Question: Why is environmental history like Belgium?
Answer: Because it is entirely the product of a resident collective imagination.
This was the opening of a 1996 state-of-the-field essay in the Journal of Historical Geography.1 You could read it as a swipe at an up-and-coming field that was cutting your field’s grass or as a grudging admission that this new field was capturing a collective imagination. Or both.
I thought of that joke often in NiCHE’s first years. In the early 2000s, there were a lot of scholars and students in Canada doing environmental history, but there was no national association, no annual meetings, no targeted hires, no public awareness of the subject. So we created NiCHE in 2004 to give definition to the Canadian field. We believed that folks researching and teaching at the intersection of nature wanted a network, would see the value of one, would choose to belong to one. Put another way, we believed that by announcing that a community existed, we could call one into existence. And we were right. It was the product of a resident collective imagination.
NiCHE thrived from the outset. Some of that was our doing: we came up with a cleverish acronym and a versatile logo; we were relatively early adopters in fostering an online community; we dedicated much of our attention to graduate students, in the belief that the network’s long-term success hinged on their success. Some of it was luck: our launch coincided with that of the SSHRC Clusters program, which supported exactly the kind of innovative knowledge mobilization network we wanted to be. But much of it was simply riding the coattails of – that is, communicating the work of – a community of smart people who were doing some really cool stuff.
The challenge of being the product of a collective imagination is that that imagination has to be sustained.
The challenge of being the product of a collective imagination is that that imagination has to be sustained – that is, fed. So for the decade I directed NiCHE, I constantly worried: What if no one submits another blog post? What if no one attends the next workshop or answers the next call-for-projects? What if our last idea was our last idea?
But it never happened. Far from it. And after handing over the keys, I’ve been so happy to watch NiCHE do so much in its second decade. I love how much new writing is constantly coming out, not only from history and geography departments, but from across the university, as well as from heritage practitioners, activists, and independent scholars. I love that environmental historians from around the world have come to trust NiCHE as a place where their work will find a home and an audience. I love the degree to which NiCHErs now utilize images and videos and maps, and how welcoming the site is for all these. And I love to peek occasionally at the NiCHE website’s analytics – I guess I never did hand over the keys – and see the constant hum of activity.
And yet, as NiCHE turns twenty next year, if I were to give its Executive and members any advice – and, clearly, I’m about to – it would be: don’t be content with content. I know all too well how tempting it is, in this digital age, to feel the constant pressure to feed that great and terrible god, to measure success by site visits, to equate activity with action. But content is not what NiCHE or environmental history or scholarship or the world needs. We need people working together. NiCHE will succeed in its twenties if it keeps being about collaboration. Groups of scholars and different publics finding one another and having the tools and methods to work together. Not just publishing our work online, but discussing and debating and ultimately improving our work online. And doing more offline: directing more of our energy to organizing events and applying for grants that will bring us together in person.
I have a more specific wish list, too. I hope more mid- and late-career scholars step up and be involved with NiCHE. I hope the site moves beyond disseminating scholarship, to helping contextualize and evaluate that scholarship; as such, I hope it offers more lesson plans and teaching tools, and becomes more historiographical. I hope NiCHE develops a more transparent governing structure, from the director on down. I hope NiCHE charges me a membership fee so that I can claim it as part of my professional development.
The Network exists because its members see value in its existence. Here’s to NiCHE’s third decade.
That NiCHE has thrived in its second decade, without the large funding support it enjoyed in its first decade, is thanks to a creative and committed Executive and Editorial Team (its present members are here). It is also thanks to the continued resident collective imagination of our community. The Network exists because its members see value in its existence. Here’s to NiCHE’s third decade.
Feature Image: NiCHE t-shirt from ca.2006, modelled by author.
 JM Powell, “Historical Geography and Environmental History: An Australian Interface,” Journal of Historical Geography 22, 3 (1996), 253.
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