A Method to the Madness

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This is the fifth in the series Outside Looking In, about the experiences of teaching and researching Canadian environmental history – from scholars working outside Canada

The last physical academic conference I attended before COVID shut everything down was Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History put together by Jennifer Bonnell and Sean Kheraj in Toronto. It was organized to coincide with the extremely well-done exhibit Animalia at the Archives of Ontario, which considered traces of animals in the Ontario archive. The goal of the conference was to explore methodologies for animal history research, thinking through where we find animals, how their records are mediated by humans, and how to interpret animal pasts. I presented a paper on encountering the extinction narrative of the bluebuck (Hippotragus leucophaeus) in natural history museums and how those might be read as portraits of the animal. I have been working on extinction displays for several years, so the conference gave me an opportunity to consider more deeply how I read those displays as traces of the animal past. 

What kind of portrait of the passenger pigeon is painted by this display in the Animalia exhibition? Photo by Dolly Jørgensen

Through the Traces of the Animal Past conference, I got to thinking about how, as an environmental historian, I often have trouble explaining how I do history. I’ve seen it many times in feedback on grant reviews—a comment about the methodology being unclear. My plucky reply is that I’m going to find a bunch of documents (collecting far more than I will ever have time to digest), read in detail a selection of them for what they say and don’t say, and put together what happened and why. History, after all, is not a simple factual retelling of the past. Instead history, as told by me as an academic, is a product of rigorous investigation and choice. But unlike our social science counterparts who tend to have an entire section of every article dedicated to the method of the study, the history article tends to make the methodology more opaque. We explain our source materials but rarely do we really give details about the lenses through which we read them. What am I actually doing to do environmental history?

If I think back to my graduate school days as University of Houston then University of Virginia, I read a lot that gave me theoretical frameworks for environmental history, like Cronon’s second nature, Worster’s three levels of environmental history, and Russell’s evolutionary history. But how they actually read their sources and analysed them to create those theories was something I was supposed to understand by osmosis. I don’t know if it is the same in all graduate programs in the US, but I have a feeling that my experience is not out of the norm.

That’s why it has been so valuable for me to find a group of environmental historians through NiCHE that actually explicitly engage with method. When I mentioned last year to a Canadian colleague that I looked to them as the leaders in environmental history method, I got a funny head tilt and ‘huh’ as reply. I don’t think they had ever really considered how special the Canadian approach has been. Yet it is. And I think that more scholars south of the Canadian border need to use it in their research and teaching.

Just over a decade ago, the year after I finished my PhD, Alan MacEachern and William J. Turkel edited the collection Method and Meaning in Canadian Environmental History, which luckily for all of us is an Open Access publication available to all for free. This first book by NiCHE as a collective is a collection of essays reflecting on method, asking the authors ‘to imagine a reader looking over their shoulder’ during the research process. Readers are introduced to reading paintings, mediating between Western and Indigenous ways of knowing, mapping large histories, investigating small histories, and more.  If you teach environmental history and do not have some of the essays on your reading list, your students are missing out.

This concern with how to do environmental history appears throughout the ‘Canadian History and Environment’ series that NiCHE has with Calgary Press. While the publications take Canada as the focus, the importance of the books lies in bigger claims about how to do border environmental histories or northern environmental histories or animal environmental histories. Unlike the way I was taught to do environmental history, these histories make the method much more explicit.

That’s why I was thrilled to be asked for a contribution to the edited volume Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Research, edited by Jocelyn Thorpe, Stephanie Rutherford, and L. Anders Sandberg five years ago. In NiCHE fashion, the book focused on how environmental history can be done, including chapters taking up walking, biking, blogging, eating, smelling, and howling. It was a chance for me to think through the research blogging activities that I had launched in 2013 for ‘The Return of Nordic Nature’ project. I realized that my method of finding small stories, delving into them, and writing them up for the blog had affected my historical practice—it shaped my voice and what I was using my voice to share. This realization, though, only came with an explicit engagement with my personal method, which in turn had been prompted by my Canadian colleagues interest in environmental history method.

It’s not that there is one right way to do environmental history—there are many different approaches and methods—but we can’t even see that if we don’t think (and write) explicitly about how to do what we do. So maybe it’s fitting that my last in-person conference paper was at Traces of the Animal Past, as a way of reminding me that method matters. The NiCHE model of openness and explicitness with environmental history method continues to show that there is method to the madness.

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Dolly Jørgensen

Professor of History
Dolly Jørgensen is Professor of History, University of Stavanger, Norway specialising in histories of environment and technology. Her current research agenda focuses on cultural histories of animal extinction, and recently published Recovering Lost Species in the Modern Age: Histories of Longing and Belonging (MIT Press, 2019). She is co-editor-in-chief of the journal Environmental Humanities and co-directs The Greenhouse environmental humanities program area at UiS.

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