Six Thoughts in Search of an Epilogue (Soundings)

Joseph F.W. Des Barres, Port Campbell, 1776. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center. link

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Editor’s note: This is the sixth article in “Soundings,” a series of articles jointly published by The Otter ~ la loutre and the Acadiensis Blog that considers new approaches to history and the environment in Atlantic Canada. The entire series is available here on the Otter and here on Acadiensis.

  1. Tina Loo and Sally Hermansen, Belonging to Place
  2. Mark McLaughlin, The Science before Silent Spring
  3. Josh MacFadyen and Andrew Watson, Go Big or Go Spruce
  4. Daniel Samson, Weather and Emotion in James Barry’s Diary, 1849-1906
  5. Alan MacEachern, When History Stops at the Border
  6. Claire Campbell, Six Thoughts in Search of an Epilogue (Or, writing a federalist epilogue) (Or, writing at the end of semester)


1.  Do you belong to this place?

What does it say about the state of environmental history in Atlantic Canada that none of us are writing from Atlantic Canada? Some of us are come-from-aways who went away again; some are Maritimers who went down the road or across the continent. How, how well, do we write our feelings of concern, investment, attachment from away? Does that even matter? 

What does this say about the current economics of higher education and research (especially in the humanities) in the region? Ironically, living and working in environmental history in Canada’s smallest provinces, you can still be quite isolated. You barely need the fingers of a second hand to count the number of NiCHE members working at Atlantic universities. I suspect many more people would want to pursue questions of what and who and when and why … if they were only given the how.

What does this mean for the prospects of environmental history being used – or not used – on the ground? Is this an opening for new lines of public history (and history employment outside the academy): presenting and publishing community and local history,in dialogue with the much larger and pressing framework of environmental sustainability and climate change? A citizen humanities, to complement citizen science, perhaps also led by Parks Canada? Inversely, does digitization enhance our ability to connect with the region from away? In a region that must lead the country into a post-industrial era, how can museums, libraries, and the like be centres of opportunity (i.e. for recent graduates) as well as scholarship?

2.  The gradual but systematic laboratization of landscapes and waterscapes

Because the knowledge economy has taken root only in very limited ways. Mark was describing New Brunswick in the 1950s, but this is the world in which we move and to which, institutionally, we are ever more committed.  But in an era of superclusters, scholarship and teaching in Atlantic Canada is framed primarily by aquaculture and aquatrons: frontier development and/via big technology focused especially on marine environments. Even Environmental Studies programs talk about the campus as a “living laboratory.” But the scientific, taxonomic, and utilitarian ethos here needs a counterpoint.  

Part of the work we need to do is expand our tradition(s) of environmental history and our constituencies. The pieces here are new in some ways, and historiographically familiar in others: strongly rooted in nineteenth century rural life, in questions of state and political economy. We can include the architects, the planners, the writers, many of whom seem to be sensitive and sympathetic to a historical perspective.

3.  The farm was, in the common Island idiom, “going spruce.”

I first came across this expression in Jane of Lantern Hill; Jane has returned to the Island after the winter, and Little Donald Martin letting his pasture go spruce is noted merely as one of the “surface changes” of the past few months. A familiar custom. (There’s no mention of budworm.) Throughout the book spruce are twinned with birches in places of quiet and contemplation (“Jane could sit for hours at the roots of the spruces”) even though both are pioneer species that mark disruption, not tranquility.[1] Going spruce suggests a well-worn second nature, cycles of use and reuse, why the Northeast is so instructive for environmental history.[2]  

Going spruce is also an adaptation to the limits of an island: a practice that allows for continued land use without new land acquisition. In contrast, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have gone offshore to expand their territory, leasing billions of dollars worth in continental shelf (while New Brunswick was hoping for the Energy East pipeline). Right now the County of Guysborough, Nova Scotia is facing a low-level revolt over its petition to revoke a provincial ban on fracking. The region (and, to be fair, most of Canada) still seems to subscribe to a Confederation-era model wherein “the Welfare of the Provinces” is contingent on resource wealth and territorial expansion. Our political imagination is in many ways still a nineteenth-century one. Tina and Sally remind us of the enormous amounts of fixed capital that have entrenched the model and mindset of industrial practice. While other small, coastal jurisdictions are thinking in terms of economies of place [3] and postindustrial alternatives, the Atlantic provinces — notably Nova Scotia and Newfoundland — are partying like it’s 1899. We can point out that the area has been modelling small as beautiful for some decades now.

4.  “This is a very backward spring”, James Barry, 4 June 1851.

Reading this in the Northeast – well, and centre, and the Northwest, come to think of it – you probably grimaced in sympathy, because 2018 also had a very backward spring. But as Daniel points out, we may relate (Weather, and to some extent climate have become important to me because it was important to him) but we’re not sure what exactly it meant to James Barry. What was his emotional vocabulary, his points of reference? It’s a reminder to people environmental history in the wholist sense, to consider language [4] and sentiment and daily concern. Are we curmudgeonly because of the weather, or because our hearts are three sizes too small?

Such an empathetic reach echoes the generosity of something Graeme Wynn wrote in another epilogue: to recognize that our settler predecessors sought “better lives and better prospects,” and that the material comforts we enjoy are the result of their choices.[5] In other words, before I get up my soapbox about the selfishness of rapacious capitalists in the industrial era, I need to remember that I live and move and have my being in the world they created … and I just want my kid to be healthy, happy, and provided for, too. (Incidentally, do follow #JamesBarryDiary if you’re on Twitter; like @SmallHistoryNS, it’s a voice from the past tuned to both the seasonal and social rhythms of rural nineteenth-century life.)

