I’ve been thinking a lot about apples lately.
For the Northeast and Atlantic Environmental History Forum Environmental History Workshop in October, I’m working on a piece about Grand Pré, Nova Scotia. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site a few weeks ago, as “exceptional testimony to a traditional farming settlement created in the seventeenth century by the Acadians in a coastal zone with tides that are among the highest in the world.” The pré was created when Acadian settlers built a low-tech but effective system of dykes and aboiteaux to drain the salt marshes along the Bay of Fundy into arable and richly fertile land. Grand Pré has also been the symbolic centre for the Acadian derangement of 1755 – their dispersal by the British in advance of the Seven Years’ War, at just about this time of year, too: a lieux de memoire for Acadians and a (mythic) site for tourists seeking the romance of Henry Longfellow’s 1847 poem Evangeline.
The UNESCO designation encompasses the full pré (about 1300 acres), including Hortonville, a late-18th century town grid aimed at American Planters. But the focus is entirely on the longevity of the 17th-century pré, created by Acadian settlers and maintained by “their modern successors.” There are certainly interesting continuities: from the use of the pré for hay and pasture to the maintenance of the drainage system by a community-run marsh body. It’s also politically useful for the Acadian cause to associate their historic claim to the area with good environmental stewardship.
But Grand Pré is the gateway to the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia’s agricultural heartland. (Which may not be saying much, in a province with only 8% of its land in agriculture, but that also makes the Valley all the more special here.) It’s home to the Apple Blossom Festival in May and the Pumpkin People (don’t ask) in October, to winery tours in the summer and pick-your-own orchards in the fall. It’s where Haligonians like me head for our “drive-in-the-country” day, to rhapsodize over the prettiness of the Valley and collect a trunkful of fruits and vegetables – as tourists have been doing for over a century.
The point is that the pré is part of this larger region, as much as it was part of a larger Acadie. But if the pré proper is the result of 17th-century dyking, its agricultural geography, like the rest of the Valley, is at least as much and much more directly the result of 19th- century ideas about agriculture, the environment, and the state: Anglo-American settlement patterns; transportation infrastructure geared to supplying the unarable Atlantic seaboard of the province and global markets; international promotion of Nova Scotia as the “Orchard of the Empire”; species breeding and chemical testing at the federal experimental stations at Kentville and Nappan; and an ideology of farming as “the noblest employment of man.”(1)
Even with a growing interest in organic agriculture, terroir, and more sustainable practices among fruit and dairy farmers in the Valley, most of these 19th-century frameworks for industrial agriculture remain in place, and none of them are as innocuous as either the image of Acadians’ preindustrial, collectivist farming or the urbanite’s windshield view of a bucolic orchard. Even my Nova Scotian students tend to see Grand Pré as evidence of a once and future golden age, a wooden-shoe-light-footprint of sustainability. By emphasizing the direct lineage between 17th-century and current practice, the UNESCO designation permits us to vault over two centuries of more intensive, more integrated, and more directly relevant land use. This encourages us to romanticize the agricultural industry, and it’s this romantic view that has increased urban pressure on the area. The dykes are remarkable, but their maintenance allows not just for farmland but for highways across the marshes.
It’s entirely understandable – and sometimes required – that the process of historic designation select and prioritize one era of significance. But environmental history doesn’t always work that way. (I got into trouble with the mayor of Lunenburg a few years ago when I wrote that the town’s UNESCO designation was for a different century and phenomenon – the 18th-century British model town – than that of Lunenburg’s very successful tourist image based on the Bluenose and late Victorian seafaring.) Certainly the pré itself is an important link to the territory of Acadie, and a valuable artefact of early modern Atlantic coastal land use. It’s also a really powerful statement of constructed nature – and a terrific teaching tool. But no pré is an island.
(1). William D. Lawrence, Nomination Day speech, 1863, in William D. Lawrence: Nova Scotia Shipbuilder & Anti-Confederation Campaginer, The Complete Archived and Annotated Writings (Kennetcook, NS: Heroes of Hants County Association, 2010) 205.
