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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · February 04, 2015

Light Blue Books: Reading about Winter Ecology and Climate History

WMQ 15 min read

In this post, Thomas Wickman meditates further on his piece in the most recent issue of the William and Mary Quarterly. You can read a preview of the article—as well as download the whole issue—on your iPad by visiting the Apple App Store and downloading the OI Reader.

Thomas Wickman writes

When I began my current project about winters and wintering in the colonial Northeast, I put together a shelf of winter ecology books. That section of my bookcase stands out from the rest because it has a distinctly light-blue hue to it. The subfield of winter ecology is small, and the dozen or so books don’t occupy much shelf space, but they have unlocked new ways to read colonial documents and have illuminated what I call in my new essay the “positive value of winter landscapes and winter ways.”

Winter ecology books on my shelves

Winter ecology books on my shelves

In a 2010 WMQ essay, Peter Mancall remarked upon the wonderful range of sources cited by William Cronon in his foundational Changes in the Land:

He drew on practical works from authorities on such diverse topics as land and fisheries management, hydrology, and palynology. He also extracted crucial details from serials such as Rhodora, Ecological Monographs, and the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club. Before 1983 few colonial historians would have thought to use in their work the publications of the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society, contemporary ecology textbooks, or the Proceedings of the Annual Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference.

Cronon added a new section to early Americanists’ bookshelves, in other words: green books. I have critiqued Cronon for not foregrounding enough of the bounteous dimensions of winter environments, but in doing so I am only following his lead of suggesting an expanded set of books for colonial historians to incorporate into the study of the past.

Up till now, what I would like to call a “vernal bias” has limited the scope of early American studies. As Mancall noted, cold has been “less studied by historians than warmth.” The archive itself may have a disproportionate number of summertime documents. Before the eighteenth century, especially, the transatlantic shipping season and agricultural calendar generated a large number of North American documents between April and November. Yet unexamined assumptions about winter lulls or seasonal scarcity have often prevented scholars from thinking critically about winter patterns or simply asking factual questions about the colder half of the year.

In my work, those light-blue books promise to help in solving winter conundrums. What natural and social factors contributed to cases of winter famine in colonial towns and Native camps and villages? What factors were most influential in early December versus late February, or at the mouth versus the headwaters of the Saco River? How did changing winter weather affect the spread of disease, and what social configurations were affected more by epidemics that took place in the colder months? What is the natural history of relief foods like frostfish and groundnuts, and who knew more about them at a given time?

Identifying key primary sources to answer such questions is one thing. War narratives, fur trade accounts, diaries, interleaved almanacs, letters, and sermons all reveal insights into winters past. But weaving those sources together is difficult, and the basic findings of winter ecology provide a hermeneutics for reading these texts.

Judging recent monographs by their blue and white covers, it seems to me that scholarly works on climate history and the politics of climate change represent not just a shift in palette away from the green-centered book design of environmental studies texts, but potentially also a paradigm shift, in which scholars better appreciate the virtues of cold and value of northern environments. Glaciers now have book-length histories, for example. Indigenous activists in the climate justice movement, meanwhile, have formulated powerful concepts, such as the “Inuit right to culture based on ice and snow.” Light-blue book cover design reflects a number of concerns within the big field of climate studies—with skies, oceans, glaciers, and snowfall, all themes that increasingly are attracting the concern of early Americanists.

Climate studies books on my shelves

Climate studies books on my shelves

Whether or not a “light-blue” turn in interdisciplinary scholarship is indeed underway, some wintry paths have been broken, especially by scholars interested in making the history of Canada more central to early American studies. Authors of biographies and microhistories have woven fascinating stories about ice and snow into their narratives; The Unredeemed Captive and Fatal Journey are just two examples. Other books like Commerce by a Frozen Sea survey winter-centered activities and networks more systematically. Moreover, meditations on the northern limits of ecological imperialism like Mancall’s “The Raw and the Cold” and Liza Piper and John Sandlos’ “A Broken Frontier,” have pushed environmental historians to comprehend the formidable, resilient, and complex ecologies and cultures of the Canadian north.

Joyce Chaplin suggests that, “Climate alters what it means to be a historian.” In part, she means that historians must use the natural archive, including climatic proxies, in proper balance with written, human-centered sources. Interestingly, as Sam White has observed, historical climatologists have been most concerned with past droughts, usually as they affected planting and harvest. As the planet now warms, the study of past droughts seems sensible. But another way that early modern historians can make relevant interventions to public debate is by pointing out the past benefits of a cooler climate, rather than emphasizing the downsides of the cold. Any change in average temperatures, whether up or down, may have caused a crisis for people who had become accustomed to a period of climatic stability. It is worth looking again at the Little Ice Age, with the aid of winter ecology texts, to see the contradictory ramifications of colder weather, not only to understand the past on its own terms, but also so that we can properly reckon what people and their nonhuman neighbors stand to lose in a warmer future.

