Due South: ASEH and the Question of Borders


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The official theme of the 2017 meeting of the American Society for Environmental History was “Winds of Change: Global Connections across Space, Time, and Nature.” Well, it was windy; frigidly so. But was it global? Certainly there were papers about places other than the United States (although not nearly enough on Scandinavia). But it remained a fundamentally American conference.

I spent much of the time thinking about who was there. Sometimes that was along lines of gender; I’ve edited three collections of essays in environmental history with female contributors sharply in the minority, but at conferences, the balance seems much more even, thanks in part to the number of female graduate students. More often, it was about racial or ethnic identity. Whereas in Canada it’s par for the course to see a room full of white faces, in the United States it feels quite odd, and this became a major point of discussion: about the colour, literally, of environmental history. As Liza Piper pointed out, Canadians are accustomed to speaking about settler colonialism, but not questions of race. And sometimes it was about the academy in terms of what they call here legacy versus first-generation students: those with college-educated parents versus those who are the first in their families to attend university; children of  fishers and farmers, say, for whom university is another world in terms of class and occupation. My father went to college on veterans benefits, but his grandfathers were a minister and an engineer, respectively, so in many ways, I’m exactly who the university was designed to serve.


The visually obnoxious signage on Trump Tower supplied an unsubtle metaphor.

And sometimes it was along national borders. How did the political climate in the United States affect the global aspirations of the conference? How many people chose not to attend because of the current administration, either in ally-ship (which is a word now?) with those with less mobility, or because they themselves could not? Probably not that many, in the final count, but enough to raise the question.

Courtesy Michael Egan. https://eganhistory.com/2017/03/07/thoughts-on-not-attending-the-2017-aseh-meeting/
Courtesy Michael Egan. https://eganhistory.com/2017/03/07/thoughts-on-not-attending-the-2017-aseh-meeting/


What does it mean to have an American Society for Environmental History? Is this a quiet reiteration of national borders and national blinders? Or can it be read (optimistically) as a statement of hemispheric interests?


Courtesy Tina Adcock
Courtesy Tina Adcock


Frankly, I don’t think it’s that intentional in either regard; more a convention of academia, and a prosaic statement of institutional inertias and the realities of higher education and employment. Most members of the ASEH are American citizens and study the history of the United States. (And still the environmental history of the American west, but that’s another post.)

Even Chicago, for all its iconic status in popular (Cubbies!) and academic (Cronon!) cultures, is a wonderful site to imagine non-national and multinational geographies. I totally bristled when the grad student guide on the field trip touted Lake Michigan as the “largest body of freshwater solely within one country’s borders.” Hey! It’s part of the Great Lakes! The Inland Seas! Think of French America! How many people got to western Canada! Traffic from the St. Lawrence! There’s a steamer from Prince Edward Island permanently moored in the harbour! Sheesh. (I’m still surprised at how infrequently Americans speak in terms of indigenous territories, though.)

The advantage of traveling to an earlier time zone, and a body-clock accustomed to a three-year old: early, early mornings.
The advantage of traveling to an earlier time zone, with a body-clock accustomed to a three-year old: early, early mornings.

Which, of course, raises the Canadian question. People noted that there were so many Can/con or Can-applicable panels they were forced to choose. Half the ASEH executive is Canadian, including the new president (himself familiar to crossing borders…). We have a strange gravitational pull to each other at this thing; the Canadian publishers cluster in one corner and I, at least, feel as though I’m reconnecting with my bee people – especially now that I’m identified by institutional affiliation rather than nationality or even scholarly interests. So, is ASEH our organization too? Is NiCHE to ASEH as Quebec to Canada? Does our presence celebrate or diminish our differences?

There’s a longstanding debate as to how environmental historians should approach the question of national borders. Such borders are entirely artificial, historically constructed, and frequently utterly insensitive to ecology. But it’s hard to ignore their impact, whether on the framework of legislation and policy, or the mobilities of nature and peoples. Or our imaginations. We’re endlessly fascinated by what and how little Americans know about the lands and peoples north of them. Part of this, I think, is borne of an entirely natural frustration of being taken for granted; part, too, is the baffling point that – from our perspective, at least – it simply doesn’t make sense to know so little. Nothing about the United States makes sense without continental – if not hemispheric – context.


But those blindspots may only be visible from our side of the fence, which is why I think we should keep crashing their barbecues (edited to add, in light of Sean’s comment) whenever we can.


And, of course, Due South was filmed in Toronto, standing in for Chicago.

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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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