Once in a while, historians come up with an idea, do some research, analyze it, write that up, and find we have something resembling a book. Or maybe it turns out to be an article. Or a blog post. In those cases, we attach our name to it and send it out into the world. But what about those stray and idiosyncratic findings that don’t even rise to the status of a blog post, and deserve a longer life than a tweet?
So here’s my idea: The Acknowledgments Project. You post stuff you’ve found that you know you can’t use as well as someone else probably can. If someone can use it, great. If when they write it up they acknowledge your little contribution, great. Whatevs.
An example: This summer, I read through 50 years of Prince Edward Island’s annual Visitors Guides for an article I was writing on images of landscape in tourism promotion. I realized something funny about the tens of thousands of photos I was looking at, doublechecked, and sure enough: the first visible minority person to appear in a photo promoting PEI, with the exception of a very occasional Mi’kmaq, was apparently this girl with South Asian features in 2005. This seems extraordinarily late, if only because it was an entire generation after PEI had begun actively promoting itself to Japanese tourists. (The first visible minority to appear anywhere in the guides was a wax Michael Jordan, in an ad for the “Wax World of the Stars” tourist attraction in 2004). I’m unlikely to do anything more with this. I know my strengths and weaknesses as a historian, as a writer, and it doesn’t really fit into what I do. If you can use it or run with it, please do.
That’s it, The Acknowledgments Project. But I’m unlikely to ever get this up and running. If you feel like doing anything more with it, be my guest.
I remember my first sight of the old Albert Kessel farm. Nestled on the number Four Saskatchewan highway halfway between Biggar and Rosetown, I loved it from the moment I laid eyes on it -- through the window of the truck on my way for my first visit to my then-boyfriend’s parents’ farm. “Wow!” I remember saying. “Look at all those great trees!” A northern Saskatchewan bush girl, I hadn’t yet become attuned to the distinctive and iconic prairie landscape. The spruce and jackpine seemed a dollop of ‘home-as-trees’, stretching to brush the clouds of the prairie sky.
I couldn’t predict, then, that one day I would own that piece of land.
When luck looped through our world and the land came into our ownership and stewardship, I found numerous treasures embedded in the landscape. Stone fences, crumbling. An old road, now leading nowhere. An orchard, the last few hardy trees still birthing fruit. A well, which, when primed, still spills forth fresh water. Another wellhead, furtively tucked under trees and surrounded by growth, littered with empty whiskey jugs – the remains of a still? A steel-wheeled wagon, abandoned so long that its front right wheel is encased by the tree that quietly grew from sapling to spire, anchoring the wagon to the earth, ending its rolling days. A swatch of the Bear Hills, never tilled, native prairie warming the soil like a thick kokum’s quilt.
One hill in particular rises to attention, flowing above the farm and the circle of pine and spruce. At its top, a cairn of stones cradles an old, rusted, flagpole.
Since our purchase, I’ve been trolling the memories of neighbors, local museums, and community history books, gleaning accounts of the farm’s original owner: Albert Kessel, a garlic-chewing, eccentric, WWI bugler, journalist, Czechoslovakian master prize-winning bachelor farmer crossed in love. Fascinating.
I wrote about Albert Kessel and my search for knowledge about him in 2008, published in the June/July issue of The Beaver, now Canada’s History Magazine. I knew that Kessel operated a demonstration farm, which was widely-known and visited every year on field day by as many as 400 researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, federal experimental farms, the Searle Grain Company, neighbors, and busloads of schoolchildren. He called it Vimy Ridge Farm.
Kessel was a bugler during WWI, shot through the thigh at Vimy Ridge. In my article for The Beaver, I wrote: did this hill remind Albert of Vimy Ridge? Is that why he called his farm Vimy Ridge Farm? Did he ever blow his bugle up here? I thought it most likely that the hill, or the series of hills, reminded Albert of his harrowing French experience. In salute, Kessel erected a flagpole and every day, he would stump up the hill and fly a British flag.
At the time, I had never visited the real Vimy Ridge. All I knew of the site was confined to history books and photographs, a landscape of the imagination but never of experience. I thought that Vimy Ridge was like Hill 70 or another strategic marker on a theatre of war where every height of land meant a mile more of sovereignty. That changed in 2009, when I visited Vimy Ridge during a conference tour of Belgium and France.
