One of the reasons I chose to locate my postdoctoral research on the environmental history of beekeeping at the University of Guelph was the presence of reknown honeybee researchers Ernesto Guzman and Gard Otis, and the existence of the Honey Bee Research Centre on campus. Occupying about a hecture of land adjacent to the University Arboretum, the Centre is home to about 200 bee colonies and a field lab known as Townsend House. Combined with the University of Guelph Library’s extensive Burton Noble Gates Collection on the changing science and practice of apiculture, Guelph is easily the best place in Canada to study the history of beekeeping and its relationship with surrounding land use, and land users.
Having done some preliminary research on beekeeping in the province, I thought it only appropriate to get a bit more familiar with my subjects themselves. An email to Paul Kelly, resident university beekeeper and manager of the Honey Bee Research Centre, resulted in an invitation to attend a “bee yard session” Paul was giving for the Wellington County Beekeepers Association in early June.
It was hot and humid the afternoon I arrived at the research centre. A couple of bee bodies brushed past my windshield as I pulled in, boosting my sense of apprehension. Just what had I signed myself up for?
In “bee yard session” I had read: “tour of the bee yard.” “This is where the hives are; over here is a smoker, we use this to calm the bees when we inspect the hives; here are our research facilities….” I had hoped we would get the opportunity to suit up and see the bees at work inside the hive, but that’s as far as my imagination had taken me. The experience that followed was more than I bargained for.
Roughly fifteen beekeepers ranging in age from their mid-30s to their mid-70s, and of varying degrees of experience, arrived to take part in the session. I was one of just two self-confessed “newbies,” but our newness was of different categories, I found out: she was new to the practice, but had already committed to the extent of buying a hive of bees; I was new to bees, full stop (and have no intention, at least in the short term, of acquiring a hive of bees). Paul handed me a hat and veil (no full suit? I wondered) and showed me how to how to drape the veil over the hat and cinch it so it covered my face and neck.
As we approached the bee yard, Paul explained what we would be doing over the next hour. Townsend House’s “bee yard sessions,” I learned, are seasonal workshops held in the late spring and early fall to acquaint novice beekeepers, and reacqaint more experienced ones, with important activities to maintain the health and productivity of their hives. Today we would be learning how to open a hive, handle frames, and “mark” the queen bee for easy identification.
Bees flew back and forth across my field of vision as we approached the hives, and one came to rest on the veil in front of my face. I practiced my inner calm as I tried to focus on what Paul was saying. In the bee yard where we stood, about 50 hives were clustered together a couple of feet apart. With about 60,000 bees per hive, that makes for 3 million bees, all within thirty feet of me. Paul puffed his smoker around the top and the lower entrance to one of the hives before removing the cover. The smoke cues the guard bees to retreat inside the hive and feed on honey, and masks the smell of any alarm pheromones they release.
Each of Paul’s actions was practiced and deliberate, from placing the hive cover on the ground top down to better receive the stacked contents that would follow, to stacking the frames on alternate angles so that only a small portion of the frame rested on the next—with the purpose of squashing as few bees as possible. Pulling out a frame heavy with honey, Paul selected me as the newest of the bunch to get a feel for its weight. A frame has a short metal handle on each side upon which it rests inside the super (the large white stackable boxes that make up a modern frame beehive). It’s heavy not only with honey, but with bees.
Paul held the frame out for me to grasp and I placed my two index fingers gingerly under the two handles. “This seems like a job for a pair of gloves” I thought to myself. Next I was to practice upending it and turning it over, mimicking the actions of a routine frame inspection. My gingerly grip on the frame, Paul told me, wouldn’t cut it. Instead I was to grasp the frame firmly by its sides, moving the tips of my bare fingers around to the blind side of the frame which was… covered with bees. Paul didn’t seem concerned by that. I moved my fingers a little further down the frame and then passed it on with relief to the beekeeper beside me.
The next activity was to build confidence in marking the queen. This went beyond picking up frames to picking up… bees. Paul pulled a “brood” frame from one of the lower supers and moved around the circle, asking everyone to select a drone (a male honey bee) and pick it up by the thorax. Larger and stouter than the female worker bees, drones do not have stingers. Almost as large as the queen herself, they make good practice specimens for marking technique.
Holding a bee was one thing; making sure I selected the right bee, and not one of the stinging workers moving around alongside them, was another. Thankfully Paul spared me the indecision and handed me a drone. We were then to practice transferring it from hand to hand, holding it top to bottom between our fingers, and then side to side, tipping its abdomen up for easy marking. The brave among us took a white marker and placed a circular mark on the top of their drone’s abdomen. I quietly released mine from its squirming confinement.
As a way of parting, we each had an opportunity to place an open hand softly upon a frame of furry, warm bee bodies. The energy communicated by their bodies was fantastic. They responded, not with irritation, but by shifting slowly to a different part of the frame—a useful technique for frame inspection. As the workshop concluded, I couldn’t help but marvel at how docile these bees were, and how accommodating (there is some genetic selection in that, but that’s another story). The bees seemed as unconcerned by our presence as when we arrived.
While the economics of beekeeping has changed dramatically over the last century, and honeybee pests and pathogens continue to evolve, the equipment and the practice of beekeeping hasn’t changed much since L.L. Langstroth invented the top frame hive in 1851. Observing an experienced apiarist at work and learning about honey bee behaviour in the present gave me new understanding to apply to my work in the archives: among other things, bodily knowledge of the weight of a frame laden with honey.
It is a rare historian, furthermore, who has the opportunity to “handle” her research subjects. Environmental historians have perhaps more opportunity than others to combine archival research with work in the field. As I found in my first trip to Townsend House, there’s a lot of value in stepping outside one’s comfort zone.
Jennifer Bonnell is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Guelph
For the third time in the past month a major pipeline rupture has spilled oil in the province of Alberta. According to the province's regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, an estimated 1,450 barrels of heavy crude oil (~230 cubic metres) leaked from a pumping station along Enbridge's Athabasca Pipeline, a 541 kilometre pipeline that transports up to 345,000 barrels of oil per day.
The pipeline first opened on March 31, 1999 and was said to have a potential capacity to transport up to 570,000 barrels per day, but began at just 100,000 barrels. Enbridge spokesperson, Jim Rennie, told the Edmonton Journal at the time, "We have built for the future." The Athabasca Pipeline, the largest crude oil pipeline exclusively within the boundaries of Alberta, was a critical piece of infrastructure for the expansion of bitumen mining and tar sands development in the late 1990s, linking the petroleum resources of northern Alberta to Canada's existing crude oil pipeline network. The completion of this pipeline in 1999, less than a year after the Alberta Energy Utilities Board granted regulatory approval, expanded Enbridge's network to 11,185 miles of main pipeline, the largest in the world. During the EUB approval process, there were only three intervenors who initially opposed the project, but later rescinded their opposition. EUB noted that "no social, environmental or safety issues were raised by the intervenors." Enbridge built the pipeline through very difficult terrain in a forested and muskeg environment that was inaccessible through most of the winter. Regulatory limitations were eased by the cooperation of the Department of National Defence, which permitted the company to run the pipeline directly through the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, a NATO air training facility.
