On February 10th I embarked on the first leg of a long voyage from Toronto to Goa, a former Portuguese enclave nestled among the beaches of western India. After enduring the concrete monolith that is Frankfurt’s international airport, I finally boarded my second flight and flew south through Turkey, past Syria, across Iran and down towards Mumbai. I left the plane at an hour past midnight. Mosquitos swarming through the airport quickly prompted me to take the malaria medication that would later give me incredibly vivid dreams. Hours later the shock of a violent landing in Goa was nothing compared to the culture shock that followed. As I left the airport and stepped onto the rust-coloured soil I saw signs promoting European luxury vehicles or American cologne towering over slums and endless trash amid lush tropical beauty. After three sunrises and two sunsets without sleep I finally arrived at my hotel, ignoring for the moment the hand-sized spider dangling near my door.
With the help of funding generously provided by NiCHE, I had travelled nearly 13,000 kilometers to attend the fourth Open Science Meeting (OSM) organized by the Past Global Changes (PAGES) initiative. A core project of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, PAGES has over 5000 subscribing scientists across more than 100 countries. Because research supported by PAGES explores past environments to create a roadmap for the future, the initiative is especially concerned with climate change. Every four years its Open Science Meeting is held in a new location, and in case the Olympic parallels were not obvious enough a “PAGES lamp” was lit at the opening ceremonies. It may not have resembled London’s burning torch, but it did avoid the mishap that embarrassed my fellow Canadians at the Vancouver Olympics.
It’s easy for historians to forget that we don’t have a monopoly over the interpretation of the past. There’s nothing like a scientific conference to remind us that we can only access a tiny sliver of the very recent past, that other disciplines can find voices which speak to the present in sources beyond the documents we hold sacred. Many of the scientists at the OSM reconstructed past climates to measure the significance of modern warming, to unravel how climatic shifts influence different environments, and to provide a clearer picture of the world’s natural history.
In papers and posters scientists presented results derived from the exhaustive analysis of, for example, changes in the growth of trees, the thickness of permanent ice cover and the scope of lakebed deposits. Conclusions were compared with other data that measured shifts in animal ranges, tree lines or glacial extent, all of which can be used to reconstruct changes in regional temperature or precipitation. Evidence from these so-called “proxies” was weighed against a range of sophisticated models, enabling projections of climates past that move seamlessly into the present and future.
Not surprisingly, correlating fluctuations in diverse proxy records and tying them to climatic trends is hardly straightforward. Physicist Ashoka Kumar Sinhvi gave an opening keynote address that exposed the frequently overlooked complexity of linking different kinds of data between different environments at different scales, revealing the limitations of our understanding of past and future climates. Later in the day that concept was echoed by André Berger, who explained how the intricate constellation of influences that shapes the global climate is never stable, complicating the attempt to find historical analogues for our present condition. Sinhvi, Berger and others helped frame the rich data presented in the papers and posters that followed by demonstrating yet again that in science, as in history, the past is opaque, unstable, and forever subject to interpretation.
Of course, that never stops us from seeking more information and, in turn, greater clarity. Some particularly fascinating papers explored past Antarctic climates at a time when the Antarctic Peninsula is warming at a rate of 5.3° C per century. Michael Weber presented findings that reveal how the Antarctic ice sheet is much more reactive to atmospheric Carbon Dioxide than previously believed. Robert Mulvaney then described how the rate of Antarctic melting, unprecedented in the past millennium, likely had analogues in the distant past when ice shelves were entirely absent. Medieval warmth and early modern cooling, familiar to historians of climates past, apparently were not felt in Antarctica. On the other hand, Guillaume Leduc presented exhaustive findings that, while skewed towards the Atlantic region, nevertheless suggested that the “Little Ice Age” between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries strongly affected global sea surface temperatures. Those results may have critical implications for the nascent field of marine environmental history, which until now has not adequately considered climatic fluctuation.
To unravel histories that bridge culture and nature, environmental historians require some scientific literacy, yet I wasn’t sure what to expect as I prepared to give at a talk at a conference where formulas were ubiquitous and historiography unheard of. I argued that documentary evidence can improve the accuracy of reconstructions of temperature or precipitation, giving us a way of testing meteorological patterns recorded by the kinds of sources unearthed by scientists. Accustomed to the critical analysis of diverse documents, historians are ideally situated to filter documents through the kind of methodology that lets us quantify past weather observations and, in turn, reconstruct the climatic past. Moreover, while tree rings or ice cores rarely provide much more than seasonal resolution, surviving documents can record weather with far greater temporal precision, and some even chart hourly changes.
Most importantly, documentary evidence grants us access to past wind intensity or direction, weather conditions that are less easily measureable through the analysis of scientific proxy data. For centuries it was necessary for European mariners to estimate longitude by calculating a ship’s speed, direction and any leeway in its course, for which the most important influence was wind. Hence many logbooks kept aboard ships abound with reliable and quantifiable meteorological information taken several times on virtually every day of the vessel’s journey. The bulk of my talk presented results from English and Dutch ship logbooks, which suggest that easterly winds increased in the late seventeenth century as the climate cooled across the North Sea.
