Interview with Claire Campbell

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JC: Where do you work? How does environmental history contribute to your job?

CC: I’m an associate professor of History at Dalhousie University, where I’m cross-appointed to Canadian Studies and Environment, Sustainability and Society. But in all of them, I really start from the relationship between history and environment. So many of the stories in Canadian Studies – the design of the Parliament buildings, the battle of Batoche, confronting Danes over Hans Island – are shaped by where they happen, and I have to visualize these places for my students. Teaching Sustainability is challenging in other ways: I’m supposed to be the Voice of History, which can mean medieval whaling, colonial plantations, or the Nova Scotia apple industry. At the same time, I have to make very clear the relevance of historical and humanities study to current issues and policy debate, to students who are, not surprisingly, kind of impatient to “save the planet.” But that’s a good exercise for me, because history is relevant. We can see harmful patterns in our past relationships with the environment, but often we can find inspiration for solutions there, too.

Claire Campbell is an associate professor at Dalhousie University.

JC: What is your current research project?

CC: There are three big ones on the go. One is finishing up A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011, a collection of fourteen essays about the world’s first national parks agency. This book has been three years in the making, and I’m really proud of it, especially the way we’ve brought together academic and public historians, and literally from Vancouver to Whitehorse to St. John’s. The essays show how Parks Canada has worked to provide for both preservation and use in places created for our “benefit, education and enjoyment” (to quote the National Parks Act), all the while responding to a shifting ground of public demand, political strategy, scientific debate, and environmental concern. A Century of Parks Canada comes out in spring 2011 with the University of Calgary Press, as the first in the Energy, Ecology and Environment series co-sponsored by NiCHE.

The second is a collection of essays that I’m editing with Rob Summerby-Murray, called Environmental Histories of Atlantic Canada, to be published next year with Acadiensis Press. We were amazed at the response when we announced it – it definitely affirmed the growth of and opportunities for environmental history in this region. And the book shows how a regional profile can capture so many facets of environmental history: the history of science, whether natural history or meteorology; property rights and the commons; cultural perceptions of landscapes; conservation management and environmentalist organization; community interviews in former company towns. It’s anchored by a lecture that Graeme Wynn gave at Dalhousie last year, in which he argued that there is actually a very long tradition of “sustainability” in the Maritimes. Working with an historical geographer as a co-editor is also very educational; and here too NiCHE plays a role, as we’re supported by HEAR [Historians of the Environment of the Atlantic Region].

The last one I’m calling “What Once Were You?” Historic Landscapes in Canada. The title comes from a 1962 poem by James Reaney, which begins:

Winnipeg, what once were you? You were,
Your hair was grass by the river ten feet tall,
Your arms were burr oaks and ash leaf maples,
Your backbone was a crooked silver muddy river …

This is especially appropriate since the river forks at Winnipeg is one of the sites I look at. It’s about reimagining older landscapes, which is often a missing dimension of our historic sites. The book will be a comparative study of five lost, preserved, and reconstructed historic places, all of which are iconic in some way, and which are among Canada’s largest and most ecologically complex historic sites: L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland; Grand Pré, Nova Scotia; Fort William, Ontario; the Forks at Winnipeg; and the Bar U Ranch, Alberta. (Originally it was going to include Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, but I decided Grand Pré raised different, especially rural, issues. Plus, I got the mayor of Lunenburg kind of mad at me, but that’s another story.) It’s very Canadian in the sense that it’s true to the specifics of different places, but these places illustrate regional, national, even transnational stories (Norse, voyageurs, Acadians, and cowboys)!

Black Duck Brook and the original beach terrace at L’Anse aux Meadows NHS, Newfoundland.

Since my MA in public history at UWO, I’m interested in how historic sites might teach us about both the Canadian narrative and the natural world. The beach where the Norse landed their boats at L’Anse aux Meadows is now 100 metres inland, thanks to Newfoundland’s post-glacial rebound; here’s a chance to talk about long-term climate change in the north. The Bar U is in precisely the same part of the foothills where ranchers are trying to protect open rangeland and fescue grass from exploratory drilling. The Forks represents a post-industrial project of urban reclamation and park design. Too often natural parks design interpretation about their ecosystems but don’t mention human impact, while historic sites never refer to the setting and how it shaped their evolution. Environmental historians know you can’t tell one story without the other! I also think the environment is too important a matter not to talk about whenever possible.

JC: What got you interested in this topic?

CC: My dad taught history and geography for thirty years, so when I was about eight, he bought a Volkswagen camper and over the next several summers we drove all over North America. We’d visit historic sites, national parks, landmarks and attractions, the whole bit. I poked at dried cod on flakes outside the walls of Louisbourg, sat on petrified tree trunks in Washington, and cut my bare feet on grasses at a drought-stricken Swift Current. History was three-dimensional for me right from the start, associated with specific places, so I never understood the clichéd complaints about “just facts and dates” or learning from a textbook.

So now my “research” includes driving for days, across the prairies or up the Great Northern Peninsula, and then traipsing all over these places with a camera. That’s not even work!

JC: What contribution do you hope to make the wider field with this project?

CC: I’d like to see historians and geographers elbow their way into public debate over environmental issues. The history of our national parks demonstrates that “sustainability” – how humans are to exist on and with this planet – is fundamentally a matter for humanists and social scientists. We’re now thinking of these places as cultural landscapes, ghosted by history, but in turn, I’d like to see environmental factors and ecological knowledge integrated into our historic sites. And as a teacher, I want to get my students thinking imaginatively, about where they’re standing. Close your eyes and erase the buildings from downtown – bring the edges of the forest back across the peninsula – call up a stiff wind and fill the harbour with tall ships – that’s the only way to understand Halifax.

Featured image: South of Bar U Ranch NHS, Longview, Alberta.

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