Enbridge now hopes to expand to the full capacity of 570,000 barrels per day on the Athabasca Pipeline. The company plans to achieve this goal through modification of five of its existing pump stations and the construction of four new stations. The ERCB granted regulatory approval for this expansion last year on May 13, 2011 and civil construction at the Elk Point and Vermillion pump stations began in October 2011. Enbridge has invited members of the public to submit any questions or concerns to its toll-free line at 1-888-263-3654 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
While the ERCB and the company reported that the spill has not contaminated any waterways, this particular pipeline does cross two of the province's largest rivers, the North Saskatchewan River and the Athabasca River. The Athabasca River was one of the first waterways in Alberta to suffer from a major oil pipeline spill from tar sands development. In June 1970, a Great Canadian Oil Sands Ltd. (now Suncor) pipeline ruptured and spilled 1,190 barrels of synthetic crude oil (~189 cubic metres) into the river. The spill flowed into Lake Athabasca where local residents could see the oily sheen on the surface of the lake. This was one of the earliest major oil spills on a pipeline carrying synthetic crude from Fort McMurray to Edmonton. The processing of bitumen into synthetic crude oil was in its infancy then and very few companies had established operations in northern Alberta.
Today the tar sands industry has grown substantially with many dozens of multinational corporations operating in Alberta's northern region. The pipeline network that carries liquid petroleum throughout the province now totals more than 370,000 kilometres. Oil pipeline spills historically have occurred on a regular basis on Alberta's network. Between 1990 and 2005, there were 4,769 pipeline releases of liquid hydrocarbons on the province's pipeline system. Between 2006 and 2010, there were 1,647 pipeline failures. In 2010 alone, there were 20 crude oil pipeline failures and 241 multi-phase pipeline failures (carries crude oil and gas). According to the ERCB, these pipeline failures released 3,400 cubic metres of liquid hydrocarbons or roughly 21,000 barrels of oil. If we consider just the crude oil pipeline failures in 2010, there were an average of 1 pipeline failure every 18.25 days. If we include multi-phase pipeline failures, that's 1 every 1.4 days.
The recent spill of crude oil near Elk Point is just one of many in Alberta's past. A better understanding of the environmental history of oil pipeline spills is necessary in order for Canadians to assess the environmental risks associated with new oil pipeline expansion projects. The map below marks major oil pipeline spills in Alberta between 2006 and 2012:
View Major Alberta Oil Pipeline Spills, 2006-2012 in a larger map
To learn more about the history of oil pipeline spills in Alberta, please read my earlier articles on this topic:
- Alberta's Oil Spill History
- A History of Enbridge Oil Pipeline Spills
- The History of Oil Pipeline Spills in Alberta, 2006-2012
-  Edmonton Journal, 21 April 1999, E1.
-  Globe and Mail, 21 April 1998, B8; Oil and Gas Journal, 26 Apirl 1999, p. 60.
Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor in the Department of History at York University. He blogs at http://seankheraj.com
During the first week of June 2012, members of Asubpeechoseewagong Anishinabek (AA) (Grassy Narrows First Nation in English) along with supporters from neighbouring First Nations and environmental and human rights organizations gathered on the steps of Ontario’s provincial legislature in Toronto for the River Run Rally 2012. The River Run was organized by activists from AA to bring awareness to the disproportionate share of environmental pollution this community has suffered, mainly in the form of mercury, due to over 50 years of forestry operations in the Whiskey Jack Forest and the Wabigoon River watershed.
The week of events began on June 5th with a discussion about the health and social impacts of mercury poisoning with Judy Da Silva, activist and Grandmother from AA, and Dr Hanada, a mercury researcher from Japan who has studied mercury toxicity in Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations as well as Minimata, Japan. The next day AA invited Premier Dalton McGuinty and other senior members of government to a fish fry on the lawn of the provincial legislature to share in a meal of mercury-contaminated fish fresh from the lakes of the Wabigoon River system. Perhaps it is needless to say, the guests of honour did not attend. (Which meant more fish for us hungry supporters at supper!)
The week wrapped up with a march through the streets of Toronto where hundreds of meters of blue fabric were deployed to evoke a river flowing through the streets, complete with papier-mâché fish, destined for the steps of the legislature where passionate speakers from AA and their allies, including Warren White, the Grand Chief of the Grand Council of Treaty #3, delivered rousing speeches. These events are the latest in over a decade of action by AA activists, which can be better understood with a brief description of this activism’s geographical and historical context.
The Whiskey Jack forest (WJF) is the name given to the forest management unit that encompasses the traditional hunting and fishing grounds and waters of AA by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Kenora District, Northwest Region. (see map) It is within the boreal biogeoclimatic zone and is mainly covered with coniferous forests comprised of Pine, Spruce, Poplar and a minority of Fir trees. WJF provides habitat for many fauna including: Woodland Caribou, Great Grey Owl, Moose, Marten, White-tailed Deer, Boreal Red-backed Vole, Northern Flying Squirrel, Snowshoe Hare, American Kestrel, Boreal Chickadee, White-throated Sparrow, Swainson’s Thrush, American Redstart, Connecticut Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker, Spruce Grouse and Golden-crowned Kinglet (Boyce, 2009).
Logging in this area began over 100 years ago when red and white pines were harvested from the shores of Lake of the Woods. Pulp wood operations began in the 1920s when the Abitibi-Consolidated Company constructed a mill in Kenora. Log and pulpwood harvest continued and expanded north towards the areas inhabited by AA until the 1960s. The northern most reaches of the Whiskey Jack Forest were not accessed until the 1970s. Most of the WJF logging operations occurred here in the 1980s and ‘90s. This expansion has left an extensive network of roads throughout the area making it easily accessible to industrial activity (Boyce, 2009).
In the last three decades, industrial logging operations in the WJF have conflicted with the Anishinabe way of life as the flora and fauna AA traditionally rely on for food and medicine have been disrupted by clear-cut logging. AA argues that these conflicts contravene Treaty #3, an agreement reached between agents of Queen Victoria and First Nations of the area in 1873.