I was relieved and delighted by the reception I received from the scientists in the audience. More importantly, it was heartening to see the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation in the new “Future Earth” project spearheaded by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. Still, many scholars in both the sciences and the humanities continue to take a passive approach to building connections between disciplines. Conferences like the PAGES OSM have existed for decades, yet many historians fail to realize that their insights are needed and desired. Similarly, most presenters at the upcoming ASEH conference are historians, and scientists or engineers remain underrepresented. Establishing connections between institutions like NiCHE, the ASEH, PAGES and the Climate History Network (CHN) can help move us forward, but what’s even more valuable is feedback from those who have benefitted from conferences in another discipline.
After the conference in Goa I spent a few days in the vast metropolis of Mumbai. My plane was delayed, and as it finally approached the city our pilot was forced to circle the airport for a few minutes before we could land. The slums in Mumbai are so vast that their full extent can only be grasped from the air. As I shifted in my leather seat I glimpsed the innumerable shanties, clustered around open sewage, barely visible through the purple smog. The impoverished people far below, and countless millions like them, will suffer most as our planet continues to warm, yet their voices are never heard in academic or political conferences. The quest to understand climate change must become more inclusive, not just of other academic disciplines, but of all voices, past and present, learned and “unlearned,” rich and poor.
Fish don’t much care for borders. They have this pesky habit of freely swimming between the United States and Canada without so much as even once stopping at border control. And despite the best efforts of the United States, Canadian, and British governments over the past two-hundred-plus years, it seems that fishermen don’t much care for borders either.
At this year’s ASEH conference historians from Prince Edward Island, Massachusetts, and Newfoundland will deliver three papers that explore how fishermen in the nineteenth century were often able to use the confusing territorial authority in the North Atlantic to make the best of a dangerous work environment and equally volatile market.
Edward MacDonald of the University of Prince Edward Island will show how, despite the island’s close proximity to rich fishing grounds, early British policy emphasized farming over fishing on Prince Edward Island, leaving Americans to dominant the fishing resource off the island’s north shore. Even when the local government attempted to promote an indigenous fishery after 1829, that local fishing industry was spearheaded by American operations. The relationship, then, between the New England fishing fleets and Prince Edward Island exposes several issues of identity connected to place and economy, for example, the Island's agrarian-versus-marine dialectic, the degree to which an indigenous "Island" fishery might actually have been termed an American one, and the status of the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence as a borderland where both cultural and physical boundaries were permeable.
Brian Payne of Bridgewater State University will tell the tale of Ebenezer Marshall. Marshall was born in New England to immigrant parents, but moved to Prince Edward Island in 1854 where he married a local woman and raised a family in Rustico. By claiming British residency Marshall sought to fish the inshore waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but by claiming American citizenship he sought to sell those fish in the Boston market without paying import dues. Marshall’s lived experience in this contested space illustrates how individuals could redefine themselves as well as their environments as they moved between the various hierarchies of place. The local village in Prince Edward Island, the profitable marketplace in Boston, the physical environment of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the geo-political contours of the British Empire where structures that defined Marshall's identity, but were also structures that Marshall sought to redefine and manipulate for his own ends.
Rainer Baehre of Memorial University, Corner Brook, explores contested fishing claims and treaty violations between the government of Newfoundland and the United States, as described in witness testimony by claimants on both sides, as to whether American rights under the Convention (Treaty) of 1818 had been met or violated between 1877 and 1910. In the case of the latter, a primary focus was the disputed collection of custom and light duties involving the Bay of Islands of western Newfoundland, the most important source of herring bait for large New England companies, such as Gorton-Pew of Gloucester. In a broader sense these disputes pitted economic protectionists against supporters of free trade. A major grievance reflected in these disputes involved the issue of environmental conservation and access to the bait fishery and how it was exercised along the French and American Shores of Newfoundland. In establishing the validity of these claims, the court called upon parties from both countries to describe the nature of the American fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and especially western Newfoundland waters. These detailed stories provide rich material for understanding not only the nature of international conflict over the fisheries but also concerns about species degradation and environmental sustainability, how the American fisheries operated, and the way in which inshore fishers responded in regions such as Fortune Bay and the Bay of Islands.
All three papers will address the key challenge that faced nineteenth-century fishermen. The best fish were in Canadian waters, but the best fish market was in the United States. The challenge for Canadian fishermen was to get into the more profitable American markets. The challenge for American fishermen was to get into the richer Canadian waters. Although at times (1854-1866 for example) the governments negotiated “free fish for free fisheries” deals, most of the nineteenth century was period of conflicting territorial and market claims. During those times, fishermen joined the fish in their persistent violation of political boundaries.
These papers will be delivered on Panel 10-E, Algonquin, Saturday, April 6, 3:30-5:00.
Originally posted on HEARsay, the blog of the NiCHE regional group, Historians of Environment of the Atlantic Region.
