Finding Commonality in the Archives

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It began in the Nipissing University Geography Department as a conversation between Dr. Kirsten Greer, a historical geographer, and paleoclimatologist Dr. Adam Csank (now at the University of Nevada Reno). Although they had been trained in seemingly disparate disciplinary traditions, the pair said they began “finding commonality ‘in the archive.’” Both scholars felt that their research was grounded in a commitment to understanding and learning from past environments to shape the future. Despite thinking of the archive in different ways – from the more traditional repository of historical records to political sites of cultural production to tree rings and pollen – the scholars were struck by the unexpected connections forged when they began to learn each other’s approaches.

Since then, Greer and Csank have found value in stepping out of their “disciplinary comfort zones,” acting as archival-field assistants for each other. On a past research trip to Bermuda, Greer learned how to core a Bermuda Cedar while Csank experienced the unexpected rush of excitement in finding useful contextual histories in old meteorological records at the Bermuda Archives.

Practicing “boundary crossing” in interdisciplinary research collaboration, I: Adam Csank, a paleoclimatologist, examines historical meteorological records dating back to the 1830s at the Bermuda Archives.  He learned the value of the historical archive in reconstructing climate in the past. Photo by Kirsten Greer. Used with permission.

Practicing “boundary crossing” in interdisciplinary research collaboration, II: Kirsten Greer, an historical geographer, cores a Bermuda Cedar at Fort Scaur, Sandy’s Parish. She acted as Csank’s field assistant and acquired knowledge of writing field notes and taking samples of trees for future processing in the lab. Photo by Adam Csank. Used with permission.

Since their early conversations, the collaboration has taken many different shapes and trajectories, all of which are tied together by an interest in how interdisciplinary approaches can provide nuanced insights into past environments. This has included multiple sessions on interdisciplinarity at international conferences, including a session on “critical historical physical geography” at the American Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting in Boston (2017) which saw authors present early versions of articles that now appear in a recent special issue of the journal Historical Geography. “Historical-Critical Physical Geographies” extends on growing bodies of work related to critical physical geographies (see Lave et al. 2014), as well as environmental history and cultural-historical climatology. The collection features an introduction written by the special issue co-editors, four research papers, and two commentaries. The special issue was co-edited by Kirsten Greer (Nipissing University), Katie Hemsworth (Nipissing University), Adam Csank (University of Nevada Reno), and Kirby Calbert (University of Guelph). With research interests spanning cultural and historical geography, paleoclimatology, and energy transitions, the co-editors have worked together on a number of projects emerging out of Geer’s CRC project, Empire, Trees, and Climate in the North Atlantic: Towards Critical Dendroprovenancing and Nipissing University’s Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP). The first paper of the issue, by Kirsten Greer, Katie Hemsworth, Matt Farish, and Andrew Smith, focuses on the historical geographies of interdisciplinarity through the case study of McGill University’s “Caribbean Project.” The Project, which began in Barbados as an extension of McGill’s Geography department in the 1950s, combined the work of biogeographers, climatologists, and historical geographers in what the authors suggest was an early example of “interdisciplinarity” before the term became popularized. In revisiting the work and correspondence of several instrumental scholars involved in the Barbados project – including climatologist Kenneth Hare, cultural geographer Theo Hills, and biogeographer David Watts – Greer, et al. show the importance of conducting (inter-)disciplinary histories of climatological research to situate the production of environmental knowledge in socio-historical and geographical context. Throughout “Historical Geographies of Interdisciplinarity: McGill University’s Caribbean Project,” the authors ask: how and why were knowledges produced in that particular time (1950s-1970s; Cold War era) and place (the Caribbean; McGill), and how did this historical-geographical context shape related environmental fields today?

In “Mary Prince, Enslavement, Cavendish, and Historic Timber,” Margôt Maddison-MacFadyen collaborated with Adam Csank to put the slave narratives of Mary Prince, an enslaved and later self-liberated Black woman, into conversation with dendro-provenancing methods (dating and locating the sources of timbers). Using the Cavendish home, where Prince was enslaved by the Darrell family, as a site where colonial stories of slavery and the timber trade converge, the scholars tell a more nuanced story about how Bermuda’s environmental histories have been shaped by its colonial heritage. The concluding question: “How did Emancipation affect timber flows?” stands as an example of the types of critical-historical questions that emerge through interdisciplinary approaches to environmental change.

Research in progress at McGill University’s Bellairs Institute in Holetown, Barbados, with flags representing Barbados, Canada, and McGill University in the background. The Bellairs Institute was founded in 1954 and housed researchers affiliated with McGill’s interdisciplinary “Caribbean Project,” including historical- and bio-geographer David Watts. Today it welcomes researchers whose work focuses on tropical terrestrial and marine environments and maintains an institutional archive. Photo by the author.

The third paper in the collection, “From the Late Medieval to Early Modern in the Rieti Basin (AD 1325–1601): Paleoecological and Historical Approaches to a Landscape in Transition,” Edward Schoolman (a historian), Scott Mensing (a paleoecologist from the Berkeley tradition), and Gianluca Piovesan (a paleoecologist, trained as a forester) reflect on their interdisciplinary collaboration drawing on the central role of pollen in retelling stories of the past. As they indicate, events such as the Black Death (1348) and Rieti’s political realignment with Rome are reflected in the pollen record as a resurgence of forest following the plague-induced population reduction. As a final contribution, Schoolman, et al. provide insightful documentation of the challenges faced by workers attempting these types of boundary-crossing studies. This article should be required methodological reading for any paleo-scientist seeking to use historical evidence in their studies and any historian who wishes to include paleodata.

