I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington

Richard White

In Land Use, Environment and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington, Richard White writes with the belief that a place’s landscape can be read like a historical document, much in the same way as a manuscript. The people’s history in Island County, and elsewhere, is shaped by political and social forces just as much as by those changes that are tied to the natural environment. Similar to William Cronon’s presentation of the reciprocal relationship between economic and ecological forces, the changes in the environment of Island County affected human institutions and vice versa. Men were not the only ones to change the island over the years, according to White, as he places some of the agency of change on the environment itself, especially the forests as they adapted to new conditions.

Like Cronon, White is also adamant that the Indians affected change on their natural surroundings and seems to place even more importance on this change than Cronon. Largely through use of fire in order to sustain nettle groundcover, Indians notably altered the plant life on the island. However, as always, the drastic modifications to the environment did not occur until European arrival, which White refers to as a clashing of two ecological systems, from which the European ecological system came out on top. Harkening back to Charles Elton, White calls this process an ecological invasion.

This ecological invasion was able to take place largely due to the role farmers were given in American society. This role, which was forever emblazoned on the country’s conscious by Frederick Jackson Turner, was, as White puts it, the “vanguard of ecological invasion,” the bearer of civilization and the conqueror of wilderness. Like the colonists in Cronon’s New England, the “intruders” in Island County came to the area to carry on the exact lifestyle that they had lived before and were increasingly slaves to outside markets. They came to organize and get rid of the useless aspects of nature. The fences that were erected came to symbolize the border of two worlds: civilized agriculture and the wilderness. Like in Melville’s Valle del Mezquital, the farmers were continuously assaulting the biological diversity of the island’s ecosystem, the natural world always “struggling to maintain a protective variety.” Also like the Spanish, the white settlers did not fully understand the consequences of their actions, which ultimately had the greatest and most negative effect on the native inhabitants. Degradation of the environment was seen as the inescapable price of progress and prosperity, despite the fact that in many instances they were shooting themselves in the foot.

In the twentieth century there arose a renewed appreciation of the land, though almost in museum-ized form. It was at this time that the dwellers of nearby cities, under the new intoxicating effects of automobile transportation and increased, recreational free-time, “discovered” Island County, leading to the founding of Deception Pass State Park. To the casual observer, White writes, the county does not appear to have been the victim of environmental debasement, just as at the surface preservation and eco-tourism appear to be a positive development for the environment, but actually represent the next state in the commoditization of nature by humanity.

Two main assertions on White’s part make his account of the ecological history of Island County, Washington distinctive. Firstly, White does not think that humans and modernity are totally to blame. The individuals in White’s story were never fully aware of the consequences of their actions, nor can any human. It is from a privileged place of historical hindsight that historians and other individuals are able to see the outcome of past individual’s actions, and thus it is unfair to place the weight of our knowledge base on their conscience. Additionally, White states that primitive tools can wreak large-scale damage on the environment, and thus technologically advanced tools can have relatively little effect on the environment. Therefore, it is unfair to assert that modernity and technological advances are the ultimate enemies of ecological preservation. Secondly, White places a great deal of strength and power in the hands of nature itself. Nature is a resilient being in White’s narrative. Unlike the humans in his story, the environment is very calculated with its moves. It has the power, and maybe even relative know-how, to overcome the challenges that humans send its way. Consequently, White’s story is not one that ends in doom and gloom, but rather one that has an open ending. Nature and humanity will continue to buck back and forth, neither one completely falling off the map.

Feature Photo: “Cranberry Lake – Dock at Sunset,” Deception Pass State Park – 08/19/2012 Island County, WA, by B. Gallatin

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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