From time to time we like to highlight new research in the fields of Canadian environmental history and historical geography, whether published in journal articles, book chapters, or monographs. In this second installment of an occasional series, three NiCHE editors review and reflect upon recent publications that they have been reading and that they want to bring to the attention of a wider audience. Here are our picks.
Sandwell, R.W. Canada’s Rural Majority: Households, Environments, and Economies, 1870-1940. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. Series: Themes in Canadian History, ed. Colin Coates.
This term I’ve been teaching Ruth Sandwell’s Canada’s Rural Majority in a class on rural history. Aside from being an introduction to rural history for students, the book is part of Sandwell’s ongoing engagement with the meaning and development of the rural and its relationship to modernity in Canada. What I find so interesting here is the increasing role of rural people’s engagement with non-human nature in this project.
The definition of “rural” is not clear, even as the term gets tossed around a lot these days. Scholars point to everything from low population density to values like independence to a general sense of being rural. Sandwell’s relationship to this question comes from her experience as a graduate student interviewer asking people who had spent their lives as small-scale semi-subsistence farmers about the crops they’d produced for market. It quickly became clear to her that such questions did not capture their experience. Here she offers a three-part definition of rural based on experience. Rural people, she writes, lived and worked much of the time out of doors. There, they did lots of hard, physical labour. That labour, finally, was often a contribution to, and framed around, the needs of a rural household. Their labour for the household took the form of wage work, production of commodities for sale, and self-provisioning, or growing, gathering or killing things for food. And finally, all of this was still in place as late as the 1940s.
The rural, then, in Sandwell’s hands, is a place where people work directly with nature and where they rely directly on nature for their survival. Pre-war hard rock mining, for instance, emerges as a rural occupation in Sandwell’s hands. It does so because the actual extraction of ore from the surrounding rock remained an “intensely personal physical interaction,” a matter of muscle and skill and sweat, of knowledge of the seams and the rock face. It also does so because miners often still might garden, hunt or fish for their own subsistence. Sandwell acknowledges that much logging and mining was done by single men living in camps and working for wages, and that fishing was transformed by the introduction of gill nets and larger boats that on the West Coast were often owned by the canneries. But she also evokes the world of Ryuichi Yoshida, who fished on the Skeena River by powering a boat with oars upriver, hauling the net into the water, and then drifting downstream, eating and sleeping in the boat for six days at a time. She notes as well the seasonality of Yoshida’s rural world: summer fishing on the Skeena was preceded by spring fishing in the ocean, logging the remainder of the year, and bouts in the bars of Vancouver in between. The end of this world comes as a result of labour and resource policy, but also the destructive nature of the activities. Self-provisioning for miners might be cut off by the poisoning of the local ecosystem, and for loggers by the disappearance of the forest.
What this means is that the break between a pre-Second World War world and postwar world of high modernism is much starker than we’ve thought. A viable (if hard) rural Canadian world based on direct access to non-human nature existed up to the forties. The path to this postwar world and its particular relationship with non-human nature – a relationship that now looks more recent and more peculiar than we’ve thought – leads through changes in Canadian rural places. All of this gives environmental historians much to think about.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
LeCain, Timothy J. The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
I’ve been making an effort to read books that I hoped would be “good to think with.” This means the authors do a nice job of offering provocative and challenging ideas, but at the same time, it’s not always clear how other historians might apply those ideas to their own work. I see these books as starting conversations, pulling together a diverse set of literature, and disrupting the patterns of scholarly production a little bit. The two books that got me thinking the most this year were Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015), and Timothy J. LeCain, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (2017). Only LeCain’s is environmental history, strictly speaking. But both have a great deal to offer environmental historians.