Maritime Union, or one united Maritime province, is an idea that predates Canada. The original rationale for the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, which eventually led to Canadian Confederation (1867), was a meeting of Maritime leaders to discuss some form of union between their respective colonies. The idea has resurfaced periodically ever since then, often proposed as a solution for what are perceived as the region’s economic woes. The most recent revival occurred in November 2012, when three Conservative senators, Nova Scotia’s Stephen Greene, New Brunswick’s John Wallace, and Prince Edward Island’s Mike Duffy, offered Maritime Union as a way to combat soaring provincial deficits and high unemployment.[i] Media commentators, such as John Ibbitson in The Globe and Mail and the editorial board of the National Post, wholeheartedly endorsed the idea in the days and weeks that followed.[ii]
This recent national discussion about Maritime Union lacked historical perspective and was saturated with neoliberal assumptions. While many reasons have been offered as to why Maritime Union is a good idea, I want to address one policy area that has not received much attention — natural resource management. My interest in the matter stems from my doctoral research on the environmental history of forest management in New Brunswick at the University of New Brunswick, and the fact that I am a New Brunswicker, born in Perth-Andover and raised nearby on a small family farm. As an environmental historian, I am concerned that this latest discussion about Maritime Union is relying upon the same type of reasoning that has been used to manage natural resources in the region.
I am troubled by, as Tim Harper put it in The Toronto Star when addressing Maritime Union, “the Wal-Mart approach to Confederation.”[iii] Essentially, it is the familiar notion that bigger is better, that economies of scale will allow for cheaper provision of government services and reductions in bureaucracy, and that more businesses will be attracted to the region through a simplified regulatory regime and the combined population of the three Maritime provinces. These are not necessarily new ideas. Every time Maritime Union has re-emerged, comparable ideas have been part of the national conversation. However, since the 1970s and 1980s, we have been living in a period when “neoliberalism” is increasingly the dominant mode of Western political and economic thought. Neoliberal adherents advocate deregulation, privatization of government services, free trade and “open” markets, and the like. The latest discussion about Maritime Union has been primarily conducted within a neoliberal framework (see the Conservative senators and media commentators mentioned above) that often excludes the values and priorities of most of the people who call the Maritimes home.
The sand dunes at New Brunswick’s Kouchibouguac National Park. The park was established as part of the regional economic development programs in the 1960s and 1970s. While Kouchibouguac is now a popular recreational space, many families, some of whom relied on local natural resources, were expropriated from the area to make way for the park.
There are many similarities between the current neoliberal logic of Maritime Union and the management of natural resources in the region. In the 1960s and 1970s, the federal and provincial governments initiated a series of regional economic development programs with the goal of “modernizing” the Maritime economies. As part of this larger process, government planners relied on the social science theories of “growth centres” and “growth poles.” Such theories claim that if industry and infrastructure are consolidated in centralized (usually urban) locations, then the ensuing economic development will radiate out into other (usually rural) areas and generate further growth. While the current neoliberal logic of Maritime Union may at first appear to be quite different, both types of reasoning are effectively about centralization and consolidation. The actual outcome of the regional economic development programs of the 1960s and 1970s was the centralization of management of natural resources away from local peoples and into the hands of a few large companies (in the case of my research, pulp and paper companies) and government bureaucrats in distant capital cities. The outcome of Maritime Union would likely be very similar. This time around, however, those companies attracted to the region, if neoliberal advocates have their way, would have to deal with even fewer political restraints, regulatory safeguards, and real people.
Maritime Union is not in the best interests of Maritimers. The idea that greater centralization and consolidation of political and economic control will benefit the Maritimes is false. Neoliberal proponents frequently use ambiguous and intimidating language such as “market forces,” “international competition,” and “emerging markets” to make their proposals sound like they are the only reasonable way forward. The best approach to neutralize such rhetoric is to refer back to the real, lived experiences of local peoples. Past experiments in centralization and consolidation have left Maritimers with little say as to how local natural resources should be managed and whom should benefit most from how they are managed. This is a legacy that Maritimers are still living with, as rural areas are experiencing high levels of unemployment and the familiar exodus of young people “Goin’ Down the Road” to look for work.[iv] Maritime Union would simply be more of the same. Instead, the governments and regulatory regimes that are still in place must do more to meet the real needs and concerns of rural communities when addressing issues of natural resource management, perhaps through decision-making processes that actually involve local peoples.
[i] CBC News, “Revived Maritime merger proposal gets no political support,” December 2, 2012. Also, thank you to Jason Hall for his helpful editorial suggestions.
[ii] John Ibbitson, “Pride, vested interests doom Maritime union campaign,” The Globe and Mail, December 3, 2012, and National Post editorial board, “Hail Nova Brunsward.” National Post, November 29, 2012.
[iv] Goin’ Down the Road, directed by Donald Shebib (Chevron Pictures, 1970). Goin’ Down the Road is an iconic 1970 Canadian film about two men from Cape Breton who move to Toronto to find work.
Editor's note: This month The Otter will feature posts on issues in Canadian Environmental History written by historians attending the American Society of Environmental History meeting in Toronto 3-6 April, 2013. If you would like to join the conversation you can leave comments below or attend the panels in Toronto. The first post in this series asks the question: "Why Subsistence?" and panelists will explore the controversial role subsistence plays in environmental history at a roundtable discussion on Saturday, April 6 at 1:30 pm in the Quebec room.
