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 Science

  • J.R. McNeill and Verena Winiwarter, Soils and Societies: Perspectives from Environmental History (Isle of Harris, UK: The White Horse Press, 2006). 
  • Morris Zaslow, Reading the Rocks: The Story of the Geological Survey of Canada, 1842-1972 (Toronto, Ontario: The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1975). 
  • W.A. Waiser, The Field Naturalist: John Macoun, the Geological Survey, and Natural Science (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989). 
  • Suzanne Zeller, Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of a Transcontinental Nation (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009). 
  • Paul W. Riegert, From Arsenic to DDT: A History of Entomology in Western Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.  
  • Clinton L. Evans, The War on Weeds in the Prairie West (Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 2002). 

One of the greatest contributions that environmental history has made to the field of history, according to J.R. McNeill, holder of the Cinco Hermanos Chair in Environmental and International Affairs at Georgetown University, and Verena Winiwarter, a postdoctoral fellow in environmental history at the Faculty for Interdisciplinary Research of Klagenfurt University, is to recognize that the environment and all its various facets are not merely stages on which historical events occur, but rather dynamic, active historical agents in and of themselves. In Soils and Societies: Perspectives from Environmental History, edited by McNeill and Winiwarter, the contributors examine the role of soil in history. “Soils have their own histories, both natural and human,” McNeill and Winiwarter write. The natural history of soil is shaped by the interplay between the geology, climate, and vegetation of its region. Coupling the natural and human histories of soil enables the historian to look at history in a similar fashion to Fernand Braudel’s concept of the longue duree. The human history of soil, however, they argue, is both material and intellectual. Culture determines the way in which a society uses and affects the soil. Similarly to Inescapable Ecologies, in which Linda Nash looks at the way in which the evolution of medical knowledge affected the interaction of people in California with the environment, McNeill and Winiwarter emphasize that what a society understands and misunderstands about soils plays a significant role in their interaction with the land and thus shapes many other aspects of a society’s historical experience.  

The essays in the collection, McNeill and Winiwarter hope, are meant to provide helpful guidance for contemporary agricultural and soil dilemmas. Soil management is of the upmost importance because humanity relies on it for food production. Soil use has changed drastically over the last several centuries, they explain. At first humanity relied upon soil because it obtained nearly all of its food supply from plants. The switch to agriculture changed society’s relationship to the soil, but this relationship remained an integral part of life, as various religious practices that worshipped the soil to maintain its fertility demonstrate. The pastoral village maintained a healthy relationship with the soil because people lived rather sedentarily, and their organic waste, including their corpses, remained in the area and thus maintained a continuous, soil nutrient revitalization process. With the rise of urbanization, however, the relationship between man and nature changed dramatically, argue McNeill and Winiwarter. The farms exported their food to urban centers and the wastes needed to maintain soil fertility never made their way back to the farmland, thus causing long-term nutrient loss. As Brian Donahue demonstrated in The Great Meadow, the system of mixed-husbandry initially enabled European farmers to use the manure from their animal grazers in order to offset the problem of waste displacement. In “Nutrient-Flows in Pre-Modern Agriculture in Europe,” Robert S. Shiel looks more closely at the sustainability of early land use techniques in Europe. However, in North America, the trend has been to move towards a system of agricultural monocultures, which rob the soil of its nutrients and require a great deal of ingenuity and capital to maintain. The recent trend towards organic farming represents a re-embracement of the kind of mixed husbandry that proved sustainable in the past. Historians tend to overlook the fact that successful or unsuccessful soil management has determined the outcomes of many a population; the essays in Soil and Societies acknowledgement this fact and look at the topic of human relationships to the soil in a number of regions and on a number of time scales.  

In “An Introduction to Soil Nutrient Flows,” Shiel explains how the organic properties of the land determine its productive capability and how this relates to the concept of crop rotation and organic farming. The quality or characteristics of a given area of soil depends largely on the amount of time that its components have been allowed to settle and decompose. This process of decomposition results in stages, each of which are desirable for some plants and animals and not for others, thus explaining the utility of crop rotations, which takes advantage of and manipulates the stages at which various crops enjoy the most productivity. In “Exploitation and Conservation of Soil in the 3000-Year Agricultural and Forestry History of South Asia,” R.J. Wasson discusses how soil is not often considered on its own, but rather as part of a system, like agriculture, or a process, like erosion. Tim Beach, Sheryl Luzzader-Beach, and Nicholas Dunning demonstrate the lengthy and intricate relationship between humans and soil in “A Soils History of Mesoamerica and the Caribbean Islands.” Beach, Beach, and Dunning emphasize the fact that indigenous peoples understood this relationship far more and practiced more sustainable agricultural and management techniques. However, they did so in a more sustainable manner than that practiced today. The disregard of this indigenous knowledge coupled with an increase in population is the main reasons that soil landscapes are being rapidly depleted in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean today, they argue. Like those authors that highlight indigenous use of fire, they acknowledge that the Mayans and other ancient groups changed the environment in which they lived in order to suit their purposes. The Beachs further illustrate native land management in their article, “Wetlands as the Intersection of Soils, Water and Indigenous Human Society in the Americas.” “Many wetlands in the Americas,” they write, “are so altered by humans that it is often difficult to draw a line between what is cultural and what is natural.” (91)  

