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.
Environmental History Textbooks
- Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).
- Carolyn Merchant, Major Problems in American Environmental History (Toronto: D.C. Heath and Company, 1993).
- J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000).
- Louis S. Warren, American Environmental History (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).
- Graeme Wynn, Canada and Arctic North America: An Environmental History (ABC-Clio, Inc.: Denver, Colorado, 2007).
- Steinberg, Ted. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Edmund Burke III and Kenneth Pomeranz, The Environment and World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
- Alan MacEachern and William J. Turkel, Method and Meaning in Canadian Environmental History (Toronto, Ontario: Nelson Education Ltd., 2009).
In Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash, an environmental studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, seeks to outline the origin and evolution of America’s perception of wilderness. He is quick to point out that his goal is not to define wilderness, but rather to trace what men think wilderness is. Similarly to William Cronon’s and the other writer’s postmodern contributions in Uncommon Ground, Nash highlights the subjectivity that surrounds the concept of wilderness. “There is no specific material object that is wilderness,” he writes, “The term designates a quality that produces a certain mood or feeling in a given individual…because of this subjectivity a universally acceptable definition of wilderness is elusive.” (1) Being children of the Old World, Nash demonstrates that Americans were heavily influenced by wilderness thought in early modern Europe where it was largely viewed through the biased lens of Christianity, which, though sometimes championing wilderness as a pure sanctuary, often portrayed wilderness as the enemy of man, an entity that must be conquered and tamed. This understanding of wilderness was transported to the New World, according to Nash, where it thrived and mutated to an even more intense detestation of the natural world. Puritans and other early settlers viewed wilderness as a threat to their physical well-being, and their earthly duty was to overcome and eradicate it. As settlement drove westward, more and more wilderness was available to be conquered and turned into civilization, the celebration of which lent to the development of a uniquely American national identity. The initial glimmerings of a nuanced view of wilderness and man’s role in it came from the romantic camp in the early nineteenth century largely based in the nation’s cities. These romantics, some considered primitivists, believed that the quality of man’s life decreased the further from wilderness he found himself. This view was solidified by the works of Henry David Thoreau, the great figure of Transcendentalism who found the essence of spirituality to lie in nature. Later in the nineteenth century, John Muir took this spiritual connection to the next level by inciting many of his generation to support the preservation of wilderness. Going into the twentieth century, wilderness underwent a role reversal, although it was still thoroughly defined in relation to human use, largely due to the fact that people were awakening to the fact that it was almost gone. Science also caught up to popular opinion, as the new field of ecology was developed and popularized by individuals like Aldo Leopold. With these new understandings of the natural process, many people now understood that they were a part of nature, not independent entities immune to the effects of environmental degradation. This change in attitude led to the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the midst of which Nash was originally writing.
Nash ends his narrative with the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System. This act is most likely the impetus for Nash’s study, as it, according to Nash, marked a turning point in American society. For the first time individuals with preservationists leanings had the benefit of knowing that the government had formally pledged to save some of its wilderness. It was an official declaration by the government that wilderness had value outside of its harboring of natural resources. Additionally, Nash was living in a world that was increasingly urban. This urban environment, as he observes, was increasingly taking on the sinister characteristics that were once reserved for the darkness of wilderness. Nash treats urban and wilderness environments are two poles, between which a spectrum of shading can occur as most environments are not completely wilderness nor completely urban, but somewhere in between, the middle being represented by pastoralism. Contemporary concerns drive Nash’s study of wilderness. This concern is largely based in his apprehension towards the commoditization of nature in the form of recreation and tourism. “The final irony,” he writes, “in the history of the American wilderness is that this very increase in appreciation may ultimately prove its undoing.” (235) Humans are alien to wilderness, Nash asserts. Thus, even their interaction with it on an enjoyment level threatens its livelihood. By taking this stance, Nash is suggesting that humans and nature are not part of the same sphere after all. Humans lie outside nature and perhaps cannot intermix without playing out the disastrous fate of one or the other, at least in a society in which nature is commoditized. Nash brings into light one of the most significant questions of the human/nature relationship in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: that by preserving wilderness for recreation resource rather than industrial resource are we just choosing the lesser of two evils?