Subsistence has a bad reputation. Say it and people hear “near starvation.” If I say “subsistence farm” you, environmental historian that you are, are now probably picturing scrawny children standing in the midst of some sort of storm-blasted hellscape, tattered calico dresses and torn knee breeches hanging from their emaciated frames. But lately a group of us have been devoting some serious scholarly attention to the subject of subsistence, and are finding a minimum of post-apocalytic hellscapes (though if you like that sort of thing I can recommend some good films, many of them starring Charlton Heston). Self-provisioning – grabbing your food directly from nature – was once ubiquitous and survives today in more places than even many scholars realize. The study of it is well established in anthropology and parts of geography and rural history, but environmental historians have much to offer to the discussion, and insights to gain into the intersections of capitalism, nature, and human survival in the modern world.
Part of subsistence’s reputation problem comes from differing ideas of what is meant by “subsistence.” The children in your head are hungry because they were part of a liberal capitalist system where their family was expected to fend for itself. Such individual self-reliance has little to do with how people have actually incorporated self-provisioning into their food systems. Medieval English peasants, North American First Nations people pre-and-post contact: these people practiced getting for themselves as a community or kin group, and usually combined it with trade of some sort, whether it was oolichan oil carried over the Coast Mountains or spices from Asia. Really only with the advent of capitalism came the idea that there were different ways of valuing things: according to what they could get in exchange for something else, and according to their use value. Capitalism proceeded by removing non-market access to the means of subsistence, by stripping away customary guarantees to land, forests or waters and making these things available instead through the market. English peasants, Scottish highlanders and the Secwepemc of British Columbia, amongst many others, had their land enclosed, their ancient right to access it for growing or gathering food cut off, the land turned instead to commercial crops of wheat, sheep, lumber or minerals. Inside Western economic thinking, amongst modernizers, development-minded governments, or those determined to help First Nations people adjust to colonialism, subsistence became something practiced by those unable or unwilling to engage with capitalist markets. Nature was to be accessed directly only for recreation (which might involve eating what was hooked or shot) or, in the case of First Nations people, for cultural or ceremonial reasons.
Yet subsistence as a serious form of self-provisioning continued. It continued because people found it to be vital. Take the Cree of northern Alberta, as studied by anthropologist Clint Westman. The Cree word that best translates into subsistence, pimâtisowin, also means the good life and, more generally, just “life.” A whole person, a person who is truly alive, is one who spends real time in the bush. Subsistence survives as well in the cracks of capitalism. In places like the outports of Newfoundland or northern Ontario self-provisioning kept fishing families alive to produce more salt cod, kept operating farms that could supply lumber camps. Subsistence lives in relationship to capitalist market exchange, and persists because, like the welfare state, it smoothes out the contradictions of capitalist markets.
It has been suggested to me that I am romanticizing subsistence. This may be. But when you live in northern Ontario, you notice some things. You notice that people really like to go out into the woods or out onto a lake (frozen or not) to find animals, kill them, and eat them. You also notice that that is about all they can do with the enormous amounts of the valuable stuff of nature around us, as opposed to the large companies that extract minerals or lumber and pay for them with unstable jobs and royalties that go south. You notice that the history of this place can be summed up with the phrase “other people got rich, us, not so much.” I’m not sure why northern Ontarians, and all the other people in all the other places like it in this country and abroad, should not be able to draw more directly on the nature around them for their subsistence, should not benefit more from the valuable resources that flow past our homes to speed down the sparkling new four-lane Highway 11 that the Ontario government has built for them.
Our conversations about subsistence began at a NiCHE-sponsored workshop in 2009. The workshop led to a book manuscript and will continue in a panel at the ASEH in Toronto (Saturday, April 6 at 1:30 pm in the Quebec room, if you’ll be there).
James Murton is Professor of History at Nipissing University where he writes about food.
Have you ever found yourself in a teaching situation which was more uncomfortable than comfortable? And, related, I'll bet you learned a lot from that uncomfortable situation.
It is amazing how much I found out about myself in 2012, working through my first team-teaching opportunities. In so many ways, they were amazing experiences. Working with highly-regarded scholars from four distinct disciplines so different from my own (a hydrologist, a soil scientist, a geographer, and a wildlife biologist), I spent months immersed in ideas and practices that just had not come up, in my work or training as a historian.
I should clarify: I did not teach with four other people at the same time. I co-taught a course on Data Analysis and Management with three other people last spring; I co-taught a course on Human Dimensions of Environmental Change with one other person last fall. Total: four. And, these were not co-taught courses where we traded off (you take weeks one through four; I’ll take weeks five through eight). We were all in the classroom, all the time.
What I learned were lessons about the process of teaching, and teaching well. I've thought long and hard about some really basic issues, some of which occurred to me during these experiences; others, as part of my overall preferences as a professor. Here is Merle’s Seven Highly Applicable Steps to (Hopefully) Better Teaching and Team Teaching:
Photo 2: "Leaving on our three day experiential trip"
1. Make sure that each member of the team shares the same vision for the purpose of the class. A good way to do this is to build backwards. Adapting old syllabuses from when the course was taught the year before might seem easy, but I promise you, this avenue is extremely problematic. Get together with your co-teacher(s). Decide the purpose of the class, then decide what skills/attributes you hope students will gain. From there, choose appropriate assignments. Without a central vision, each instructor tends to focus on his or her own area of expertise and there might be a lack of co-ordinating purpose or goals or even ideas on ‘what the students should be learning’ that conflicts or is widely dissimilar.
