This past November, Graeme Wynn offered closing remarks on a conference in Uppsala, Sweden.1 I had no expectations, yet I was not expecting a recounting of his dream from the night before. Dorothy and Co. were following the Yellow Brick Road to find the Wizard of Timber Colonialism.2 To understand why this story perfectly encapsulates those two days of discussion, there is some context you will need.
In November 2023, I attended a conference called At the Vanguard of Colonialism: Global Perspectives on Timber Colonialism during the Age of Industrialization in Uppsala, Sweden, organized by Jim Clifford (University of Saskatchewan) and Iva Lučić (SCAS & Stockholm University).3 We were 26 scholars total, with backgrounds in environmental history, archaeology, architecture, historical geography, colonialist studies, community engaged research, and even forestry management. In short, we came from all over the world to discuss timber in the context of colonialism.
When put together and capitalized, Timber Colonialism suggests a unique phenomenon, a specific and identifiable pattern we can observe in tree-filled areas that colonial powers have an interest in. The term was a useful way to bring scholars together for the conference and focus on one resource and its extraction across the globe, but as much as we were examining history, we were also examining our own methods.
As an undergraduate History student at the University of Saskatchewan,4 I found the conference served two purposes for me. First, as an opportunity for Jim Clifford and me to receive feedback on our shared work. Second, as a chance to observe and participate in a group discussion regarding the framework Timber Colonialism, specifically if it was viable or not. This was a vital glimpse into the discipline that university classes are unable to truly capture, and I am beyond grateful to have had this experience. In this brief post, I hope to share my observations for other students curious about conferences. Chief amongst my observations was that this conference’s strength was the variety and breadth of disciplines, topics, and geographies represented. A multitude of perspectives resulted in nuanced discussions and a fine example of how interdisciplinary approaches can strengthen scholarship.
Prior to this conference, I did not know that scholars got together to share works in progress. I had assumed conferences were for sharing published, peer-reviewed work that had been edited and polished within an inch of its life. Frankly, it was more encouraging to know that everyone had work yet to do. We were able to provide, and receive, immediate feedback, such as on the maps that Jim Clifford and I had created. It turns out that our symbology was too small and occasionally incomprehensible, something that was better to find out in a lower-stakes environment.
The range of topics at the conference was, I gathered from various conversations, unique. One participant mentioned to me that it is more typical to have a conference focused on one very specific geographic area or one kind of engagement with timber. This conference had 26 scholars, each presenting on a unique topic. Samira Moretto is examining reforestation efforts and monoculture “green deserts” in Brazil.5 Jason Lee Newton is finding the intersections of labour and ecological limits in North America.6 Tonje Haugland Sorensen is focusing on prefabricated houses and their connections to identity and colonial trade in Norway.7 And Jim and I are untangling the connections between agricultural settlement, timber extraction, ecological change, and Algonquin dispossession in the Ottawa Valley.8
Other projects outside the historical discipline included Toms Koskins’s work on Sweden’s modern-day timber extraction.9 His work featured not only creating his own tar but using that tar to paint a representation of Sweden’s transnational consumption of wood. This art will be installed in a gallery, and as I excitedly pointed out to him, it will serve as a public-facing history project. By connecting with the public in an accessible way, he’s opened the door into further exploration into Sweden’s timber history. A facet of interdisciplinary approaches that I believe is incredibly important are the ones that connect our research with the wider public. Koskins’s work is an exciting example of how interdisciplinary approaches need not be restricted to collaboration between the Humanities and the Sciences, we need collaboration with the Arts, too.
These multitudes of perspectives were best applied to tackling the secondary goal of the conference: discussing the viability of Timber Colonialism as a framework. As an undergraduate student with limited experience in colonialist theory, there is undoubtedly context and nuance I was missing. Nonetheless, the process of discussing viability was fascinating.
Discussion occurred from the very beginning, with Jim Clifford opening the conference by asking us outright if we thought it was the right framework. I found the best comments on this question came from the commentators on each panel, which is not surprising, as commentators had prepared statements on their panels’ presentations beforehand. For rest of us in the audience, those two days were a time to absorb information to reflect on later.
A call to operationalize Timber Colonialism came up often. This seems to be a very practical way to examine a framework. It was vital to question if Timber Colonialism was functionally different than colonialism. To summarize: it isn’t. The differences in lived reality, agency, and intent between case studies were numerous, indicating that it was best not to squeeze every interaction between people (that included trees) into a single categorical box. We could not identify a set of steps that “always” happen in tree-filled areas.
Additionally, the specific language used in labelling a framework was examined. For example, how “timber” puts emphasis on trees, not people, and how “colonialism” risks creating an inevitable timeline of events (specifically tragedies) in our narratives. This raised a specific thought for me, based on one of Jim’s opening questions. He asked if we can decolonize timber.10 From a modern, Western understanding, timber is inherently consumption-focused. We continually approach trees as resources extracted at the hands of colonial forces or in the name of capitalist exuberance, which perpetuates narratives of complete control and subjugation (both of people and environment). Perhaps to decolonize timber we need to step away from timber itself.
One thing I did notice, that was not brought up (to my knowledge), is women’s role in Timber Colonialism and forest interactions generally. Who made lumbermen’s clothes? Who minded the farms when male heads of households worked in the lumber camps in winter? What of the shared responsibility for consumption of wood products? Did Algonquin women use the forest differently than men? Women did come to inherit (if not outright buy) their own timber limits; how did they use them?11 There are gendered elements to this broad topic that will offer nuanced understandings to everyday experiences with timber.
To return to Graeme Wynn’s dream, once they found the Wizard of Timber Colonialism and drew back the curtain, he was small and shriveled and fairly unimpressive. He made no further comments on the dream, but it struck me as cutting to the quick of Timber Colonialism: not nearly as impressive and all-encompassing as we might initially think. It will be interesting to see the directions each scholar takes in their upcoming work. Those two days were a vital exercise in pulling back the curtain, something we must periodically do. I found the experience greatly enhanced by knowing there were multiple perspectives to help make sense of what sat behind it.
1. Emeritus Professor, University of British Columbia, Canada.
2. Incidentally, I also dreamt about timber on my last flight home, so it might be contagious.
3. Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study. For the conference announcement and a full list of scholars, see https://networks.h-net.org/group/announcements/20011131/vanguard-colonialism-global-perspectives-timber-colonialism-during-age.
4. I am loathe to neglect the other half of my degree, which is Studio Art. My heart, and focus, at USask are split in two.
5. Federal University of Fronteira Sul, Brazil.
6. University of North Carolina, USA.
7. University of Bergen, Norway.
8. University of Saskatchewan, Canada.
9. Umeå University, Sweden.
10. Broadly speaking, can we shift the focus from dichotomous views of oppressed vs oppressor, for example, in line with the nuancing of general post-colonial studies? See University of Washington’s An Introduction to Post-Colonialism, Post-colonial Theory and Post-colonial Literature, https://art.washington.edu/sites/art/files/documents/about/an_introduction_to_post-colonialism_post-colonial_theory_and_post-colonial_literature.pdf.
11. In 1856 the widow of Hiram Chamberlain (a resident of Westmeath township, and a case study for an upcoming paper) sued a Mr. Smith for not paying her an agreed upon amount for timber limits she owned. See Queen’s Bench and Practice Court Reports 1844-1882, https://www.google.ca/books/edition/Queen_s_Bench_and_Practice_Court_Reports/q9NIAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0, pp. 103-5.