In Canada, a cultural, political, and economic system largely based on the country’s natural resource wealth catapulted soil and other geological formations and occurrences into the national spotlight in the form of a governmental organization known as the Geological Survey of Canada. In Reading the Rocks: The Story of the Geological Survey of Canada, 1842-1972, Morris Zaslow, Professor Emeritus in the History Department at the University of Western Ontario, provides a detailed narrative of the Geological Survey of Canada’s history. Though a commissioned, commemorative history, Reading the Rocks is not obnoxiously celebratory and does not gloss over some of the seedier details as the Survey battled for survival amidst the fickle atmosphere of politics. “Since the Geological Survey is a long-lived branch of the national government,” Zaslow writes, “its history must also be concerned with how the Survey functioned so successfully in conjunction with a variety of administrative and political superiors, with the mining and other industries, with the academic and scientific communities, and with five generations of the Canadian public.” Aside from changes in the public’s mood and priorities, Zaslow also highlights the ways in which the Survey had to adjust to changes in scientific methodology. Similarly to the National Park services in the United States and Canada, Zaslow notes that the Survey was significantly molded by the hundreds of individuals who passed through the organization as employees. Zaslow pays particular attention to the numerous individuals that left their mark on the Survey, and subsequently the nation, in his account. The Geological Survey of Canada, he remarks, is unique in that it has served as both a separate institution and as an division of the national government. 

In its formative years, beginning in 1842, the Survey acted as one of the chief exploratory agents in Canada’s hinterland, first in Ontario and later in the West after the obtainment of Rupert’s Land in 1870, because in their efforts to chart the geological characteristics of the region, they also took note of the land’s water sources, wildlife, native inhabitants, etc.. The members of the Survey acted as expert advisors to the government and played a major role in bringing attention to Canada’s resource opportunities, shaping government policy, and encouraging that the Dominion to exercise sovereignty over the region. The Survey also, due to their explorations, assisted in developing the geological and geographical maps of the backcountry and collected a wide variety of geological, floral, and even faunal specimens. First and foremost, however, the Survey was founded as an instrument of the Canadian mining industry, meant to help promote and ensure the progress of the industry, which at times caused the Survey’s employees much angst. Being a scientific institution and an instrument of the government and mining industry placed the Survey in some difficult situations throughout the years and greatly shaped the course of its development. The Survey had to carefully balance its scientific findings so as not to bring about charges of treason from the mining industry and the government. Despite the limitations this situation caused, the Survey was still able to promote science in Canada and consequently promote Canada internationally, as Canada became a center for the development of various scientific fields. The Survey, Zaslow claims, played a significant part in convincing the rest of the world that Canada was a modern and progressive nation.  

In the mid-1800s, geology was, and still is, like history, considered to be a way in which one could discover the past. By determining the way in which the earth developed from the past into the present form, it was hope that one could determine the way in which the earth would develop in the future. The Survey began as a small organization and gradually grew in size and importance, as the directors determined ways to make the Survey valuable in the eyes of the public and government. These adjustments often involved the Survey changing to meet the times, such as shifting from field to lab work. Similarly to the Canadian National Parks, Zaslow demonstrates how the larger political and economic situation in Canada and the world determined the amount of freedom, funding, and respect the organization received; additionally, he shows how the employees’ commitment to the scientific integrity of the Survey rarely flagged even when the government or the mining industry demanded that the Survey’s activities become more nationally and industrially focused. One employee that did not find the balance between science, government, and mining interests difficult was John Macoun, who served as a botanist for the Geological Survey of Canada.  

