Introduced: Ruth Sandwell

View from Mount Maxwell, Saltspring Island, BC by Michal Klajban.

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This is the first in the occasional series Introduced, in which scholars discuss their first encounters with environmental history and how it changed their work. Today series editor Jamie Murton talks with rural historian Ruth Sandwell, whose publications include Contesting Rural Space: Land Policy and Practices of Resettlement on Saltspring Island, 1859-1891 (McGill- Queen’s, 2005), Canada’s Rural Majority: Household, Environment, and Economies, 1870-1940 (University of Toronto Press, 2016) and Powering up Canada: A History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600 (McGill-Queen’s, 2016).

Is it fair to say that you started out as a rural historian? And if it is, then how has working with environmental history and environmental historians caused you to think differently about rural history?

It’s fair to say that. I didn’t read environmental history for my doctoral dissertation research on Saltspring Island. But when I discovered environment history I realized just how much it had to do with rural history as I understood it. My focus as a rural historian has always been on everyday life. To understand why rural people were doing what they were doing in their everyday lives you have to take into account the environment in which they lived and worked. So it was actually really, really nice to discover, when I first started going to ASEH, people that were taking that relationship seriously. Especially because in the late 20th century so much of the work that historians were doing had to do with the cultural turn. More than almost any other time in Canadian historiography, there was a real move away from understanding people’s material relations.

Did it feel to you like what you encountered at ASEH was people recognizing something that you and other rural historians had always thought was important? Or did environmental history make you think about the human-environment relationship differently?

Well, I had been frustrated with the rural historiography, especially Canadian rural historiography at that time, in the nineties, because it didn’t seem to be focusing closely enough on what I would have called the practices of everyday life. There wasn’t a lot of rural history at that time being done, with your work being an important exception, and Colin [Duncan]’s of course in British history, but (like so many graduate students starting out on my own research), I was frustrated by the perspectives being taken by an earlier generation of rural historians. They were very much focused on what you might call the top-down approach, on large economic systems, or, more specifically, on the rise of capitalist agriculture, and the unproblematic treatment of that. Cecilia Danysk’s work stood out for me because she really focused on daily life, but in a way that was both politicized and cultural, so it wasn’t just a series of chronicles about daily life.  Jack Little and Roy Loewen and Ken Sylvester and Cathy Wilson were pioneering similar kinds of work as well. But what I saw in environmental history was people really taking seriously the fact that when you planted, what strain of crop you had, or what line of latitude you lived at would have a tremendous effect on how you lived your life. One of the things that environmental history has done is make that really profound connection between what people do and the places that they’re living in. When I first went to ASEH there were all kinds of people doing this in all kinds of ways, sometimes using a language that I was not always comfortable with, but overall I felt like I had a lot to talk about with environmental historians.

But I will say that I was tremendously influenced right from the very beginning of the work that I was doing in rural history by talking to people. I started writing that book about Saltspring because I was doing oral histories on Saltspring Island for the local archive, as a volunteer originally, and what I heard from the people that I interviewed was how important that visceral connection to their local environment was, on a daily and ongoing basis. So that’s what environmental history really gave me: that point of contact between people and the material world, in some really specific ways. I paid a lot of attention to what people did, you know, on the land, and what they didn’t do, but I’d never really thought about in environmental terms, or ecological terms. So I felt that historiographically there were things missing in rural history that should have been there and that had an awful lot to tell us. And I continue to think that we have so much to learn from those very direct relationships that people had with their environments.

The theme of the relationship between people and their environments, whether it’s through provisioning, as a place of work or recreation, or as a resource that shapes work, is strong in your recent book Canada’s Rural Majority. Do you agree? If so, how did thinking about these relationships shape the book and its conclusions?

Yes, I do agree, and I remember that when I was thinking about how to organize the book, I thought yes, I absolutely have to organize the book according to place, not according to chronology or other thematic ways I could have organized it. I really wanted to make the point that place mattered.

Can you tell us how you came to study energy history? How does energy history speak to environmental and rural history?

Well, first of all, in terms of the sequence of my thinking, again, it was in the interviews with Saltspring people that I first started thinking about energy. My first set of interview questions were very general but, without my asking, so many people wanted to talk about what it was like when they first got electricity. And at the time I thought this was some strange, discursive, structural imposition of ideas of modernity and such! But I later came to believe that they were telling me about it because it really, really made a difference in their lives, in ways that I had never really thought seriously about. And they wanted to tell me about it. Now, I believe that energy is our relationship with the environment. Most of the relationship that human beings have ever had with the environment is about wresting energy from it so that we can survive. It’s this vital force that links us to the environment we live in. And it continues to be so. What we do with the energy we harvest, and what kind of waste products we create is very difficult for us to perceive, because of the massive and invisible networks providing the energy we need.  But even though we can’t see or handle the energy that supports us, and most of us don’t understand how it works, it still provides our most significant connection to our environment.

Climate change has highlighted for a generation alienated from its energy sources the importance of that relationship, showing us that it is not sustainable anymore. But it’s very difficult to understand that relationship in the present, I mean it’s almost impossible. History has an important role to play here. When you look at rural Canada in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, people engaged viscerally with the energy they needed to support themselves through most of the everyday. Most of people’s daily lives until well into the 20th century was taken up with getting the energy they needed to survive, getting the food and heat and the light that they needed. Rural history for me, now, is a point of entry for understanding that relationship between energy and environment. We can understand it by looking at how people until very, very recently obtained most of their energy by the sweat of their brow, and by engaging directly in the processes of energy harvesting; they also lived with the consequences of their energy decisions.  People understood the energy ecologies they lived inside in ways that we haven’t had to for more than half a century.

Well that nicely brings us to today and to my final question. Urban Canadians have long been tied to rural regions for resources and food, rural regions that they often know little about. Do you think this has intensified and with what consequences for Canadian society and for the environment?

I think for most urban people, and I’m thinking about my students at the University of Toronto here, most of them have just never thought about it. I asked them to define rural and one of them said “the places in between where you want to go.” I think that many people have basically no awareness now of where their food comes from. But because fossil fuels are the foundation of our food system, and the foundation of the global economy, if we are trying to get off fossil fuels and deal with climate change, one of the first things that’s got to change is how we get food. And Canada is actually an interesting case when we are considering the relationship between food and the rural and environment and capitalism. Because Canada was so heavily rooted in a semi-subsistence kind of political economy on the land, with free access to so much of what the land had to offer, capitalism was much later to take hold in Canada. Andreas Malm, in Fossil Capital, following Ellen Wood, explains this: in order for capitalism to work, people have to be disconnected from the land, from a non-market means of getting a subsistence. And what I like about Malm’s argument – and I don’t like everything about Malm, for instance he mostly dismisses women’s contributions to subsistence – what I like is what I like about environmental history: it seems to explain things, in a way that social history on its own so seldom does. Social history seems to simply show correlations, but the causal agents aren’t clearly visible. A level of explanation that roots people in the environment, and as active agents within environments, seems so much more compelling.

I think we can end on that note. Thanks for this Ruth! 

Feature image credit: “View from Baynes Peak, Saltspring Island, British Columbia, Canada,” by Michal Klajban. Reproduced under terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.
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Ruth Sandwell

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