I’ll Stay in Canada? Frameworks for Teaching Environmental History

Nice moustache. NFB, 1941, Library & Archives Canada.

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That brings me to the Americans! There’s another reason for not wanting to leave Canada for England. I’d hate to be so far away from the United States. You see, with us it’s second nature, part of our lives, to be near them. … we admire the Americans for the way they shovel up mountains and shift river-courses and throw the map all round the place.

Stephen Leacock, “I’ll Stay in Canada” (1936)


A little while ago, NiCHE editor Dan Macfarlane (evidently still respecting the 140-character limit) tweeted,

Expat crowdsourcing at its finest.

Dan was asking, I think, with a view to whether we needed North American environmental history texts; but the field is now robust and varied enough to ask: What (or how, or where) are we teaching? Does it work?

I’ve talked elsewhere about the experience of teaching to American students; it doesn’t make teaching about Canada any easier, but as Stephen Leacock suggests, the necessary continentalism is probably a better way of seeing environmental realities. Plus, there are institutional logistics to contend with. National narratives still predominate in departmental offerings and in student preference (drawn as they are by the familiar; more on that in a minute). In the U.S. (or elsewhere) you’ll probably have to, as other Canadianists in the U.S. have pointed out, “be prepared to place Canada in a wider context in your teaching.”

When I came to Bucknell, for example, I felt some pressure to include the nearby Susquehanna River, as well as some skepticism that any more than one class on Canada could attract students (I know). Meanwhile, an American Environmental History class already on the books was being taught by the much-more-capable Andrew Stuhl, newly hired into Environmental Studies. So I designed a class in North American Environmental History, themed to rivers, which I thought was a terribly wily strategy. I’d supply Canadian examples for each week’s theme (e.g. harvest: the Kaministiquia, the North Saskatchewan; settlement: the St. Lawrence; disaster: the Red River [of the north]); work comparative American content in through readings (in-class prep!); and assign the students American rivers for their research projects. Teach to your strengths, learn a bit as you go, and, you know, fake the rest.

Looking North Or Up The Kaministiquia River From a sketch by our special Artist, Canadian Illustrated News (1870), Toronto Public Library

That worked well enough from an operational point of view, except – my hydrological heart is elsewhere. I got much more excited about a seminar on islands and coastlines because I was just starting a new project on the Atlantic coast.

Institutional logistics, intellectual fickleness, and other vicissitudes aside, what are the best ways to organize undergraduate classes in environmental history? Our problem tends to be that there is an environmental read of almost anything. What have we been doing? What else what could we be doing? Do any of these resonate?

  • National History Plus. The rise (or fall) of the nation-state through an environmental lens or expressed through environmental change. Easily the safest way to introduce environmental history to undergraduates. I taught a class at McGill that probably looks pretty familiar:

In this class we will see how indigenous peoples, explorers, settlers, and urban Canadians have understood and used nature since the fifteenth century; how different spaces have been gradually folded into national borders; how critical events in Canada’s history shaped, and were shaped by, geographical factors and territorial considerations. At the same time, we will discuss the origins of some of the most significant issues in Canadian political life. Questions of rights, identity, and empowerment have always been closely tied to claims of territory and resources in this country.

This would vary widely by region (not to mention the cultural landscape of French Canada), but there’s still a pull toward the prevailing national story, if only because that’s what’s most familiar. In my Eighteenth-Century North America class, for example, students have to research some element of climate in the 1770s and 1780s – and they all chose something about the Continental Army.

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the … we know (1851)

Are you enhancing that narrative, explaining it, or merely submitting to it?

  • Transnational History Plus. This one may skew a bit more thematically (connect, compare, and contrast on indigenous peoples, colonization, industrialization, environmentalism, etc.), but you’re basically dealing with the same actors. Unless, of course, by “transnational” you mean First Nations, which really does change the frame, and would be a wonderful step forward.
  • Environmental History by Natural/Non-Human Feature*: e.g. rivers, coastlines, mountains, glaciers, maybe climate. Maybe the non-human biota, too: North America as seen through beavers or bears (“dans le Canada, pays couvert de neige et de glaces huit mois de l’année, habité par des barbares, des ours et des castors,” as Voltaire sneered in 1753).
  • Environmental History by Human Feature*: e.g. cities, national parks. I suspect these are also pretty popular with students because, again, they are recognizable places.
    *Yes, we know these are really hybrid spaces, false dichotomies, etc. You need something your faculty curriculum committee is going to understand.
  • Environmental History by Regional/Transnational Feature: e.g. Great Lakes, Great Plains (and picking up Dan’s question, the circumpolar north). This one depends on proximity. I can just get away with “islands and coastlines” in central Pennsylvania but only because most of our students come from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
  • Environmental History by Resource, Use, or Industry: e.g. energy, pelts, commodities, tourism (I’d do “the white pine” if only for the Log Driver’s Waltz). This would be good for discussing the dynamics of imperialism and capitalism, but it also reifies the taxonomies that have proven so problematic to ecological thinking.
  • Environmental History by Method or Source Material. Probably better for upper-year or senior classes, and if your university is lucky enough to hold a great collection of primary sources (although God bless the Internet and archivists for this, as well). Another version of this would be environmental history as seen through a genre of materials: films, novels, or maps. Environmental history through Can/lit would be just as bleak as ever, but maybe a bit more interesting. A history of environmental change through art could also be eye-opening; think of how much you could get out of:
Pierre Desceliers, Mappe Mundi (1550), detail. Note the unicorn.


J.J. Barralet, America Guided by Wisdom (1820)


Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm–The Oxbow (1836). Dear God, am I turning into an American?


  • Environmental History by Period. Most of these frameworks so far are by geography. What about history through a biography, a generation (think of the transformations in, say, my grandmother’s lifetime, 1915-1988)? A season (like winter), an event, an epoch? We are seeing classes on the Anthropocene. Or a series of the most influential individual years in environmental history? Or a way of thinking about the past: environmental history as a series of anticipated futures, or as nostalgias?
West Virginia, Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson (9 July 2017)
  • Environmental History as Action: successful or disastrous human interventions. That could be a mix of long-term screw-ups (dams) and restorations/rewildings/rebalances. It would also be a good way of countering the declensionist despair so many of us our students wind up with. It’s one reason my students like Richard Judd’s Second Nature so much.
  • Environmental History as Something Else: environmental justice, public health, technology, capitalism, science.

Ultimately, I suspect most of our teaching use bits of all of these. Other considerations at work: what kind of background will students have (if any)? What are you actually interested in, thinking about, and how quickly can you update the class to keep up with your own roving mind?

So what should I do next year when I teach North American Environmental History again?

What are you doing?

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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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