. In front of a packed ballroom at ASEH 2017 in Chicago, Cronon fielded questions from a moderator (and then the audience) in a sort of oral festschrift to commemorate the quarter-century (well, 26 years technically) anniversary of the publication of Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Recipient of the ASEH’s George Perkins Marsh Prize and still a mainstay on comprehensive exam reading lists, this book is widely regarded as, among other things, shaping and clarifying the process of commodification of natural resources while demonstrating the importance of the hinterland to the evolution of urban centers.

I can’t do justice to the wide-ranging interview here (it was recorded by Edge Effects) but I’d like to touch on a few aspects, particularly the discussion about the genesis and evolution of the book. For instance, the question of why Chicago? Cronon recalled his interest in what Asa Briggs had called “shock cities” and Chicago seemed like the North American analogue to Manchester. As Cronon put it, “people came to Chicago and they saw the future” since the city and its wider relationships were mushrooming so rapidly in the 19th century; at the same time, the former president of the ASEH admitted that his personal experience growing up in the Chicago hinterland certainly played a major role too.

imagesCronon stated that, when he started the work that would become Nature’s Metropolis, he began with boosters and railroads, but sort of lost “faith” or “confidence” in the book. After stepping away from the project for a few years, he realized that environmental history provided a perspective that would allow him to make the book work by reconciling it as a story about nature/second nature. Furthermore, and I hope I’m not putting words in his mouth here, environmental history approaches were instrumental for grappling with the transformation of the natural world into commodities, the historical agency of nature, as well as understanding the importance of spatial relationships. Sometimes it’s nice to hear that celebrated authors also experience self doubt about their research!

Though the book is, I think, known for its unique forms of casual connections across space – meat and railways immediately come to mind for many readers – the University of Wisconsin professor explained why certain natural commodities commonly associated with Chicago were dropped from the study: for example, he had tried to include steel and coal, but ultimately didn’t have the sources to make the relational connections. This too was encouraging, as it points to some of the contingent ways that everyone’s work progresses. Cronon pointed out that, in some respects, each of his studies is a sort of rebuttal to his own criticisms of his previous efforts (with his current work on Portage, Wisconsin the response to Nature’s Metropolis, including the “lack of people” in that book).

The urban-wilderness – or natural-artificial – dichotomy was explored during the session, as was the extent to which the book was also business and economic history. Cronon mentioned that his first (!) Ph.D. dissertation was on coal in Coventry, England, which is fascinating in a number of ways. First, it’s surprising that such an accomplished scholar never published his dissertation (though it sounds like the centrality of commodity flows in Nature’s Metropolis, and the fascination with shock citiesgrew out of this doctoral work). Second, this unpublished dissertation only, you know, anticipated key energy history issues by a few decades. Given the conceptualization of “second nature,” and foregrounding of technologies such as the railways, one could argue that Nature’s Metropolis also anticipated many of the current discussions about hybridity, technology, and infrastructure. In Nature’s Metropolis, Cronon contended that market forces meld together “first” (natural) nature and “second” (human-constructed) nature; though the precise definition of this “second nature” is perhaps a bit vague in Cronon’s magnum opus, that may be part of the point (and the appeal) since boundaries between natural and artificial become so blurred. In recent years, concepts from envirotech authors (e.g., Sara Pritchard, Tim LeCain, Thomas Zeller, Dolly and Finn Arne Jorgensen, etc.) have sought to reexamine those boundaries under new lights.

Something else I appreciated was the stress that Cronon put on the “moral project” that undergirds his research, which included the desire to be “fair” to people in the past while crafting knowledge that contributes to right human relationships with the environment. And all the better that Cronon was gracious and magnanimous.

Further probed about his approach to researching and writing this foundational book, Cronon mentioned that he incorporated the approaches of Harold Innis, the staples and metropolitan-hinterland theses in particular. And there were a few other shoutouts to Canada: e.g,. a perhaps tongue-in-cheek comment that Chicago became the object of study since Montreal was already taken. (As an aside, if you think about it, many of the other leading lights of American environmental history, such as Donald Worster and Nancy Langston, have also paid a good deal of attention to the environmental history of their northern neighbours). As I later joked, my major takeaway from the event was that writing history like a Canadian is what made Nature’s Metropolis so original!

Finally, a book doesn’t just appear in a vacuum – its status is contingent and contested, much like history itself, and it is always informative to hear opinions about why, outside of the actual quality, certain works become parts of the canon (e.g., timing, connections, politics, zeitgeist). In that vein, that evening over dinner some senior scholars gave me the anecdotal “historiography,” so to speak, of how Cronon’s work was initially received and debated within the environmental history discipline. The highlight of that conversation was a firsthand account of Cronon meeting Donald Worster for the first time – in a high school library less than a mile from Walden Pond, no less. Now that’s environmental history!


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Daniel is an Assistant Professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is a co-editor of The Otter and is a member of the NiCHE executive board. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author of "Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway" and co-editor of "Border Flows: A Century of the Canadian-American Water Relationship." He is co-editing a collection on the International Joint Commission, completing a book on Niagara Falls, and doing research on the history of Great Lakes water levels and other environmental diplomacy issues. Website: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__