Editor’s note: This is the second post in an occasional series entitled “Unearthed,” edited by Heather Green and co-sponsored by Unwritten Histories, in which emerging environmental historians in Canada discuss what brought them to the field, why they value environmental history, and how it connects with life outside of academia. Find all the interviews from this series here.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background (academic, life experience, hobbies, etc)?
I grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts and lived there until I moved to Maine for graduate school in 2011. I came to the University of Maine to research and write on lumbermen and masculinity, the topic of my master’s thesis. After completing my MA I transitioned into UMaine’s history PhD program in 2013 but changed topics to one that I think is more interesting. I am currently near the end of my program and excited to be finishing up! I like doing outdoorsy stuff like snowshoeing, hiking, and kayaking, but also enjoy spending time inside reading.
What brought you to the field of environmental history?
I gravitated towards the field of environmental history because there are stories here that are relevant to the present; there are really good narratives waiting to be told in this field. Additionally, a focus on history that emphasizes the dialectical relationships between humans and the environment helps explain how we arrived at our current moment. On a more personal level, I have found the field to be filled with welcoming and supportive colleagues.
In three sentences or fewer, tell us the focus of your current research.
My current project is a transspecies history of conservation in Maine and New Brunswick. I am interested in the connections between rural people and wild animals in a cross-border perspective. I get to write about all sorts of interesting things like hunting, poaching, fur trapping, fur farming, woods guides, and taxidermy.
Other than your current focus, what is another area of environmental history that interests you?
Aside from working on more animal history, I am also interested in the history of public health. I grew up down the street from a nuclear power plant and am interested in the environmental and public health implications of that institution. Additionally, I am working on a popular history project with a colleague about disease and public health in early America.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Does that overlap with your decision to study environmental history?
This might be embarrassing to admit but the first thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was a clown. In no way does that overlap with my historical interests. I grew up in Plymouth, a place overflowing with history. I think being surrounded by historical institutions and monuments inspired my general interest in history, but when I got to college I wanted nothing to do with 17th-century American history.
What is your favorite part of doing environment-focused historical research?
One of my favorite parts of doing environment-focused historical research is being in the place I am researching and writing about. I was fortunate that I got to live in New Brunswick for nine months last year as part of a Fulbright award; almost every day I drove across the Wolastoq (Saint John River) on my way to the archive. The river frequently shows up in my research and it just felt right to be in that place. Simply put, I enjoy the strong connection to place this research affords.
What part of studying environmental history most excites you? What is most daunting?
I think what is most exciting AND most daunting is the range of sources environmental history can use. In my own work I am excited when I find an out-of-the-ordinary source in the archive, like the tips of animal tails submitted to wardens to collect bounties. With the range of sources available to environmental historians we dabble in interdisciplinarity, and this is certainly daunting. Sometimes we not only need to be good historians but also need to have a firm grasp on some environmental science.
Where is your favorite place to be?
In a natural history museum or hiking with my dog, Jackson, through the woods.
Do you have a favorite book, podcast, film, work of art related to the non-human world that you would recommend others check out?
Can I mention two that are related? I really like the painting The Crew of HMS “Terror” Saving the Boats and Provisions on the Night of 15th March (1837) by George Chambers which can be seen at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Related to that painting is the song, “Northwest Passage” by Stan Rogers.
Why do you think environmental history is an important field of study?
Environmental history is important because the environment shapes our lives. I don’t want to sound like an environmental determinist, but human experiences are directly influenced by the landscape, geographic features, and available resources. If we, as environmental historians can help others see this hopefully people will make better environmental decisions and the future might be a bit more hopeful.
Where can interested folks follow your work or connect with you?
You can catch me on Twitter @IanJJesse and be sure to check out #TaxidermyTuesday