2. Team teaching requires a major investment in co-ordination. Specifically, the team needs to decide who will be the major point of contact for the students (for announcements), how much and when to use on-line communication, how to handle adversity, and how marking rubrics are interpreted. Thankfully, the last was not an issue -- we marked quite similarly -- but I know that those can be sticky issues, particularly cross-disciplinary teams. Rubrics can also be tricky for students. In the human dimensions course, where we gave the rubric in the syllabus, students tried to write to satisfy the rubric instead of answering the assignment questions. It was a problem of fit – an older rubric for a new assignment.
3. Go visit the classroom. Have it changed if necessary, before you start. The classroom really matters. I do not like classrooms without windows. I do not like classrooms where the students face the instructor -- certainly not for a graduate level seminar, as these classes were. I prefer round table discussion groups and will try to find classrooms that suit these requirements.
4. The first day is incredibly important. When I teach a course myself, I set aside the first day, or a large chunk of it, for a deep investigation of the class, its purpose, and the syllabus. I also like to get to know the students. This is difficult in a first or second year survey course, but easy in a graduate seminar -- and critical. What is the background of each student? What are their expectations for the course? What skills are they bringing in, and how can these be shared amongst their classmates? What new skills are they looking to learn? We asked the students in the human dimensions course to provide reflective autobiographies related to environment and sustainability – these were illuminating.
5. Every time I teach, I'm a learner. One of the students was surprised when I said this. He said, 'but I consider you the expert. What can you learn from us?' I remember a professor once said to me, early in my grad school days, that you can only write a book about something once you've taught it for many years. The point is, you learn a subject more deeply, broadly, and unexpectedly when you teach it. Learning is active, while teaching is a tool. And every time I work with students I learn. I learn content because in explaining it in new ways, I look at it differently and learn it all over again. But more importantly, when I teach, I learn about people skills, what makes a good and bad assignment, how to mark effectively, how to identify plagiarism, how to encourage good writing, how to develop a student’s skills, and how to be organized. The last one is my bugaboo, but I’m improving.
6. Hold debriefing sessions after each and every class to discuss how the class is going and what the team as a whole, and each member, can do to contribute to the overall success of the class. Co-teaching is a larger time commitment than teaching on your own – you have to constantly co-ordinate, plan, back check, and cross check with your team to make sure everyone is happy to follow the path.
7. Find a mentor. In the human dimensions class, we were supported in our team-teaching journey by a superb mentor from the University of Saskatchewan’s Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness. Sheryl Mills was amazing. Find a Sheryl Mills, I implore you. At least, find and read a lot of the great and growing information on the scholarship of teaching and learning. It is as important, if not more important depending on your position or goals, to become a better teacher in all University environments.
HAVE FUN LEARNING!! (I MEAN, TEACHING!)
Merle Massie is a writer and historian, and a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa. Find her blog at: http://merlemassie.wordpress.com/
For me, memories, like photos, lack peripheral vision. Focused intensely on a single narrow perspective this image says: "Holy crap, a whale!" None of us knows what's just to the left, or beyond that treeline. That's not what the image is about. But great images also say more. They make us feel. They make us wonder. For me, this photo is awesome, beautiful, but most importantly: intriguing. It tells us just enough of a story to send our imagination running.
My imagination wants to know what it smells like to stand with those men in the image. It's telling me there's probably hints of wet cedar bark combined with notes of the fish stalls in Vancouver's Granville Island market complimented by a warm salty sea breeze. I also want to know what it feels like to poke him with a stick. A good sized sturdy stick so I don't have to get too close. Most of the bark on my stick has been stripped by the continual pounding of the waves. There are a few bite marks left by a golden retriever out for a walk along the shore with his owner, assuring me I'm not the first one to have a bit of fun with this stick. Like a child, I wonder if the whale will shift when I poke him. Will it startle us? Make us jump? Will we be embarrassed, turn towards one another and laugh nervously? Of course he won't move. Look how big he is. But I wonder.
One of my fondest memories as a six year old is stored in my mind in much the same way as this photograph: without peripheral vision. That memory is of how I felt when I walked into the dinosaur gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum with my father. There was a red glow cast upon the dark brown skeletons. That glow told me I was leaving my own world and entering one dominated by beasts more terrifying than I could imagine. I have no idea what was to the left, or in the next room, or even what I saw out of the corner of my eye. But I do know that red glow made me wonder.
Wonder is of course the merchandise of museums. For well over a century the world's great museums have spread wonder far and wide, piquing the interest of children and invigorating the rusted imagination of adults. From time to time it's worth pausing to ask ourselves how museums have been able to continually prompt our sense of wonder, particularly when we turn our own attention to engagement. Inside the walls of academia, more energy than ever is focused on outreach as researchers are constantly looking for new ways to connect with different audiences. For those with image collections, social media sites such as Flickr are appealing and can look forward-thinking. However, successful social media is about engagement and as any curator knows, engagement is not just a matter of 'build it and they will come'.