In August of 2011, the Superior Court of Ontario ruled that under Treaty #3 the province of Ontario lacks the authority to issue logging licenses on the tract of land understood to have been “surrendered” by the ancestors of AA to the “Dominion of Canada” since the agreement was made with a federal entity rather than the provincial one. At issue is the “Harvesting Clause” in the Treaty that guarantees that the “Ojibway” will have the right to continue hunting and fishing on the land in question “saving and excepting such tracts as may, from time to time, be required or taken up for settlement, mining, lumbering or other purposes by Her said Government of the Dominion of Canada, or by any of the subjects thereof, duly authorized therefore by the said Government” (Keewatin v. Ministry of Natural Resources, 2010).
The side effects of industrial logging are only a fraction of many hardships AA has had to bear in recent history. The River Run 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the mercury contamination of the Wabigoon River system. Beginning in 1960, the Dryden Mill released an estimated amount of over 9000 kilograms of mercury directly into the English-Wabigoon River system, which lies upstream from AA’s traditional territory. (Vecsey, 1987). The mercury was not officially discovered until 1972, but by then, much of the damage had already been done to those who consumed contaminated fish on a regular basis, part of the traditional lifestyle of AA. The devastating health effects manifested themselves in a variety of ways, all which have been carefully documented over three decades by a team of Japanese scientists who became interested in the subject after studying survivors of Minimata disease (mercury poisoning) in Japan, a disease named for a Japanese fishing village that suffered mercury pollution similar to AA (Harada, 2005).
The contamination shut down the commercial and tourism fisheries in the area and not only destroyed most of the employment opportunities available to the residents of the reserve, but made the traditional lifeways of the Anishinaabek a deadly pursuit. The threats to the community's health are not only persistent, but also accumulative and worsening (Harada, 2005). The extreme social disturbances for the people of AA have been well documented by several researchers (Erikson, 1994; Hutchinson, 1977; Shkilnyk; 1985, Vescey; 1987).
Tired of her community being treated as industry’s waste basket, Chrissy Swain, an activist and youth leader from AA, began a blockade on a logging road adjacent to the Grassy Narrows reserve on December 3rd 2002. The blockade still stands today, earning it the title of longest standing First Nations logging blockade in Canadian history. Over the past decade the blockade has been populated by supporters such as the Rainforest Action Network, Amnesty International, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and many independent groups working to protect the First Nation’s right to self determination and a healthy environment.
Ever since, Swain has fought tirelessly against the destructive industrial activities on her traditional territory, most recently accompanying a group of AA residents over 2000kms to Toronto for the River Run Rally. This group included over a dozen young people from the reserve, four of which embarked on a month long walk, all the way from Grassy Narrows to Toronto. Swain’s eldest son, Edmund, acting on a dream he had about protecting the water, said he led the walk because there were many young people in his community that were not aware of the mercury issue and he wants the next generation to be inspired to act in the same way he and his mother have.
Sitting on the lawn of the provincial legislature, listening to Chrissy speak, her young daughter standing dutifully at her side, I hear the message loud and clear: “Please keep supporting us. Do not quit now. Make your friends and family understand the importance of the water. It is not just our future, but all of our futures. Miigwetch.”
If you would like to learn how to support the people of AA Grassy Narrows please visit freegrassy.org.
- Boyce, Robert P. "Forest Management Plan for the Whiskey Jack Forest - Kenora District, Northwest Region, MNR Abitibi-Consolidated Company of Canada for the Twenty-year Period from April 1, 2004 to March 31, 2024." Technical Report, April 2, 2009.
- Harada, M., and Miyakita, T. 2005 (trans. Tadashi Orui) "Long-term study on the effects of mercury contamination on two indigenous communities in Canada (1975-2004)" Research on Environmental Disruption. Vol. 34 No. 4., xx-xx.
- “Keewatin V. Minister of Natural Resources 2011 ONSC 4801 Court File No. 05-CV-281875PD”, August 16, 2011
- Vecsey, Christopher. 1987. “Grassy Narrows Reserve: Mercury Pollution, Social Disruption, and Natural Resources: A Question of Autonomy” in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 287-314.
After attending CHESS and CHA, I saw many signs that environmental history is the future – forgive the oxymoron.
From the range of great environmental research, to the musings about the past, present, and future of the Canadian historical discipline, the Canadian historical discipline is longing for the types of approaches that environmental historians can offer.
CHESS was another wonderful experience – it is probably my favorite event on my academic calendar, in large because of the people that make up the environmental history group. This was the fourth CHESS in a row that I’ve attended, and I likened it on several occasions to summer camp. CHESS 2012 took place at Guelph University, and the theme was Bees to Beef: Farmed(ed) Animals in Environmental History. If I’m not mistaken, there were 58 participants. There were a number of interesting talks and sessions, and field trips (often the best part!) to the Ontario Veterinary College and a working farm. Jenn Bonnell and Stuart McCook, as well as many others, deserve a warm round of applause for making it such a success, and NiCHE for backing and funding it.
The vitality and promise of environmental history was also apparent at the Canadian Historical Association conference. A number of papers and panels were by NiCHE members. A number of CHA awards were won by environmental historians: Jessica Van Horssen won the Forsey prize for best dissertation, and Shannon Stunden Bower won a Prairies Clio Prize for her “Wet Prairie.” Indeed, environmental historians have been dominating SSHRC doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships in past years, and have won many other awards.
The CHA included a roundtable on the macrotheories of Canadian history: the staples, Laurentian, and metropolitan-hinterland theses. It featured NiCHE’s Sean Kheraj and myself, as well as Doug Owram, Shirley Tillotson, and Christopher Dummitt. These theses are inherently environmental, and deal with big questions and theories in Canadian history. The historical profession’s concerns with these big questions were made apparent by the turnout: around 85 people. I’m pretty sure that is the most people I’ve seen at a CHA panel. By many accounts, this roundtable turned into the hit of the CHA. Perhaps it also appealed because it was a real roundtable, not just several prepared statements.
The last section of the roundtable was opened up to questions and comments from the audience, and based on what I heard, I think that environmental historians can provide a lot of the answers for the questions other historians are posing. I was also heartened to hear, due to my own particular scholarly interests, that others felt that the future of Canadian historical scholarship was in issues connected to environment, transnationalism, communication, transportation, and technology.
My own view is that environmental history can answer big questions about Canada (and the globe) and doesn’t need to fall into a subfield that only talks to itself. Alan McEachern’s recent work on the “bigness” of Canada is an obvious example, and I try to do it myself with my work on transnational Canadian-American water issues. There was some suggestion at the roundtable that we are in a “post-nation” or “post-Canada” age in which there are no more national narratives to tell. But some, during and after, didn’t totally buy that.
Environmental history as the future is particularly pertinent considering that NiCHE’s SSHRC funding will expire in a few years. We need to promote NiCHE and what we, and the environmental history field, have to offer – and we didn’t do a good enough job of that during the macrotheories roundtable. We should be promoting not only for the well-being of the field, but also because so many of us have benefitted so tremendously from NiCHE. With the ASEH 2013 in Toronto, it is a chance to really show off Canadian environmental history. One easy thing that springs to mind is NiCHE-sponsored panels for the CHA (and maybe ASEH). For example, I organized the macrotheories roundtable mentioned above as part my affiliation with the Political History Group, but this panel could have just as easily, if not more so, been sponsored by NiCHE.