But this is also a wonderful example of how environmental history expands the frame. What did it mean that this was the end of the Little Ice Age? If weather affected Barry’s moods as well as his material success, how is it affecting us, in the same areas? And what happens when we expand the frame to consider, again, climate change? It mayn’t have the immediacy of weather on a farmer, but the impact of storm intensity and frequency in coastal jurisdictions (or even what seems to be erratic seasonal weather – heat waves in late April one year, ice-storms the next) is harder and harder to ignore.

5.  ….there have always been ten times as many American writers and readers, all of them ten times more interested in America than Canada.

This. Oh, so much this. I asked my seminar – which has read about the North Atlantic from Denmark to Long Island – if they were to replicate the experiment of the Ark, where they would put it? They chose upstate New York. Their spatial imagination, in other words, still has about a three-hundred-mile radius. Pennsylvania is a border and a coastal state, and usually forgets about both. But that way madness – and the reinscription of old nationalist prejudices – lies. Americans should neither take nor ignore our stories. We are within our rights to point out that theirs are incomplete without us. As environmental historians of Canada we are writing uphill … but we can’t stop writing. (Maybe this is an argument for more conversation with Nordic scholars.)

Because the simple fact of the matter, and there’s no elegant way to say this, is that Atlantic Canada has really important contributions to make to the environmental history of Canada, North America, and the North Atlantic world. On Alan’s theme, it has witnessed some of the greatest environmental disasters in Canadian history, including one of its largest oil spills, its largest hazardous waste site, and the collapse of one of the country’s most historic resource sectors (which may be collapsing again). Like New England, Atlantic Canada is a canary in the postindustrial coalmine, having modeled multiple phases of development, conflict, collapse, and adaptation. If New Brunswick was a resource science powerhouse in mid-twentieth-century North America, Nova Scotia was a catalyst and capitol for environmentalism shortly thereafter.[6] From every angle in the field (policy, place attachment, science, disaster) and at every scale (a man’s life, an energy transformation) there is just so much here. And there are periods and places and peoples still to be written in: the colonial period, cities, people of colour. Atlantic Canada – the Maritimes – the East – whatever you call it, it matters.

6.  Soundings

Whether by line or sonar, a sounding gauges watery depths. As a metaphor, it works for this series, gauging the shape and feel of current research. But ironically, water is largely in the background in a series about a maritime region. It shapes the story, whether in outports or estuarine muds, but it isn’t the story itself. Members of NEAREH know I’m not looking for more on fish, specifically … but stories of the shore as archipelagic [7], as a meeting of salt and fresh waters around dry land, spaces we’ve generally forgotten. Some of the posts here — those anchored in the twentieth century, primarily — are necessarily framed by provincial boundaries. Opening up to water lets us see different kinds of geography: islands like Anticosti, shorelines like Gaspésie and Labrador, peoples like Maliseet and Bretons and Acadians. It may also enable us to write more synthetically across provincial boundaries; in respecting provincial differences, we’ve shied away from Eastern, coastal, Atlantic commonalities.[8] Meanwhile, as I’ve said, the momentum for science and technology remains fixed precisely on that water space. We need to be there, too.

Would there be more water if we were looking at the early modern period? My students are always gobsmacked by Chris Pastore’s observation that the American Revolution was a littoral war, one fought “when the world’s great blue-water empire waded chest-deep onto the shoals of its brown-water brethren,” with local and global implications.[9] There are new avenues and allies here, people working on related areas like food and commodities, mapping and territory. This is the history we may be closest to losing; Fortress Louisbourg, guarding the entrance to French America and the New World, is eroding into the sea.

So perhaps as a metaphor, “soundings” is the appropriate way to think of this series.  We hear echoes of older histories, and are intrigued by glimpses of new ones. Behind it all, though, is curiosity, a desire to know more. And as with any watery depths, there is still so much more to learn.


[1] L.M. Montgomery, Jane of Lantern Hill (1937); Alan MacEachern, “The Landscapes of Tourism: Scenic Images in Prince Edward Island Tourism Literature,” in Edward Macdonald, Joshua MacFadyen, Irené Novaczek, eds.,Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island (MQUP, 2016) 254-255.

Thank you to Josh MacFadyen and Tina Adcock for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this post. To my New Brunswick and Newfoundland (and Labrador) friends, I apologize for the Nova Scotia/Halifax-centric quality of my references.

[2] Richard Judd, Second Nature: An Environmental History of New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014)

[3] Beatte Ratter, cited in A World of Islands, ed. Godfrey Baldacchino (Island Studies Press, 2007) 522.

[4] We came across this recently on the NiCHE podcast discussing older meanings of sauvage in Chris Parsons’ article, “Wildness without Wilderness: Biogeography and Empire in Seventeenth-Century French North America,” Environmental History, 22:4 (2017) 643–667. Jonathan Fowler also shared the query of Havre l’avocat on his wonderful Archaeology in Acadie page.

[5] Graeme Wynn, “Reflections on the Environmental History of Atlantic Canada,” in Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada, eds. Claire Campbell and Robert Summerby-Murray (Acadiensis Press, 2013) 235-255. Alan MacEachern reflected on his complicity in the Anthropocene recently, and Sean Kheraj responded.  

[6] Mark R. Leeming, In Defense of Home Places: Environmental Activism in Nova Scotia (UBC Press, 2017).

[7] I owe my adoption of this adjective to the various writings of John Gillis.

[8]   Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada (Acadiensis Press, 2013) felt – as edited collections often do – more like a smattering than a synthesis. The Greater Gulf: Essays on the Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrence (McGill-Queen’s University Press, forthcoming) tries another approach, using the circulations of a water body as a frame and bringing together American and Canadian contributors.

[9] Christopher Pastore, Between Land and Sea: The Atlantic Coast and the Transformation of New England (Harvard University Press, 2014) 190.

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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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