History En Vélo

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This is the first in a series, “History En Vêlo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with Active History.


When the COVID-19 pandemic started to close in last March, the safest place seemed to be outside. (With all of us at home, I also needed to get out of the house regularly to avoid murdering anyone.) One pandemic resolution was to ride the local rail-trail once a week, and to cycle as much as possible on errands and suchlike. (Not easy to do in small-town Pennsylvania, which toggles between the Ford F-150, the Amish buggy, and far too many soccer-mom SUVs. God bless America.) 

I am neither an American nor an historian of the United States, and have no desire to become either of these things; but when life hands you a border closure, you adapt. Biking was the only way I could leave town. My current research is about water in Atlantic Canadian cities; Halifax and Charlottetown were two days plus (until recently) a quarantine away. But there are towns along the Susquehanna River that have altered their fresh water routes in ways that echo, on a smaller scale, the urban narrative of the North American Anthropocene. 

In just a three- or five-mile radius of the Susquehanna, towns like mine have mill races and dam fragments, canal beds and railway bridges, duck ponds and playgrounds. What starts as a farm pond or spring meanders through subdivisions and town parks, and then hides under pavement and in back alleys. Sometimes these runs and rivers are daylighted or restored, sometimes they insist on reappearing in flood or storm season, but a lot of times, these watery places are minimized until they vanish, from view and then from memory.

(To wit: this stretch of Limestone Run, which was mostly filled in by the local Ford dealership in 2017. As a parking lot. For more F-150s.)

Cycling, it turns out, was a really great way to find them. On a bike, you’re extremely conscious of topography, and when you’re pedalling uphill (away from water) or downhill (towards it). So you know when to look for a retaining wall or a culvert or a drain cover, for thicker, greener grass or a line of trees. You feel pulled into the mud in depressions after a rain. You see things differently at handlebar level and at 15 miles an hour. Cycling also got me thinking about scale, and whether and how micro-detail mattered in history; the remnants of the industrial landscape in the rural and suburban ones; my own identity as an expatriate and historian; and my sense of relative safety, as a petite but able-bodied and white woman in a place that remains very foreign.  

The landscape as archive: too far outside “the norms and expectations of professional scholarship” (cough)? (1 July 2021).

This won’t really change my research agenda, but it will supply some good material for teaching, and it was kind of fun. When I was in high school and university, I didn’t think I could pursue environmental studies because I didn’t want to end up in hipwaders measuring mosquito larvae (or whatever). At the same time, I swore I’d never go to grad school for history, because I didn’t want to be trapped in windowless rooms with fragile pieces of paper. (Evidently, I was both difficult to please and completely ill-informed about how people do their jobs.) Biking around for a few hours, and then looking at archival maps, is actually the perfect compromise.  

USGS Topographical Map (1893), showing the not-yet-trail rail and the paths of Limestone Run, B.F. (Before Ford).

In talking to committed cyclist Michael Egan, he suggested a wider conversation with others who bike and who also think historically: not about the environmental/history of cycling, but how the experience of cycling feels to us, as an intellectual as well as a civic exercise, and how we fold it into our professional and personal lives. Which is why this is co-hosted by NiCHE and Active History: it seemed the perfect expression of, well, active history in, well, the environment.

The contributors to this series are all far more serious cyclists than me. They navigate Halifax hills and Saskatchewan winters; they are observant of geology as well as industrial remnants, thoughtful about teaching as well as research. All of them have something fascinating to say about how they live and work through cycling. Even if you’re indoors, we hope you’ll join us. 

Bon vélo,

Claire Campbell with Jim Clifford, co-editors

Feature Image: Limestone Run (left) and Buffalo Valley Rail-Trail (right), haze from western forest fires (above), July 2021.
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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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