The experience was overwhelming. The imprint of war on the landscape is still tangible. I visited the tunnels, shuddered at being underground, and felt my jaw drop as my eyes skidded over the craters and hummocks that pock the grass – debris from bombs that exploded on the landscape nearly a century ago. Whether or not you believe that Canada was forged at Vimy Ridge – and I’m not a pinpointer of history – knowing that you stand on Canadian soil in the middle of France redefines your perception of what it means to be Canadian.
But it was at the monument that I had my epiphany. And I wasn’t looking at the monument when it happened. I was looking out, at a flat French landscape that was both foreign and intimately familiar. I was reminded of my own words in that article I wrote for The Beaver: To the north of the yard is a commanding hill, hosting a phenomenal panoramic view of the prairies in a fifty-mile swing from east to southwest.
I knew, in that instant, why Albert Kessel named our farm Vimy Ridge Farm. It wasn’t about the hill – it was the view. From both Vimy Ridge in France, and Vimy Ridge Farm in Saskatchewan, the two landscapes provide a near mirror-image of space, sky, and panoramic earth. Of course, France is covered in towns, villages, trees, and industry: the pyramids are piles of coal, and that is what both armies wanted. Saskatchewan provides a relatively empty prairie view, studded with a few isolated farmsteads and an expansive agricultural skin regularly grown and shaved by generations of farmers.
When Alan MacEachern issued his lovely summer call for photographs of historical landscapes, I considered where I might go, what I would like to see. But my heart knew that I had already made this trip, even if it did not conform exactly to specs. My story draws together two landscapes separated by an ocean and half a continent, and almost a century of time. The story of Vimy Ridge, and the cascading memories of place, connected a little farm in Saskatchewan with an iconic Canadian symbol.
One day, we’ll raise the flag again. We’ll do it for tenacious Saskatchewan homesteaders; for unlucky romances; for Great War and Vimy Ridge veterans; for excellence in prairie agriculture; and, for garlic-chewing bachelor farmers.
And that’s my story.
Shit. It was 5:30 in the morning, I was driving to the Confederation Bridge to leave Prince Edward Island, a full day in front of me – and I detoured, heading up to Cavendish, 45 minutes away. I had been meaning all summer to "rephotograph" a 1950s tourist image of PEI National Park for the
“How you spent your summer, where they spent the past” contest, but hadn’t gotten around to it.
I knew how ridiculous this was. I was literally going out of my way just to put myself in a position of thinking about nature and the past. (And not deep thinking either: what attracted me to the ‘50s photo was the car’s insouciance, practically sitting on the surf – people demonstrating their love of nature by parking on it.) Given the work and gas I was putting in, how could any historical thinking I would have be in any way genuine?
When I arrived at the parking lot overlooking the beach, there was no one else there, the sun was rising, the wind blew, and the land and the sea were beautiful. I got to thinking about the great month I’d just had on the Island, then about how lucky I am to be living when and where I do, then about how this park and any history I might write about it doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, and then about how all that I was looking at, all of our modern existence, was oh so fragile. That is, I was in full Linda Hamilton, end of Terminator mode.
A hazard of reading and watching so many narratives, or maybe simply getting older, is that those narratives inevitably come to remind you of other narratives. The more you read environmental history, or any field, the more the tropes become familiar, repetitive. It can be difficult to see something fresh in what you’re reading. Or writing. You can become cynical about your own interest in the field.
As I stood there, three red foxes ran out of the dune grass. I followed them down toward the water. I sat down on the edge of the bank, swung my legs out over the province, and for fifteen minutes watched them gambol – yes, reader, gambol – together along the shore. Then I stood up, got in my car, and drove to Ontario.
-- The deadline for the “How you spent your summer, where they spent the past” contest fast approaches. We have some great entries, but look forward to getting more. Happy end of summer.
This summer I have been busy wading into some very rudimentary historical geography for my current research project on the history of animals in Canadian urban environments. Like all historical geography research, I think, my intent has been to see whether or not spatial patterns emerge when looking at the place of domestic animals in nineteenth century cities. My case study this summer has been Toronto.
On the map below, I have charted the following data:
- The locations of the city's public markets and cattle markets.
- The boundaries for the prohibition of free running cattle.
