Review of Ronald Rudin, Against the Tides: Reshaping Landscape and Community in Canada’s Maritime Marshlands. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2021. 316 pgs. ISBN 9780774866750.
Reviewed by Shannon Stunden Bower.
Ronald Rudin’s Against the Tides: Reshaping Landscape and Community in Canada’s Maritime Marshlands considers the transformation of dykeland landscapes along the Bay of Fundy in present-day New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Dykelands were created by Acadians through a system of dykes and drainage channels (called aboiteaux) that produced arable fields out of prior salt marsh. With Acadians largely deported in the mid-18th century Grande Dérangement, dykelands came under the control of English-speaking newcomers. By the mid-20th century, dykes and aboiteaux were falling into disrepair. In 1948 the federal government created the Maritime Marshland Rehabilitation Administration (MMRA) to facilitate the improvement of existing infrastructure. Later, the MMRA also built tidal dams and causeways that significantly altered waterflow and transformed dykelands and adjacent landscapes. Rudin’s analysis, though contextualized in the longer history of maritime marshlands, focuses on the work of the MMRA, which remained in operation until 1970.
This is the third volume in what Rudin calls his accidental Acadian trilogy (8). The trilogy’s first volume was Remembering and Forgetting in Acadie: A Historian’s Journey Through Public Memory (2009), which focused on the commemorations marking the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Acadian settlement at Île Ste-Croix and the 250th anniversary of the start of the Grand Dérangement. In it, Rudin was particularly interested in which histories these commemorative processes highlighted and which they left aside. The second volume in the trilogy was Kouchibouguac: Removal, Resistance, and Remembrance at a Canadian National Park (2016), which documented the late-1960s and early-1970s removal of a predominantly Acadian population that accompanied the creation of Kouchibouguac National Park. Against the Tides extends these earlier works’ careful consideration of place and landscape, while adding a more fulsome engagement with questions and approaches characteristic of environmental history.
Against the Tides is divided into two sections titled “Second Nature” and “Third Nature.” First nature, in Rudin’s framework, was the marshland landscape inhabited, accessed, and maintained by the Mi’kmaq First Nation prior to the construction by Acadians of dykes and aboiteaux. While the marshlands and the Mi’kmaq fall outside Rudin’s analytical focus, his framework helpfully recognizes prior inhabitation by Indigenous peoples and underlines the settler colonial context within which dykeland transformation played out. Also, this framework connects the history of the MMRA to a longer story of valued landscapes, local communities, and environmental transformation.
Rudin’s second nature is the dykeland landscape originally created by Acadians, maintained by English-speaking newcomers until the mid-20th century, and restored through MMRA efforts lasting to the early 1960s. The MMRA’s later activities, which focused on the building of environmentally-transformative tidal dams and causeways, created Rudin’s third nature. Dams and causeways radically altered water and sediment movement. They promised greater stability in what had been highly dynamic environments, but this stability provoked particular problems for local fish species and was not welcomed by all community-members. Dams and causeways became profoundly contested undertakings. For instance, with respect to the prospect of a causeway across New Brunswick’s Petitcodiac River, transportation engineers and fisheries scientists lined up on opposite sides of the matter. While the causeway was built in 1968, its gates would eventually be opened, restoring at least some portion of the Petitcodiac River to something closer to what Rudin calls second nature. Importantly, this restoration process was itself highly contested, with some local residents mourning the loss of the third nature they held dear. Rudin’s careful attention to the nuances of landscape restoration is among the most important aspects of this volume. He makes clear how efforts to restore past environments are inevitably bound up in all the complexities of the present.
A key element of Rudin’s study is its exploration of the relation between local and expert knowledges. Against the Tides fits within an international historiography shaped by James C. Scott’s scholarship, and constitutes an important contribution to ongoing efforts, led by historians like Tina Loo and Daniel Macfarlane, to refine Scott’s insights in relation to Canadian contexts.1 Rudin’s study illustrates the importance of careful attention to the nuanced ways that expert knowledges bore on local contexts. In the dykelands, the MMRA took cues from the knowledge of locals in efforts to restore dykes and aboiteaux. However, when it came to building tidal dams and causeways, engineering knowledge prevailed. As Rudin explains it, the relation between different types of knowledges was complicated, contingent, and changeable. This underlines the importance of careful, evidence-driven studies in efforts to understand the mid-20th century human and environmental transformations that played out along the Bay of Fundy and across Canada. Rudin’s study is an important contribution to ongoing efforts to understand the varied manifestations of what James C. Scott called high modernism.
In Remembering and Forgetting in Acadie, Rudin described himself as an embedded historian.2 This description applies as well to his research process in Against the Tides, which reflects a community-involved style of scholarship that sits at the intersection of public history and environmental history. A key characteristic of Rudin’s style is the creation of multimedia resources that expand on his published books. Against the Tides is enriched by a short film titled Unnatural Landscapes (https://www.unnaturallandscapes.ca/). The film is useful for scholars keen to better understand the particular landscapes Rudin is studying and for instructors eager to support students in thinking carefully about ideas of nature. The film is particularly effective at demonstrating conflicting opinions about the restoration of the dykelands, which Rudin terms second nature.
Against the Tides is a skillful examination of distinctive landscapes and histories. Rudin offers thoughtful engagements with the lessons this examination offers, lessons that bear on our understanding of the operation of expert knowledges in mid-20th century Canada and on relations between human communities and more-than-human nature. Against the Tides is also an illustration of the potential of community-involved scholarship and a powerful reminder of how audiovisual materials can enrich research dissemination efforts.
1 James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); James C. Scott, “High Modernist Social Engineering: The Case of the Tennessee Valley Authority,” in Lloyd I. Rudolph and John Kurt Jacobsen, eds., Experiencing the State (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006), 7-8; Tina Loo, “High Modernism, Conflict, and the Nature of Change in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review 97, 1 (2016): 34-58; Daniel Macfarlane, “Negotiating High Modernism: The St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project,” in Edward Jones-Imhotep and Tina Adcock, eds., Made Modern: Science and Technology in Canadian History (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018); Daniel Macfarlane, Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).
2 Ronald Rudin, Remembering and Forgetting in Acadie: A Historian’s Journey through Public Memory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 8.
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