Review of Classens, From Dismal Swamp to Smiling Farms

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Michael Classens, From Dismal Swamp to Smiling Farms: Food, Agriculture, and Change in the Holland Marsh. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2021. 214 pgs. ISBN 9780774865463.

Reviewed by Harold Bérubé.

“Culture’s Marsh” is the perhaps surprising title of the introduction of Michael Classens’ recent book about the history of Holland Marsh, an agricultural area of about 3000 hectares located on the outskirts of the city of Toronto. It is a title that clearly reveals the nature of the research approach proposed by Classens in this valuable contribution to the environmental history of agriculture in Canada. Indeed, relying on an excellent knowledge of the recent historiography on the subject and on a theoretical framework as solid as it is enlightening, the author is interested in the many material and physical transformations that this space has undergone during its history, but also in the important changes in the way it was represented from one era to another. Throughout the book’s chapters, he clearly demonstrates that these changes of a more cultural nature had major political and social impacts, and that they also contributed significantly to the various reinventions that the Holland Marsh experienced in the last century or so.

Women operating a celery transplanting machine, Holland Marsh, May 1984. Archives of Ontario, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, RG 16-276-2, 84-B458, I0004461.

Admittedly, the idea that our conception of “nature” is a historical construct that has a significant impact on the way societies invest in and exploit ecosystems is not new, but the case of Holland Marsh allows us to explore it in an original way. As Classens explains, “its productivity, its iconic status, and its proximity to Canada’s most populous region and North America’s third-largest city” make this study particularly relevant (6). Moreover, as the book clearly shows, the thorough and detailed historical study of a more circumscribed agricultural space makes it possible to go beyond or qualify certain generalizations that are made about the history of agriculture in recent works focusing on the structures of food production at a more global scale.

The author has consulted a rich variety of sources and documents, including government and court records, newspaper articles, and interviews with various individuals living or working in Holland Marsh. In addition to carrying out this more traditional form of research in the sources, Classens also carried out an almost anthropological study of the marsh by attending various meetings or events taking place there, and by becoming more generally immersed in the place studied. This intimate knowledge of Holland Marsh and a concern for its history and future are evident throughout the book.

“The Battle of Holland Marsh; the frantic race to reclaim rich market garden land before early winter freeze-ups; is being waged 24 hours a day and; with luck; should be won by end of November.” Photograph by Frank Teskey, Toronto Star, 30 October 1954. Toronto Public Library digital archive, TSPA_0007174F.

While the first chapter of the book explores Holland Marsh’s long past, going back 14,000 years to reflect on its creation and initial occupation by different Indigenous peoples, its focus is on the period between 1925 and the present day, the era when liberalism and capitalism led to the transformation of a swamp into an agricultural territory to be exploited (and over-exploited). This first chapter allows him to explore how this space, described at the beginning of the 19th century as a “mere ditch swarming with mosquitoes, flies, bullfrogs and water snakes,” came to excite the imagination of a group of actors who rather saw it as the ideal place for the deployment of a project inspired by modernity and liberalism, a landscape where “order, cleanliness, and productivity” could manifest themselves (40).

Experimental Farm Lab, Holland Marsh, Bradford, Ontario. Photograph by Rosemary Gilliat, September 1954. Rosemary Gilliat Eaton fonds, Library and Archives Canada, e010973643.

The following four chapters allow us to follow the major stages in the deployment of this project, both as a succession of ways of imagining the space represented by the Holland Marsh and as a succession of technical, economic, political, and social problems to be resolved in order to succeed in transforming a “dismal swamp” into “smiling farms.” This constant interweaving of the different facets of the history of this space is certainly one of the great strengths of Classen’s approach. This allows him to highlight how these different sets of factors interacted with each other, but also to highlight how the many contradictions inherent in the functioning of a liberal and capitalist agriculture materialized. By never losing sight of the individual and collective actors involved in the Holland Marsh transformation project, Classens is also able to show that, beyond the larger historical forces that made their influence felt on this space, it was first and foremost decisions made by politicians, developers, and farmers that determined the fate of Holland Marsh. As he promises in his introduction, Classens positions himself in the “muck-soil” of Holland Marsh and it is from this perspective that he examines the global agro-complex that was being put in place during the 20th century (11). In this regard, his work is a very good example of a study that manages to link the local and the global with great skill.

In the end, this study allows Classens to make an eloquent demonstration of the limits of a productivist agriculture and the double danger represented by soil degradation and the destruction of arable land, particularly on the outskirts of large cities. With the recent decision of the Ontario provincial government to open large sections of Toronto’s “Greenbelt” to residential suburban development, it is a more than timely warning and the book explores in detail the emergence of this “suburban threat” in its last chapter. More generally, it is a work that demonstrates the relevance of multiplying local and regional studies on the history of agriculture in Canada, and one that undeniably constitutes a rich contribution to the field of environmental history.

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Harold Bérubé is full professor at the Université de Sherbrooke (Canada). His academic background is in both History (Université de Montréal) and Urban Studies (INRS-UCS). He’s interested in the political and cultural history of North American cities and their inhabitants, and is co-editor of the Urban History Review / Revue d’histoire urbaine. His first book, Des sociétés distinctes. Gouverner les banlieues bourgeoises de Montréal, 1880-1939, published with McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2014, looked at the construction of municipal governance in three of Montreal’s upper middle-class suburbs. More recently, he published a second book, Unité, autonomie, démocratie. Une histoire de l’Union des municipalités du Québec (1919-2019) (Boréal, 2019), where he examines the history of Quebec’s main municipal association and its role as mediator between municipalities, the Quebec provincial government and municipal transnational networks. He’s currently preparing a research project on the role of the press in the urban ecosystem.

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