- The locations of all butcher shops listed in the 1880 business directory for Toronto.
Please click through on the map to see a very high resolution version.
I won't make too many remarks at this point about this map except for a few preliminary observations. The public markets of Toronto were the centre of urban life in the early to mid-nineteenth century. St. Lawrence Market was built on the market block established by the colonial administration of Upper Canada in 1803 roughly around its current location. The brick structure constructed in 1831 soon became the political home of the first Common Council for the City of Toronto in 1834 and later the first city hall. Like many other North American cities, the political and commercial districts were centred on public markets. Later, public markets were opened on Queen Street (St. Patrick Market) and between Richmond and Adelaide Streets (St. Andrew Market) to accommodate the expanding population of Toronto, which tripled between 1834 and 1844. The liberalization of the public market by-law in 1858 permitted butchers to open shops outside of the market houses where they could slaughter animals and sell meats. By 1880, the business directory listed 165 butcher shops located outside of public markets. When plotted on a map, it is clear that butchers followed the expanding population along major streets, especially those with street railway lines.
I find it interesting that the geographic distribution of public markets can be read as a reflection of the "walking city," that is to say, the city before the advent of street railway when most urban dwellers traveled by foot. By 1880, street railway technology had transformed the geography of Toronto, the effects of which are observable in the distribution of the slaughter and sale of domestic animal bodies for human consumption through butcher shops.
The boundaries that delineated areas where the free running of cattle was prohibited reveal how rapidly land in Toronto became enclosed, preventing free-range animal husbandry within the city. Very soon after incorporation, the city council passed by-laws prohibiting free-range animal husbandry of all animals, except cattle. The practice had been common prior to 1834 when residents of the town of York enjoyed access to common lands and unoccupied lands where their animals could graze. After 1840, Toronto cattle owners were prevented from running cattle at large within a specific area of the city near the cattle markets. Those boundaries quickly expanded encompassing most of the city by 1858. By the 1870s, all animals were prohibited from running at large within the city limits. For the most part, these restrictions on free-range animal husbandry within the city were intended to manage the property rights between owners of stationary property (buildings, fences, etc...) and owners of mobile property (cows, horses, pigs, chickens, etc...). To some extent, these regulations were also intended to facilitate better transportation and communication in the city by preventing street obstructions.
These are just some of my preliminary thoughts. There are a few more points I would like to plot on this map, including the location of the Toronto Street Railway Company stables, the locations of a number of runaway horse accidents, and perhaps even blacksmith shops. Please take a closer look at the map and let me know what you think in the comments section.
Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor in the Department of History at York University. He blogs at http://seankheraj.com.
The federal memorandum of intent to establish Ship Harbour National Park was signed in August 1972 after five years of intensive planning by the National Parks Branch and extensive negotiations with the province. The western edge of Ship Harbour National Park would have been only fifty kilometres from Halifax – a closer proximity to a major city than any other national park in the system at that time. With its beaches and lakes the park would have included many family-friendly recreation opportunities, but it also would include vast wilderness areas protected from resource extraction industries. There was quite a bit of initial enthusiasm for the project in Nova Scotia, but public opinion quickly deteriorated due to resentment that local residents were going to be expropriated for the benefit of tourists ‘from away’. Negotiations between the federal and provincial governments eventually collapsed, and plans for the park were eventually cancelled in December 1973.
It is widely understood that protests by area residents forced the cancellation of the park, but an equally important reason was the province’s reluctance to surrender to the federal government huge areas of viable pulp forests that had already been leased to forestry companies. There is in fact archival evidence that the Canadian government conceded to allow all permanent and seasonal residents maintain ownership of their properties – a concession likely made because of the controversy that had recently erupted over land expropriated for Kouchibouguac National Park in New Brunswick. But the federal government was not prepared to accommodate forestry and other extractive industries within the proposed park.
It is telling that the park negotiations broke down even after local residents’ concerns had been addressed. The provincial government attempted to get more money from the federal government to help pay for the new forestry lands that would need to replace the ones within the bounds of the proposed national park, but this was unsuccessful. Ultimately, the Nova Scotia government made a cost/benefit analysis to determine how valuable or even necessary this third national park was going to be. Faced with a provincial election in spring 1974 and an electorate fed up with the heavy-handed federal approach, Premier Gerald Regan called an end to negotiations three days before Christmas in 1973. At the same time, Regan announced a new provincial park for the area, one with a smaller footprint than the proposed national park system, which would not impact local residents. The provincial park ended up protecting approximately six square miles, a far cry from the 225 square miles that the national park would have protected.
