#EnvHist Worth Reading: October 2015

Bison skulls in the US in 1870. Source: truth-out.org/public domain

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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. You can watch all of our #EnvHist Worth Reading videos right here. Here are my choices for items most worth reading from October 2015:

1. Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia

This New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz was one of the most popular articles this past month and spawned a number of response pieces, podcast discussions, etc. However, I did not see any responses written by an environmental historian. Schulz opens with a description of an 1849 shipwreck off the coast of New England and the unfeeling response of a writer at the time, which we quickly learn is Henry David Thoreau. Schulz uses this anecdote as a means by which to introduce her argument that Thoreau was a narcissist. Thoreau, she writes, represents our national environmental conscience, but this inspirational figure is a myth. “‘Walden’ is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people,” she argues.

2. Uncommon Knowledge – Moses Znaimer’s ideacity Conference

Although all three segments of the CBC Ideas episode are interesting, the most pertinent to environmental history is the first segment, which features a talk given by Tim Clark, a writer for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Although the Almanac uses scientific methods, not folkloric methods as many believe, to predict weather patterns, Clark states that he wishes to “defend the reputation of weather-related” folklore. Clark discusses how folk knowledge is collective wisdom and that folk weather knowledge is based on the idea that benevolent ‘Mother Nature’ protects and prepares her creatures for winter. Weather-related folk knowledge is the result of thousands of years of observance and experience and exists because earlier generations paid attention to what was going on around them in the natural world, a practice that is becoming rarer in contemporary times.

3. Climate Stories: Environment, Colonial Legacies and Systemic Change

This article on truth-out.org was written in preparation for the United Nations intergovernmental  conference on climate change that is to be held in Paris. The article aims to connect colonialism to the development of the Anthropocene. “Colonial expansion powered by the industrial revolution and its exploitation of much of the world – unleashed colonial infrastructures into socioecological systems across the world, setting in motion the death of bioculturally diverse regions stewarded by diverse human peoples,” Anna Lau writes. The articles provides examples of these kind of historical patterns or climate stories that are still in progress today. Whether or not one agrees with the article’s argument, it is important to understand how environmental history is being used to inform current policy and support particular political agendas.

4. Interview – John R. McNeill

In this interesting interview with John R. McNeill on E-International Relations, McNeill tackles questions about how the field of environmental history can inform international relations and how it is relevant to current events and issues. McNeill states that the most exciting research in environmental history is that which uses scientific knowledge and data to complement textual evidence. He argues that the ‘tyranny of the text’ must end. He also discusses how he considers human history to be a subset of ecological history, thus making most, if not all, human history relevant to ecology. Additionally, McNeill touches upon a number of other subjects including his book, Mosquito Empire, his definition of the Anthropocene, and the relevance of environmental history to studies of the Cold War.

5. From Jack-O’-Lantern to Pumpkin Pie: The Surprising History of a Favorite Fall Icon

In this interview on Edge Effects, Daniel Grant interviews Cindy Ott about the cultural and environmental history of the pumpkin in America. After observing the cultural popularity of the pumpkin in real life, Ott states that she began “began looking into the deeper question of how Americans use nature and history to create these national and personal traditions and the impacts that they have on rural economies.” Ott discusses a wide array of facets of pumpkin history including the romanticized use of the pumpkin as a symbol of the ‘old way of life’ which began during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, the rise of industrial pumpkin production, and the significance of pumpkin festivals to American communities.

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, project manager, and digital communications strategist. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Saskatchewan in 2019. She is an executive member, editor-in-chief, and social media editor for the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). Additionally, she is the Managing Editor for the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. She is also a working board member of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society and Girls Rock Saskatoon and a Coordinating Team member of Showing Up for Racial Justice Saskatoon-Treaty Six. 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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