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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · May 24, 2017

What if They Gave an Environmental History Workshop and no Environmental Historians Came?

WMQ 7 min read

Today’s post is by James Rice, Tufts University, Convener of the most recent William and Mary Quarterly—Early Modern Studies Institute (WMQ-EMSI) workshop, “Early American Environmental Histories,” which took place at The Huntington Library, May 19–20. A list of participants and their papers follows his post.

by James Rice

This year’s WMQ-EMSI workshop, on “Early American Environmental Histories,” convened at the Huntington Library on May 19–20. I’m not sure who decided to make “histories” plural, but they nailed it. Although the participants met over a shared interest in environmental history, they arrived there from sometimes radically different directions. They included scholars whose training and prior work focused primarily on detailed reconstructions of regional indigenous histories (Joe Hall and Cynthia Radding), on intellectual histories of science and technology (Anya Zilberstein and Chris Parsons), on communications networks in New England, and on twentieth-century art history (Andrea Pappas). There were even a few environmental historians—Thomas Andrews, and several members of the audience—in attendance.

The topics, theoretical frameworks, and scales deployed in these papers were as varied as the presenters’ backgrounds. These ranged from Robert Morrissey’s detailed, materialist analysis of Illinois Indians’ micro-migrations within “one of the most important ecological transition zones in North America, a biome-scale division between the woodlands of the east and the grasslands of the west,” to Andrews’ canine-centric chapter on dogs in pre-contact America, to Pappas’ blending of art historical methods and botanical knowledge in her essay on New England women’s pastoral needlework.

This diversity reflects the heterodox nature of both early American and environmental history, each of which tends to fill every corner of what William Cronon has called the “big tent” of their field. (Practitioners in both fields are divided over whether that’s a good thing.) Yet the two fields differ in that early America is a “field” in the traditional sense, being defined (however loosely) by the time and place under study, while environmental history is a field in the sense of its approach: a keen and persistent alertness to the relationships between human societies and their environments—everywhere where humans can be found, ever.

So what happens when you put together two such heterodox fields of historical study, as in last weekend’s workshop? Could there be any real coherence to these proceedings? To my relief, yes.

Some of the themes running through the workshop represented new directions in environmental and early American history, which I’ll address in the William and Mary Quarterly convener’s essay to grow out of this workshop. Other themes binding these papers together were more familiar. As one participant observed during the wrap-up session, the issues and imperatives common to many of the discussions were identical to those he found so refreshing as a new graduate student over twenty years ago: the call for more global studies, for example; critical attention to the connections between the control of nature and the exercise of power over other people; and the search for a more eco-centric language that had participants using such awkward locutions as “other-than-human-people.” And not unlike the 1970s, when environmental history first coalesced as an academic field with its own journal and professional society, the papers and discussions were often interwoven with contemporary anxieties about the future of the planet. As several participants noted, environmental historians keep returning to certain themes and questions precisely because they are so important, interesting, and revealing of the forces at work (and issues at stake) in human history.

I’m encouraged by the fact that the majority of the participants and attendees at this workshop did not primarily identify as environmental historians. Perhaps a critical mass of early Americanists has come to appreciate that—as with gender and kinship—the ways in which people live within nature are so central to the human experience that scholars must at least ask themselves whether it should be a part of the stories they choose to tell. I have to wonder: what if they gave an environmental history workshop and no environmental historians came—only historians who had asked that question, and answered “yes”? Would it have looked any different?

Participants and paper titles

Thomas Andrews, University of Colorado at Boulder, “Beyond the Only: Native Americans, Dogs, and Domestication in Late-Medieval North America”

Katherine Grandjean, Wellesley College, “Cold Fire: Climate and the Shape of Early Native Resistance in the East”

Joseph Hall, Bates College, “The Politics of Place in Wabanaki Land Sales, 1639–1672”

Robert Morrissey, University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign, “Newcomers: Humans and Non-humans in the Tallgrass Prairie Borderlands”

Andrea Pappas, Santa Clara University, “Embroidering the Landscape: Eighteenth-Century Pastoral Needlework—An Environmental History Perspective”

Christopher Parsons, Northeastern University, “Wildness without Wilderness: Biogeography and Empire in French Colonial North America”

Cynthia Radding, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “Environmental History and the Production of Indigenous Landscapes in the Northern Borderlands of Mesoamerica”

Anya Zilberstein, Concordia University, “‘The Feathered Tribe’: Flight Paths for Birds and Other Migrants”



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