Recently I sat down with the outreach team at Britain's National Maritime Museum to discuss how they have used Flickr as part of their outreach program, as well as how the service has allowed them to catalogue their photograph collection. I invite you to watch the highlights of that interview in the video below:
Like many cultural heritage organizations, the museum has a large collection of images in its archives, very few of which were part of the physical exhibits in the galleries. To increase access to that material the museum decided to turn to Flickr. Not only did this step increase that access, it also allowed for interactions with the users that just are not possible in physical exhibits. When she first initiated the campaign, project manager Lucinda Blaser hoped to begin crowdsourcing metadata related to the collection from the general public as a way to better understand the material. Blaser’s tremendous faith in the collective knowledge of their audience paid off and Flickr provided a forum through which that knowledge could be transferred.
Jane Findlay, the digital participation officer at the museum took the project further in collaboration with Newcastle University PhD student Bronwen Coloquhoun, by initiating Curate the Collection. This participatory project invited seventeen Flickr users to work together to select visually striking and thought-provoking images from the Museum’s huge collection. These images were then incorporated into a physical exhibit in the Museum itself which ran until 31 October 2012.
My afternoon in Greenwich thinking about Flickr taught me a lot about how one of the best cultural heritage institutions in the world undertakes their online social media outreach. Though photo sharing sites such as Flickr may be tempting for academics because of their perceived low cost, it is all too easy to forget the immaterial costs of these endeavours. These campaigns really are campaigns; they take lots of time, a good idea, some planning, and a notion of what exactly it is that you’d like to achieve. Without that, you risk being just another academic with a Flickr account. But your project can be so much more, as long as you don't forget to make us wonder.
Thanks very much to Lucinda Blaser, Jane Findlay, and Emma McLean at the National Maritime Museum for taking the time to discuss their experiences with me. And thanks to the Social Media Knowledge Exchange project (SMKE) for supporting the filming and editing put together by the talented Ryan Austin.
Adam Crymble is the NiCHE webmaster and a PhD History candidate at King's College London in England.
Some years back I was a judge on the American Society for Environmental History’s prize committee for the book of the year. It was a great opportunity to take a measure of the field, and to get a lot of free books. At some point, I noticed that almost all of the 30 or so books, whether dealing with parks in California or cattle in Tanzania, mentioned William Cronon. His work was said to speak directly to the topic, or it was an inspiration. Or maybe he was the author’s graduate supervisor or editor. Or all of the above. In one case, Cronon was cited in the dedication and the first sentence of the acknowledgments and the first sentence of the introduction! A crippling case of Cronon’s disease.
That experience has got me noticing how Cronon tends to be cited these days – for example, in the leading journal in our field, Environmental History (full disclosure: I’m on the editorial board). Far too frequently he is the recipient of drive-by mention: a quick, often unwarranted reference to his work, and then the author moves on. Some examples? There’s the uncited, “Those who take seriously William Cronon’s sage admonition to focus our attention on issues of sustainable use ….” Or how about a second author’s, “More recently, William Cronon encapsulated this sentiment with the idea that nature ‘is a profoundly human construction’….” Did we really not know that before him? Apparently not, because, as a third author states, “Doing so helps remind us, as William Cronon argued in his celebrated essay ‘The Trouble with Wilderness,’ that humans are part of the natural world….”
Let me get out of the way what I’m not saying. I’m not saying the emperor has no clothes. William Cronon is – assume the “arguably” in all that follows – the leading historian in our field, the best essayist, one of the best stylists, editor of the leading monograph series, author of our field’s best bridge to historical geography, supervisor and mentor to a slew of scholars, and a leading academic activist. Teaching in Wisconsin, the emperor’s not just clothed, he’s layered.
I am saying two things. My general point is that scholars do scholarship a disservice when we overquote, overcite or, let’s face it, simply namedrop. We should quote other scholars only when they’ve stated an idea so perfectly that we couldn’t possibly do better ourselves – or when they’ve stated an idea so wrongheaded or wrongheadedly that we must quote them in disbelief before disputing or improving upon them. We should cite scholars only on the same occasions. We are in the “yes, but” business. If all we’re doing is encouraging readers to read another scholar’s work, we’d be better off not writing at all, because we’re only increasing the textual noise in the world that keeps their work from being noticed in the first place. If you can only say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.
My specific point is that environmental historians have been doing William Cronon a disservice in recent years by referring to rather than responding to his work. About sixty different Environmental History authors of essays and book reviews have mentioned Cronon over the past six years, but only one has really engaged his scholarship for more than a sentence or two. Cronon’s books have tended to be so good and so debated when they’re first published that after a while they’re not really debated at all. He’s become the sort of author you’re supposed to “reread” rather than “read.” But the man’s too young for us to make him the field’s patron saint, and his writing’s too valuable to be treated as sacrosanct. I read Nature’s Metropolis in big gulps when it came out in 1991, and never really returned to it, so much of my understanding of it today is undoubtedly contaminated, secondhand. It’s time I reread – no, read – it.
