This is the second entry in the occasional series Introduced, in which scholars discuss their first encounters with environmental history and how it changed their work. In this entry NiCHE editor Andrew Watson talks with Colin Coates. Dr. Coates is Associate Principal, Research and Graduate Studies at Glendon College, York University. Amongst his many publications, he is the editor of Canadian Countercultures and the Environment (University of Calgary Press, 2016), co-editor (with Ben Bradley and Jay Young) of Moving Natures: Mobility and the Environment in Canadian History (University of Calgary Press, 2016) and co-editor (with Graeme Wynn) of The Nature of Canada (UBC Press/On Point Press, 2019).
When did you first learn about environmental history?
My first exposure to EH was at an American Historical Association, Pacific branch conference in Honolulu, in 1986. EH was one of the themes of the conference. I was returning from a year spent teaching English in China. My brother [Ken Coates] was presenting at the conference, and the timing was right to meet him and spend a few days in Hawai’i. I was on my way to start my PhD at York [University].
I have two particular memories of the conference. One was a session involving some of the early practitioners of the approach. I believe that they were presented as among the pioneers of the new field. One of them was Carolyn Merchant. The two others were men, and I assumed for a long time that they were Donald Worster and Bill Cronon. However, I have had the opportunity to ask each of them if they were there, and they both said no. I have tried to find out who the other two were, but without success so far. I do recall that the two men had a heated exchange about the sex life of woodchucks. This was my first American academic conference, and I was surprised by the vociferousness of debate. Canadian conferences tend to be more tame.
The other memory is at the business meeting or possibly a plenary session on EH, where a grad student asked the gathering, “But will there be any jobs in EH?”
What was the first book of environmental history that you can remember reading?
Bill Cronon’s Changes in the Land. I had just finished my comprehensive exams and was in BC for the summer. My brother lent me the book (he had taught colonial American history at UBC before – possibly to Tina Loo!), and he recommended it. Although I had been burnt out from exam prep, I devoured the book and was massively inspired by it. I referred to it in my dissertation, but it was really in re-reading the book many years later that I realised how significant it had been for me.
Of course, in retrospect, I also read books for coursework and comps that we might now classify as EH, though they were not written within that paradigm: books by historical geographers like Graeme Wynn, Cole Harris, and A.H. Clark, as well as historians like H.V. Nelles.
When did you know that you wanted to study environmental history?
As mentioned above, I was inspired by Cronon’s work, and also by a particular conversation I had with York historian Elinor Melville, who told me about her work on EH in New Spain. I found her methodology fascinating. As I started my research, I tried to follow her example, but the sources for New France did not permit the same kind of analysis – simply put, the degree of ecological change was not as stark as it had been in the area she looked at, and the sources did not furnish the same level of information. I probably had chosen a geographical scope that was too small in any case. When I worked on my dissertation, I still focused primarily on a histoire des mentalités approach, although I certainly tried to integrate some EH perspectives. Keith Thomas’s work rather bridges the fields, although he does not come from an EH background.
It is worth pointing out that the first part of my career was in the UK, where there was not nearly the same level of interest in EH. Nonetheless, when I applied for a Canada Research Chair to return to Canada, I included an EH angle, and the title of my chair was Canadian Cultural Landscapes. Alan MacEachern, whom I knew from a shared panel at the CHA and a visit he made to Edinburgh, contacted me about joining a project that would become NiCHE. That is the point when my focus on EH really began to develop.
What (and when) was the first environmental history course you taught?
The graduate-level North American EH course that you took, and which was co-taught with Susan Gray [Arizona State University], Fall 2007. Given that my undergraduate appointment is in Canadian Studies, I did not start teaching environmental history undergraduate courses until 2017.
Who was your first environmental history graduate student? How did teaching environmental history at the graduate level change your view of the field?
You and Brittany [Luby]! I think the biggest change has been teaching the new Global EH courses that Sean [Kheraj] suggested, and I agreed to. This has really expanded my horizons and taken me far from my comfort zone. There was often a challenge getting enough students for the North American EH course, for reasons that I never understood. I thought that Global EH would prove even less attractive, but in fact both classes where fairly large – about 10 students.
When was the first time you attended the American Society for Environmental History meeting or presented some environmental history research at a conference/workshop, etc?
I first attended the ASEH in Tallahassee in 2009. Although I could have gone earlier, given that NiCHE had been launched, I hadn’t done so yet. I think we were already considering trying to host the ASEH conference in Toronto, and this led to my attendance at this and subsequent conferences. I attended all ASEHs until Trump was elected.