Works Referenced:

Carlos, Ann M. and Frank D. Lewis. Commerce by a Frozen Sea: Native Americans and the European Fur Trade. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Chaplin, Joyce E. “Ogres and Omnivores: Early American Historians and Climate History.” WMQ 72, no. 1 (January, 2015), 25-32. [quotation from the abstract]

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Demos, John. Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story in Early America. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1994.

Mancall, Peter C. Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson–A Tale of Mutiny and Murder in the Arctic. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

Mancall, Peter C. “Pigs for Historians: Changes in the Land and Beyond.” WMQ 67, no. 2 (April, 2010): 347-375.

Mancall, Peter C. “The Raw and the Cold: Five English Sailors in Sixteenth-Century Nunavut.” WMQ 70, no. 1 (January 2013): 3-40.

Piper, Liza and John Sandlos. “A Broken Frontier: Ecological Imperialism in the Canadian North.” Environmental History 12 no. 4 (October, 2007): 759-95.

Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. “The Inuit Right to Culture Based on Ice and Snow,” speech at “Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Economic Globalization: A Celebration of Victories, Rights and Cultures,” 2006, ed. and repr. in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, ed. Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson. San Antonio, Tex., 2010.

White, Sam, Richard Tucker, and Ken Sylvester, “Climate and American History: The State of the Field,” in Cultural Dynamics of Climate Change and the Environment in Northern America, ed. Bernd Sommer. Leiden: Brill, forthcoming.

Wickman, Thomas. “‘Winters Embittered with Hardships’: Severe Cold, Wabanaki Power, and English Adjustments, 1690-1710,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 72:1 (January, 2015), 57-98.

What’s on my “Light Blue” Shelf: Selected Book-Length Works on Wintering and Winter Ecology in North America

Bates, John. A Northwoods Companion: Fall and Winter. Mercer, WI: Manitowish River Press, 1997.

Giesbrecht, Gordon G. and James A. Wilkerson. Hypothermia, Frostbite, and Other Cold Injuries: Prevention, Survival, Rescue, and Treatment.

Gibson, Merritt and Soren Bondrup-Nielson, Winter Nature: Common Mammals, Birds, Trees & Shrubs of the Maritimes. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2008.

Halfpenny, James C., and Roy Douglas Ozanne. Winter: An Ecological Handbook. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, 1989.

Heinrich, Bernd. Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Lawlor, Elizabeth. Discover Nature in Winter. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998.

Marchand, Peter J. Life in the Cold: an Introduction to Winter Ecology. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1996.

Morgan, Ann. Field Book of Animals in Winter. New York: Putnam, 1939.

Stokes, Donald. A Guide to Nature in Winter: Northeast and North Central North America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.

Teale, Edwin Way. Wandering through Winter: A Naturalist’s Record of a 20,000-mile Journey through the North American Winter. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1965.

Trelease, William. Winter Botany. New York: Dover, 1931, 1965.

Williams, Terry Tempest and Ted Major, The Secret Language of Snow. San Francisco: Sierra Club and Pantheon Books, 1984.

Zielinski, Gregory A. and Barry D. Keim. New England Weather, New England Climate. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2003.

Other Books on my “Light-Blue” Shelf: Selected Book-Length Works on Climate History and Contemporary Climate Change:

Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, ed. Subhankar Banerjee. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012.

Brooke, John L. Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Carey, Mark. In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Cruikshank, Julie. Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005.

Dove, Michael R., ed. The Anthropology of Climate Change: An Historical Reader. New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

Fagan, Brian. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Jankovic, Vladimir. Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather, 1650-1820. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Johnson, Sherry. Climate and Catastrophe in Cuba and the Atlantic World in the Age of Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Klima, eds. James Rodger Fleming and Vladimir Jankovic. Osiris, 2nd ser., 26, 2011.

Lamb, H. H. Climate, History, and the Modern World, 2nd edition. New York, Routledge, 1995.

Meyer, William B. Americans and their Weather. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Ruddiman, William F. Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Sze, Julie. Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

White, Sam. The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.



[…] Thomas Wickman, “Light Blue Books: Reading about Winter Ecology and Climate History,” Uncommon Sense (blog), Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, February 4, […]
A Cold Kingdom | NiCHE  •  March 17, 2016
[…] 5. Light Blue Books: Reading about Winter Ecology and Climate History […]
#EnvHist Worth Reading: February 2015 | NiCHE  •  March 05, 2015
[…] Thomas Wickman meditates further on his William and Mary Quarterly article in “Light Blue Books: Reading About Winter Ecology and Climate History.” […]
Wednesday Link Roundup #83: Acts, Laws, & Early American History - Elizabeth M. Covart | Elizabeth M. Covart  •  February 25, 2015

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