Northeast and Atlantic Canada Environmental History Forum 2013; A Recap

The fall is my favourite time to travel to Orono, Maine. As a climate historian, and mindful human, I am conscious to relish all phases of the seasons. But if you’ve ever spent autumn in Northeastern North America, you know why I was among the participants who heartily welcomed Indian Summer to the Northeast and Atlantic Canada Environmental History Forum event last Saturday, 28 September.

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Photo: Edie Steiner, Text 2: from the series Material Remains (2003)
Photo: Edie Steiner, Text 2: from the series Material Remains (2003)

The fall is my favourite time to travel to Orono, Maine. As a climate historian, and mindful human, I am conscious to relish all phases of the seasons. But if you’ve ever spent autumn in Northeastern North America, you know why I was among the participants who heartily welcomed Indian Summer to the Northeast and Atlantic Canada Environmental History Forum event last Saturday, 28 September. The extent to which I was rooted in my chair – indoors – is testament to the unprecedented features of this workshop.

Brian Donahue set the conversational and engaged tone in his keynote on Friday night, an introduction to Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for the New England Landscape, and the New England Good Food Vision. Donahue is personally involved in these collaborative, interdisciplinary projects, which began from the visionary starting point of “assumptions and aspirations”; “what would we like to achieve?” This departure from historical methodology and the subsequent establishing of visionary yet pragmatic parameters for a public conversation about the future, based in part on what was possible in the past, alerted me to the fomentation of ideas in our regional repertoire. Exemplifying the consequences of such an approach, the Good Food Vision rejects the idea that the current population could have healthy diets of locally produced food; instead, they are aiming to meet 50 percent of local food needs by 2060. An underlying premise of this work is that those who can afford such diets have a moral obligation to ensure accessible healthy and sufficient food for all. An active group discussion launched from there, and was continuously animated throughout Saturday’s sessions.

Saturday’s format was a first for me; panels of two or three established and new academics briefly discussed their papers (provided to participants for prior reading), followed by a roundtable discussion of these works in progress. The presentations covered digital applications of environmental history, citizen’s campaigns on environmental issues and incendiary resistance to forest regulation, the interactions between landscapes and human disease, including malaria and Post Traumatic Stress disorder, marine environmental history and the role of historians in cultural discourses influencing policy, and environmental literature from “middlebrow” environmental writing to eco-comics. Presenters used power-point, or sat in their seats and addressed the group (31 in total) from the table, which was further indication of the leveled and open approach to scholarship that characterized the event.

Overall, the discussions were refreshingly honest, encouraging, critical, thoughtful, and informative. I was reminded of Jeremy Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution, in which he observes a shift in educational institutions towards the understanding and practice of knowledge-creation as a social process. As “learning is a way of structuring our reality and organizing our relationships to the world around us,” so “[i]ntelligence… [is] a shared experience distributed among people.”[1] To echo Bill Parenteau’s observation at the close of the event, it was a uniquely democratic workshop experience. Being a part of it brought home to me some issues with how we think of ourselves as scholars. As the ‘playing field’ was leveled within the room, so should it be beyond the walls of the institution. It is impossible to be a detached academic, given that the ecological, economic, political, and cultural issues that we are discussing, in a regional context, are being lived all around us. As Claire Campbell and Robert Summerby-Murray argue in their introduction to Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada, we work in the contexts bequeathed to us by the people, places, and historians who have come before. To echo Campbell’s recommendation in “Flipping the Switch: Energy and History in Atlantic Canada,” the dialectic between our work and that of policy-makers and other community members suggests that we can – and perhaps should – think about the future, as we ask them to think about the past.

A NACEHF planning meeting spilled nicely out of the full glass of the day’s discussions. It allowed those of us who had not nurtured NACEHF as a brainchild to understand how the organization works, and to vision about its future. Tireless organizers Brian Payne, Dan Soucier, Richard Judd, Matthew McKenzie, have offered to stay on the Executive Committee along with Tony Penna, and Bill Parenteau and the intrepid Ed Macdonald (in absentia!) joined the Executive, as well as volunteering for the planning committee for next year’s NACEHF meeting. That event is tentatively scheduled to be held at the University of Prince Edward Island in August 2014. I believe that Claire Campbell and Michael Chiarappa have completed their service on the Executive. I volunteered to search out women’s history groups, and women environmental historians, to add to the list of invitees, so as to address the gender imbalance in the room.

Sealing this event as my favourite workshop/conference to date was the subsequent paddle down the Stillwater River with fellow EHers, Jason Hall and Jackie Mirandola Mullen!

Continuing the dialogue: You are invited to communicate with NACEHFers through the NACEHF research blogHEARsay, the blog for Historians of the Eastern Atlantic Region, or The Otter.

Happy Harvest, everyone! Gratitude to all who made last weekend’s event a success.

Teresa Devor is a PhD Candidate at the University of New Brunswick.

[1] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, The Economy, and the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 242.

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Teresa Devor

Teresa Devor is a resident of New Brunswick and likes to get her boots mucky in that good Fundy clay. When she is not reading about, or being in, local ecologies, she teaches environmental history at the University of New Brunswick. She is a Phd Candidate in history studying the development of local weather ecology through the diaries of inhabitants of the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Teresa is also integrating mindfulness techniques into the classroom to enrich student's abilities to meet Einstein's stated quandary: 'You can't solve a problem with the consciousness that created it.'

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