In The Field Naturalist: John Macoun, the Geological Survey and Natural Science, W.A. Waiser analyzes Macoun’s career in association with the Survey and the Canadian scientific community in general. Macoun, Waiser states, was appointed a position in the Geological Survey of Canada in 1882 as a result of his positive appraisal of the Canadian west’s agricultural potential. However, a quarter of a century earlier, Macoun’s life was heading down a very different path. Macoun migrated with his family from Ireland in 1850. Throughout his youth, he fostered a deep interest in native plant life and botany. However, instead of following a career in science, Macoun initially became a farmer. In 1856, he changed career paths and became a public school teacher, as well as an active member of the Presbyterian Church and Conservative Party. In 1968 he was named Natural History Chair at Albert College. However, despite these impressive accomplishments, Macoun was not content until he was able to spend his days in the field doing what he loved: collecting and cataloguing natural specimens. Macoun was lucky enough to become a participant in several exploratory surveys of the west between 1872 and 1881, which led to his position at the Geological Survey of Canada.  

At the time Canada gained possession of Rupert’s Land and the Northwestern Territory in 1870, it was believed that the land, as Doug Owram demonstrates in The Promise of Eden, held great agricultural opportunity and would lead the way to a British/Canadian empire. As Owram discusses, the opening of the west caused governmental officials to work feverishly to encourage immigration to the region and to improve the region’s environmental reputation. The government expected that the scientific community would cooperate with this agenda and provide reports that accentuated the region’s hospitable, agricultural proclivity. Waiser demonstrates how Macoun’s professional and personal positioning enabled him to fit well into this western, propaganda-driven movement. Macoun’s personal understanding of science’s role in society, unlike that of many scientists, did not clash with the government’s belief that science was only useful in those ways that advanced the economic interests of the nation. At the time Macoun joined the Geological Survey of Canada, the agency was in danger of becoming useless in the eyes of the government and was fighting to maintain relevancy. Macoun gave little serious thought to Darwinian Theory. To him, Waiser notes, nature was God’s creation, God’s gift to man, which man was to dominate and use for his own aims. The study of nature naturally led to the advancement of man and industry. Macoun believed that the character of the vegetation in the west was directly related to the quality of the region’s soil and climate, and thus wholeheartedly, to the pleasure of the Canadian government and resource industries, advocated the agricultural suitability of the region. These “sweeping generalizations,” as Waiser calls them, jived perfectly with the government and railway’s yearnings for westward expansion, thus catapulting Macoun into scientific stardom. Waiser stresses Macoun’s stubborn and proud nature, which allowed him to have utmost faith in the practicality of his findings and caused him to present himself as an utmost expert on the topic, a descriptor that the public did not question.   

Macoun, till the very end of his career, remained committed to the older style of comprehensive field work based partially on Baconian inventory methods; he disparaged the trend towards specialization and laboratory work. Because of this heavy emphasis on collection rather than identification, Macoun and other Canadians, in the early years, had to rely on the international scientific community to identify and catalogue the items. However, his impressive collecting abilities enabled the founding of the National Museum of Canada in 1912. Macoun was one of the first to push for the founding of such a museum so that the nation could properly house its collections as well as advertise its scientific prowess to the Canadian public and to other countries.  

Although Suzanne Zeller overlooks Macoun’s contribution to the Canadian natural science tradition, she, like Zaslow and Waiser, recognizes the key role that science has played in the formation of a Canadian nation state and national identity. In Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of a Transcontinental Nation, Zeller, an associate professor in history, history of science, and environmental history at Wilfred Laurier University, explores the way in which ideas surrounding science, including those explored by Zaslow in Reading the Rocks, shaped the attitudes of British Canadians during the Victorian era. Zeller portrays the state of science during the Victorian years as a complex web of information flowing not only between scientists and other experts, but also between politicians, businessmen, farmers, educators, journalists, and the like. The Victorian Age was fraught by a number of material difficulties, largely due to the national growing pains and the onslaught of modernization. Zeller argues that Canadians turned towards science to make sense of the ever-changing world in which they lived and also to bring meaning to their existence. Science offered the counterargument to the tendency for Canadians to view their natural environment as an unfriendly, untamable foe, a counterargument that the Canadian government encouraged in order to spur hinterland cultivation and settlement. The growth of science in Canada was a direct result of its relationship with Britain where science was embraced was the leading cultural approach during the industrial revolution. “The authority of science as a spearhead of the age of progress grew dramatically throughout Victoria’s domains, mainly because of its apparent power to promote utilitarian ends,” (3) Zeller writes. Science was the key to prosperity, an avenue out of a subsistence way of life.  