I have fond memories of the book fair at the annual Canadian Congress of the Humanities & Social Sciences. At the 1994 one, I learned from a Copp Clark rep that Chad Gaffield was putting together what would be the first collection of Canadian environmental history. So, unsolicited, I sent him a copy of an essay I’d written – kids, don’t try this at home! – and by the following year's book fair I got to see it in Consuming Canada. Good times.
Wandering the aisles of the book fair last week, it was great to see that there are many more Canadian environmental history / historical geography titles coming out than ever before. Much of this is thanks to UBC Press’s Graeme Wynn-edited Nature/History/Society series, which has now reached 20 titles. This not just the strongest series in our subfield these days but may well be the strongest series in Canadian academic publishing, full stop. McGill-Queen’s has just launched a Rural, Wildland, and Resource Studies series edited by Colin Duncan, James Murton, and Ruth Sandwell. And (cough) I am editing the Canadian History & Environment series of edited collections with University of Calgary Press. Of course, there are many stand-alone titles, too.
Here are some of the new (since 2011) books. First mention has to go to Shannon Stunden Bower’s Wet Prairie: Prairie, Land, and Water in Agricultural Manitoba, which last week won the Clio Prize for the Prairies. Congratulations, Shannon! (I’m also interested in reading the natural history book that just won the John A. Macdonald Prize, The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicolas, edited by Francois-Marc Gagnon). Jocelyn Thorpe’s Temagami’s Tangled Wild: Race, Gender, and the Making of Canadian Nature has appeared this spring. A collection that I should know more about, with a strong historical component, is Gene Desfor and Jennefer Laidley’s Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront. A collection that The Globe and Mail has ensured I’ve heard more about is Andrew Baldwin, Laura Cameron, and Audrey Kobayashi’s Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature, and Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada. Stéphane Castonguay and Michèle Dagenais have had a great year: Castonguay and Matthew Evenden edited the just released Urban Rivers: Remaking Rivers, Cities, and Space in Europe and North America; Dagenais published Montréal et l'eau: Une histoire environnementale; and together they edited the great Metropolitan Natures: Environmental Histories of Montreal. I’m looking forward to reading AA Den Otter’s Civilizing the Wilderness: Culture and Nature in Pre-Confederation Canada and Rupert’s Land. Keri Cronin published Manufacturing National Park Nature: Photography, Ecology, and the Wilderness Industry of Jasper. I am also happy to report that Claire Campbell’s edited A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011 – notably, a book that is also available for free download – sold out its initial print run of 1000 in its first 12 months, so that more had to be printed.
As Ecclesiastes 12:12 reminds us, there are always more titles forthcoming. For Canadian environmental history geeks, this summer’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is either Neil Forkey’s Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century or Laurel Sefton MacDowell’s An Environmental History of Canada, or both. If the publication of these two overviews makes us feel that we’re getting a good hold on the field, I predict John Riley’s forthcoming The Once and Future Great Lakes Country will usefully put us back on our heels.
Did I miss any 2011 or 2012 titles in Canadian historical geography / environmental history? Undoubtedly, so drop me a line. I want to be sure to appear on next year's version of this list, but I'll make time for reading as well.
PS: Don Lafreniere alerted me to a book I've forgotten, a book he believes "will become a classic in historical geography:" Sherry Olson and Patricia Thornton's Peopling the North American City: Montreal, 1840-1900.
Recent studies of aerial photographs suggest that Prince Edward Island’s first energy crisis was not the 1973 oil embargo but a firewood shortage that predated OPEC by a century. Two posts on The Otter discuss some of the ways air photos can be used to understand landscape change in the PEI National Park, and a new exhibit stresses the importance of seeing these images as snapshots of time as well as place. Air photos can also be used in a Geographic Information System (GIS) to study land cover and land use change, and the resulting data offer a new tool for understanding the difficult balance between clearing forests for agriculture and leaving enough for fencing, forage, and fuel.
Tourists who approach Prince Edward Island on the ferry in 2012 disembark at “Wood Islands” and take in a coastal landscape of relatively unbroken forest, but the ferry’s first passage in the late 1930s would have revealed a very different and almost completely denuded coastline. (Early tourist invitations to “come play on our island” might have included a suggestion to “bring your own firewood.”) The 20th century forest regeneration at Wood Islands echoes a well known story of outmigration and agricultural downsizing in the Atlantic region, evident in sources like the Census of Agriculture. Historians assume that farm abandonment occurred primarily on marginal lands, as families adapted to poor soils and a poorer economy, but air photos offer a detailed portrait and a spatially explicit model of different stresses such as declining access to woodlots and other wildland resources.
At the beginning of the 20th century Prince Edward Island’s forests had reached a nadir from extensive agricultural and commercial exploitation of the forest. But only a generation or two earlier, there was an abundance of forest. In 1861, the average Island farmer lived on properties which were only about 38 percent “arable,” or cleared to the extent they could be cropped. Taking into consideration the other thirty percent of the colony not in farms, we see that only about a quarter of the Island had actually been deforested. Forest historians argue that by the end of the century over 70 percent of the Province was cleared for agriculture and the forest that remained had been harvested several times for the shipbuilding industry and domestic use.
In a recent Otter post I described how Prince Edward Island farmers responded to a critical food shortage, when the Province’s ruminant population outpaced its marsh and upland hay production. Farmers took to the ice and spent a large part of the winter dredging “mussel mud” to enrich their fields and expand the production of hay and cereals. However, this practice was prevalent in areas where farmers had already cleared most of their land, both because growth required either new land or more productive land and because farms in these areas were running out of firewood. With little forest left, many of these farmers turned their winter activities to hauling mussel mud and began to buy coal or commercial firewood for domestic energy.
Using air photos it is possible to identify places where this likely occurred. Figure 1 shows a composite image of four map overlays (labelled A-D on the right) and the location of every home in Lot 30 (labelled on the left), a rural township to the west of Charlottetown. These layers allow me to identify the precise location of homes, the location of the forest, and the places where the density of homes and scarcity of forest would have caused a biomass energy crisis. These data are all derived from PEI’s aerial photographs which were first flown for many Canadian jurisdictions in the 1920s and 1930s. The original air photos were subsequently used to create maps for the National Topographic Series, and in 1990 the Province of PEI also used them to create historical forest and land use inventories. In the final layer, I used a GIS to measure the amount of forest located within a 2.5 Km radius of each home and made an “energy crisis map” based on the density of points in selected PEI study sites.