The lands that would have been designated as back country wilderness in the now-cancelled national park continued to be heavily logged in the years that followed, but in the 1990s the provincial government’s Department of Environment and Labour began to study the area again in hopes of eventually protecting the space. After years of research and planning, the department's staff were blindsided by another branch from their own government: in 2001, the Department of Natural Resources approved harvesting in the core of the proposed wilderness area without informing the Environmental department.
The Ecology Action Centre, an environmental non-profit organization based in Halifax, and the Eastern Shore Forest Watch, a citizen’s group from the area, were instrumental in cutting through the governmental red tape and poor communication between departments to successfully lobby for the protection of these lands. The two groups were able to talk directly to forestry companies as well as area residents to come up with an agreement in principle on the area of land to be protected. The paper companies suggested they would be quite willing to cease harvesting on lands within the proposed protection area, as long as they would be compensated with other lands of equal value. Once these agreements were made in principle, the proposal was presented to the Nova Scotia government, which overcame its interdepartmental quagmire to quickly approve the plan. A year and a half of public consultation followed to assure the cooperation and support of area residents and woodlot owners. In 2009, the Ship Harbour/Long Lake Wilderness area (pictured in yellow) finally joined several previously protected areas (pictured in orange) to preserve much of the wilderness that could have been part of a national park forty years ago.
It is fascinating to travel the roads and backcountry of the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia, and imagine the national park that could have been. The region still shows some scars of its depressed economic state, but the communities are still populated with residents who fiercely love their shores and their wilderness, and who continue to fight for the region’s protection. The newly-protected areas will provide these residents with clean waters and healthy woods for generations to come.
The entire province of Saskatchewan was in an uproar at the end of June, 2012.
In a special online poll by Abacus Data, which coincided with Canada Day 2012, Saskatchewan was voted the ‘least beautiful province’ in Canada.
While this news barely hit the soundwaves elsewhere in Canada – what is there to argue about, after all? – Saskatchewan seethed and roared in indignation.
Call-in phone lines on radio talk shows were jammed, Twitter feeds hummed, Facebook filled with rants and photographs, and the Saskatchewan media had a field day in what was otherwise a slow news week. Sask premier Brad Wall commented that the Abacus poll should be thrown into one of Saskatchewan’s hundreds of scenic lakes.
The ‘comments’ features of our contemporary on-line news feeds quickly filled with thoughts from a range of Canadians, but particularly those from Saskatchewan (See, for example, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/story/2012/06/29/sk-sask-ugli...).
The responses typically fell into a pattern: GET OFF HIGHWAY NUMBER ONE HIGHWAY was the most common; a checklist of Saskatchewan’s beauty spots was a close second. Anger, disdain, and unbridled pride coloured much of the commentary. There is a lot more to this place than wheat fields and flatlands – come and see it for yourself, invited the indignant responders. Or, stay away and we’ll enjoy it without you, thanks very much.
Unfortunately the view many people see is that along the Trans Canada highway. That stretch is flat and not very pretty. But that's okay. We'll keep it our secret that the rest of Saskatchewan is magnificent.
Others reveled in the flat landscape, its skies, prairie sunsets, and vistas:
I am reminded of a line from Corner Gas when a fellow from Ontario commented how boring the scenery in Saskatchewan was...It was Hank who said, `There’s lots to see, no mountains to get in your way....
As an environmental historian who specializes in Saskatchewan history, I was delighted by both the poll and the responses – it reinforces much of my early career research on how that ingrained image of Saskatchewan has skewed the way Canadians have told the Saskatchewan story – and what environmental and cultural stories have been told incorrectly, as a result.
