Interactions between Beings and the Environment

Seed samples at Seager Wheeler farm (photo by the author)

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Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of articles on the 2018 Canadian History and Environment Summer Symposium. The symposium was held in Saskatchewan in early June and focused on the theme of “Prairie and Environmental Change in the Twentieth Century.”

Experiences of landscapes and the environment are part of a greater meshwork of relations which all must be considered together. As Tim Ingold writes, a meshwork is “entangled lines, of bodily movement and material flow,” it is “nothing more than the web of life itself.”[1] I consider space as shared between beings, and agency as varied and part of a spectrum of possibilities. Some agencies are more difficult to bring to light than others, but I also believe that history is not exclusive to humanity, although our concepts are what make it clear and has made it into a discipline. History is the result of interactions, of dynamics, of sharing … it is a result of this meshwork of relations. This meshwork is made increasingly clear through shared space.

This year’s edition of CHESS, “Prairie Landscapes and Environmental Change in the 20th Century,” took us across surprising landscape and environmental variations in Saskatchewan; variations which, as someone who had never been west of Ontario, I did not expect. My experience has made me realize even more so the importance of living and experiencing the environment firsthand, as well as taking the time to reflect on its changes through time, and on those who have affected it and built on it. As a PhD student in animal, urban and environmental history, with a multidisciplinary background that includes some archaeology, I felt the significance and the importance of temporarily leaving our archives behind as historians. Space and place are lived, experienced and felt, and no archival source can come near to replacing this. I understand to a greater extent my constant need for archival validation through photographs, cartography and even fieldwork, both in spite of and because of temporal changes.

Rat hole in barn at Seager Wheeler barn. (photo by the author)

In our visits during CHESS 2018, what wasn’t directly mentioned, and yet was always underlying on our tours, was the non-human animal presence and the additional relational threads they weave through this landscape and environment. Their impact on the built environment was especially noticeable. I saw this most clearly when going back through the photographs I took of our tour at the Seager Wheeler Farm, and thinking about our guide’s, local historian Larry Epp’s, reflections on the topic. To paraphrase, what Epp said came down to: “Either you had to deal with the environment, and/or you had to modify the environment.” Seager Wheeler, he mentioned, adapted seeds to the environment, therefore learning to deal with it and its difficulties, and modified the environment with shelter belts to protect crops. While Wheeler did this, other non-human animals also got used to his adaptations to the environment. Just as the human farmer adjusted to his landscape, other species were habituated to new prime choice environmental niches created by the presence of new beings in the environment.

Gopher traps in barn at Seager Wheeler farm. (photo by the author)

Sharing space and using it means struggling for it. It means that the use we make of it is not what every other being would make of it. For Wheeler and other farmers, this meant limiting the potential agency of other non-human animals who wished to make use of the space and the harvested crops he and other workers had gathered and stored. This often occurred with the use of intermediary objects whose purpose was to control and limit, or reign in power for human use. Traps and nose baskets, for example, are counter-adaptations aimed at restricting or controlling movement. Philip Howell has written about the connection between the human and dog, which is made via the leash, and about how the object is all at once a sign of discipline and of control. He says that it is possible to argue that “animals found themselves more and more restricted as to what they could be and where they could, how they could behave and how they could be treated, viewed and understood” in the modern city.[1]It seems to be a possibility that is not unique to the modern city, and is also seen at the industrializing farm and homestead. Movement, especially when sneaky and uncontrolled, is disruptive. As stated by Etienne Benson in his work on the encounters between power grids and birds, “it is only after an actor begins to affect us that we can begin to search for the historically particular conditions that made it capable of doing so.”[2]

Nose baskets for calves in barn at Seager Wheeler farm. (photo by the author)

In some cases, interspecies interaction was not the result of being disrupted, but rather a question of energy potential. Horse muscle and energy expenditure helped change the environment as well as contributed to the success of settlers in the area. Equestrian hitching equipment such as horse collars were used not to stop a behaviour, but to encourage and control particular behaviours. A kind of energy return and flow, which Geoff Cunfer presented to our group in his keynote talk on comparative grassland environmental history at the Doukhobor Prayer house on May 31st.

Horse collars in barn at Seager Wheeler farm. (photo by author)

Our visit to the Saskatoon Forestry Farm on June 1stonly further emphasized my own thought process and reflexions built from our visit to the Seager Wheeler Farm. Our guide noted that trees were selected either to beautify, or to modify, the landscape. Seeds would eventually be modified to adapt hardier trees to the current environment. Individuals had to deal with the conditions of the particular prairie environment, as well as modify it, in order to survive and be successful.

In Postmodern Geographies, first published in 1989, Edward W. Soja repeats one of John Berger’s provocative postulates: “it is space not time that hides consequences from us.”[1] I agree, and I am hopeful that taking the time to experience space and place has allowed us to, will allow us to, and will make us more sensitive to our environment and with whom and what we share it. Taking the time to experience our environment and landscape can make visible interspecies dynamics, which would otherwise remain hidden, such as the ones that have been noted in this short essay. Citing Hägerstand, David Harvey reminds us that movement, footsteps, “[weave] places together.”[2]Temporality, then, creates place through movement. Movement that is not only human.

[1]Edward W. Soja, Postmodern geographies : the reassertion of space in critical social theory, London; New York, Verso, 2011, p. 23.

[2]David Harvey, The condition of postmodernity : an enquiry into the origins of cultural change, Oxford, B. Blackwell, 1989, p. 213.

[1]Philip Howell, « Between the Muzzle and the Leash: Dog-walking, Discipline, and the Modern City », dans Peter Atkins, dir., Animal Cities: Beastly Urban Histories, Great Britain, Ashgate, 2012, p. 223.

[2]Etienne Benson, « Generating Infrastructural Invisibility: Insulation, Interconnection, and Avian Excrement in the Southern California Power Grid », Environmental Humanities,vol.6, no1, 2015, p. 109.

[1]Tim Ingold, « Toward an Ecology of Materials », Annual Review of Anthropology,vol.41, 2012.

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Catherine Paulin

Catherine is a PhD student at l’Université de Montréal. She studies environmental history and human/animal relations in the 19th-20th centuries in Montreal. Catherine est doctorante à l’Université de Montréal. Elle étudie l’histoire environnementale et les relations humains/animaux aux 19e-20e siècles à Montréal.

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