This map shows areas where rural and small town resettlement was putting pressure on natural ecosystems. For example, Lot 30 had approximately 14 hectares of forest for every home, but the homes marked with blue dots had direct access to less than 5. Clearly these farmers lived in an interconnected world and had access to fuel from local outfits and importers, but what is important here is that their immediate fuel supplies would not have lasted more than a few years at even a conservative rate of consumption.
Additional research and a presentation at the Canadian Historical Association / Canadian Association of Geographers at Congress 2012, in Waterloo, will show what kinds of woodlots remained in the most densely inhabited areas. We might expect that harvesting was most intense in those areas and regenerating plots were not. The forest inventories recorded not only the outline but the cover type of each forest parcel, and GIS lets us query the inventories for these sorts of questions.
The 1935 PEI inventory may be the earliest in Canada, and due to the Province’s small size and complete air photo coverage it is certainly the most comprehensive. Behind the inventories, however, are ordinary air photos, and researchers interested in recreating topographic features can find great coverage of local areas at university libraries such as Brock, Dalhousie, Toronto, Waterloo, and Western. For larger areas consult the National Air Photo Library’s enormous collection and online search engine in Ottawa. All air photos contain distortions, and if your research relies on accurate locations, distances, and measurements it is important to correctly “georectify” and digitize these features with the proper projection in a GIS. Many
Aerial photographs, NTS maps, and historical forest and land use inventories offer a new way to study the relationship between farms and forests. If the NTS maps were a sort of census of the Canadian environment in certain years, then aerial photos were the original manuscripts behind the printed census. Just as social and economic historians often need to consult the nominal censuses for a new level of detail, historians of the environment can find information in the original air photos (e.g. forest types, land use, coastal erosion, building location/orientation, sub-urban spaces, pollution and brownfields, etc.) that may not have interested the cartographers.
- D. G. Sobey and W. M. Glen, “A Mapping of the Present and Past Forest-types of Prince Edward Island,” Canadian Field-Naturalist 118 (4) (2004): 504-520.
- There are several chapters of interest to NiCHE readers in Historical Geographic Information Systems in Canada a forthcoming book edited by Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin. The chapter by Joanna Dean and Jon Pasher uses air photos and other sources to measure urban forests, and Joshua MacFadyen and William Glen have presented a longer discussion of the PEI forest inventories in “Top-down history: Delimiting forests, farms, and the Agricultural Census on Prince Edward Island using Aerial Photography, c.1900-2000.”
- Don Valley Historical Mapping Project
- GeoWATCH: Geospatial Workshops in Atlantic Canadian History
- NiCHE Resources for learning and developing Historical Geographic Information System (HGIS) projects.
- National Air Photo Library
Last term I outsourced my teaching. A bunch of people I’ve never met and whose identities and whereabouts I don’t know taught my students. They did it more effectively than I could and they did it for free. And what’s more, you could do the same thing. Just e-mail me your bank account and Social Insurance Number and I’ll fill you in.
Seriously, it doesn’t involve call centres in India or child labour. What it does involve is the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF). The WMF has many projects, but the one most people know about is Wikipedia, the world’s most popular online reference work, attracting some fourteen per cent of global internet traffic daily.
Concerned about the quality of Wikipedia’s entries, the WMF established an education program now global in reach, aimed at enlisting university faculty and students in the task of grounding Wikipedia articles in the existing scholarly literature. My course was part of the Canada Education Program, the only history course enrolled so far.
I substituted writing Wikipedia articles for the usual term papers as the major assignment in HIST 396, my third year North American environmental history class at UBC, which has an enrollment of sixty. The students worked in teams to improve existing articles and to write brand new ones. In all, they wrote on thirteen, all subjects in Canadian environmental history.
While it’s obvious why the WMF would want to avail itself of free expertise, it probably isn’t clear why I’d volunteer my own labour and that of my students to its program.
I’d like to say that it was because I was attracted by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ philosophy of making knowledge accessible (at least to those who have an internet connection). As he puts it - somewhat more grandly - “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we’re doing.” Certainly in the context of the battles between some Canadian universities and Access Copyright, as well as the international rebellion against academic publisher Elsevier, his arguments resonate. It’s odd that we seem to be in the midst of an intellectual enclosure movement at the very same time open-access journals and crowd-sourced knowledge are gaining momentum and legitimacy.
While Wales’ philosophy is appealing, what led me to experiment was something far more prosaic and self-centred; namely my frustrations in the classroom. For the past two years, a pile of unclaimed HIST 396 term papers has accumulated in the corner of my office, evidence of my failure to engage students adequately. It was as if the energy and anxiety that went into these fifteen- to eighteen-page tomes dissipated completely when they were handed in. The authors of these abandoned papers didn’t, it seems, care how their ideas and arguments resonated with their audience - me. Increasingly, it seemed ridiculous to have students spend time doing something they weren’t interested in and for me to spend time doing something they weren’t interested in; namely writing comments.
While anyone can assign a Wikipedia article as a class project, there are some important benefits that come along with participating in the WMF’s Global Education Program. Some of these were material: I got access to the learning resources that the WMF had developed, and more importantly, I got help in the form of people: I could e-mail or Skype the Education Program Advisor for Canada and rely on the help of WMF-trained “campus ambassadors” who essentially were TAs for the assignment. These campus ambassadors were graduate students at UBC (and NiCHE members!) who volunteered to do the training as a form of professional development; a way of augmenting their teaching portfolios.
I also had the assistance of three “online ambassadors.” They’re members of the Wikipedia community, expert editors who volunteered to help my students and me with writing articles because they just happened to be interested in the subject matter. Beyond their handles – “The Interior,” “Wetman,” and “maclean” – and what each said about themselves on their Wikipedia "Talk" pages, I have no idea who they are. Their names materialized on my Wikipedia assignment syllabus within hours of me putting it up.
These online ambassadors are the key to understanding the major benefit of having students write Wikipedia articles; namely, the experience they get of the process of knowledge creation through their engagement with a broader community of knowledge makers. Anyone can write and edit a Wikipedia article. And of course, anyone can read what’s written and comment on it. And they do.
The public nature of Wikipedia, and the fact students felt they were contributing to something that would live on after the class was over made the task of writing an entry exhilarating and intimidating at the same time. The self-consciousness that came from writing something that wasn’t just for me, a TA, or, at most, the other students in the class, translated into a level of care about both the form and content of their writing that I don’t always see.
Nor was it just the size of the audience that made them self-conscious; it was also who was in the audience. For instance, the entries on hydro dams in British Columbia attracted the attention of an engineer with Hydro Quebec (a self-confessed “dam geek”), a bureaucrat with the provincial Ministry of Energy and Mines, and people who lived in communities adjacent to the dam.
