As 2023 passes into memory, the NiCHE editorial team has put together a list of environment-themed reading recommendations: recent books and articles exploring Canadian and international environments, climates, and more-than-human worlds, past and present. Perfect as you prepare your cozy den for a long winter’s nap (or, you know, a semester of slush and ice). We love them and we hope you will, too!
Recommended by Heather Green, historian of mining and Indigenous-settler relations in Northern Canada
Mica Jorgenson, The Weight of Gold: Mining and the Environment in Ontario, Canada, 1909-1929 (University of Nevada Pres, 2023)
Jorgenson explores the mining history of Ontario and the province’s rise to prominence in the global gold industry. Of particular interest to environmental history readers is the authors’ attention to the environmental disasters that resulted from widespread extraction in this region and the unequal distribution of environmental harms and burdens on surrounding communities.
Kate Beaton, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands (Drawn & Quarterly, 2022)
Kate Beaton’s graphic novel, Ducks, is a personal memoir of east coast migration to the Alberta oil sands in attempts for economic advancement. Beaton’s novel visually captures the landscapes of the oil rush – heavy machinery, tailings ponds, boreal forest, and wildlife – while also capturing the social and cultural interactions and conflicts of life, as a woman, throughout her two years working in oil.
Colleen Campbell and Tina Loo, “Making Tracks: A Grizzly and Entangled History,” in Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History, ed. Jennifer Bonnell and Sean Kheraj (University of Calgary Press, 2022)
Winner of the 2023 NiCHE Prize for Best Article or Book Chapter in Canadian Environmental History, Campbell and Loo’s article examines how grizzly bears have historically experienced the world along the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Using locational data for individual grizzlies in the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains from 1994 to 2004, the authors apply GIS tools to better understand individual grizzly movement, adaptability, and resilience when facing change not of their own design.
Recommended by Gabrielle McLaren
Thomas Wickman, Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast (Cambridge UP, 2019)
After learning about seasonal reading, in which you match the tone of your reading list to your real-life seasonal setting, I’ve been waiting to read Snowshoe Country during winter break. This environmental and cultural history of winter was first recommended in a graduate seminar on climate history, and I look forward to learning more about the seasonal contexts and dimensions of Indigenous-settler relations and settler colonialism more broadly.
Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism (Penguin, 2021)
After listing a litany of climate and social problems at a global scale, this book’s blurb asks: “instead of drowning in hopelessness, how can we learn to face our reality with humility and accountability?” I sure hope I find out from the latest in a growing literature on climate anxiety, but either way I’ll try not to be a killjoy while we’re building gingerbread houses.
Recommended by Ramya Swayamprakash, historian of water, borders, dams, and dredging
Sunil Amrith, Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History (Basic Books, 2018)
I was a little late to the party in reading this book but in some senses that was a good thing because I think I was able to appreciate the intellectual ambition and attention to materiality much more than I would have as an imposter graduate student. A book on the monsoon that is as sweeping as its subject’s expanse, Amrith paints a deep and persuasive picture of how, why, and when the South Asian Monsoon came to be categorized the way it is and its implications for us.
Matthew Huber, Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet (Verso, 2022)
Sometimes, in class I see students’ eyes roll when I mention Marx, climate change, and class consciousness, and their shoulders slouch (and I can hear, OK! Boomer on their faces). Huber’s hard-hitting exposition of how and why we need to build more community and worry less about outcomes, made me sit up with excitement. Revolutionary in advocating connections more than competition, Huber shows how we can and perhaps should move ahead. The revolution, it turns out, should be more about reflection than mere action.
Recommended by Daniel Macfarlane, historian of Canada-US transborder environments and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin
Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind, Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis (Harvard UP, 2023)
A survey of the intellectual history of “scarcity” in the Western canon, the two authors cover many of the well-known thinkers, from Aristotle to Marx to the present day, whose varying conceptions of limits to economic growth are often derived from their views about nature.
