Review: Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada

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Reviewed By: John Thistle (Labrador Institute of Memorial University)

Published: The Otter-NiCHE (September, 2014)

Claire Campbell and Robert Summerby-Murray, Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada. Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 2013. 321 pp. $29.95 (paperback) ISBN: 978-0-919107-24-3

Land and Sea: Environmental History Atlantic Canada is a welcome collection of essays edited by Claire Campbell and Robert Summerby-Murray. Described by the editors as a work of “regional environmental” history, Land and Sea covers diverse topics ranging from discourses of nature in early Nova Scotia, to mud mussel digging along the St. Lawrence, and the ways that tree ring analysis can inform present-day conservation policy. The result in many ways is a remarkable examination of Atlantic Canadian environmental history from an interdisciplinary perspective.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part we learn about the different ways settlers and naturalists, and to some extent indigenous peoples, worked to impose an order on the natural world both to better understand and exploit it. Heather MacLeod considers colonial encounters with the flora and fauna of Nova Scotia and some of the discourses of nature these encounters produced in the reports of early settlers and explorers. Alan Dwyer examines indigenous (Beothuk) understandings of the natural world as well their encounters with early European settlers on the shores of eighteenth century Newfoundland. Richard Field considers the influence of religion in naturalist Titus Smith’s critique of resource exploitation in nineteenth century Nova Scotia. And Edward MacDonald unpacks some of the socio-ecological contradictions of tourism in PEI. In sum, the essays in this section are mainly about the different ways that settlers and explorers, have understood and assigned value and meaning to the natural world even as they transformed and in some cases degraded it.

Part two focuses on “experiments in conservation and environmental management.” Using Newfoundland’s inshore fishery in the 19th century as a historical case study, Jonathan Luedee “interrogates the notion that common property fisheries inevitably result in open access, overexploitation, and marine resource depletion (82).” Joshua MacFadyen examines the changing role of the state in conflicts over access to mussel mud (used by local farmers to lower the acidity of soils). Bill Parenteau considers the “rationalization” of forest administration in New Brunswick after 1918, when partly in response to corporate pressure for changes to the way forest lands were managed, the province’s first forest acts were passed (140). And Mark McLaughlin explores how aerial insecticide programs aimed at the spruce budworm shaped New Brunswick’s collective “environmental consciousness” from the 1950s to the 1970s. Overall, the essays in this section are about the different ways in which states working in conjunction with experts and capital worked to control and order the natural world in order to better exploit and profit from it. From different vantage points they also consider how local people understood and responded to these efforts.

Part three is framed in terms of community responses to socioeconomic and ecological change, but in many ways the emphasis in this section is on disaster. Alan MacEachern considers local and international humanitarian responses to the Miramichi Fire in 1825. David Freeland Duke and Allan J. MacDonald examine how individuals and communities in the Annapolis Valley responded to (and tended to remember) some of the large storms that struck there in the 19th and 20th centuries (in this case, the Saxby Gale in 1869, the August Gale in 1927, and Hurricane Edna in 1954). Jacqueline D. Holmes and Justin B. Hollander use the stories of a railway yard and steel plant to explore how individuals and communities in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia reclaimed some of the landscapes left by deindustrialization. And Lanna Campbell and Colin P. Laroque use tree ring analysis to tell the story of Eastern White Cedar (recently added to Nova Scotia’s list of vulnerable species).

Edited collections often raise questions about what is included and excluded. In this case I wondered a lot about aboriginal history and what, following Cole Harris influential book on BC, we might call the “resettlement” of Atlantic Canada. Yet apart from Alan Dwyer’s discussion of the Beothuk, aboriginal history and colonial resettlement are barely mentioned in this book [1]. Nor does the twentieth century cod fishery figure in this book (although perhaps this is a good thing given all that has been said and written about the demise of that fishery already, and that there are other important stories to tell). Nor does mining history appear in these pages, even though Sydney’s steel mills (which are discussed in Holmes and Hollander’s essay on deindustrialization) relied for a time anyway on iron ore from Bell Island Newfoundland, and on coal from Cape Breton. No book can cover everything of course. As it stands Land and Sea already covers a lot. But reading this book I did at times wonder what sorts of stories and connections were being missed.

Beyond these few points exclusions is a broader point about the regional approach that in many ways binds the essays in the book together. According to Campbell and Summerby regional environmental histories “encourage us to make connections…between scales and landscapes, seeking shared historical patterns in exploration, settlement, and the use of natural resources (4).” Most of the essays in Land and Sea make these connections to some extent, and the best of them, Alan MacEachern’s account of local and British humanitarian responses to the Miramachi fire and Graeme Wynn’s reflections on the environmental history of Atlantic Canada, do it remarkably well. It did seem to me that more in the way of comparative, multi-scalar analysis – as discussed by the editors in their introduction – would have helped situate some of the essays in this collection in their wider regional and “transregional” (7) contexts, although in fairness this may be another book with Land and Sea serving as a starting point.

I hope these few points about exclusions and the regional approach (or method) will be taken in the spirit of discussion, rather than simply as criticism, because in all sorts of ways this is an excellent collection of essays that makes an important contribution to (Atlantic) Canadian environmental history. As someone who grew up in Atlantic Canada (or part of it anyway) and who now works there but knows far less about its environmental history than he should, I learned a lot from Land and Sea. But the lessons of Land and Sea extend well beyond mussel mud, tree rings and the reclamation of brownfield sites (to name just three of the topics addressed in this collection). Reading this book I was reminded that newcomers to this place interacted with nature and each other in complex and sometimes contradictory ways; that there was nothing inevitable or necessary about these interactions or their effects on people and the environment; and that learning about these interactions can help us to address similarly complex and contradictory problems in the present and future. Like any book, Land and Sea has both its gaps and its blind-spots. But anyone interested in regional environmental history or how a historical understanding can inform present-day problems and concerns, or who simply wants to know more about the past of this fascinating place, should definitely read this book.


[1] Cole Harris, The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997).

John Thistle is a Research Associate with the Labrador Institute of Memorial University. He is author of Resettling the Range: Animals, Ecologies and Human Communities in British Columbia (forthcoming, University of British Columbia Press), and coauthor with Richard Unger of Energy Consumption in Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries: A Statistical Outline (Italy: CNR Edizioni, 2013). His current research examines the socioeconomic and environmental legacies of large scale resource development, in particular iron ore mining and hydroelectric power, in 20th century Labrador.

Citation: John Thistle “Review ofClaire Campbell and Robert Summerby-Murray’s Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada. Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 2013.” The Otter ~ La Loutre Reviews. (September, 2014).


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