When Wikipedians like these took issue with what they wrote, the students couldn’t just be self-conscious: they also had to respond. Learning how to explain why they had written what they had, to defend it respectfully, and to modify it in light of valid criticism was incredibly valuable. I was impressed with how the students stood up for themselves, especially given that not all community members abided by the first rule of Wikipedia: “Don't bite the newbies!” Take this salvo on the Talk page for the W.A.C. Bennett Dam:
Improvements? Well, not quite
Now, I guess I am not a true “Ambassador” of whatever project or class you guys at the University of British Columbia must be, but I don't think the effort to improve the article was entirely successful. Let me list a few PROBLEMS I see so far....
My basic question is this: Was this dam put there to serve the governmental and social agendas of its namesake and other bureacrats [sic], or was it put there to make some money for the province or its people? It's like painting an elephant on the side of a bus and coaxing people to "ride the elephant to work." It's a bus, people. This is a dam, not a social studies project. [Emphasis in original.]
Before the students could respond, other members of the community jumped in:
Give them some time before jumping to conclusions. According to the plan posted in the section right before this one, there are two sections devoted to construction of the dam (which is something I pointed out above, btw. Bouchecl (talk) 17:32, 24 March 2012 (UTC)
Uruiamme, thanks for taking the time to comment and provide some analysis. This article, like all of Wikipedia, is a work in progress. The article has indeed improved since the beginning of the year (compare then and now).... maclean (talk) 02:54, 25 March 2012 (UTC)
No amount of in-class peer review or comments from me on drafts could replicate the range of questions that came from the Wikipedia community. Agree or not with the substance or tone of their comments, the contributions these anonymous Wikipedians made to my students’ learning is why I consider that I outsourced part of my teaching last term.
In the end, the value of the Wikipedia assignment lies in giving students first hand experience in constructing knowledge. Writing the articles showed them how it’s made; that it changes over time, and it does so in part as a result of competition and cooperation. Knowledge is a compromise, willing and grudging. It’s the outcome of exercising power and it is powerful.
Even though students wrote encyclopedia entries rather than conventional essays, the way they did so – through a Wiki – taught them important lessons about the nature of knowledge and the construction of arguments. In this case, the [social] medium was the [learning] message.
People interested in what I did should look at the Wikipedia assignment syllabus for HIST 396 for details. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
The articles the students wrote are listed there as well. This is just the syllabus for the Wikipedia assignment. I have a whole other one for the course itself.
You may wonder how much class time I spent on Wikipedia. I certainly didn't want this to become a class in social media or Wikipedia. Learning how to format things for Wikipedia isn't difficult, and there are lots of online resources on Wikipedia itself to instruct students in how to italicize, change font size, do references, etc.
I lectured for 1.5 hours a week, and perhaps 0.5 additional hours per week (at most) were spent on taking the students through the basics of Wikipedia. Students met an additional 1 hour a week in tutorials that were organized around articles or book chapters. In other words, it was a conventional history course in all respects but the major assignment.
You might also be wondering if this assignment was more labour-intensive than the standard term paper. My honest answer is yes - but only a little more, and if I do it again, for this class or any of the others I teach, it will be easier.
Finally, you might be thinking that asking students to write encyclopedia articles contradicts everything we try to teach them! After all, we put lots of effort into helping students identify arguments and make them. An encyclopedia entry isn’t an argument: it’s a different genre of writing all together, a synthesis of the existing knowledge on a subject.
True, but I’ve come to see that writing a Wikipedia article can make students more critical of what they subsequently read. Moreover, writing an encyclopedia entry calls on a somewhat different, but equally valuable, set of skills; namely, ones of synthesis and balance. It also calls on students to deal with a subject as a whole, for an audience that was seeking a variety of information from these entries. One of my students laughed at herself when she recalled an exchange she had with one Wikipedian who pointed out that in writing about a hydroelectric dam she hadn’t mentioned it was built to generate electricity! “Oh, right….”
Here are my insights on what needs to happen to make this assignment work:
- You need to do a fair amount of work ahead of time. I gave the students a list of possible articles they could write on, along with a preliminary bibliography of sources. Wikipedia articles are encyclopedia entries; they are meant to be syntheses of the existing scholarly literature. That means there has to be a sufficient secondary literature for students to use. Articles are not primary research papers, though I suspect one might push the envelope (I did) and allow students to use newspaper and magazine sources from the time.
- It's important to let students write on something they're interested in. I had students give me their top four or five choices and I made up the teams. Almost everyone got their first choice, but to do so I had two teams of two people.
- That brings me to my third tip: many students hate working in teams, usually because of the free rider problem. I confess that in making the teams I engaged in some social engineering. In consultation with my Teaching Assistant, I made sure that each team had a core of able students - insofar as we could assess their abilities early on in the term.
- Assessing individual performance for a team project is challenging. I instituted a form of peer and self-review (twice during the duration of the project), and I had everyone write a “reflective essay” in which they could comment on the teamwork aspect of the assignment, among other things. I also used the tools on Wikipedia for assessing performance: it is possible to see the number of edits each student has done, for instance.
- It’s possible to use Wikipedia in the classroom in a variety of ways. Having students write articles is just one. There are even more ways to cultivate student engagement – and they need not involve social media. I certainly would never argue that digital technology is necessary to involve students more deeply in their courses and thinking critically!
Tina Loo is a History Professor at the University of British Columbia
On dit souvent qu’une image vaut mille mots… Celle-ci illustre mieux qu’aucun discours l’état d’âme des ingénieurs forestiers confrontés, dans la deuxième moitié du 20e siècle, au courant émergent de l’aménagement du territoire. Elle nous rappelle aussi combien ont été liés (et le sont encore), les questions d’exploitation des ressources naturelles et celles de l’aménagement du territoire, et combien il peut être difficile d’assurer une répartition de l’espace entre les différents usages. Plus largement, on y retrouve certains jalons de notre façon d’appréhender collectivement l’environnement.
