#EnvHist Worth Reading: January 2021

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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 January 2021:

1. Chilling the Industry

In this envirotech article for Technology’s Stories, Jesse Ritner explores the profitability of snow, the rise of the ski industry in the United States, and the technological advances that made this industry’s growth possible. “Snow, it turns out, is quite valuable. But only when it is in the right place, in the right amount, and at the right time,” Ritner writes. The unpredictability and instability of snow has always caused challenges for the ski industry. The first technological innovation that benefited the ski industry was the invention the rope tow in the 1930s followed by the chairlift. Snowmakers complete the technological trifecta that Ritner presents. Yet despite the ability to create artificial snowfall, Ritner effectively demonstrates that the ski industry is still at the mercy of climate and weather.

2. Cataclysms to Desolate the World

This Hypocrite Reader article by Ethan Linck artfully weaves together environmental history, history of science, ecology, and evolutionary biology. Linck opens with a discussion of the extinction of Guam’s birds, an extinction that took place in twenty years, mid-1960s to 1985, due to the introduction of brown tree snakes to the island. Linck discusses why this extinction event is used as a common example, a emotionally appealing cautionary tale, but questions the loss of ecological “balance” this story supposedly shows. The concept of balance as well as evolutionary phylogenies provide oversimplified and inaccurate representations of evolution and biology because they do not adequately account for extinction (cataclysms) and other events, Linck argues. “The chuguangguang and ko’ko’ [birds] met a cataclysm, and their world was desolated. The signature of this cataclysm is written in trees,” Linck concludes.

3. The viral ‘Wellerman’ sea shanty is also a window into the remarkable cross-cultural whaling history of Aotearoa New Zealand

Whether you are on or off TikTok, it is unlikely you used the internet this past month without encountering the sea shanty (“ShantyTok”) craze of January 2021. As an environmental historian, I, of course, immediately thought of the environmental stories behind these traditional tunes and luckily the internet (and some brilliant scholars) delivered. One of my favourites of these articles was Kate Stevens’ essay for The Conversation. Stevens specifically looks at the history of the sea shanty “Soon May the Wellerman Come.” Stevens writes that “The lyrics [of the ‘Wellerman’] speak of men’s collective labour at sea. But behind the story of the whale hunt is one of cross-cultural interaction central to the success of the whaling industry, and critical in shaping the settlement of early 19th century New Zealand.” Stevens then goes into the history of 19th century whaling in that part of the world.

4. Documenting extinctions: sighting the last Przewalski’s horses in the wild

Also [like Linck above] reflecting on current extinctions anxieties and realities, in this blog post Monica Vasile looks at the history of documenting and observing endangered animals. Vasile notes that this documentation has always been rife with conflict and inconsistencies. Vasile specifically looks at the case of the Przewalski horse in Mongolia during the 1960s. Estimated at ~40 left in the wild in 1958, supposed sightings by researchers in the 1960s came under suspicion. Vasile recounts one researcher’s, an entomologist named Zoltán Kaszab, Przewalski horse sighting claim and the doubt that he faced from other researchers. “Sightings were prone to contention – extremely chancy, abrupt, and often vague. These animals survived precisely because they eluded human contact in the most unforgiving of environments. And even when ‘accepted’ sightings occurred, it remained unclear what it meant that one or two animals were sighted over an interval of twenty years, despite systematic searches. Was this not a proof of certain imminent extinction?” Vasile writes.

5. The nature of the narwhal: ‘The one that is good at curving itself to the sky’

This short piece by Helen Sullivan in The Guardian’s The Nature of…” series explores the purpose of the narwhal’s tusk (or tooth) as well as the animal’s cultural impact. The tooth may be used to sense salinity and thus sense the probability of ice formation. Or it might not. The delightful aspect of this article is that it points out that it really doesn’t matter if we understand what the tooth is for, the narwhal lives on and it continues to delight humans and lift our spirits.


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


Feature Image: Narwhal Stamp, 1967. Library and Archives Canada; Copyright: Canada Post Corporation.

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is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States, editor, and digital communications strategist. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Saskatchewan in 2019. She is an executive member, editor, and social media editor for the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). She is also a working board member of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society and Girls Rock Saskatoon. A passionate social justice advocate, she focuses on developing digital techniques and communications that bridge the divide between academia and the general public in order to democratize knowledge access. You can find out more about her and her freelance services at jessicamdewitt.com.

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