#EnvHist Worth Reading: April 2020

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Every month I carefully track the most popular and significant environmental history articles, videos, audio, and other items making their way through the online environmental history (#envhist) community. You can read all of our past #EnvHist Worth Reading lists right here. Here are my choices for items most worth reading from April 2020:

1. Aftermath

I recently started listening to NPR’s Throughline regularly, and I recommend it in general. This episode from last month, about the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, is particularly good. The episode opens with a first-person description of the flood, and discusses the river and its natural tendency to flood. The 1927 flood was particularly signficant though because it is the most destructive flood in American history. The Mississippi River spread to eighty miles wide in 1927 and displaced half a million people. This episode focuses on the immediate response to the flood and then traces the effect that the flood had on the American economy and political system, highlighting the shortcomings and prejudice inherent in government disaster responses.

2. Buried under colonial concrete, Botany Bay has even been robbed of its botany

In this Conversation article, Rebecca Hamilton, Dan Penny, Josephine Gillespie, and Shane Ingrey write about the complexities of conserving and restoring the landscape of Kamay, also known as Botany Bay, a moniker famously given to the landscape by Captain James Cook. This landscape used to primarily be swamp and other wetland, but is now largely covered in concrete and development. Pockets of remaining swampland may seem to represent a past landscape, but the writers note that ecological data, most notably preserved pollen, and Indigenous knowledge of the landscape reveal that what we may assume to be a piece of pristine landscape, like Centennial Park, is actually still representative of European colonialism and misremembering of the past. “The site better reflects 20th-century European exploitation of the landscape than it does early or pre-British Botany Bay,” they write.

3. Can You Steal a Peacock? Animals in Early Modern Law

In this Legal History Miscellany post, Krista Kesselring explores three specific examples of how how humans managed their relationship with animals in early modern law. Kesselring’s first example is the fact that some animals could not be stolen. Animals kept for sport and pleasure, such as peacocks, were not defined as property and thus could not be protected by larceny laws. Secondly, Kesselring recounts the ‘Vermin Laws’ of the sixteenth century. Lastly, she looks at the odd example of butchers being deemed unsuitable to act as jurors in matters of life and death because the ” butchers’ profession disposed them to murderous impulses or unusual cruelty.” Kesselring describes these three snippets of history as examples of how humans tend to define animal lives in relation to their own and suggests that they are also indicative that change over time is possible.

4. During the 1918 Flu Epidemic, Pet Parents Put Masks on Their Cats

This Altas Obscura post by Anne Ewbank was most certainly one of the most generally popular animal history articles from April. The historical photos of cats wearing masks during the 1918 Flu Epidemic struck the right cord last month; the photos are both humorous, but also relatable, providing an important service for getting through the first full month of COVID-19 isolation. Ewbank discusses what could have possibly motivated these photos originally. Firstly, Ewbank notes that they may have played a similar role as they do today. “The families and friends in these images may have felt fear, apprehension, or even the weight of history on their shoulders. Putting Puss in a mask probably would have lightened the mood,” Ewbank writes. Ewbank also discusses how there was real fear that pets could transmit the disease to humans.

5.  Wanuskewin Baby Bison Announcement

Wanuskewin Heritage Park, just outside of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, welcomed a herd of bison to the park in December 2019. On April 22nd, the first bison baby was born on this piece of land in approximately 150 years, marking an important historical milestone for the landscape and the Indigenous peoples of Treaty Six and suggesting a successful end to this reintroduction project. Watch the video for historically significant cuteness!


Remember to follow #envhist hashtag and NiCHE (@NiCHE_Canada) on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to keep up with the latest environmental history content.


Feature Photograph: Peacock, Mathias Appel, Flickr Commons.

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Jessica DeWitt is a historian of the American and Canadian environment, editor, and digital communications strategist. She is an editor and social media editor for NiCHE.

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