Unearthed: M. Blake Butler

Image courtesy of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

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Editor’s note: This post is part of an occasional series entitled “Unearthed.” Launched by Heather Green in 2019 and currently edited by Justin Fisher, Unearthed features emerging environmental historians in Canada discussing 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.


Photo credit: M. Blake Butler

Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background (academic, life experience, hobbies, etc…)?

I grew up in Mississauga, Ontario. I did my undergraduate degree in history at Queen’s University. After Queen’s, I moved to British Columbia to begin my Master of Arts degree at the University of Victoria under the supervision of Jason Colby. I then returned to southern Ontario to start my Ph.D at Western University under the supervision of Alan MacEachern.

I really enjoy being active outdoors. During the winter, I downhill and cross-country ski. In the summers I enjoy hiking, camping, running, and cycling. I also enjoy getting out for walks. I find these are helpful if I’ve hit a wall writing, if I’m trying to develop a new idea, or if I want to get outside for a prolonged period of time.

What brought you to the field of environmental history?

I came to the field of environmental history unexpectedly. In the last year of my undergraduate degree, I wanted to write my honour’s thesis on student activism at Queen’s, but I wasn’t sure what aspect of student activism I should write about. I met with Queen’s historian Duncan McDowall to discuss possible ideas. During the meeting, he told me about a student group called Project Green. Project Green took a leading role in re-greening the Queen’s campus after years of extensive construction and the arrival of the devastating Dutch elm disease in the 1970s. Before the meeting, I had never thought that I could combine my love of the natural world with my interest in history. I am so thankful for that meeting with Duncan. It set me down the path I continue to pursue today.

In three sentences or fewer, tell us the focus of your current research.

My dissertation uses a case study approach to explore how human and natural factors affected Canadian experiences with winter in the twentieth century, particularly after the Second World War. My current case study explores how snow-making technology transformed alpine ski area operations and altered skier experiences. I argue that alpine ski operators used snow-making machinery to mitigate winter’s natural variability and used this technology to create and modify snow conditions that reflected the alpine ski industry’s needs rather than natural circumstances.

A snow-making machine at North Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain ski area, 1975. Photo credit: Grouse Mountain Resort Ltd.’s 1975 newsletter

Other than your current focus, what is another area of environmental history that interests you?

I am really interested in the historical interactions between marine mammals and the world’s fishing industries. My interest in this topic started during my time at UVic. For my MA thesis, I examined the origins of dolphin by-catch in the American yellowfin tuna fishery and explored how fishermen, politicians, and environmentalists worked to reduce mass dolphin mortalities in the 1970s. I’m also interested in how and why human attitudes toward marine mammals have changed – and in certain instances, have not changed – during the twentieth century.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Does that overlap with your decision to study environmental history?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I’ve always loved animals and thought I would enjoy spending my life helping them. But I didn’t enjoy/do well in my high school science classes. I had always liked history as well and decided then that I wanted to be a high school history teacher. This was still my goal during my undergraduate studies. By my final year, I realized that I also enjoyed archival research. I was drawn to graduate studies because I wanted to teach and to continue researching and studying history.

What is your favourite part of doing environment-focused historical research?

I enjoy projects that are connected to the environments around me or that I can connect to my previous life experiences. My favourite undergraduate papers were those that explored the university’s history or that of the wider Kingston area. I would often visit the places I was researching between classes or on weekends. My idea to use snow-making as a case study for my Ph.D came from my past. I’ve downhill skied most of my life at areas that have relied heavily on snow-making systems. It was only recently that I understood how much my early skiing experiences were shaped by this technology. I’ve really enjoyed learning about the history of these machines, how they impacted the ski industry, and how they continue to affect skiing experiences today.

What part of studying environmental history most excites you? What is most daunting?

Like my answer above, my favourite part of doing environment-focused historical research is being able link or combine the topics I’m studying to the environments around me or to contemporary issues.

One of the most daunting parts of studying environmental history is properly integrating scientific concepts and research into my work. Reading complex scientific studies, properly understanding these ideas, and then incorporating that information into my work can be very challenging at times.

Where is your favourite place to be?

Back in southern Mississauga. I’ve moved a lot in the past seven years, but southern Mississauga will always be home. When I’m there, my favourite place to be is Rattray Marsh, a small conservation area located on the shore of Lake Ontario.

Do you have a favourite book, podcast, film, work of art related to the natural world that you would recommend others check out?

There are a lot of books I could name, but a favourite I read recently was Big Lonely Doug by Harley Rustad. I loved hiking and exploring southern Vancouver Island when I lived in Victoria and I found it really interesting to learn about the island’s logging, conservation, and environmentalism histories.  

Why do you think environmental history is an important field of study?

I think it is important to understand the multitude of ways that humans have shaped and been shaped by the natural world over thousands of years. Doing so reveals just how interconnected we have always been with the non-human world and how our interactions continue to evolve over time.

Where can folks follow your work or connect with you?

You can connect with me on twitter (@M_BlakeButler) or through email (mbutle32@uwo.ca). Western University’s history department also has graduate student profiles online. Mine can be found here.

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M. Blake Butler

I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Western University. My research explores how natural and human factors shaped Canadian experiences with winter during the twentieth century.

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