The main strength of Wilderness and the American Mind in the classroom is its ability to open students’ minds to the complex and ever-evolving relationship between man and nature and to illustrate the fact that the defining of nature and wilderness is not a straightforward matter, but rather a highly subjective experience, each student likely holding their own personal understanding of and feelings toward nature and wilderness, which may conflict with that of the person sitting next to them. Wilderness and the American Mind also provides an excellent intellectual history narrative by which one can demonstrate the integrality of the concept of wilderness to the history of the United States and the formation of a unique American character. Due to the subjectivity of the subject and its narrow focus it is not a good book for a lower-level undergraduate survey course, but would make a first-rate book for an upper-level environmental history course as it would be good for inciting discussion and critical thinking.
Major Problems in American Environmental History, edited by Carolyn Merchant, provides the reader with a synthesis of the major topics in environmental history, which, in 1993, was still a relatively new subset of historical research. The collection is specifically designed for use within the classroom and follows a strict pattern throughout. Each chapter is broken down into documents and essays. The chapter introduction provides the reader with an overview of the place and time period of the particular topic. The documents are mainly firsthand accounts provided by individuals that experienced the specific environmental event. “These primary sources,” Merchant writes, “stimulate students to form their own opinions on environmental history and through discussion with others, to develop confidence in their own interpretations.” (ix) The essays that follow the documents in each chapter are meant to provide students with examples of how different scholars can come to different conclusions and stories about the same topic, inciting them to evaluate the reliability of these different accounts and demonstrating the ways in which author biases influence historical writing.
The first chapter tackles the question as to how environmental history can be defined. Merchant argues that the definition of environmental history is elusive because the field is still in the process of self-definition. The term “environment” as used in environmental history refers “to the natural and human-created surroundings that affect a living organism or a group of organisms’ ability to maintain themselves and develop over time,” (1) Merchant writes. Ecology, on the other hand, “refers to the relationships between these organisms and their surroundings.” (1) Although ecological history is an inherently more expansive subject, the term is often used interchangeably with environmental history. Merchant provides four essays that tackle the question of defining environmental history. In the first essay, Donald Worster provides three levels of environmental history analysis. The first level is ecologically based and focuses on the structure of natural environments. The second level deals with the development of technologies which shape man’s interaction with the environment. The third level is an intellectual one, which deals with human perceptions, ideas, and myths revolving around their understanding and interaction with the environment. Worster reemphasizes his declensionist viewpoint towards environmental history, which William Cronon, in the second essay, warns is apt to be too extreme. The third essay is a snippet from Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, and the fourth essay is written by Merchant who emphasizes the importance of ecological revolutions, namely the colonial and capitalist ecological revolutions, in American environmental history. The subsequent chapters in Major Problems in American Environmental History are organized largely by natural resource topics, such as forests, cotton, and grasslands, which attracted an evolving cast of individuals to various regions of North America. Merchant states that she took particular care to include the voices of minorities and women, which she succeeds in accomplishing by including such pieces as “Freed Slave Louis Hughes on Cotton and Cotton Worms, 1897” and “An Indian Woman Deplores the Soreness of the Land, Recorded in 1925.” Merchant also includes a few experimental pieces, which are written from the viewpoints of a beaver and a forest.
Overall, Major Problems in Environmental History provides an excellent assortment of documents and essays, which are likely to achieve the goals that Merchant intended for the collection. The only real problem with the collection is its title, which admittedly was almost definitely thrust upon it by being a part of the Major Problems in American History series. Presenting a topic like environmental history to undergraduate students is not an easy task. Many students, after being introduced to concept of authorial bias, are skeptical of historical analysis in the first place, and one can envision some less-dedicated students being turned off by a title that openly states that the field is inherently problematic. Additionally, the term “problem” is problematic and misleading in and of itself, as the “problems” presented in the collection are not unique to environmental history and are the very basis for debate that lends history its richness and evolving relevancy.
Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World is, at its base, an anthropocentric story of environmental change, writes J.R. McNeill. McNeill states that his main objective is to persuade the reader of four main propositions. The first proposition McNeill puts forward is that the twentieth century is unique environmentally due to the increased intensity of change and the central role of mankind in this change. Secondly, McNeill proposes that this twentieth century distinctiveness is the result of the unintended consequences of social, political, economic, and intellectual predilections and patterns. Thirdly, McNeill contends that “our patterns of thought, behavior, production, and consumption are adapted to our current circumstances—that is, to the current climate, to the twentieth century’s abundance of cheap energy and cheap fresh water, to rapid population growth, and to yet more rapid economic growth.” (xvii) Lastly, McNeill argues that these twentieth century inclinations and routines will not be easily adaptable to future changes in our environmental circumstances. For instance, the United States is a nation that was built on the promise of cheap energy, and the increasing unavailability of this cheap energy threatens to cripple the country, which is disinclined to tailor its habits to changing circumstances until it is no longer a matter of choice, but immediate urgency. McNeill asserts that these four points and the narrative that he presents is meant to show the reader that human socioeconomic history and ecological history cannot be properly analyzed if treated separately from one another.
Adaptability and inherent ingenuity have thus far ensured the biological success of humanity, McNeill writes. This adaptability and ingenuity has played a particularly prominent role in the last one hundred years as man has developed a fossil-fuel based society, a society which, like no society before it, causes a great deal of ecological disruption. These disruptions cause a kind of environmental havoc, which, McNeill argues, which gives the most adaptable and ingenious species the upper hand. The theme of unintended consequences and shortsightedness plays a leading role throughout Something New Under the Sun. “The regime of perpetual disturbance is an accidental by-product of billions of human ambitions and efforts, of unconscious social evolution,” McNeill states. Humanity attempts to manage nature to best suit the insurance of its biological proliferation and subsequently remolds its society to fit these new environmental circumstances. Environmental change has always occurred, as nature is dynamic, however, in earlier centuries natural constraints held human population growth and energy regimes at bay. The twentieth century marked the breaking of these constraints, leading to an unprecedented level of human-induced change in the environment. McNeill approaches topics of environmental change topically, focusing chapters on particular sectors of the environment, such as the atmosphere or the hydrosphere. These topic approaches are also done in a general manner, McNeill using examples from around the world to demonstrate particular patterns of development.
McNeill claims that he has, as much as possible, refrained from passing judgment on the environmental changes that he describes, leaving it to the reader to decide whether they are good or bad. However, by presenting the twentieth century as a period of distinction due to the massive increase in technological, social, and economic systems whose main outcome is environmental change to the detriment of other species, McNeill is essentially presenting a declensionist, and thus value-based, tale. “By the twentieth century, our numbers, or high-energy technologies, and our refined division of labor with its exchange economy made us capable of total transformation of any and all ecosystems,” he writes. McNeill acknowledges that humans have the ability to control this power, but they have not opted to as of yet and McNeill is not overly optimistic for changes in the future. Something New Under the Sun would be best used as a secondary reading for a modern world history or environmental history course as it presents, due to its single authorship, a more narrow example of environmental history scholarship.
Louis S. Warren offers a more traditional textbook format in American Environmental History. Warren provides a selection of articles and documents, organized similarly to Merchant’s Major Problems in American Environmental History, which are meant to demonstrate the various ways and areas in which individuals have lived within the natural systems of what is now the United States from pre-European arrival to the present. Warren defines environmental history as the study of “how people have lived in the natural systems of the planet, and how they have perceived nature and reshaped it to suit their own idea of good living…more than this, the field of environmental history encompasses the investigation of how nature, once changed, requires people to reshape their cultures, economies, and politics to meet new realities.” (1) Warren’s definition correlates closely with the version of environmental history that McNeill presents in Something New Under the Sun, an anthropocentric environmental history based on humans changing nature. However, unlike McNeill, Warren emphasizes the fact that significant, human-induced, environmental transformations were occurring well before the twentieth century. One of Warren’s main assertions is that “all peoples change nature to achieve their notion of the good life.” (4)
Warren begins by demonstrating that the world of the Native American before Europe’s arrival on the continent was not an idyllic Garden of Eden. Earlier tendencies to portray Native Americans as part of nature were popularized because it made them weaker and lesser beings, enabling and lending credence to their exploitation. The article provided, William M. Denevan’s “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492,” enumerates upon the various ways that Native Americans shaped the environment, including agriculture, fire, and the building of their civilization’s infrastructural mainstays, such as roads and causeways. Warren then approaches the concept of ecological imperialism, using Alfred Crosby’s “Virgin Soil Epidemics,” to demonstrate the great impact that invasive species from Europe, particularly European diseases had on the environment. Warren offers chapters on the environment’s connection to slavery based on Mart A. Stewart’s work and on the decline of bison based on Dan Flores’ research. Warren emphasizes that environmental history does not just encompass historical occurrences in rural areas, but is also deeply connected to the build-up of urban regions, particularly the rapid urbanization that accompanied industrialization during the nineteenth century. Out of industrialization grew the conservation movement, which, referring to Benjamin Heber Johnson’s article “Conservation, Subsistence, and Class at the Birth of Superior National Forest,” was often criticized as an elitist movement. Warren also addresses the intellectual side of history, noting the evolving trends of thought surrounding the concepts of nature and wilderness, offering William Cronon article from Uncommon Ground, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” as an example of such scholarship. Understanding the evolution of environmental thought, Warren argues, enables us to understand how we got to where we are today; environmental history as a whole, he states, offers lessons on how to deal with contemporary, environmental quandaries. American Environmental History would make a good textbook for an environmental history survey or seminar course because it acts as a kind of avenue down which one can observe many of the seminal arguments and pieces of scholarship within the field. Warren’s presentation, though similar to Merchant’s, seems more approachable.