Victorian science, Zeller asserts, was influenced greatly by two seventeenth century ways of thought: Baconianism, which Waiser touched upon in relation to Macoun, and Newtonianism. Baconianism enabled science to advance by way of observation, collection, identification, and experimentation. Newtonianism identified science with Enlightenment rationality. Both traditions emphasized utilitarianism and equated nature with the mechanical. In the 1840s, this outlook on nature as static was challenged by the development of Darwinion Theory, which suggested that the natural world was dynamic and undergoing a continuous process of change. Nevertheless, in both the natural and physical sciences, the tradition of inventory science held strong throughout the Victorian age due to its connection to utilitarianism. As Waiser and Zaslow showed, Canada considered science to be valuable only in direct connection to its practical usefulness. Yet, Zeller argues, this external drive for utility can easily camouflage some of the cultural nuances both being influenced by science and being the influencer. Comprehending the importance of science in Victorian Canada is only possible, she claims, if one looks beyond its utilitarian virtues. In order to fully understand the state of science during Victorian Canada, she contends, one must recognize the way in which science was adopted into the values system of the time period. Science provided answers to the era’s dilemmas as well as a way of building a well-ordered, united society. Only science could make possible the joining of disparate peoples over a vast land under the spirit of a unified nationality. “Science,” Zeller writes, “provided nineteenth century colonists…with not only the practical means to dominate their physical surroundings but also an ideological framework within which to comprehend the experience of doing so.” (6) Zeller refers to various scientific and organic metaphors that were used to describe society and the future as a way of demonstrating the strong link between science, the environment, and Canadian culture.  

Victorian inventory science provided five main contributions to Canadian culture, Zeller contends. Firstly, it facilitated territorial expansionism westward and northward. Secondly, it enabled the eventual construction of an independent scientific tradition, in which the Geological Survey of Canada played a major role. Thirdly, science enabled Canadians to bridge the cultural and political gaps which endangered statehood. Fourthly, science instilled a sense of pride in the hearts of Canadians. Lastly, it convinced Canadians that the notion of a transcontinental nation was not only plausible, but most likely inevitable. Through self-knowledge, she argues, Canadians were able to gain self-confidence as a nation.  

Soil, rocks, and minerals are not the only natural entities with which Canadians share a long scientific relationship; Canadians also share a complex and similar history with insects and weeds. In From Arsenic to DDT: A History of Entomology in Western Canada, Paul W. Riegert, a former member of the Department of Biology at the University of Regina, examines the history of Canada’s relationship with its insects. Conscious of the scientist’s tendency to focus too much on the science and not enough on the history when writing a historical account, Riegert seeks to write a basic history that focuses on past encounters between humans and insects and the results of such encounters. Riegert describes From Arsenic to DDT as “an interaction of species embarked upon a journey through time, struggling for survival and dominance. Serious, cultural interaction between insects and humans in the western world is a relatively new phenomenon, originating mainly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Riegert claims. In earlier centuries, he notes, people did not take much interest in insects aside from beekeeping and silk harvesting. Those who did take interest in insects were considered to be weird. Early Canadian explorers in the west took little notice of the region’s insects unless they became a nuisance, as wood ticks, mosquitoes, and biting flies are wont to do. As settlers began to trickle into the west, the increase in cultivated land ironically provided a perfect habitat and food supply for the both native insects and non-native insects that settlers unknowingly brought with them. Initially, however, little damage was experienced because the insects were not yet adapted to their new food supply. Invasive species, such as locusts, posed a much greater threat to the settler’s crops. 

In the mid-nineteenth century in Canada, a small number of individuals became insect enthusiasts and collectors, interested in various species due to their aesthetic qualities. In 1862, the Entomological Society of Canada was formed. This society, which was one of the earliest scientific organizations in Canada, was made up of amateurs who bonded over their mutual interest in insects, none of whom were from western Canada. However, Riegert writes, western settlers, particularly the early, educated individuals, did take an aesthetic and collector interest in insects at first. Westerners were often among the first to collect and attempt to identify the species of insects with which they cohabitated. These wealthier, more educated insect enthusiasts created a network of knowledge that acted as the foundation for the science of entomology in Canada. Members of the Geological Survey of Canada, particularly John Macoun, Riegert writes, can be given credit for collecting and identifying the vast majority of western Canada’s insects. Entomology reached professional standing with the government’s recognition of the field and creation of the position of Dominion Entomologist in 1884.  