Alan MacEachern is Associate Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario and the Director of NiCHE
Since late 2008, I have been the producer and host of Nature's Past, the Canadian environmental history podcast.
Over the course of its first four years, Nature's Past has featured interviews and conversations with numerous environmental historians, including faculty and graduate students from across Canada and around the world. Its audience includes scholarly researchers, teachers, policy makers, and just about anyone remotely interested in the field of Canadian environmental history. And, as it turns out, there has been a great deal of interest in the field. With more than one hundred monthly subscribers, the podcast has been downloaded more 20,000 times by a global audience of listeners from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, China, Brazil, Sweden, New Zealand, and many other countries.
After thirty-four episodes, I have been as surprised by the reach of the podcast as I have by its longevity. When I began Nature's Past, I envisioned it as a short-term experiment with a new medium for scholarly communication. Inspired by the work of Jan Oosthoek on the Exploring Environmental History podcast, I wanted to see if there was an appetite in the scholarly community for an episodic podcast that profiled new work in the field of Canadian environmental history. Prior to the late 2000s, academic podcasts were mostly limited to recorded course lectures. They were primarily a tool for teaching that replicated older practices of tape recording and added a new digital distribution model. Few of these early initiatives included automated subscription and fewer still included content recorded exclusively for digital distribution. Oosthoek''s podcast and the work of other early digital historians suggested that an episodic format with interviews and round table discussions about new research might offer something new to scholarly researchers and broader public audiences.
After the strong positive response to the first six episodes of Nature's Past, I decided to continue the series and its audience continued to grow. As such, the podcast has charted some of the major shifts, trends, and changes in the field of environmental history in Canada. Many of the graduate students who were interviewed in early episodes have gone on to publish books and take up postdoctoral fellowships and faculty positions. Several faculty members have published new books in Canadian environmental history, including the numerous books in the UBC Press Nature History Society series. When we published our special episode on teaching environmental history in 2009, there were only three Canadian environmental history textbooks. Just this year, Neil Forkey and Laurel MacDowell published two new textbooks for the field. And, of course, the podcast has witnessed the growth and development of the Network in Canadian History and Environment, featuring an archive of interviews with several NiCHE organizers about projects, workshops, and other events.
So what began as a short-term experiment has now grown into a relatively well-established new form of scholarly communication that builds upon existing scholarly publications. Podcasts have not replaced books and journal articles. They have added to the diverse media that historians now use to communicate research findings and disseminate knowledge about the past. I have found that podcasts are especially effective at:
- Promoting new research and publications.
- Exploring current issues and topics in a given field through open conversations with experts.
- Reviewing new books.
- Reaching non-academic audiences.
- Synthesizing historical research to provide context for contemporary environmental issues.
It was these last two points that led us to expand Nature's Past this year, with the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada's Public Outreach Grant program. Along with two new research assistants (Stacy Nation-Knapper and Andrew Watson), we have attempted to use the medium of podcasting to apply environmental history research findings to contemporary environmental issues. Our special series, "Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues," attempts to provide historical context for a number of different environmental issues by drawing from the expertise of historical researchers. Because the podcast has proven so effective at reaching audiences outside of academia, it was a perfect fit for this grant program. The round table and interview formats of Nature's Past provide an excellent platform for historians to convey their research findings to communities outside of the university.
For scholarly purposes, the past four years of Nature's Past has provided some insight into the growth and potential of digital scholarly communication. Podcast, blogs, and other digital media should not be viewed simply as potential replacements for traditional forms of scholarly communication, such as books and journal articles. Digital media offers scholarly researchers the opportunity to build upon existing publishing formats and create something new. Digital technologies should be used to grow scholarly output, forging paths toward the future rather than replicating methods of the past.
We are looking forward to publishing the final three episodes of the special series of the podcast and continuing the regular Nature's Past series into the foreseeable future. And, of course, I could always use feedback and comments, so please take a moment to fill out our ongoing listener survey here.
Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor in the Department of History at York University. He blogs at http://seankheraj.com
During the winter, most advertisements that bring up Canadian climate like to emphasize just how uniformly cold the country is. Trucks plow through barely cleared roads; vacation deprived folks bemoan having to clear their walk again, and shinny is played on every field and street. It’s a fairly popular appeal—Canadians are cast as having managed to overcome, and indeed embrace, the challenges of our long winter. (The fact that winters are warming and shrinking seems to have escaped the attention of advertisement agencies).
However, in the early twentieth century, this image of the Great White North was precisely the one that tobacco interests sought to overcome. After a long hiatus, farmers in Essex County were enticed into growing tobacco after it began attracting higher prices, partially due to new protective tariffs. However, creating a sustainable foundation for the sale of their crop was a challenge. The first great tobacco magnate of Canada, William C. Macdonald, famously declined to buy any Canadian grown tobacco for his brands. Why? Canada was too cold. Try growing figs, or oranges, Macdonald scoffed. His opinion had a lasting impact on the perception of Canadian tobacco.