Graeme Wynn’s Canada and Arctic North America: An Environmental History is part of the Nature and Human Societies series. The series, according to the series coordinator, Mark Stoll, is designed to examine the ways in which humans and nature transform one another in various regions of the world. Stoll, similarly to McNeill, writes that today humans are practically the sole force changing the environment for the first time in human history. Yet, he also notes that despite humans often believing that they are complete masters of their domain, their collective and individual destinies are still largely shaped by natural forces. “The authors of the books in this series endeavor to tell the remarkable epic of the intertwined fates of humanity and the natural world,” Stoll states. In Wynn’s introduction he discusses the fact that environmental history comes in many different varieties. Wynn refers to the same Worster essay that Merchant uses in Major Problems in American Environmental History, in which he presents the three levels of environmental history: ecological, material, and intellectual. Wynn leans towards McNeill’s adaptation of Worster’s level system, which suggests that environmental histories are distinguished by the extent to which material, cultural, and political matters are represented in the narrative. Canada and Arctic North America focuses largely on the ways in which anthropocentric activity has changed and rearranged northern North America. Wynn employs mainly a materialist brand of environmental history. However, Wynn writes that “rather than adopting a rigid materialist or idealist stance. I seek to understand times and places contextually. Thus, the pages that follow are concerned not only to document environmental change but to understand how places came to be.” (xii)
Wynn, consistent with the series’ aims, puts emphasis on the fact that humans and nature intermingle on a daily basis, each changing the other in a myriad of ever-changing ways. This continuous current of symbiotic interchange is restructured, particularly since the late nineteenth century, by evolving technologies of production, movement, and communication and also by the evolution of ideas about nature. Wynn writes that it cannot be overlooked that it is often the dominating perceptions and conceptions of the environment that effect social controls, like moral regulation, and political considerations, such as laws, which often determine the ways in which people can acceptably interact with the environment. Viewing “nature as a social construction,” Wynn writes,” complicates the seemingly easy distinction between nature and culture.” (xiii). Humans cannot view nature without the biases of the culture in which they live effecting their perspective. However, in Canada and Arctic North America, Wynn specifically does not delve too far into the cultural aspect of man’s relationship with nature, instead focusing on the material.
Undertaking a synthesis of the environmental history of such a large geographic area and immense time span is quite challenging. Wynn attempts to make this enormous task more feasible by separating the book into five major chronological sections. The first section is entitled “Deep Time,” and begins with the initial of influx of flora, fauna, and then humans into the region after the ice age. The second section is “Contact and its Consequences,” which explores the effects of ecological imperialism on the native animal, plant, and human inhabitants. “Settlers in the Wooden World,” looks at the effects upon the natural landscape as Europeans began to settle permanently in the region. The fourth section, “Nature Subdued,” looks at the marked increase in environmental change that occurred with the harnessing of coal, iron, and steam power and electricity beginning during the nineteenth century industrial revolution. Finally, “Nature Transformed,” deals mainly with the last half of the twentieth century, a period marked by an obsession with development and progress, the negative effects of which began to be dealt with and acknowledged towards the end of the century. Wynn seeks to demonstrate that the history of Canada can be told without placing politics at the center of it. Taken as a whole, Wynn presents an excellent overview of Canadian environmental history, which would be useful in a Canadian history or Canadian environmental history course.
In Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History, Ted Steinberg, states that he is attempting to change the way the reader thinks about American history. Steinberg announces that he “will argue that the natural world—defined here as plants and animals, climate and weather, soil and water—has profoundly shaped the American past.” (ix) Typically, environmental history is best known and presented as a subset of American political history, whether it be the conservation movement of the Progressive Era or the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. However, historical topics like climate and soil fertility, the likes of which humanity depends upon for survival, have not received the same level of publicity. For example, Steinberg argues that the initial industrialization of the country would never have occurred had New England not been a region gifted with abundant precipitation. Nature is often disregarded by historians and the general public who are all too captivated with the historical bastion of wars and great men. In Down to Earth, Steinberg wishes to demonstrate that understanding nature’s role is critical to truly understanding the past.
Steinberg describes his writing strategy in Down to Earth as writing history “from the ground up.” He describes environmental history as centering “on the examination of various relationships—how natural forces shape history, how humankind affects nature, and how these ecological changes then turn around to influence human life once again in a reciprocating pattern.” (xi) Steinberg identifies three main turning points in American history when viewed at the environmental level, which are similar to Merchant’s ecological revolution classification system. The first turning point is marked by the arrival of European on the continent and the massive ecological changes that occurred due to the largely one-sided exchange of flora, fauna, and pathogens. Steinberg recognizes the Land Ordinance of 1785 as the second turning point in American environmental history because it marks the point at which nature ultimately became a rationalized commodity and was put up for sale. The third turning point occurred in the mid-to-late nineteenth century with the rise of mass consumerism, a cultural development that Steinberg argues was largely crafted by the modern corporation. Like Donald Worster, to whom Steinberg dedicates the book, he views contemporary American society as a civilization that is out of balance with the natural world. Presenting an admittedly anthropocentric view, Steinberg states that he considers “a culture out of balance with the natural world if it is either undermining its present ability to sustain itself or foreclosing on its capacity to respond to future change.” (x) Using this definition of ecological imbalance, Steinberg makes an assertion that the United States has been dangerously out of rhythm with its natural environment since the nineteenth century.
Steinberg’s main goal is to use the historical record to demonstrate when and why ecological change has occurred and to argue that the commodification of nature has led to these changes. By connecting a price to nature, the market desensitized the populous to the natural world around it, what Steinberg refers to as ecological amnesia. Down to Earth is divided into a prologue, which discusses North America’s environment before man, and three sections, which trace the gradual degradation of the environment at the hands of capitalists. Steinberg’s narrative in the first half of the book is good, but fairly standard. However, once Steinberg reaches the late nineteenth and twentieth century, his narrative gains a great deal of momentum and strength, as he deals with topics, such as meat production and e-waste, which are rarely acknowledged in typical American history overviews. Down to Earth would make a good accompanying textbook for an environmental history or contemporary American history course.
Similarly to Steinberg, Edward Burke III, co-editor of The Environment and World History, asserts that environmental history has the unique ability to restructure the way in which man understands his past. “By focusing on the impact of human activity on the biosphere,” Burke writes, “the environmental perspective not only opens new topics for investigation but also changes our understanding of the emergence of the modern world.” (xi) The field of environmental history, however, according to Burke, has traditionally been far too limited in its scope. Most environmental histories are anthropocentric in nature and focus on a particular, relatively small region. Due to the fact that the field originated in the United States and Europe, these regions are typically located in North America or Western Europe. Hardly any environmental historians have attempted to look at the broader effect that ecological factors have on world-historical forces. Additionally the western-centered mindset of the field also leads to skewed analyses of other regions, as it tends to be obsessed with the negative effects of capitalism on the environment and the battle between capitalists, conservationists, and environmentalists. Other countries and cultures, such as the American Indian, on the other hand, do not view their history as a story of capitalist growth, but rather a struggle against colonial and post-colonial states. Burke provides an example of how South Asians view conventional American environmental history. “From the South Asian perspective,” Burke argues, “U.S. conservation and preservationist movements resemble nineteenth and twentieth century British colonial policies that sought to police marginal (often indigenous) people and delegitimize their modes of land use on behalf of major agricultural interests.” Burke’s argument is parallel to John Sandlos’ argument in Hunters at the Margins and Karl Jacoby’s argument in Crimes Against Nature, in which they demonstrate how conservation efforts often forced rural and indigenous peoples to move and/or give up their traditional ways of life.