Simon Sharpe, Five Times Faster: Rethinking the Science, Economics, and Diplomacy of Climate Change (Cambridge UP, 2023)
This is near the top of my reading list since it is apparently an insider account of the ways we aren’t moving remotely fast enough to meet the climate challenge.
John Vaillant, Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast (Canada); Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World (US) (Penguin, 2023)
A book mostly about Canada that is actually attracting a big readership outside of Canada – and deservedly so, as this was a compelling and erudite examination of the Fort McMurray blaze and our new age of climate-induced fire.
Recommended by Andrew Watson, Canadian environmental historian of energy, agriculture, and sustainability
Lianne Leddy, Serpent River Resurgence: Confronting Uranium Mining at Elliot Lake (University of Toronto Press, 2022)
Focused mainly around the time period of the Cold War when Canada exported uranium to the United States to create nuclear weapons, Leddy’s book demonstrates clearly how settler colonialism and extractivism is a central part of postwar Canadian history. Serpent River Resurgence places the agency of the Serpent River Anishinaabek at the centre of her analysis to highlight both the successes and failures of on-going efforts to hold the Canadian government accountable for the toxic legacy of environmental destruction of their homeland.
Daniel Rück, The Laws and the Land: The Settler Colonial Invasion of Kahnawà:ke in Nineteenth-Century Canada (UBC Press, 2021)
Exploring hundreds of years of Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) experiences of settler colonialism, Rück’s book uses Kahnawà:ke as a case study to uncover how the French, British, and Canadians used European legal traditions and technologies to challenge, erode, and eventually replace Indigenous law in their efforts to usurp Kanien’kehá:ka sovereignty and take control of land. The Laws and the Land blends social, legal, and environmental history to demonstrate how Indigenous peoples negotiated and resisted dispossession and how settlers used laws to justify the violence of land theft.
Benjamin Hoy, A Line of Blood and Dirt: Creating the Canada-United States Border Across Indigenous Lands (Oxford UP, 2021)
Stretching across the continent and over hundreds of years, Hoy’s book considers the contested, inconsistent, and complexities of imagining, physically building, managing, and extending the functions of the border between two nations. Through an impressive analysis of exhaustive archival research, A Line of Blood and Dirt offers insight into both the various ways that politicians, bureaucrats, and police worked to enforce the border’s shifting power, and the experiences of individual citizens, criminals, and Indigenous people who encountered the border’s power in inconsistent and socially constructed ways.
Recommended by Blair Stein, historian of envirotech, climate, and aerospace
Alan MacEachern and Ed MacDonald, The Summer Trade: A History of Tourism on Prince Edward Island (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2022)
Listen, I know it sounds crazy to put a book called “The Summer Trade” on a winter holiday reading list, but what is tourism if not escapism and imagination? This is equally a history of the tourism industry on PEI, a history of the tourism experience (that is, how non-Islanders perceived and engaged with the Island), and a history of how the Island’s environments, cultures, and people adapted to the tourism trade from the mid-19th century to the present. This makes it a really fascinating study of both what tourism does to a place and what it means to that place. Also, it’s gorgeous, from the Alex Colville painting on the cover to the glossy coffee-table-style images of souvenirs and postcards throughout. (Like a fine wine, this book pairs nicely with Selling British Columbia: Tourism and Consumer Culture 1890-1970 by Michael Dawson [UBC Press, 2005] for a trans-continental experience.)
Philipp Lehmann, Desert Edens: Colonial Climate Engineering in the Age of Anxiety (Princeton UP, 2022)
In this book, Lehmann traces European (particularly German) attempts to reckon with climate change through engineering from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. The discovery that the Earth had undergone “ice ages” in its geological history suggested that nature was changeable, which inspired a variety of projects, from engineering ideal German colonies in the Sahara to attempts to climatically “Germanize” Eastern Europe and the Baltic States in the 1930s. Although this is an intellectual history of the philosophy, science, and technology of climate, it reveals how easy it has been to connect a state’s perceived political fortunes with their environments. (Like a crumbly cheese, this book pairs nicely with Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control by Jim Fleming [Columbia UP, 2010] for a slightly more light-hearted take on the history of climate engineering.)