In Mushroom at the End of the World, Tsing brings together a number of compelling typologies of what she calls the “multidirectional histories” of the preciousness and marginality produced by capitalism during the early twenty-first century (61). Less interested in demonstrating the failures of capitalism’s promise of progress, Tsing focuses on understanding how cultural meaning is produced and translated along commodity supply chains that operate outside direct capitalist control. By analyzing how the agency of wild mushroom pickers in Oregon, operating at the margins of the formal economy, interact remotely and ephemerally with a system that brings those mushrooms to discerning consumers in middle-class Japan, Tsing offers the concept of “salvage” capitalism to help understand the nonlinearity of global-scale economic history (63).
It won’t be news to environmental historians that humans are embedded in the biological and material world. This has been a (the?) central tenant of environmental history since its inception in the 1970s. Nevertheless, in Matter of History, LeCain prompts us to revisit and reassess (a) just how much historians really understand what this means, (b) how well historians – even environmental historians – actually proceed from this analytical framework, and (c) whether historians actually believe this, or simply pay it lip service. The neo-materialist approach, LeCain argues, is more than an intellectual exercise of decentring humans in the study of history. It is a process of explaining how human bodies, minds, and culture are “the product of a dynamic and creative material environment” (11). The case studies LeCain examines (longhorn cattle, silkworms, and copper) are successful applications of these ideas. But the greatest contribution of the book comes in the first three chapters, which serve as three much-needed review essays on materialist thinking and literature.
There is a great deal that Canadian environmental historians could take from these two books. In fact, I think the two complement very nicely the emergent attention that environmental history in Canada directs towards non-stadial and contingent histories, which reconcile human agency with vulnerability to the material world.
Leddy, Lianne C. “Intersections of Indigenous and Environmental History in Canada.” Canadian Historical Review 98, no. 1 (2017): 83–95.
In my current research on the history of long-distance oil pipeline development in Canada, I’ve been thinking a lot about the historical geography of energy infrastructure and risk. In many ways, this was at the heart of the debate over the Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline proposals in the 1970s. Dene and other Indigenous people who opposed the proposals did so, in part, out of concerns over the adverse environmental effects of pipeline construction and operation. This response was common among rural people living along proposed rights-of-way for pipeline development throughout the second half of the twentieth century in Canada. Who bears the risk of energy infrastructure along so-called “landscapes of intensification” or “sacrifice zones”?  Often, Indigenous people, their lands, and wild animals bore disproportionate risk in pipeline development.
This historical geography issue has me reading scholarship at the intersection of environmental history, Indigenous history, and environmental justice. Lianne Leddy’s 2017 review article in Canadian Historical Review is a terrific primer for thinking about this intersection. She draws attention to a number of recent works that reveal what she describes as the similar trajectories of environmental history and Indigenous history. I’ve taken three primary insights from her article:
1. When looking for new scholarship on Indigenous history and environmental history, scholars should broaden their view of environmental history. There is much scholarship in the field of Indigenous history that addresses environmental issues, but this work does not often appear in environmental history journals or at major environmental history conferences. Sometimes it shows up in anthropology or Indigenous Studies.
2. As Leddy writes, “events in Indigenous history cannot be relegated to a distant past but rather, have ongoing impacts in Indigenous communities.” I think this is a perspective shared generally in environmental history, but has sharp resonance in Indigenous history. The poisoning of a waterway, the contamination of fish, the loss of access to traplines. These are environmental consequences that have lasting effects, but they are also part of broader histories of settler and resource colonialism in Canada.
3. Indigenous knowledge of environmental change is not just a data point. It is knowledge in and of itself. Leddy describes how new research has adopted new methodologies and practices that engage Indigenous communities and are increasingly led by Indigenous people. Indigenous knowledge, as she argues, is not just a resource for researchers to harvest and integrate into Western systems of environmental knowledge, but a fundamental source of understanding environmental change and, indeed, environmental history.
Review essays like this are important waypoints for researchers in developing fields. Leddy’s article should be a call for new research that brings together scholarship in environmental history and Indigenous history.
 In Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), Christopher Jones describes pipelines as more than just conduits for transporting oil and natural gas, arguing that they facilitate energy transitions by creating landscapes of intensification along their routes. This builds upon the earlier work of Steve Lerner in Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).
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