Of Tailing Ponds and Edible Forests, or, Going Out in the Field in Northern Ontario

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This is the fourth in a series called “Get Outside!” about field trips and teaching environmental history outside the classroom.

I stood on a hillside with a group of students and our local guide, looking down at a clear pond. “What lives in that pond?” asked one student.

“Nothing,” our guide replied.

“I saw a beaver just now,” another student commented.

“Huh. Weird,” our guide said, “I’m pretty sure nothing lives in that pond. The tailings killed everything off.”[1]

Field trips can really mess with your pre-conceived ideas. In this case, our guide was messing with my carefully cultivated scholarly skepticism of environmental disasters. Cobalt is a lovely, historic town full of gracious people. But the ore sought by miners in the early 20th century silver boom was close to the surface. It could be accessed by individuals, who, we were told, blasted the surface with high pressure hoses, and by small mining companies, who dumped tailings on the ground and in Cobalt Lake. Chain-link fences surround areas where the ground is in danger of collapse, destabilized by mining activities close to the surface. Our guide told us a story: a police officer responding to a call parked his car outside a house. When he came back out the car was gone, swallowed up by the earth.

All of this makes for fascinating history, by the way; Cobalt is well worth a visit.

My class field trip to Cobalt was part of my 2nd-year environmental history course, focused on resource use and means of survival in Canada. I was asked to describe this trip in one word. I’d pick “shocking.” It is only one of many such trips I’ve done; I’ve now committed myself to some sort of field activity in each of my environmental history classes. Why do I do this? As Claire Campbell put it in the introduction to this series, environmental history is about situating students in nature. So it makes sense to get outside. Also: I teach in northern Ontario, at Nipissing University. On my way down the hill from campus I pass through a forest that stretches north to the James Bay coast. Many of my students are from small, rural towns, but others have lived essentially suburban lives. I want to show them other ways of living. We are also minutes from the Mattawa River and Lake Nipissing, part of the trunk line that once connected Montreal to a continent-spanning fur highway, and an hour from the spot where Premier Bob Rae and a group of environmentalists and members of the Teme-Augama community were arrested for resisting logging in the nineties. Not showing my students some of these things seems perverse.

My other introductory environmental history class focuses on Canadian environmentalism and environmental thought from the late nineteenth-century. That group has twice been drawn north to the town of Temagami. Here our guide has been local fishing lodge owner Doug Adams. Doug gives us his own take on how provincial licensing of wolf hunters has reshaped the local ecology, harming his business. He also takes us out into the White Bear forest, preserved by the community in the face of the threat of logging and named for the last chief of the Teme-Augama before colonization. There he shows students things they can eat in the woods. I get comments like “I didn’t know people still lived like this!” This is a good opportunity to discuss the role of conservation regulations in commodifying nature; Doug’s main business (I assume) is his lodge. It’s not really possible to live off your own hunting and fishing in the way some students imagine him doing.

The View from the Caribou Mountain Lookout in the White Bear Forest, Temagami.

What works on these trips? When they go well, they bring another voice and perspective into the classroom and break students out of their usual perspectives. I took another group to a day-long community development symposium in a small town south of North Bay. I was worried they’d be bored; instead, they were blown away by how much people cared about their community and the things they were working on – food co-ops, ecologically-informed logging, small breweries – to make it better. These community voices come alongside and also compete with my own, which can be a really good thing. It’s hard, as well, to duplicate the impact on students of meeting people who lived through or are living out at least a version of the history they’ve been studying. What’s also true, if considerably less worthy: students like field trips; they help boost enrollment.

I’ve learned a few things along the way. These trips take time to put together. You have to familiarize yourself with your university’s policies on student trips, think hard about logistics, plan things down to the minute, and find a way to pay for the bus and your local guide. Make sure to tell your students how to dress appropriately; at least half will ignore you, but then you don’t need to feel so bad watching them shiver. Remember that you are going into someone else’s space and they may not act or talk in the ways in which we have become accustomed in the academy. They may say or do things that make students (or you) uncomfortable. Talk to students about this. Plan a debrief and/or assign a reflection paper, and let them know that it is ok to offer honest critiques and to talk about things they found to be wrong or upsetting. Be aware that things might happen that you find upsetting.

Finally, be prepared to be spontaneous. In Temagami, several students noticed the small wooden church in the centre of town, so we got permission to go inside. The students were charmed (and several pointed out that parts of the hymnal were in indigenous languages). The congregation, I learned later, were delighted to hear that a group of university students had toured their church. Which brings up another point: these trips are not just for you and your students. They are also for the communities you visit.

When we come out from behind our walls we give up on the safety of the controlled and directed classroom conversation. This can be difficult. But our communities and our students deserve the sort of conversations that can happen when we do. Get out there!    

[1] Note that this conversation is recreated from memory.
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Jamie Murton is a Professor in the Department of History at Nipissing University. His research focuses on the environmental history of food and agriculture, and particularly of subsistence production and its relationship to capitalist markets for food. Canadians and Their Natural Environment: A History is out now from Oxford University Press.

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