Recommended by Philip Gooding, historian of climate and environment in Africa and the Indian Ocean World
Chris Gratien, The Unsettled Plain: An Environmental History of the Late Ottoman Frontier (Stanford UP, 2022)
This book focuses on a small and relatively forgotten region in present-day Turkey, near the border with Syria. But despite its narrow geographical scope, it says so much. It uses ecological perspectives on a range of quotidian phenomena, such as malaria, cotton cultivation, labour, and leisure, to centre rural transformations in much more well-known events and transformations: the spread of Capitalism and imperialism, the First World War, late-Ottoman reform, and Turkish nation-building. As well as being elegantly written (and therefore ideal for a holiday read), it is a case study in how to construct an environmental micro-history.
Recommended by Caroline Abbott, animal and other-than-human histories, long nineteenth century frontiers
Amy Kohout, Taking the Field: Soldiers, Nature, and Empire on American Frontiers (University of Nebraska Press, 2023)
Kohout’s work offers necessary and timely engagement with the biopolitical impact force of the American war machine, pushing the concept of frontier well beyond continental United States borders. Particularly, I am paying close attention to Kohout’s engagement with the specimen animals she discusses, so lighter reading – like the (London) Natural History Museum’s 2021 “Christmas Animals and Plants: the festive species named for 25 December” – offers an excellent (if occasionally frustrating) exercise for readers looking for new ways of thinking with animal history along the lines of festivity.
Carla Cevasco, Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast (Yale University Press, 2022)
Cevasco’s engagements with hunger as a colonial weapon (and fasting as a spiritual one) provide a necessary counterweight to the festive season’s decadences and excesses, as well as context to its dearths and difficulties. The work features exceptional examinations of the interplay between hunger, ritual, and festivity – the fact that Cevasco makes a stop in eighteenth century Mansfield, Connecticut to do so (not far from where I have spent many Christmases with my family) certainly doesn’t hurt.
David Keplinger, Ice (Milkweed, 2023)
Keplinger’s engagement with the extraction of ancient, charismatic megafauna from the melting permafrost are medicine to an animal historian (particularly, its titular poem keeps pace with one such pleistocene wolf). The work reveals Anthropocene poetry as a site of relevant and impactful more-than-human entanglement with the power to both shape and reflect human ideas about environmental history: as Keplinger quotes from Rick Barot’s poem “The Galleons,” “[r]esearch is mourning.”
Recommended by Mica Jorgenson, historian of natural resources and the boreal north
Jennifer Bonnell, Stewards of Splendour: A History of Wildlife and People in British Columbia (Royal BC Museum, 2023)
When I open this book, I feel like I am stepping into the office of one of my former colleagues at the BC Fish and Wildlife Branch: There’s a stuffed mink on the cubicle divider. There are stacks of files everywhere. The cooler on the floor contains samples from a weird fish someone found. A somewhat overworked biology graduate behind the desk is giving me an impassioned speech about Spotted Owls. I love everything about it. Bonnell had incredible access to a wide variety of interviewees including biologists, Indigenous leaders, conservationists, and other experts whose voices bring her archival research to life. It is ambitious, richly illustrated, and as close as it gets to a comprehensive history of wildlife management in BC from prehistory to the present. This beautiful book is a treasured addition to my bookshelf, and it would make a great gift or holiday read.
