What Might the Future of Canadian Forest History Hold?

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Given its importance to Canada, the forest warrants concerted investigation across disciplines, and the Forest History cluster, with your help, seeks to facilitate understanding of the place of the forest in Canada’s (environmental) history.

To encourage discussion, we are starting an open discussion thread with a challenge identified by the American environmental historian Richard White. In The Organic Machine, he writes that, “I will measure this book’s success by the extent to which it surprises its reader’s and forces them to think in new ways not merely about the Columbia [River] but about nature and its relation to human beings and human history.”

So: How might future work on Canadian forests force readers to think in new ways about the forest, about nature and its relation to human beings, and about human history? What are possible future directions for and areas of research in forest history? What might be the most salient, in your opinion, and why?

Please give this some thought and share your observations with us by posting them in response.

Emily Jane Davis

Rethinking Forest History

Just to play devil’s advocate, wasn’t the important point about Organic Machine the fact that White narrated one set of abstractions (‘nature’, ‘river’, etc.) in terms of another (‘energy’)? In a sense he made us rethink rivers by making them disappear. Would that work for forest history? Would you want it to?

Bill Turkel

Forest as Machine? The Working Forest?

Thanks, Bill, for posing the question. What do you think?

(By the way, no familiarity with Organic Machine or any other literature is considered necessary to chime in, everyone)

Is the ‘forest’ an abstraction that might be replaced by another, such as energy? How is it like or unlike rivers in this way? Is the forest an organic machine- a hybridized blend of ‘nature’ and people that produces energy? What are the implications if we label it thus?

Some random thoughts as follows:

I think of the term ‘the working forest’ immediately when I reflect on this. In British Columbia, this was deployed by the Integrated Land Management Bureau in 2003 to describe a proposed policy that ‘enhances long term forestry management’ and provides land use certainty to protect jobs and investments. It was opposed by environmental groups and considered to be giving the land to corporate interests.
See its objectives in more detail here if you wish:http://ilmbwww.gov.bc.ca/lup/policies_guides/workingforest/index.html. This phraseology was taken up and used by some companies, notably Canfor, to depict the forest as a productive place, and forestry management as essential to that. (It’s also reminiscent of arguments that old growth forests are decadent and wasteful, and that harvesting and management of them makes them into valuable, more efficient and ordered forests.)
What does the working forest mean? How does this term elide certain other definitions of the forest and promote certain agendas?

On another tangent, energy and work certainly are central themes to forest history. However, they have been so in a way that garnered for forest history a reputation, as Nancy Langston puts it, as being ‘mired in detail that appeals mostly to retirees who share an unusual obsession with steam donkeys and railroad lines.’ There are a lot of ways in which the idea of what is considered productive labour in nature is at the heart of debates over forest land use. I point to Richard White’s “Are You an Environmentalist, or Do You Work for a Living?”, and to the arguments of workers who claim a productive and knowledgeable relationship to the forest through their physical labour.

Richard Rajala also does something to amend this reputation of forest history with his trenchant analysis of labour and of the factory regime in the forests of the northwest. Might his book, for those who have read it, hint at the forest as machine?

Emily Jane Davis

forest history and the Canadian Prairies

I think one of the interesting ways that forest history might redirect Canadian history is by encouraging more historians to grapple with the enormous area of the prairie region that lies north of the prairie and easily-cleared parkland. There has of course been good work on the northern prairies, some of it by environmental historians and historical geographers, but much of it by political economists (or historians influenced by political economy) or scholars of native history. But in my assessment at any rate, agricultural settlement remains the dominant narrative of Canadian prairie history. (And here I swallow hard and glance around nervously, as I am currently working on material that is situated historiographically in relation to some classic works in the settlement tradition.) Even if factors such as the population concentration mean that a focus on the southern prairies can be defended, there are other stories that should be told. Might a renewal of forest history in Canada help us to rethink the prairies?

On a separate note, I presume that most folks interested in forest history are likely already aware of the ongoing debate in Manitoba over what is to become of the province’s boreal forest in light of the perceived need to push ahead with hydroelectric development and so to extend transmission lines. I wonder how a forest history perspective might inform this important debate?

Shannon Stunden Bower

The Forest and Landscape Art

I thought I would “chirp in” on this conversation about Canadian forest history to discuss (for my own selfish purposes) non-working forests. In particular, I am thinking about my own 950-acre patch of coniferous forest in Vancouver (Stanley Park).

Right now I’m struggling with a draft paper on early forest management in Stanley Park. I’m examining the Park Board’s use of forestry and entomological sciences in the early twentieth century to combat insect outbreaks. It is interesting that during this period (1910-1931) major park advocates who sought to prevent human interventions like road construction and electric streetcars actually endorsed major scientific interventions by federal forestry and entomology scientists to “improve” nature, including tree-topping, underbrushing, and aerial insecticide spraying. Non-human nature in the forest of Stanley Park failed to meet the aesthetic standards of Vancouverites. I think that I can make a case that the board used modern forest management techniques as a form of landscape art to reshape the image of the park. I suppose I want to draw some attention to the non-consumptive applications of modern forest management in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Glad to see this kind of forum starting up again. I hope my contribution wasn’t too far off topic.

Sean Kheraj


Featured image: Photo by Jaime Dantas on Unsplash.

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