Bien qu’elle trouve ses fondements dans la première moitié du 20e siècle, la formulation d’une réflexion sur l’espace en termes d’aménagement du territoire se répand en occident après la Deuxième Guerre mondiale. Elle s’inscrit en cela dans le foisonnement de ces années fastes en changement : hausse démographique, accroissement de la productivité, montée de l’urbanisation, déclin du rural. Tous ces changements, les ingénieurs forestiers y sont confrontés et les ajoutent sans détour à leurs débats, que ce soit à l’occasion des congrès ou symposiums qu’ils tiennent chaque année. Comme le dit si bien le titre de l’article de l’aménagiste Georges Robert,  il s’agit de trouver la juste place pour chaque chose, ces « choses » se multipliant, depuis l’étalement urbain jusqu’aux routes, en passant par la mise en place de lignes électriques et la création de parcs. Mais au-delà d’une gestion technicienne de l’espace, l’aménagement du territoire est intimement associé aux transformations de l’organisation du politique. Il est d’abord lié à une certaine ingénierie de l’État, qui devient une entité de plus en plus spécialisée et au sein de laquelle scientifiques et ingénieurs prennent place. D’autre part, l’aménagement du territoire est une réponse à la démocratisation de certains mécanismes décisionnels. Il est devenu impossible de prétendre organiser l’espace et le répartir entre différents utilisateurs sans prendre en compte l’opinion populaire. Rappelons que le Québec est alors en pleine réflexion sur l’abolition des concessions forestières et des clubs privés de chasse et de pêche… Le territoire et son aménagement deviennent les lieux privilégiés de l’action publique et du partage du pouvoir entre différents acteurs influents (politiques, industriels et économiques avec, en toile de fond, une opinion publique de plus en plus manifeste).
À l’image se joignent les mots pour exprimer le défi qui se présente alors aux aménagistes : « Les moyens employés pour l’exploitation inconditionnelle des ressources naturelles et le perfectionnement des techniques industrielles sont considérables; par contre totalement dérisoires sont ceux alloués à l’aménagement du territoire et à la préservation de notre environnement… […] L’aménagement du territoire consiste à traduire en programmes, la science et la sagesse des techniciens et des hommes politiques en se basant en très grande partie sur les volontés et les intuitions populaires.
Dès lors, ce retour sur l’aménagement du territoire nous ouvre certaines perspectives pour une compréhension plus large de notre rapport à l’environnement. Il permet de constater qu’historiquement, l’un a eu de l’influence sur l’autre. Un rapport dont l’évolution peut être observée dans les archives des associations, corporations et ordres professionnels qui ont dû s’adapter et manœuvrer avec cette nouvelle notion de l’aménagement du territoire. Dans les années 1960, les forestiers voient de nouvelles questions émergées : de quelle façon l’aménagement du territoire viendra-t-il influencer l’aménagement de la forêt, et inversement, quel sera le rôle de la forêt dans l’aménagement du territoire? Les réponses sont multiples et varient selon les protagonistes.
Une tendance semble néanmoins se dessiner. Au Québec, l’aménagement du territoire comme outil de planification participe à une approche normative de la gestion de l’environnement, à travers notamment la mise en place d’un système de zonage. On y perçoit les efforts déployés par un État qui, sans pour autant perdre ses prérogatives sur les ressources, tente de répondre à la multiplication des demandes pour l’utilisation du territoire. À nos yeux, ce retour sur l’introduction de l’aménagement du territoire offre un point de vue sur les fondements de ce qui structure politiquement notre rapport à l’environnement. Un environnement souvent compris en termes technicistes, divisés selon des catégories d’usage restrictives, mais néanmoins réconfortantes. Dans le cas de la forêt, on retrouve une palette allant des zones d’exploitation intensive aux aires protégées, à laquelle s’ajoutent toutes les nuances tentant de répondre à autant de demandes.
 Georges Robert, « L’aménagement du territoire ou une place pour chaque chose », Forêt Conservation, vol. 41, no 10, décembre 1975, p. 24-25.
 Georges Robert, « L’aménagement du territoire ou une place pour chaque chose », Forêt Conservation, vol. 41, no 10, décembre 1975, p. 24-25.
Suggestions de lecture :
- Corporation des Ingénieurs forestiers de la province de Québec, 1966, L’ingénieur forestier face à l’aménagement du territoire, Québec, La Corporation.
- Fréchette, Alain, et Nathalie Lewis, 2011, « Pushing the boundaries of conventional forest policy research: Analyzing institutional change at multiple levels », Forest Policy and Economics, no 13, p. 582–589.
- Gélinas, Cyrille, 2010, L'enseignement et la recherche en foresterie à l'Université Laval : de 1910 à nos jours, Québec, Société d'histoire forestière du Québec.
Cette réflexion sur le lien entre l’aménagement du territoire et la foresterie résulte d’un projet de recherche et de ma thèse de doctorat en cours mené sous la direction de Mme Nathalie Lewis, au département Sociétés, territoires et développement de l’Université du Québec à Rimouski.
Une table-ronde portant sur la sortie du livre Metropolitan Nature. Environmental Histories of Montreal a permis à trois spécialistes de réfléchir sur l'apport de l'histoire environnementale sur l'intérêt - ou non- d'une perspective historique pour saisir les enjeux contemporains de l'environnement urbain. Laurent LEPAGE, Professeur à l'Institut des sciences de l'environnement (UQAM), Dinu BUMBARU, Directeur des politique d'Héritage Montréal, Jean-Pierre COLLIN, Professeur à l'INRS - Urbanisation Culture et Société ont à tour de rôle commenté cet ouvrage publié dans la collection "History of the Urban Environment" que dirigent Joel Tarr et Martin Melosi aux University of Pittsburgh Press. Le livre est le fruit d'un travail collectif conduit sous l'égide de Stéphane Castonguay et Michèle Dagenais. En fournissant une interprétation originale et totalisante de l'histoire de Montréal par le prisme des rapports sociaux à la nature, depuis les débuts de la colonie jusqu'à nos jours, cet ouvrage collectif démontre la contribution des méthodes de l'histoire environnementale à la recherche historique pour renouveler notre connaissance d'un chantier a priori fortement balisé. Les quatorze chapitres du livre sont rassemblés en trois sections : les représentations et la culture urbaine, les rapports entre la ville et la campagne, et les systèmes sociotechniques. À l'intérieur de celles-ci, l'environnement est abordé dans son sens large et inclue le paysage donné et façonné, les infrastructures publiques et le cadre bâti, les loisirs et l'agriculture, la pollution industrielle et les catastrophes naturelles, pour inscrire dans un cadre neuf le processus d'urbanisation d'une des plus vieilles villes en Amérique. Les chapitres démontrent comment la métropole s'est formée et reformée non seulement en fonction des particularités géographiques distinctes de la ville, mais aussi en fonction de dynamiques particulières aux processus de colonisation, d'urbanisation et d'industrialisation qui ont marqué l'histoire de Montréal et de sa région immédiate.
One research question that motivates me is how did – and how might – Canadians stay warm and fed in a world without oil? Rural historians know plenty about the transition to fossil-fuel based fertilizers, field work, and modes of transportation, and we are learning more about the gradual adoption of coal heat and hydroelectricity in rural homes. But by focusing on new agricultural technology and its ecological fallout we often overlook, oversimplify, or romanticize the people who farmed with alternative forms. The use of “mussel mud” and other marine fertilizers on Atlantic Canadian farms is a case in point. In this post I explain how a unique organic fertilizer helped solve a local food shortage and why it was ultimately replaced by imported commercial fertilizers.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Prince Edward Island farmers extracted a local, organic fertilizer from the estuaries which dramatically increased food production for a period of up to 15 years per application. This seemingly sustainable alternative to imported fertilizers became known as “mussel mud.” In reality the mud consisted of mostly oyster shells, and as the shells broke down over time they released calcium carbonate into PEI’s highly acidic soil and increased its pH level. Digging the calcareous fertilizer through holes in the river ice and transporting it to nearby fields (all by horse power) became a PEI winter tradition, and a unique part of the province’s folklore.