I also research cultural imagery and its impact on tourism. I gave a talk at the recent Directions West conference in Calgary that examined the iconic image of Saskatchewan as it informs and lies underneath Saskatchewan tourism literature. The contrast between the open plains and the lakes, rivers, and trees drives the majority of tourism development, including park placement and perception. In particular, I looked at this tourism literature in action over time in the north Prince Albert region, an area known as ‘Lakeland’ adjacent to Prince Albert National Park. My comments at that conference were reinforced in spades by the respondents to the Abacus poll:
Any suggestion that Saskatchewan is ugly is absolutely wrong. Perhaps people may remember driving along the highway and being bored of seeing farms, farms and more farms. I grew up in Prince Albert, which is "the gateway to the North", and remember spectacular scenery and outdoor fun in the northern lakes. My family used to vacation at Emma Lake, Waskesiu and sometimes even Lac La Ronge.
A place must be envisioned as a destination place of beauty and recreation before it can be crafted as such with imparkment, facilities, roads, and visitors. The ‘gateway to the North’ concept is a classic example of boosterism in action.
There is a corollary story in comparing the creation of Prince Albert National Park and the recent creation of Grasslands National Park as a protective site for the natural prairie landscape. The conversations surrounding the two parks are both eerily similar and as vastly different as the landscapes they encompass.
Prince Albert was created as the ‘playground of the prairies’ – a phrase that specifically drew out the contrast between iconic (but incorrect) flat, dry, treeless prairie south with the rolling, wet, and tree-ful boreal north. The park was little more than a rather arbitrary slice of boreal forest (originally a forest reserve) and the national park planners were actually rather appalled – it wasn’t a ‘natural’ park with noticeable boundaries or features (i.e. mountains). But, it was accessible wilderness, meaning you could, with perseverance and good luck, get there in a car and while there, enjoy some camping, fishing, canoeing and boating, hiking, dancing at the pavilion and eating ice cream. Hence the term, ‘playground of the prairies.’
Today, Prince Albert National Park establishes its environmental credentials as protecting a ‘slice’ of the boreal forest” http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/sk/princealbert/index.aspx.
Grasslands National Park, officially designated in 2001 after almost 50 years of lobbying efforts, uses a similar environmental rationale: “Grasslands National Park of Canada has been established to preserve and present a representative portion of the Canadian mixed grass prairie ecosystem” http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/sk/grasslands/edu/edu1.aspx#grasslands.
Those that study park history know of the lobbying efforts it takes to establish a park. In the case of Grasslands, much of the energy focused once more on the contrast between Saskatchewan’s boreal north and prairie south: why isn’t there a park to protect the natural prairie? We have a park in the boreal north; there should be a park in the prairie south. This is a cultural, spiritual, and economic landscape of keen importance to Canadian history, and some remnant of it should be protected.
What the creation of Grasslands reinforced is a provincial identity of space, place, beauty and home that encompasses all of its landscapes, defiantly and proudly including the one that is most denigrated elsewhere. The last word is for one of the anonymous commenters to CBC:
Sk.isn't pretty, ya right. Have they ever traveled through the Qu'Appelle Valley, the Frenchman River Valley, the Cypress Hills, the Grassland park, the northern forests with the thousands of lakes, watched the sun set over the prairie landscape, watched the northern lights dance their magic across the northern skies, the abundance of wild flowers and wild life, listen to the Coyotes sing, etc. etc. Yes, so far Sk. isn't a concrete jungle, let’s hope it stays that way.
In which our "OhCanberra!" recipient goes undercover in the land down under.
Since 2002, the Centre for Environmental History at Australian National University has hosted a workshop for PhD candidates in the late stages of their dissertations. The sixth biennial event was held in May of this year, when seventeen students and six faculty members gathered together in week-long seminar at the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society for discussions, presentations, social events, and support in various aspects of the writing process. Thanks to a travel grant from the Network in Canadian History & Environment and funding assistance from the ANU School of History, I participated in the seminar as a doctoral student all the way from UBC’s Department of Geography in Vancouver. I also played the role of a not-so-covert double agent: as a representative of NiCHE, I was paying close attention to the organization of the workshop and thinking about whether (and how) a similar event could be held for environmental historians here in Canada.