One of the main objectives of The Environment and World History is to rethink the familiar narratives of a region by considering the viewpoints of the provincial populous as a whole. The collection, as the title suggests, is meant to be a combination of environmental and new world history, the core focus of which is to break down the European-focused tendencies of world history. Burke argues that global environmental history is an urgent intellectual project. Kenneth Pomeranz, the second editor of the collection, writes that “by bringing environmental and world historians together, [The Environment and World History] hopes to encourage the construction of a more methodologically self-conscious and integrative environmental world history.” ( 3) The essays in the collection, however, are still focused on specific regions due to the fact that a true world history is often too difficult to accomplish in a collection of this kind. The essays, which represent a wide variety of regions around the world, are hoped to support the three main themes of the volume. The first theme is the importance of “the relationship between state formation and environmental history.” (4) The second theme is “the need to place modern development in the context of deep histories of human interactions with particular environments.” (4) The third theme of the collection is that “regionally specific political economies and cultural practices continue to shape the local instantiations of a global transformation in the management of nature and society, which we call the developmentalist project.” (4) The concept of developmentalism is the most pronounced thread throughout the entire volume. Developmentalism, as Pomeranz describes it, is characterized by ever-strengthening bonds between states and sources of capital often at the expense of the region’s poorer inhabitants and the increasing intensification of resource exploitation. The most important aspect of developmentalism is that it demonstrates the fact that development and exploitation are not activities that are solely connected to capitalism. The essays in the collection offer a variety of examples of this concept of developmentalism, including the dependence of the Middle East on irrigational development, flood control in China, and the artificial redesign of the Rhine. Environment and World History jumps around a bit too much for it to be useful as a main textbook for a course on environmental history, but it or a selection of its articles would be useful as a supplementary text for an environmental or world history course, or a course that focuses on the history of one of the regions or time periods represented in the collection.
Method and Meaning in Canadian Environmental History, edited by Alan MacEachern and William J. Turkel, provides the reader with a rare glimpse into the individual rationale behind the writing of works of history. MacEachern begins the volume by describing his own personal journey into environmental history research. While reading George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, MacEachern observed a footnote that mentioned a large-scale New Brunswick fire in Miramichi in 1825. MacEachern was surprised to find out that the event, though it must have been significant, had been ignored in historical accounts. MacEachern decided to attempt to find out more about the event, which led him on an expedition to the New Brunswick archives and on a field trip to site of the fire. MacEachern argues that his research story demonstrates the centrality of two major characteristics of environmental history. Firstly, it exemplifies the fact that “environmental historians argue that because nature is central to human affairs, it is an appropriate, even necessary subject for historical study.” (xi) Environmental history, humans MacEachern asserts, is dependent on the assumption that humans shape the environment and the environment shapes humanity in turn. Secondly, MacEachern’s story exemplifies environmental history’s inclination to be deeply connected to contemporary environmental issues.
The essays that follow in Method and Meaning in Canadian Environmental History are meant to illustrate and explicate the theory and practice of environmental history. Instead of a collection of peer-reviewed articles like most essay collections, Method and Meaning is made up of a set of essays that were especially written for this collection. The contributors were asked to write an essay based on one of their previous works, which explains the basis for their writing, their research and writing processes, and how their particular areas of expertise helped them to tell the story that they wished to tell. MacEachern and Turkel contend that Canada makes a particularly good playing field for environmental history because it exemplifies the characteristics of the developed world, while simultaneously remaining relatively undeveloped. The essays represent a wide selection of research experiences. Graeme Wynn describes the way in which George Perkins Marsh greatly shaped his early research interests, Peter E. Pope describes how he became interested in the early European fishing industry in Canada and how he began to use GIS to better understand the industry, and Carolyn Podruchny describes how she became interested in human geography, among others.
Method and Meaning in Canadian Environmental History is a kind of breath of fresh air because it demonstrates the human side of the historian. Often historians seem like untouchable figures who seamlessly articulate their superior knowledge-base to the masses. The essays in Method and Meaning offer a window into the historians mind and provide a graspable portrait of the historical writing and research process. Method and Meaning would be a good addition to an upper-level undergraduate history course or a master’s historiography or historical writing course.