I first presented at ASEH in Phoenix in 2011.
One could consider that my first EH presentation was the chapter from my dissertation on landscape perceptions and art in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade, later published in the CHR [Canadian Historical Review]. I was on a panel with Alan at the CHA in Charlottetown in 1992. I had just defended my dissertation.
How has your thinking about environmental history changed, and how do you think that compares to changes in the field more broadly?
I’m not sure how to answer this. I still am a bit frustrated with the chronological focus of EH in the 19th and 20th centuries, but this is typical of North American historiography in general. And there is some terrific work in the early modern period, as I have seen with preparations for my grad course. I think that there are some gaps in EH, particularly surrounding gender questions and environmental inequalities, but there are works that deal with these approaches as well.
What networks in environmental history have been most influential to you, and how have those networks changed? What important accomplishments have you seen emerge from these networks?
NiCHE for sure. When we launched NiCHE, we didn’t know how it was going to work and what the result would be. The generous and focused SSHRC funding we received encouraged us to work on building the field, rather than on publications per se, although there were lots of those as well. I think that NiCHE was able to assist an incredibly impressive cohort of grad students, a large number of whom went on to get academic jobs across Canada, the US, and the UK. With only a few exceptions, the people attracted to NiCHE were Canadian historians, although a few people interested in other geographical regions participated. Jim [Clifford] is the most obvious person, but some others were less involved, although the door was open to them.
NiCHE has managed to survive without funding, and I find this incredibly encouraging. Funding creates expectations driven by others, but volunteer labour allows for more creativity – though of course it isn’t remunerated. It seems to me that many people have been willing to contribute to the community, but as with other great projects like activehistory.ca, a small number of key individuals have kept the project going. As some of them move into other stages of their careers, I hope that new people will come forward.
When it operated, the TEHN [Toronto Environmental History Network] was a great forum as well. Although I was in a fairly busy stage of my own career at the time, I found it inspirational to have the connection to a great group of grad students at York and nearby. Although I was very happy that almost everybody in that group went on to get jobs in the field, their departure was bittersweet. We are now at a new stage of active grad students with EH interests.
I was only tangentially involved in Quelques arpents [de neige]. But of course they provided much of the model that NiCHE adopted.
What environmental history research are you working on right now?
I have finished a book-length manuscript on political culture in New France that pre-dates NiCHE, and it is currently under review. There is almost no EH in it. But I am involved in a project with Jim [Clifford], Michèle Dagenais, and Stéphane Castonguay on the Ghost Acres approach to the history of natural commodities trade between the St Lawrence valley and Great Britain in the long 19th century. I have a couple of smaller projects on the history of “commons” in early Quebec, for instance, and when I get back to my utopias work, I expect that there will be a significant EH component to it as well.
What is the most rewarding part of being an environmental historian?
I have found that the community of EH scholars has been supportive and challenging. Even more than the typical Canadian history conference, I have found EH conferences stimulating. I found the American historians interested in and respectful of Canadian approaches and findings. I suspect that this is truer than for most historical sub-fields, where international scholars have little interest in Canadian topics. I suppose one has a sense of contributing to a broader international discussion as a result.
Through EH, I have realised how important the field trips have been, both for seeing history on the ground and for breaking down barriers between scholars. I think that the CHESS [Canadian History and Environment Summer School] events have contributed a lot the broader sense of community among scholars.
What will be the most significant change in the field over the next 5, 10, 25 years?
I wonder if EH will become more central to general historical narratives over time. Some people, especially non-historians, but including some history undergrads and grads, still find the term EH confusing. They are open to the approach, but don’t always know what it entails. It seems to me that a fairly high proportion of recent faculty hires in Canada identify themselves as environmental historians, and I anticipate that they will have a key impact on general narratives that develop. In the light of COVID-19 and global warming, it seems obvious to me that people cannot fail to recognize the importance of EH approaches in the future.
Feature image: “Ste-Anne de la Perade Church and Other Buildings,” by Elizabeth Frances Hale. Elizabeth Frances Hale Sketchbook, Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1939-252-13.
Latest posts by Colin Coates (see all)
- Introduced: Colin Coates - January 19, 2021
- Introducing “Canadian Countercultures and the Environment” - November 23, 2016
- Who Was the King of Beasts in New France? - May 23, 2016
- Trading Consequences’ Maiden Voyage - March 25, 2014
- ASEH 2013 in Toronto - April 13, 2013
- Landscapes Project Goals / Objectifs du chantier paysages - August 11, 2008