ANU professors Tom Griffiths and Libby Robbin were the main coordinators of the workshop. Tom is an environmental historian and a writer. His initial interests were in natural history collectors and in Australian forests, but much of his present work concerns Antarctic exploration, and he has a particular interest in the ice as a record of climate and historical consciousness. Libby is a historian of science interested in the connections between environmental knowledge and imaginations of territory and nationalism; she also works at the National Museum of Australia. We were joined by Heather Goodall from the University of Technology in Sydney, and international guest of honour Sverker Sörlin from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. Sverker’s presence reflected how fostering international dialogue on environmental history was a cornerstone of the workshop. Other participants arrived from China, the UK, Philippines, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States, and once in Canberra we met students from history departments across Australia. Encountering scholars from these different backgrounds imparted a sense of what ‘national’ schools of environmental history are concerned with. Many of the Australian students were writing on environmental changes brought about by insects, plants, and the modification of ecosystems, on the work of natural scientists and conservationists, or on the construction of nature in landscapes of tourism and commemoration. Lots of similarities could be found along a Canada-Australia axis, where EH is both an exploration of historical environments and a critique of Anglo-European cultures of nature persisting in (post)colonial liberal states.
As anyone who has visited a seminar room will know, productive dialogue depends on participants being willing to speak comfortably which often rests on having established a good basis for providing each another with constructive feedback. The coordinators offered no directives on how participants should relate to one another. Rather, through the organization of the conference they enabled an academic community to emerge organically. The seminars began early in the morning and ended each day around 2:00 pm, allowing the participants lots of time to explore the city or conduct archival research if they needed to. The result was that no single day felt like a marathon session, and the next morning everyone arrived fresh and with stories to share about his or her adventures through the capital city. Every day three students were allotted time to present on their research. Unlike the traditional conference model, however, workshop participants were challenged to ‘perform’ their dissertation in non-conventional ways. This technique was adapted by Tom Griffiths from the esteemed Australian ethnohistorian Greg Dening, whose own research on the theatre of history in the South Pacific developed the idea of performance as both method and practice. Not only did this get participants thinking differently about research and writing, but it influenced the social aspect of the workshop: taking away notes and the podium made the presenter/performers more vulnerable, but also showed how it was incumbent upon their colleagues not to let them fail. (Fortunately, the organizers were not too demanding – not everyone tried the performance!)
The final aspect of the Environmental History PhD Writing Workshop that distinguished the event and suggested that such a gathering would be worth convening in Canada was the social activity planned (and unplanned) in the evenings. Among the most interesting were Sverker Sörlin’s ANU-Swedish Embassy address on “Global Change, History and Planetary Futures: Stories from Sweden's far northern Edge” and the discussion that followed. However, the most memorable occasion was at the home of Bernadette Hince, Arctic and Antarctic islands historian, who had past and present workshop attendees to her house for a huge home-cooked ‘family’ dinner. We then retired to her large private library for a set of intimate readings from popular writings by Sverker, Libby, and our host.
Oh Canberra! A very memorable workshop with many good designs to keep in mind – diverse participants and, importantly, lots of time to engage one another outside the seminar room. As the resident geographer, the only thing I noticed missing was a field trip. As a final word, I should probably give some advice to any future PhD students whom NiCHE might help visit the Canberra seminar in 2014. First of all, bring a coat – it’s winter down under while the flowers bloom in Canada. Second, it’s expensive – even though our currencies exchange on par, you’ll be paying $10 for a pint of beer (try the Malt Shovel Brewery’s James Squire Ale, named for the convict turned police constable who was also Australia’s first brewmaster). Third, talk to everyone you can and try to see as much as possible – it’s a long way to go!
Matt Dyce is a doctoral candidate in Geography at UBC in Vancouver supervised by Graeme Wynn. His dissertation research looks at environmental science, archival knowledge, and state formation in Canada from the 1860s to the present.
Those who dare to enter the waters of Lake Ontario from the neglected shores of Kingston’s downtown waterfront are participating in a long history of swimming in this place. Over the centuries, swimmers have had to contend with a changing landscape, varying water quality, municipal by-laws, and the moralizing gaze of other Kingstonians. Evidence of these, along with photographs of people swimming in Kingston dates back to 1893. (Thanks to Heather Home of the Queen’s Archives for her assistance with this research) I put together these slides as a display for the Mass Swim II, an event held in Kingston on July 11th at 6:30pm, organized by the Water Access Group, a community organization “committed to the promotion of public water and accessible public swimming”. You can view some media coverage from the day before the event. The first Mass Swim was held in 2008 at Richardson Beach, a location popular with Kingstonians for swimming since the late 1800s. You can read the media coverage from that event here and here.