Thus began the great effort to recast Southwest Ontario as a sunny place, distinct from the cold climate that shaped the rest of the country. Some of my favourite descriptions found in newspapers include ‘semi-tropical,’ ‘the sun parlour of Canada,’ and—perhaps stretching reality a little bit—the ‘banana belt’ of South Essex. Local writers and farmers were quick to defend their climate as ideal for most tobacco cultivation, and were joyous when their tobacco was deemed the equal of American grown at exhibitions in Britain and elsewhere. They pointed to this as clear evidence that Ontario tobacco could succeed.
The Imperial Tobacco Company of Canada, formed in 1908, was less hesitant to adopt Canadian grown tobacco, and encouraged this climatic recasting of Southern Ontario. Their interest in the Canadian-grown weed grew to the point where they held a controlling position of the market, and set the price in most years. However, the company (and the farmers) still sensed that the perception persisted Canada was far too cold for quality tobacco. To overcome this, the company launched a ‘Picobac’ Burley pipe tobacco line in 1933. The early advertisements relied on colourful stories about the life of ‘Mr. Picobac,’ the ‘Essex County philosopher.’ He launched a ‘tour’ where he expounded on the greatness of Canada and the virtues of Essex County, frequently from a sunny step in front of a post office. In the pictured advertisement, Picobac’s success is part of the broader story of Canadian development.
He was a busy fellow, going from barber shop to worker rally to tell people about the virtues of the ‘mild…cool…sweet smoke’ in his pipe (and, in the case of the latter, to caution against any ‘radical’ action). The ad writers probably had the older demographic, who were more inclined to purchase pipe tobacco, in mind. For this audience, Mr. Picobac exudes warmth, familiarity, and stability. In true paternal (and patriarchal) fashion, he advised one young man of the dual advantages of Essex County, the girls and the warm environment. Climate, more so than women, is a recurring theme in the copy. Picobac was ‘Grown in Sunny Southern Ontario.’ One ad copy presented the pastoral image of tobacco growing alongside rows of peaches, apples, and other summertime fruits. Indeed, Picobac ads frequently sought to frame tobacco cultivation as part of the natural landscape of Essex—of course, quality tobacco could be grown in the sunny fields of Southern Ontario. All it took was a bit of gumption and modern farming techniques.
The Picobac advertisements disappear around the end of the Second World War. However, the brand seems to have have stuck around for longer—I found a reference to Imperial discontinuing the brand in 1969. The commercial importance of them shouldn’t be exaggerated. Following the war, the dominance well-known cigarette brands such as Marlboro and Players only increased. However, the Picobac campaign provides an interesting moment where farmer and company interests converged—they both benefited from a campaign that extolled the virtues of warm, sunny Southern Ontario. For a period, at least one advertisement campaign tried to disrupt the image of a frozen Canada to prepare Canadian consumers for high quality Burley pipe tobacco.
A source note: a quick word search on the Our Ontario newspaper site (http://ink.ourontario.ca) will generate many Picobac ads, should you be interested in the adventures of Mr. Picobac!
Jonathan McQuarrie is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto. This post is a preview of "Sowing the ‘Noxious Weed’: Preparing the Canadian Land for Tobacco c. 1870s-1930s," his paper for the Toronto Environmental History Network reading group. For more information on that meeting see http://niche-canada.org/node/10551
Last year, I gave a short research talk at York University on some new research I am currently working on for a forthcoming presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History. This year's conference will be in Toronto so I thought that this case study of a little-known continent-wide epidemic of equine influenza that started in Toronto in October 1872 would be an appropriate way to talk about my broader research on the history of animals in Canadian cities in the nineteenth century.
This brief research talk focused on my discovery of the following historical document, Diseases of the Horse (1873) by Dr. Robert McClure. This edition of McClure's veterinary guide included an appendix on treatments for the 1872 equine influenza epizootic or, as it was known, "the Canadian horse distemper." Dr. Andrew Smith, principal of the Ontario Veterinary College in Toronto, wrote a brief report on the epizootic and some of the recommended remedies for the mysterious illness that spread outwards from Toronto to nearly all parts of urban North America between October 1872 and March 1873. This document provided me with my first Canadian source on the event and it outlined in detail the origins of the outbreak.
Of course, this case study demonstrates the tremendous significance of horses to the functioning of nineteenth-century cities as the immobilization of entire fleets of horses brought Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, Chicago, and many more cities to a halt. But in addition to this, the epizootic also reveals the unique ecological conditions of nineteenth-century urban environments where many thousands of horses lived in dense, often ill-ventilated and poorly-drained, street railway stables where the epizootic flourished. The multi-species environments of Canadian and US cities in 1872-73 produced the biological conditions necessary for the widespread outbreak of epidemic crowd diseases among horses. The epizootic did not just have a disproportionate impact on urban environments, it was the product of urban environments.
As I continue with this research, I hope to further explore this argument and try to answer other questions about the epizootic. What effects did the epizootic have on veterinary medicine in Canada? Besides urban transportation, how else were the lives of urban dwellers in Canada affected by the temporary immobilization of many thousands of horses over the winter of 1872-73? What was the full range of the epizootic in Canada? How was the disease spread from city to city? How did governments respond to the disease?
Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor in the Department of History at York University. He blogs at http://seankheraj.com and he is the host of the Nature's Past Canadian environmental history podcast series.