Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

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This is the first post in a series about global environmental history and the World Congress of Environmental History published in collaboration with the International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations (ICEHO). The fourth World Congress will be held this August in Oulu, Finland.

When Claire Campbell asked me to reflect on the importance of the International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations (ICEHO) and its quinquennial World Congress (WCEH) in this series of blog posts, I had little room to manoeuvre. I have been President of ICEHO for the last five years, and I have been closely involved in every WCEH (including the fourth, coming up in Oulu, Finland, August 18–23, this year). But I was soon wondering why I didn’t “just say no” to Claire. After several despairing days I found myself obsessing—in this respect alone, like the great Canadian narrative historian Donald Creighton—about “when to begin and how.” The “when” seemed reasonably straightforward: ICEHO began in 2009 (or, it turned out, thereabouts, perhaps). But “how” to find a “hook”, something to make an administrative/organizational history of two relatively recently emerged entities worth reading? I was at a loss. 

With some weeks to deadline, and the end of the year at hand, I sought solace—rather than inspiration—in Time Shelter, a brilliant, powerful, strikingly original (and also funny and frightening) satire by Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov.This is a rich, thought-provoking work, described by Sukla Chatterjee in The Conversation (May 24, 2023) as a “philosophical exploration of memory and nostalgia, about forgetting and trying to hold on to our past and make sense of our present and future.” Just the thing for an historical geographer’s holiday reading in 2023!

Here, in the complexities of Gospodinov’s book, I came to realize what I might say about ICEHO and WCEH. Bear with me; I need a paragraph or two to get there. The book begins with the idea that people suffering from dementia might be spared the challenges and indignities of their condition by being allowed to exist in their “happy times.” So the clinics in which they are treated recreate, to the last detail, rooms and settings of decades past. In these familiar, treasured places (that are in fact “times”) some find comfort. The treatment is not perfect; occasionally the settings trigger frightening repressed memories. But good news spreads, and soon perfectly sentient, healthy people are checking in to the clinics to escape the distresses of the present. 

Nostalgia takes hold. Before long all the countries of Europe hold referendums to decide upon the decade in which they will live. Groups campaign—often mounting dramatic re-enactments of signal events in their chosen time, and eventually a new map appears, with Spain, France, Germany and Poland settling in the 1980s, Italy opting for 1968, most of the Nordic countries finding themselves in the 1970s, and so on. Ludicrous as this seems, it is handled with wit, to make telling points about the vacuity of populist programs that invoke the “good old days” (with Brexit and MAGA in mind). It also becomes evident that this is a work of autofiction: the story told in these 300 pages is presented as the product of an author caught in his own inexorable descent of the stairs of dementia. Time, and the narrative, become increasingly fragmented; coherence is elusive. The book’s last sentence, written on the eve of a full-scale re-enactment of World War II, is “Tomorrow was September 1.” 

What (I can anticipate the questions) has this to do with ICEHO and WCEH? Is this essay an autofiction modelled on Time Shelter? (The answers are “quite a lot” and “I hope not”). With its often humorous, but unflinching, critique of the ways in which many now make use of the past, and its equally excoriating assessment of what the past is being turned into, the book offers a compelling call for rigorous historical scholarship. In some sense it turns geographer David Lowenthal’s observation that ‘Nostalgia tells it like it never was” to a very useful purpose indeed. With its insistence that we cannot forsake, or escape, the future, however grim it may appear to be, Gospodinov’s book also offers a call to scholarly arms, to make that future as good and true as we can. By its cunning conflation/ substitution of space and time in retro-decorated clinics, and the new map of Timeurope (my coinage) the book reminds us that containers matter, and that those in which lives are lived can make all the difference. Finally, by making the long, lonely journey of dementia such an integral part of the book, Time Shelter drives home the importance of communication and connection in giving substance to ideas and enabling people to live their best lives. So: time, space, and community—these are the keys with which I will attempt to unlock the conundrum that Claire posed for me.

Time Shelter drives home the importance of communication and connection in giving substance to ideas and enabling people to live their best lives.

Time: The first WCEH was held in Copenhagen (and Malmö) in August 2009. It was the brainchild of a small group of visionaries (among whom were Verena Winiwarter, Christof Mauch, Jane Carruthers, Bo Paulsen, Steve Anderson, and others who appreciated the importance of extra-national academic gatherings). They worked with the leaders of ESEH (which opted to forego its own meeting) to co-organize WCEH. ICEHO fledged in the aftermath of that Congress and was legally incorporated in North Carolina in 2011. Much has happened since then, including very successful WCEH gatherings in Guimaraes, Portugal, and Florianopolis, Brazil; an arrangement with the White Horse Press to carry ICEHO pages in Global Environment; the establishment of the Icehouse Society; and so on. But times have changed since 2009/2011. COVID, remote work, online talks, and digital conferences were almost unthinkable in Copenhagen. With “flight shaming” spawned by the climate crisis and WCEH as the main “product” of ICEHO, the group must give serious thought to becoming “fit for purpose” in the future and not bask in nostalgic memories of great congresses past.

Space: It seems to me that the vast majority of colleagues in history, geography, and kindred subjects have developed expertise at national, regional, or even local scales. There are relatively few “internationalists” among us. In research this is understandable. It is also potentially limiting. Think back to Gospodinov’s Timeurope map. However we define our  “containers,” they are to some degree arbitrary. People within them have a lot—certainly not everything—in common. Most scholarship is to some degree traditional, its curiosities are blinkered by practice, its questions shaped by “local” concerns, and its methodologies influenced by favoured paradigms. International gatherings that bring together practitioners from within these islands, are vitally important fora for broadening horizons of knowledge, sparking wonder, and prompting comparisons.

International gatherings that bring together practitioners from within these islands, are vitally important fora for broadening horizons of knowledge, sparking wonder, and prompting comparisons.

Community: Amid memory loss and nostalgia, connections between people are often weak or attenuated in Time Shelter. But readers are frequently reminded of the importance of friendship and relationships: of “that rush of joy” produced by seeing or hearing a person one hasn’t run into in a long time. Auden’s “great line”—“We must love one another or die”—is invoked in discussion of the referendum choice between “living together in a shared past” and letting ourselves fall apart and begin “slaughtering one another” — both of which “we have… already done.” This thread also runs through some banter about post-Brexit Britain. One speaker attributes the little Englanders’ confidence that “an island can give you everything you need to survive” to Robinson Crusoe. “It would have been better,” says another, “if they’d read Donne instead of Defoe.” The reference is, of course, to “No man is an Island … I am involved in Mankinde” from John Donne’s Meditation XVII of Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624).

In sum, there is valuable, rewarding work to be done through ICEHO, and there are important professional and incidental benefits to be had from participation (especially in person) in WCEH 2024. A committee will soon be formulating a slate of nominations for Officers and Board members to steer ICEHO forward from 2024. Please do consider becoming involved in this effort. 

Feature Image: Group photo of participants at the first World Congress of Environmental History held in Copenhagen in 2009.
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Graeme Wynn

A long-time member of NiCHE, I am now Professor Emeritus of Geography at UBC. Alongside leadership roles in ASSEH, ICEHO and UBC's new Emeritus College, I continue to edit the Nature|History|Society series with UBC Press and find time (though less than I ought) for several writing projects.

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