#EnvHist Worth Reading: February 2015

Submerged Buildings in Vanport, 1948 Source: Oregon Historical Society ; "How Oregon's Second Largest City Vanished in a Day," Smithsonian.org

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Every month I carefully track the most popular and significant environmental history articles, videos, audio, and other items making their way through the online environmental history (#envhist) community. Also check out the sixth installment of our #EnvHist Worth Reading videos. Here are my choices for items most worth reading from February 2015.

1. The West without Water: What Can Past Droughts Tell Us About Tomorrow?

In this article, B. Lynn Ingram “examines how a deep historical account of California’s water patterns can help us plan for the future.” California is in its fourth year of severe drought. The winter storms that the region relies upon have been blocked by high pressure. The question on everyone’s mind is “when will it end?” Ingram looks to both geologic and recent history to gain a better understanding of the region’s climate and rainfall patterns. Doing so illuminates the fact that the region has always been subject to tremendously varied weather patterns, with many droughts lasting longer than the current one. Patterns of wet periods followed by growth and then collapse have also been prevalent. Based on the climate history of the region, Ingram suggests that the current drought will likely continue and policymakers need to take action.

2. Gone – The Sea that Disappeared

The central figure of this audio documentary is Khojabay, an eighty-six year old man who lives in Kazakhstan in the midst of the 26,000 square mile desert that was once the Aral Sea.  Khojabay reminisces about his childhood when he swam in the sea and the livelihood that he once was able to sustain as a fisherman. This all changed in the 1970s when the sea began to shrink and become contaminated with pesticides as a result of Soviet efforts to develop cotton plantations in Uzbekistan. The narrator, Rustam Qobil, who is 42 and grew up in Uzbekistan, effectively demonstrates the effects that the disappearance of the sea has on the physical and mental health of the region’s citizens.

3. How Oregon’s Second Largest City Vanished in a Day

In this piece, Melissa Geiling, connects Portland, Oregon’s racial history with its environmental history. Vanport, which was at one point the second largest city in Oregon with 40,000 residents, is best known for its racist legacy. Originally built in the early 1940s to temporarily house the city’s influx of wartime  workers, including African Americans, Vanport continued to house people after the war and became associated with its black residents and known as a crime-ridden slum. The city was built on a marsh, physically separated from Portland by the Columbia River and completely dependent on dikes to keep dry. In the article, Geiling shows how the failing of the dike in 1948 both destroyed Vanport and brought Portland’s racial demons to the surface.

4. Environmental history of a Hydrological Landscape: The Soughs of Derbyshire

In the latest Exploring Environmental History Podcast, Jan Oosthoek interviews historical geographer Carry van Lieshout about her work on the soughs of Derbyshire, which are a network of underground drainage tunnels that were built to drain the area’s lead mines. The soughs had an ecological impact below and above ground. For instance, the soughs drained some small rivers and affected villager’s access to drinking water. The soughs were largely forgotten until recently. Today there is a battle between those that want to preserve the region’s industrial heritage and those who wish to restore the region’s ecology. Carry van Lieshout hopes to use the past to navigate these current issues.

5. Light Blue Books: Reading about Winter Ecology and Climate History

In this article, Thomas Wickman argues that most colonial history is locked into a kind of “vernal bliss.” Both in monographs and in the archives, there is a disproportionate amount of historical material dealing with summertime topics. This tendency has led to a general assumption that winter represents a lull not worth examining. According to Wickmand, looking at “winter ecology” books offers new ways to read colonial documents, particularly the “positive value of winter ways.” Wickman contends that the recent turn towards climate history also represents a trend towards greater appreciation of winter and northern environments.

Remember to follow #envhist hashtag and NiCHE (@NiCHE_Canada) on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ to keep up with the latest environmental history content.

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is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States, editor, and digital communications strategist. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Saskatchewan in 2019. She is an executive member, editor, and social media editor for the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). She is also a working board member of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society and Girls Rock Saskatoon. A passionate social justice advocate, she focuses on developing digital techniques and communications that bridge the divide between academia and the general public in order to democratize knowledge access. You can find out more about her and her freelance services at jessicamdewitt.com.

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