Violence and Idealism in Environmental History: A Teacher’s Dilemma

Robert Harris, Canoe Cove (1879)

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You picked the one strain of history that doesn’t involve violence.

My partner said this to me last spring during one of our many conversations about the academy and our respective fields. He studies African-American literature and culture, which is never far from issues of violence. At the time, I think I was working on a chapter about L’Anse aux Meadows and what a historic site of Norse settlement could say about environmental history. To him, it looks like I study … trees, and why people like them.

It’s true: I see the world through rose-coloured glasses, I don’t like arguing (except when I’m right and the other person admits it), I don’t like confrontation or criticism, and I don’t like seeing the worst of people, past or present. I feel about this stuff the way that L.M. Montgomery felt about the modernist novel:

[Morley] Callaghan’s idea of ‘Literature’ seems to be to photograph a latrine or pigsty meticulously and have nothing else in the picture. We have a latrine in our backyard. I see it before a garden of color — over it a blue sky — behind it a velvety pine. These things are as ‘real’ as the latrine. Callaghan sees nothing but the latrine and insists blatantly that you see nothing else also. If you insist on seeing sky and river and pine, you are a ‘sentimentalist.’

L.M. Montgomery to Ephraim Weber, 1929 (eds. Tiessen & Tiessen)


Robert Harris, Canoe Cove (1879)
Robert Harris, Canoe Cove (1879) Courtesy the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, Charlottetown

I too prefer to focus on the beauty that remains in nature, around the harm we have done to it. I remember dreading that inevitable chapter in my dissertation about the industrial era in the Georgian Bay. In part this was because it already felt ubiquitous in local history: sepia photos of lumbermen standing athwart fallen pine, a frontier culture presented romantically and uncritically, and a rather singular and established version of environmental history. At the same time, if I’m honest, I shied away from it because that wasn’t the Bay I knew, and I wanted to see the sky and river and pine more than the saw and the timber boom.

South from Hunter River, P.E.I. (2010)

That said, there is a difference between one person’s proclivities and the tilt of an entire field of study. Do others find that environmental history is sometimes perceived as kind of joyful collective tree-hugging?


Maybe I’m more cognizant of it because it’s harder to not think about violence here in the United States. A philosophy – completely incomprehensible to me – about the right to bear arms (just east from where we live); kids with uzis (for God’s sake); Ferguson.

Could he have meant – hell, he must have meant the principle, that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1947)
In fact, an overwhelming amount of environmental history is about violence in some form. I don’t like talking about it, and I admire greatly people with stronger minds and wills who can, in their teaching and research. I started to hyperlink to NiCHE members, but there’s just too many to choose from. In terms of scale, most violence has been directed toward the non-human. Deer hung as trophies. Whales shot and carved. Drilling or frakking the earth. The land pummeled into submission. But it has also been directed toward other people. Enslavement, forced relocations, industrial accidents. According to the Vinland Sagas, even at L’Anse aux Meadows – these were “Vikings,” after all – there is conflict and death. While we try to teach our students that few things are ever “always” true (i.e. please don’t begin your essay saying “People have always” or “Ever since time began”), I think it is safe to say that more war is caused by desires for land as territory and as resource than by anything else. A lot of environmental history is gruesome and disturbing, the story of destruction.


So: what does this mean for our teaching? We know students flock to classes with war in the title. (It’s why, presumably, I was asked to teach a class on the French and Indian war, but that’s a story for another day.) Is it crass, then, to call our classes wars against nature, or merely accurate? What are the best ways, the most appropriate ways, the most useful ways, to teach about this violence? Do we as historians have a particular role to play in addressing an environmentally-oriented pattern of violence?

And can we voice an alternative, as well? In other words, is there a place for the LMMs of the world? Can we acknowledge the different kinds of relationships with we have nature beyond its exploitation, the moments where nature inspired our imaginations even as we cultivated (or abused) it physically? Can we avoid re-inscribing those lumbermen as the primary figures of history?

My experience with teaching sustainability is that students are regularly presented with versions of history in which we’ve wrecked the earth and now we’re all gonna die. They get it in high school, and they get it from their classes in the sciences and social sciences. At the start of term, I was on a panel speaking to first-year students about sustainability. A geographer drew a straight line across the whiteboard, spiked it at the end to signal future warming predictions, and said, “That’s it. We’re done.” That may be true, and obviously carrying a reusable water bottle only goes so far.

But it’s unconscionable to give that and only that message to young adults at university, who are positioned and privileged to effect change – who believe quite passionately in their ability and obligation to do so – and who have little choice but to live in this world and our legacy of it. One thing I really appreciated when I taught Sustainability 1000 at Dalhousie was how we matched stories of degradation (whale populations, urban sprawl, industrial agriculture) with stories of effective or imaginative action, no matter how big or small (save the whale campaigns, Euro urban redesign, organic farming in the Annapolis Valley). Can we see the violence for who and what it is, but still act as though we believe there is another way?

As I ask my year-old son, can we give peas a chance?

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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