Lianne Leddy, Serpent River Resurgence: Confronting Uranium Mining at Elliot Lake (University of Toronto Press, 2022)
I reviewed this book for the Canadian Historical Review this year, after it received a lot of positive attention in my circles. It went on to win the Canadian Historical Review‘s Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History prize and the Governor General’s History Award for Scholarly Research. Suffice to say that other people have had lots to say about why this book is great and important, and they are all correct. To me, the best part of this book is how Leddy weaves together an intimate treatise on what it’s like to live with extractive industry with a thorough and thoughtful study of colonialism. Also, the concept of “cold war colonialism” has changed the way I think about this particular period of our past and its impact on Indigenous communities. If you haven’t read this one yet, you’re missing out.
Recommended by Jamie Murton, who teaches and researches in Canadian environmental history, food systems, rural Canada, and agriculture
Dagomar Degroot, The Frigid Golden Age: Climate Change, the Little Ice Age, and the Dutch Republic, 1560-1720 (Cambridge UP, 2018)
A few years ago, I finished a graduate seminar on environmental history with a discussion of where to go from here. “Sure, things are bad,” my students said, essentially (I’m paraphrasing here), “but there’s nothing we can do about it.” Disapointed with this response, this year I am teaching this book, in which Dagomar Degroot argues that the people of the Netherlands responded creatively to the (much less marked) climate change of their time, in ways that helped create the golden age of the Dutch Republic. DeGroot’s point is not to downplay the seriousness of the threat we face, but rather to argue that history suggests that outcomes are not set, and that there are other paths we can take — including some that may not be apparent to us right now.
Tina Loo, Moved by the State: Forced Relocation and Making a Good Life in Postwar Canada (UBC Press, 2019)
This may not be strictly environmental history, but it is written by one of our leading environmental historians and deals with the meaning of places and the communities we make in them. Tina Loo explores the ideas and practices of postwar politicians, bureaucrats, and state-and-university-based experts who tried to extend the benefits of postwar prosperity to rural Canadians by moving them to new communities in new places. Loo is clear about the injustices and failures of these efforts and the many ways that people resisted forced relocations. But she is most interested in the stories of those in government who believed that “governments could and, more importantly, should intervene to improve the lives of citizens” (7). Loo’s sensitive and complex study of state action in a time of relative hope is necessary in our time, as the faith of Canadians in our institutions has fallen apart and our expectations of government have too often become simplistic and even vindictive.
Recommended by Nuala Caomhánach, historian of climate, molecular genetics and environment in Madagascar, conservation science and policy, plants and protists
Robyn D’Avignon, A Ritual Geology: Gold and Subterranean Knowledge in Savanna West Africa (Duke UP, 2022)
D’Avignon’s richly sourced history of gold mining in West Africa—from archival to ethnographic sources–paints a detailed and deeper picture of the interplay between traditions embodied in both ritual meaning and technological knowledge. Excellent example of how an interdisciplinary approach offers a broader insight into the overlap of history of science, industry, and environment.
Clayton Thomas-Muller, Life in the City of Dirty Water: A Memoir of Healing (Penguin, 2022)
If you are looking for a grittier read this holiday season, Cree environmental activist Clayton Thomas-Muller’s memoir traces the harrowing, the joyful, the hardship, the moments of connection and disconnection on the realities of the First Nations experience.
Vinciane Despret, Autobiography of an Octopus [Autobiographie d’un poulpe] (Actes Sud, 2021)
Although this book was published two years ago, it only landed on my plate a few weeks ago. Despret’s work is always engaging and funny. Despret taps into the “therolinguistics”—the field that studies non-human languages (thanks Ursula Le Guin)—to ponder if wombats and octopi are sending us coded messages. Despret brings the reader on an adventure through a series of fascinating scientific debates as she situates them in an indeterminate future, using fiction to let her imagination go wild. Through a blend of poetry and science Despret will make you think differently about the natural world, climate change, and species extinction as she makes her experimental play a provocation.
