Postcards from America I

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What follows is the text of what I shared with a roundtable about Environmental history and sustainability studies education at the American Society for Environmental History this year in Washington, D.C. The other panelists included Paul Hirt (Arizona State), Vanada Baweja (Florida-Gainesville), Jim Feldman (Wisconsin-Oshkosh), and Teresa Spezio (Huntington Library). It’s the first of a couple of posts reflecting on my first year teaching Canadian and environmental history in the United States.


I spent eight years at Dalhousie University, a mid-sized, quasi-research-intensive school in Nova Scotia, four as the primary (sometimes only) humanist on the teaching faculty of the College of Sustainability, an ASSHE-award-winning enterprise begun in 2008. Then I moved to Pennsylvania, and this year began teaching at Bucknell, a small, private liberal arts school (albeit one with branches in engineering and management).

But I still am teaching history overwhelmingly to non-history majors, who are likely taking my classes to fulfill a curricular requirement for environmental content, who have never heard of Canadian or environmental history, and who are at an institution whose measurements of sustainability are still primarily operational and managerial. In other words, like most of us.

I wondered if the experience of the move, the contrast in teaching environments, had added anything to my thinking. I’d like to make two observations about scale: one temporal, one geographical.

  1. I’m more convinced of the need to include the colonial period.


At Bucknell I was asked to teach a class on the “French and Indian War,” which is telling, and a story in itself … but the upshot is that instead I offer a class on Eighteenth-Century North America themed to “nationality and territory.”

The importance of this is more apparent to me now because of the pronounced mythology here in the U.S. (à la National Treasure) surrounding the colonial, specifically Revolutionary, period. When we started talking about l’Acadie, the students adopted a look of patient bewilderment: “Where are the muskets? I was promised muskets.” Talking about the landscape and ambitions of a French America outside of the thirteen colonies (and one whose marine claims extended past Virginia, as per the Coronelli map), or George Washington as a land surveyor and slaveholding “gentleman planter” – that is, competing territorial ambitions among different peoples, including but not limited to Anglo-Americans – is genuinely disruptive for them. But that is part of the trick: begin with a popular image of American history familiar to history and non-history students alike, and then disorient them slightly by casting the Patriot cause as an environmental project.


The present tense of sustainability discourse, and the modernist weight in the historical profession and our students’ interest, truncates our ability to connect “current” problems with their truly fundamental roots in land use practice. So my students will peg the Hoover Dam as both “historical” and adversely affecting the flow of the Colorado, but not older ideological and spatial artifacts that connect us directly to the colonial era, such as claims to resources in nation-building, the transformation of shorelines and grassland into farmland or city, or urban arrangements of power.

Students accept there is diagnostic value in studying colonial origins of present problems, but it’s still a challenge to help them find ways to connect distant time to present action. In fact, the number of ways that our current situation analogues and originates in the eighteenth century can deepen the affective and intellectual ties to the country’s formative period. Three of the concepts I’ve found most useful are:


  1. Using definitions as a starting point to discussion. What does “exploration” or “harvest” mean in offshore drilling? How is this akin to the mentality that created a landscape of fur trade posts in the Athabasca interior?
  2. From Nancy Langston at an ASEH a few years ago: that historians can’t predict the future, but we can identify ‘tipping points.’ When and why do people or societies change?
  3. And unearthing past practices that have been sidelined or forgotten can help us think creatively about alternatives to dominant paradigms today; like daylighting urban streams (such as Freshwater Brook, which runs most of the Halifax peninsula). This is the trickiest and most useful, so a collection or library for us to refer to would be great.
In an aerial view of Halifax, the footprint of the now-buried Freshwater Creek is still visible in the line of trees snaking from the Commons and Public Gardens down to the harbour.
In an aerial view of Halifax, the footprint of the now-buried Freshwater Creek is still visible in the line of trees snaking from the Commons and Public Gardens down to the harbour.




  1. In terms of scale, continental might be better than local or global. Or: so, Canada, what’s up with that?

Dalhousie and Bucknell are different in a number of ways, and while I miss the College a great deal, I’ll hazard to say that overall Bucknell’s is the better climate for a humanist interested in sustainability. (I’ll be talking more about this in future posts.)

But they do share something in common: students at Bucknell aren’t from central Pennsylvania, and most students at Dalhousie aren’t from Halifax. This displacement is exacerbated by the fact that both schools are situated in regions with wonderful and terrible environmental profiles of heavy and unsustainable industry – from steelmaking on the Alleghany to frakking in northern Pennsylvania, from coal mining and a collapsed ground fishery to renewed offshore exploration off the Scotia shelf. But both are carefully and consciously disassociated from their setting – they want to conceive (or be conceived) of themselves as satellites of more glamorous metropolises – a country retreat from Philadelphia or north Jersey, or an eastern Montreal.

So the teaching adage of “start from where they are” is a bit tricky, because where are they, mentally? And how do we connect to each other’s places?

If we are reading about irrigation in my environmental history class, for example, we can talk about the manicured quads at Bucknell, then the irrigated lawns (and alternative xeriscaping) at Arizona State, another university campus …


…then the golf courses of the southwest, which they know of, at least from television; then California produce, with stickers on the avocados in the grocery store just up the highway; and then interwar Imperial Valley and the remarkable transformation of the desert, and the contradictions exposed by the dust bowl era.


It’s an imaginative leapfrogging across thousands of miles that, hopefully, feels both familiar and adventurous, and helps us move beyond a local that is not theirs and issues that cannot be localized.

When we talked about flooding, using the Red River of the North (whose north?) as a case study, they were, again, literally disoriented: by heights of land that don’t map onto the 49th parallel, rivers flowing north to Hudson Bay as well as south to the Gulf of Mexico. Looking up is the shift here. Canada just doesn’t occur to them, except for ski trips. This despite Keystone, despite watersheds, despite, for heaven’s sake, we’re right here, biggest neighbour/trading partner/continental ball and chain.


Normally I’m an advocate of regional thinking, but at neither school are the students a regional demographic. So unlike thinking globally (pollution in China), this is still a North America they can, at least, recognize; unlike acting locally, it feels respectful of ecological complexity and the scale of environmental problems; and it also helps to disrupt national exceptionalism with the teacher’s greatest goal: a curiosity about something larger.

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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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