Yet, the ability to admire insects for their beauty and biological intrigues became unfashionable as the west’s human and insect population became denser. Agricultural assets were not simply components of subsistence, but integrated into the country’s economy, meaning that insect damage was now felt on a much larger level. Insects that had once been ignored, casual nuisances became the enemy. They had reached the status of pest. People were still encouraged to become familiar with their neighbor insect species, but not in the interest of cataloguing and admiration, but rather in the interest of decimating their populations. Like the predatory animals in Thomas Dunlap’s Saving America’s Wildlife, Canada’s insects were deemed unessential and even harmful to the march of progress and therefore needed to be pushed out of the way or even eradicated if necessary. Government legislation, particularly in response to orchard damage, ensued. Scientists, legislators, and farmers attempted all means of eradicating pests like grasshoppers, such as burning them, spraying them with oil, and attempting to poison them with arsenic-laced manure. Riegert emphasizes the fact that manmade solutions only created short-term benefits that ensured crop protection one year at a time. Natural solutions, such as drought, floods, predation, etc. are the only surefire ways to ensure insect population control and suppression. The main problem is that agriculturalists are fighting a losing battle because the population of insects directly correlates to the amount of cultivated land. Insects, Riegert writes, used to have to depend on natural forces, such as buffalo overgrazing and migration to provide them with habitats for breeding and survival. Today, Riegert concludes, intensive agriculture provides the perfect home for them.  

The history of weeds and their relationship to humans in the Canadian west is quite similar to that of insects. In The War on Weeds in the Prairie West: An Environmental History, Clinton L. Evans, an independent historian and former employee of the weed eradication industry, provides a narrative of the history of weeds and weed control in western Canada. Evans admits that he once, like most Canadians, viewed weeds as adversaries; however, once he began to become informed about the shadier side of the pesticide companies for which he worked and opened his eyes to the natural wonder of the plants that society calls weeds, Evans changed his tune. “I even began to admire weeks,” he writes, “for their toughness, their tenacity, and for their ability to cover the scars caused by human activity with a verdant bandage of green.” (vii) Like the writers in Soils and Societies, Evans hopes that his study will help to inform contemporary atmosphere and assist in solving the problems that currently plague agriculturalists.  

Similarly to Charles S. Elton in The Ecology of Invasions, Evans adopts throughout his book a metaphorical vocabulary centered on war and militarism. The concepts surrounding warfare best describe western Canada’s relationship with weeds, Evans argues. Many westerners have unreservedly concluded that weeds alone have the ability to sabotage the western Canadian agricultural system. Like western Canadians’ initial reaction to the region’s insects, settlers, at the outset, basically ignored the existence of weeds. However, Evans points out that this is also largely because the plants that would cause the most havoc, such as the dandelion, were not native, but rather imported from eastern Canada and Europe. As with the insects, the cultivation of land in the west provided the perfect environment for weed proliferation, causing farmers and their government and business allies to pick up arms against them. Evans points out that western Canadian’s imported not only weeds from the east, but also eastern attitudes towards weeds. Evans traces the development of a large agricultural bureaucracy and subsequent weed eradication legislation. Closely related to this legislation is the government and farmer’s reliance on science to provide them with an easy means to gain control over nature, the apex of which was the 1945 introduction of the herbicide, 2, 4-D. The government, Evans argues, worked hard to propagate the idea that weeds were the enemy in order to preserve an environmentally unstable way of agriculture, which is still in use today. Evans hopes to use the past to highlight to shortfalls of present-day agricultural practice and legislation. “The war against weeds was…somewhat akin to a civil war, pitting farmers against their own unsound practices and the short-term solutions of government experts against their knowledge of the dictates of good husbandry,” Evans declares. Efforts to get rid of weeds have had a profoundly negative effect on the environment, he argues. These efforts have been the direct result of capitalism and its profit motive, which encourages a negative attitude toward weeds in order to ensure maximum profitability, Evans argues, placing himself firmly in the declensionist camp.  

Evans also smartly points out that weeds are a product of a society’s culture. Weeds rely on human action to provide both their physical and symbolic existence. Physically, weeds rely on humans to create the environmental disturbances, which enable them to move into an open ecological niche. Symbolically, plants rely on humans to determine which among them will be labeled a weed. “Designating certain plants as weeds represents a cultural activity,” Evans writes. Additionally, weeds are basically bred by farmers as a byproduct of their agricultural practices. Weeds, Evans contends, are both products of and participants in culture. If weeds represent culture, then it is logical to conclude that culture is intricately connected to nature.  

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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