Mussel mud digging is usually depicted in PEI books, articles, poetry, and museum websites as an example of a simpler time and a more sustainable form of agriculture. The farmers are portrayed as resourceful and self-sufficient, and their use of mussel mud is seen as a form of traditional knowledge that contributed to a golden age in the region’s agriculture. I think this requires qualification, but I too was fascinated by what this could tell us about Canadian food production in a system where inputs such as seed and fertilizers are produced locally. I was also fascinated by the unique connection farmers had with the coast. Not only were the estuaries a form of transportation and a source of seafood, waterfowl, and marsh hay, but they also contained rich fertilizers such as seaweed and mussel mud.
Hay grew poorly on PEI’s acidic soil – a major problem for an economy that demanded a large horse and ruminant population. The most important source of animal fodder in the early British resettlement period was marsh hay. This grew naturally in all of the Island’s salt marshes and on dyked wetland, but the amounts were small and the demand for beef and draft animals quickly outpaced the capacity of the marsh hay harvest.
PEI does not have any significant limestone deposits, and importing lime to increase soil alkalinity was expensive and unpopular. Coastal farmers have used crushed or burnt oyster shells as a lime substitute for centuries, but the amounts were small and required a fishery. As early as 1815, PEI farmers like George Meggison harvested “canoe loads of mussel shells for the land.” They also used seaweed and even live lobsters as manure, but in 1832 a surprisingly proactive conservation law prohibited PEI farmers from burning live oysters. Still, hundreds of acres of ancient shell beds provided a reservoir of seemingly free, limitless and long-lasting soil treatment right at the doorstep of PEI’s farmers.
Mussel mud distribution as a proportion of cleared land within 2 miles of
the coast, PEI, 1871, Source 1871 Census
The simple barrier that stood between farmers and these shell beds was the nature of the coast itself. For one half of the day sea waters covered the shell beds with strong tides and dangerous currents, and when the tide went out the beds were separated from shore by a buffer of impassible muck. As a result, crop yields languished in the acidic soil, livestock suffered through the long winter on a few hundred pounds of hay each, and observers like John MacGregor wondered “how many of the settlers raise enough to support their families.” In 1860, a Land Commission evaluated farms on a number of criteria, including distance from sea manure, and it noted that farmers found it “impossible to preserve land in this Island in a state of fertility, for any length of time, without the application of lime, or some other good substitute such as mussel mud, which but few can procure.”
In the 1850s and early 1860s, Island farms experienced a serious shortage in the amount of hay for livestock. Contemporary experts argued that the average cow required one ton of hay and plenty of straw to survive the winter. In the early 19th century the average hay-fed animal (horses, cattle, and sheep) survived on 700 pounds of hay, a small quantity of oats, and whatever they could forage through the snow, but by 1861 the amount of hay available per animal dropped precipitously by more than half.
According to David Weale, some innovative PEI resident developed a mechanical digger in the early 1860s that allowed operators to harvest the mud through holes in the ice and distribute it across the Island, first by sleigh and later by train. More than just an invention, mud digging required farmers to change their patterns of work. Much of their winter activity was thus converted from woodcutting to gathering sea manure in a dangerous, cold, and time-sensitive environment. By 1871, over 1,400 digging machines dotted the landscape, and ten townships along the Island’s central estuaries had coated over 15 percent of their cleared land with mud.
The mid 19th century yield problem was solved by an enormous outflow of time and capital, and the most dramatic effect of increasing soil pH was a significant increase in hay production. The hay crop doubled in the 1860s, and grew by 125% in the 1870s. By 1875, farmers like William Whitehead argued that without “mussel-mud we would starve on the farms-both man and beast. We could not grow hay enough to feed one horse.” Alexander Blue also testified that he “Couldn't keep one horse if not for mud.” John McLeod claimed he was barely making a living from his farm before mud was introduced, and the soil treatment “increased the crop of hay 10 times.”
Through the adoption of mussel mud digging, PEI farmers effectively converted the cleared uplands into extensions of the salt marshes. With few external (i.e. “mainland”) inputs to the soil fertility cycle, farmers were able to maximize the productivity of mixed farming. However, no one in the 1870s would have considered this “traditional” farming; this was a new technology, and tradition meant hungrier animals and poorer farmers.
Mussel mud diggers on Bedeque Bay, PEI, Undated, Minnie Anderson Album,
Courtesy of Winifred Wake
Almost immediately, this new form of soil treatment took on aspects that we commonly associate with industrial farming. Many, and probably most, of the diggers were commercial operators, selling loads of mud to farmers for 8-10 cents. The principles of supply and demand shaped the industry from there. Only the wealthiest and most established areas of the island had any significant amount of mud on their farms according to the 1871 Census of Prince Edward Island (not yet in the Dominion of Canada). Most of this mud was extracted from 3 or 4 central estuaries, and reports of exhausted shell beds appeared in smaller rivers as early as 1875. By 1893, the Federal Department of Fisheries intervened to identify and protect live oyster beds, and they drew lines in the ice that became flashpoints of confrontation in a predominately agricultural province. After two decades of attempting to manage farmers and fishers, Ottawa handed the mud problem over to the Province which began to dig mud at St. Peter’s bay and distribute it to farmers by rail. By the 1920s, Federal officials discouraged the use of sea manures, and farmers slowly began to adopt chemical fertilizers and imported limestone.
Andrew Hill Clark. Three Centuries and the Island: Historical Geography of Settlement and Agriculture in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press: 1959.
Matthew Hatvany. “‘Wedded to the Marshes’: Salt Marshes and Socio-Economic Differentiation in Early Prince Edward Island.” Acadiensis, XXX (2) (Spring 2001): 40-55.
Joshua D. MacFadyen, “Drawing Lines in the Ice: Regulating Mussel Mud Digging in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence,” in Claire Campbell and Robert Summerby-Murray eds., Environmental Histories of Atlantic Canada (Fredericton: Acadiensis, 2012 [forthcoming]).
Colin MacIntyre, “The Environmental Pre-History of Prince Edward Island 1769-1970: A Reconnaissance in Force,” MA Thesis, University of Prince Edward Island, 2010.
David Weale. “The Shell-Mud Diggers of Prince Edward Island.” Canadian Papers in Rural History 2 (1980): 41-57