Recommended by Jessica DeWitt, historian of Canadian and American parks and recreation
adrienne maree brown, Grievers (AK Press, 2021)
adrienne maree brown, Maroons (AK Press, 2023)
adrienne maree brown continues to be one of the most inspirational thinkers and organizers of our time, and I am currently working through the first two books in her Grievers trilogy, which is “a tale of what happens when we can no longer ignore what has been lost in this world.” Based in a post-apocalyptic Detroit where a mysterious disease or syndrome is taking the lives of Black residents, Grievers has strong environmental undertones that environmental scholars will appreciate. It is a beautiful exploration of what it means to be human and to be in community with others, including more-than-humans.
Recommended by Nicole Miller, artist, photographer, and historian of multi-species environmental interactions
Siobhan Angus, Camera Geologica: An Elemental History of Photography (Duke UP, 2024)
I’m looking forward to the new year’s upcoming release of Camera Geologica. As a photographer and a historian, I am especially interested in the history of photography. The novelty of this book is that Angus makes connections to the materials of photography that contributed to its history and traces a complex web of interconnection and environmental interaction/impacts through that history. Analogue and digital photographs are often not considered in terms of their material components, and I’m excited to see new insights into the materiality of image making. In its emphasis on mining history, it could also be a great companion book for the 2022 exhibition from Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, Mining Photography.
Eric J. Wallace, “Meet the Appalachian Apple Hunter Who Rescued 1,000 ‘Lost’ Varieties,” Atlas Obscura, June 3, 2021
This year I became aware of this article, although Tom Brown has been written about by many sources over the last several years, including the Washington Post last month. I recommend this article because when I read it at the beginning of this year the story stuck with me almost a year later. Apple hunter Tom Brown became interested in saving lost varieties of heritage apples and so he started an organization called Apple Search to perform some detective work to track down lost varieties of heritage apples. He then proceeded to start his own orchard growing those rare varieties. The story and dedication was really inspiring and made me curious about what other species are becoming slowly lost, and how one person (or many) can actually take practical action to preserve elements of heritage.
Recommended by Sara Spike, historian of rural communities and coastal environments in Atlantic Canada
Sharika D. Crawford, The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making (University of North Carolina Press, 2020)
The Last Turtlemen is a fascinating study of early twentieth-century efforts to enclose the waters of the Caribbean, as coastal nation states and the British empire sought to claim authority over offshore resources. Crawford tells this story through the “entangled histories” of Caymanian turtle fishers, whose mobility within the transnational “turtle commons” exposed and challenged the limits of state sovereignty. Set in a fluid world, where the sea that shapes the worldview of the turtlemen is placed at the centre of historical analysis, The Last Turtlemen is a wonderful Caribbean addition to the global literature on coastal and ocean cultures.
Thomas Peace, The Slow Rush of Colonization: Spaces of Power in the Maritime Peninsula, 1680–1790 (UBC Press, 2023)
Peace uses the conceptual framing of “spaces of power” to re-narrate the Maritime Peninsula as a cohesive multicultural region, rather than a fragmented landscape defined by European boundary making. This framing foregrounds Mi’kmaw, Wabanaki, Peskotomuhkati, Wolastoqiyik, and Wendat agency and diplomacy in the early years of settler colonialism in their homelands, complicating traditional straightforward narratives of conquest. Continuing the important work of Daniel Paul, John Reid, and others, Peace contributes a remarkable depth of research and analysis to rethinking this well-trod ground. A very welcome volume for anyone interested in the early history of the region.
Rob MacInnis, The Farm Family Project (2022)
You may have seen the whimsical crew on the cover of Rob MacInnis’s The Farm Family Project go viral from time to time over the past few years. But that is just one of the remarkable images the Nova Scotian photographer has created in this beguiling series, now collected in a handsome bound edition. Through the careful gaze of MacInnis’s camera, we encounter sheep, donkeys, cattle, and other barnyard friends in intimate portraiture and careful groupings that can only be described as family photos. MacInnis applies the eye and techniques of a skilled fashion photographer to celebrate the beauty, grace, and dignity of our non-human counterparts.
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