#EnvHist Worth Reading: May 2017

Young shirtless male gardener staking a tree, Niagara, Ontario, MIKAN 4293061, Library and Archives Canada

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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 May 2017:

1. Toxic Legacy: New Boom Highlights Oil’s Hundred-Year Environmental History in West Texas

In this post on Process Blog, Sarah Stanford-McIntyre looks at the current environmental and cultural atmosphere of West Texas and connects it to historical events and patterns. In 2016, the largest deposit of oil in North America was discovered in the region. This oil can only be extracted by way of hydraulic fracking. Despite the economic potential, local residents are not overly enthusiastic about this new development. Stanford-McIntyre recounts the region’s development as a focal point for oil industry activity and the way in which the industry fell out of favour by the end of the twentieth-century due to water pollution, cancer and other health issues, and legal squabbles over industry regulations.

2. American Trees Are Moving West, and No One Knows Why

This was one of the most popular posts amongst environmental historians in May. Due to the effects of climate change, scientists expect trees to start moving northward. However, since 1980, three quarters of trees have instead moved westward. The possible reasons for these shifts are a perfect combination of possible man-made causes –  invasive pests, climate change, alteration of watersheds, etc. – and natural causes that humans have not yet figured out.

3. We hardly notice them. But street trees are monuments to city life

Moving from naturally migrating trees to trees that were planted in cities, Ian Jack argues that the trees found in city neighbourhoods are “monuments to city life.” He opens his piece with an anecdote about the plane trees on his own street that are trimmed every three years. He writes that “The trees they leave behind give a good impression of the aftermath of Passchendaele or the Somme, their complicated foliage reduced to the skeleton of a trunk and a few leafless branches. In this way, crude but effective, the local council curbs tree growth and the possibility of litigation from householders who blame their cracked walls and ceilings on the spread of ever-thirsty roots.” He then discusses why these trees were planted, where they came from, and what meaning people placed on them in the past. Plane trees, for example, were chosen for the streets of London in the late-nineteenth-century because they regularly shed bark, thus providing a natural way of ridding the environment of aesthetically-displeasing soot that clung to most surfaces.

4. ‘I knew what hell looked like’: Westray miner recalls scene of historic disaster

The Westray Mine disaster occurred in May 1992 in Plymouth, Nova Scotia. Twenty-six miners were killed in the mine explosion. This episode of CBC’s The Current is an invaluable oral history resource. Anna Marie Tremonti interviews three individuals. Vernon Theriault, a former Westray mine employee who helped with the rescue;  Linden MacIntyre, a reporter who covered the incident at the time; and Stephen Hunt who “lobbied the government to change the criminal code to make it possible to prosecute business owners and management for a death or injury in the workplace. At the time he was the mining health and safety expert for the United Steel Workers.”

5. 23andMe for Dogs

Dogs have been the companions of humans for at least 15,000 years. In this Quirks and Quarks segment, the genome of 1,200 dogs of 161 dogs were analyzed to create a new dog family/genome tree. This information provides scientific evidence for aspects of animal and environmental history. For instance, the researcher says that the genome analysis demonstrated that dogs that are now in North America are assumed to be descendants of dogs brought to the continent by European colonists. However, the genome analysis shows that North American dogs are also descended from dogs that were domesticated by ancient Indigenous peoples. Scientists can also track human migration patterns through dog genomes.

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-in-chief, 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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