#EnvHist Worth Reading: August 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 August 2021:

1. Ghost Acres: Tulare Lake and the Past and Future of Food

The history of western food systems is violent and inextricable from colonialism, Tom Finger shows in this Pipe Wrench article. Opening with the 1880 Mussel Slough Tragedy shootout, Finger writes that “The shootout was no simple competition between farm and railroad.  It was, rather, a culminating flash of violence as settlers wrested land from indigenous peoples and plugged it into the global food economy — less an “Old West” story than one about the origins of our food systems.” The field that the shootout took place in is near an agricultural landscape that used to be Tulare Lake – near Fresno, California – a hidden, dead landscape that Finger refers to as “ghost acres.” Finger provides a detailed and engaging account of Tulare Lake’s transformation from the largest lake west of the Mississippi to a dry, parched landscape.

2. Smoke seasons aren’t new but our efforts to control wildfires are — and should change

Building off the global, shared experience of the 2021 smoke season, Mica Jorgenson explains how, as an environmental historian, she researches past wildfires and smoke events in the Conversation piece. These past examples, Jorgenson notes, show that smoke seasons are nothing new and relays some aspects of historic smoke and fire management. “Smoke seasons are not new, although climate change has exacerbated their scale and intensity. In planning for a smoky future, history shows how our responses to fire and smoke are cultural,” Jorgenson writes.

3. What El Niño teaches us about the importance of climate history

In this Historical Climatology piece, George Adamson begins by recounting the history of the term El Niño, pointing out that the science behind the term and the definition of the weather pattern we now refer to as El Niño has a complex and, at times, contradicting history. “These stories draw attention to the importance of history in understanding climate variability and its associated hazards today. Science is too-often presented as a story of linear progress,” Adamson writes. He goes on to recount more contemporary El Niño events that have garnered media attention, as well as the increased – and gendered – use of the opposite term La Niña beginning in the 1980s. Adamson shows that these terms are as shaped by the culture in which they are used as by scientific research.

4. The Ingenious Ancient Technology Concealed in the Shallows

In 1946, an earthquake revealed thousands of stakes within the intertidal zone of Comox Harbour, British Columbia within the traditional territory of the K’ómoks First Nation. These stakes, anthropologist Nancy Greene would find out from a K’ómoks elder in the early 2000s, were remnants of fish traps created to catch salmon. In 2003, Greene and a team of volunteers started a project of finding, marking, and recording the location of all of the stakes. After months, Greene realized that these stakes were “the remains of an immense, highly coordinated, and sophisticated fish trap system, the largest such system discovered in North America, if not the world,” Brian Payton writes. The article provides some photos and aerial diagrams of these fishing traps paired with a detailed discussion of their use. Payton concludes by discussing how Indigenous communities are turning back to this ancestral technology in order to deal with climate change.

5. Everything Has a History: Big Mouth Billy Bass

In this short post for the American Historical Association’s Everything Has a History series, Sherry Sheu explores the environmental history behind the Big Mouth Billy Bass craze that peaked right before the turn of the millennium. Sheu recounts the rise of bass fishing as an American pastime during the early twentieth century and the changes to the environment, namely dams, that enabled bass populations to thrive. “The first people to buy and receive Billy Basses did so because it was already a familiar fish for them. They might have displayed taxidermied fish in their homes and offices. While a mounted fish serves as a trophy, Billy Bass first served as a signifier of a group’s ability to poke fun at itself, with the appeal coming from their affection for the species,” writes Sheu.

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: “Ashcroft Fire at Night 3” by MIKOFOX ⌘ Reject Fear, Go Outdoors, Live Healthy is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
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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-in-chief, 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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