The fourth paper, “The Hyperlocal Geography of Climate Change Impacts: Long-Term Perspectives on Storm Survivability from the Shetland Islands,” explores the differential resilience of communities to environmental perturbations. Matthew Bampton, A.R. Kelley, and J. T. Kelley present an interdisciplinary field project in the Shetland Islands combining archeology, geomorphology, climatology, and GIS to analyze why some communities on the Shetland Islands survived increased storminess in the seventeenth century, while one community (Broo) was buried by sand and destroyed. They use documentary evidence to provide context for the community in terms of economic prosperity to assess how resilient the community was to environmental perturbations. Bampton, et al. further contextualize this through climatological findings, drawing on GIS and wind direction data to investigate why Broo may have been more greatly impacted by sand movement than other adjacent communities.

The issue closes with two commentaries by Maria Lane and Rebecca Lave, both of whom were authors on the foundational Canadian Geographer piece on critical physical geographies (CPG). The two contributors respond to some of the questions posed by Greer et al. in their introduction while expanding on some of the core intellectual tenets of CPG research. Lane reiterates the importance of historical research in particular for responding to calls for more “critical” environmental analysis. Lave summarizes that CPG research “differs from much current interdisciplinary environmental analysis in its emphasis on treating physical processes and unequal power relations with equal seriousness, its acknowledgment of the politics of knowledge production, and its normative agenda of using our research to promote ecosocial transformation.” The commentaries provide important clarification, contextualization, and direction from two leading scholars doing critical research across historical and physical geographies.

Moving forward, the issue raises critical questions about the degree to which historical-CPG can play a role in doing “reparatory history” (see Hall, 2018), particularly in the context of slavery and ongoing anti-racist scholarship. The editors point to the need for historical approaches in understanding not only current climate change research but also climate justice movements; scholars must work to simultaneously acknowledge and avoid reproducing colonial knowledge systems and related techniques of exclusion, erasure, and exploitation.

CPG and Reparatory Histories

Of course, we can look to ongoing collaborations for guidance, including those that foreground local communities as sites of knowledge sharing over (often paywalled) academic publications. One such example is a project led by Dokis First Nation examining the case of Okikendawt Island timber and settler-colonial histories of resource extraction after the signing of the Robinson Huron Treaty (1850). Community members, knowledge keepers, artists, scientists, and scholars used government historical surveys and aerial photographs to map traditional territory and study histories of encroachment. The work has been presented at community circles and symposia as well as academic conferences. Representing Dokis First Nation and Nipissing University, co-authors Kirsten Greer, Randy Restoule, John Kovacs, and Megan Prescott presented “Okikendawt timber: Using historical surveys and aerial photographs to examine colonial encroachment on Dokis First Nation land,” at the International Geographical Union (IGU) in Quebec City in 2018.

Another collaborative effort that could be described as historical-critical physical geographies explores the underexamined history of soil science in Canada (featuring historical geographer, Peter Anderson; Ingenium Canada curator, William Knight; historical geographer, Kirsten Greer; soil scientist and physical geographer, Nathan Basiliko; soil analyst Dave Howlett; and soil scientist and Canadian Soil Information Service manager, Xiaoyaun Geng). In a previous NiCHE post, Peter Anderson wrote about his experience taking a “crash course” in soil science while exploring the intellectual and material histories of Canadian soil scientists at CanSIS’s offices and warehouse at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. His account of watching the “seemingly haphazard arrangement of artifacts and documents … coalesce into a reflection of the complex web of interests, political priorities, personalities, technologies, and expertise that created the rich profile of Canadian soil science” resonates with much of the work presented in Greer, et al.’s special issue. This research poses similar questions about the very constitution of archives and approaches soil science as both a method and object of historical inquiry.

Doing CPG

In their introduction to the special issue, Greer, Hemsworth, Csank, and Calvert note that effective interdisciplinary work on environmental change requires not just financial assistance (their research was funded through Greer’s Canada Research Chair and other Tri-Council funding) but also departmental support to pursue collaborative interdisciplinary projects. Greer and Csank found such support in the halls of Nipissing University and have continued to foster connections across disciplinary (and now international) boundaries.

A quick scroll through the NiCHE site shows that the types of critical, collaborative, and reparative work beckoned by contributors to the Historical Geography issue is indeed surging – and with it, more challenging questions. With the aptly titled theme of “Reparative Environmental Histories,” these questions (and more) will be addressed at the next American Society for Environmental History conference in Ottawa, Ontario (March 25-29, 2020). Please consider joining the discussions!


Greer, Kirsten, Katie Hemsworth, Adam Csank, and Kirby Calvert(eds.). 2018. “Interdisciplinary Research on Past Environments through the Lens of Historical-Critical Physical Geographies.” Historical Geography 46: 32-47.

Hall, Catherine. “Doing Reparatory History: Bringing ‘Race’ and Slavery Home.” Race & Class 60, no. 1 (2018): 3–21.

Lave, Rebecca, Matthew W. Wilson, Elizabeth S. Barron, Christine Biermann, Mark A. Carey, Chris S. Duvall, Leigh Johnson et al. “Intervention: Critical Physical Geography.” The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe canadien 58, no. 1 (2014): 1-10.

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Katie Hemsworth

Dr. Katie Hemsworth is a settler scholar and current postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP) at Nipissing University, situated on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg and within lands protected by the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850. She collaborates on several community-based projects through a partnership with Dokis and Nipissing First Nations, museums, and northern Ontario universities. Her postdoctoral work, “Sonic historical geographies: Listening for soundprints and echoes of the past,” explores sonic imaginations of past environments, with a focus on listening and de/colonization. She has a PhD in Human Geography from Queen's University.

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