Both events were organized to demonstrate that there are many people in the community that want to celebrate the tremendous resource that is our city’s waterfront and the good water quality we enjoy since extensive upgrades to Kingston’s wastewater treatment plant in 2009. The events also draw attention to the fact that access to the water is made difficult by sharp and slippery rocks that dominate the shoreline. It is our hope that the events will encourage city hall to invest in an integrated waterfront plan in meaningful consultation with the community.
This year’s event was moved to a new location, approximately 1 km west along the shore from Richardson Beach, to what is known as the PUC (Public Utilities Corporation) Dock. This is where most of the swimming happens in the downtown stretch of Kingston’s waterfront. However, this location is also far from ideal due to the rusty and jagged edges on the dock and the lack of an area where people can gradually wade into the water. The City of Kingston highlighted the lack of an appropriate swimming spot when the day before the Mass Swim II was set to go, they sent an email to event organizer, David MacDonald, forbidding participants from entering the water via the PUC docks and directing swimmers to the adjacent “designated swimming area”, a beach characterized by sharp and slippery rocks.
Mass swim participants met at the PUC docks anyway, where we were addressed by MacDonald and then were lead by local musical group, The Gertrudes, across the grassy area to the rocky and weedy beach as directed by city hall. Approximately 400 people attended the Mass Swim II, with many of them entering the water. Scuba divers were on hand to clear the lake bottom of hazards, several kayakers monitored the swimmers and volunteer lifeguards looked on from shore while The Gertrudes provided the soundtrack.
When our city’s shorelines are not properly maintained with recreation in mind, the community becomes alienated from our water sources. This alienation might lead to a lack of action when we are required to protect our water sources from pollution. Consider organizing a Mass Swim in your waterfront community.
A few weeks ago I attended a great little workshop at the Institute for Environmental History at St. Andrews University in Scotland. The papers ranged from Mark McLaughlin's investigation of the links between New Brunswick's scientists and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring to a provocative paper on the future of nuclear energy by St. Andrews' Kirsten Jenkins. One that stood out as a great topic for my upcoming Otter post, however, was Benjamin Tendler's presentation on the Environment & Society Portal. I'd seen a very short presentation on the Rachel Carson Center's innovative website in Madison, but this time Benjamin had the time to show off a lot more features. The Portal, like the NiCHE website, is built using Drupal and they've developed some really interesting features to allow visitors to explore environmental history content on the web. This includes material produced for the E & S Portal and other journal articles, webpages and podcasts aggregated from the wider web (including material from the NiCHE website). Along with the standard search box, visitors can explore the material through a map, a time-line or through connected keywords.
The time-line provides a similar experience, allowing you to scan back and forward in time and to zoom in and out for more or less detail. Finally the Trace Connections option allows you to click through a range of connected ideas, moving from broad to more narrow, but related topics.
The project team is working with environmental historians to create new web content. This includes the first two Exhibitions: Promotion and Transformation of Landscapes along the CB&Q Railroad by Eric D. Olmanson and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, A Book That Changed the World by Mark Stoll. These exhibitions are an exciting development in academic publishing, as they seek to use the potential of the web to present information in a new way, instead of simply reproducing the format of paper journals and books. Along with the longer form exhibitions, they are also developing an encyclopedia-like exploration of European environmental history called Arcadia, with shorter articles on a growing range of topics. In the early stages these articles are focused on European environmental history, but in the future they plan to expand it to other regions of the world. As I mentioned above, the Portal also includes other content from around the web. Much of this in housed in the Multimedia Library. They explain that the "Multimedia Library aims to inspire curiosity about environmental humanities topics with a diverse collection of digitized documents, images, podcasts, and films. It is intended not as a canon or 'best of' collection, but as a diverse offering that we hope will spark interest and possibly even new ideas for research."
The website is still in development and there are lots of gaps in the content. You can get involved with the project and volunteer to contribute content by getting in touch with the project team using the feedback form on the website.