#EnvHist Worth Reading: July 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 July 2020:

1. The City is a Lie

In this Aeon article, Sam Grinsell, a historian of the built environment, examines the environmental history of the city, using Alexandria, Egypt as an opening example. Grinsell demonstrates how Alexandria is the result of a complex interweb of natural and human-made forces. “The City is a Lie” as we know it because the concept is largely based on the assumption that cities are the result of humanity’s ability to separate itself from nature. This mythology is based on three assumptions: “First: that humanity alone makes cities; second, that the city has an outside, a natural world that lies beyond the processes of urbanisation; and, third, that the city is an abstract category of which all individual cases are simply examples.” Elaborating on all three of these elements, Grinsell seeks to demonstrate that cities are as natural as farmland, parks, and other human landscape constructs.

2. The Myth of John James Audubon

July 2020 was a month in which several major conservation groups publicly acknowledged the racist background of their conservation forefathers, most notably John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, and John James Audubon of the Audubon Society. This article by Gregory Nobles “is the first in a series of pieces on Audubon.org and in Audubon magazine that will reexamine the life and legacy of the organization’s namesake as we chart a course toward racial equity.” In this first article, Nobles discusses Audubon’s slave ownership and the unacknowledged labour of Black and Indigenous peoples in the creation of his now ‘great work’ The Birds of America. Nobles also discusses how Audubon “manipulated racial tensions to enhance his notoriety.” By supporting the Great Man mythology surrounding Audubon and not acknowledging these racist aspects of Audubon’s life and work, we, Nobles argues, do a disservice to the Audubon Society and his legacy as it stands today.

3. An Unusual Bee Hotel: Cultivating Care in a time of Ecological Loss

This essay by Rosamund Portus is a delightful reflection on human and nonhuman animal relations. The ‘unusual bee hotel’ of the title is an unused keyhole in Portus’ door. Portus has observed that this keyhole has served as a resting place for a singular bee for the past three years. Observing these bees living inside the door has served as a “reminder that even in an environment designed wholly for human activity other forms of life find a way of being and living,” and has led Portus to examine her internal biases and actions toward other nonhuman animals inside of her home. Portus explores the role of perception in how we treat other species and how every action we take towards other beings has unintended consequences. Portus argues that acknowledging these biases enables us to make better choices.

4. Tent Cities and the Violent Origins of Vancouver’s Parks

In this article for The Tyee, Meera Eragoda is writing in response to a recent bylaw amendment made by the Vancouver Park Board that allows people without homes to stay overnight in tents in parks if they are gone by 7am the next morning. Eragoda notes that this bylaw enforces the daily displacement and possible criminalization of unhoused people in the city. Public reactions to the bylaw have also been telling, according Eragoda. People are quick to demonize the unhoused and are demanding that they get their ‘parks back’ from these supposed undesirable folk. Eragoda shows that Vancouver’s parks are a colonial construct, a construct created for settlers that historically displaced Indigenous people and other people of colour. “Creating that construct, enforcing that displacement, required violence. Maintaining parks as colonial spaces today requires ongoing displacement and violence, ” Eragoda writes.

5.  New cookbook highlights food of Great Lakes Indigenous peoples

Recent posts by the Manomin Project have piqued my interest in Indigenous food heritage and agricultural practices. When I saw this headline about a cookbook that highlights the food of Great Lakes Indigenous peoples, I immediately clicked on it. The cookbook, written by Derek Nicholas, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, combines recipes with the history of the Anishinaabeg. The book is free on the University of Minnesota website.


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: La Trappe Monastery Farm, Bee Hives, Oka, Quebec, 1905-1909. Credit: Endre J. Cleven/Library and Archives Canada/PA-

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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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