Monday, February 23, 2009

A picture a day...

In high school, I always wanted to get a photo diary going in which I'd take one picture a day, every day, that would illustrate my life. These days, the photo I would capture most days would look something like this:

Me, in sweatpants, sitting at my desk with a big book in front of me, and an orange cat-man in my lap. All in all, I guess it's not such a bad life.

You're the Historian: Chewing the apple through the middle...

In response to the really insightful and provocative questions that Badger Bear posted in the comments of my first post, I decided to devote a post to what I see as being the "core ideas" of environmental history, and why I think they are difficult for the educated public to digest. (Although, in fact, I think philosophers are perhaps more capable of digesting these ideas then others of the educated public, since the ideas are actually quite philosophical in nature [and philosophical about nature. Ha!])

So some of the main questions that I see underpinning the study of environmental history are as follows:
  • Does order exist in nature?
  • If that order does exist, can it be understood through science?
  • What is "natural" or "cultural" in the landscape around us? How much "nature" exists outside of human manipulation?
  • Where do we derive moral authority if not from a "nature" that is outside of human control? Is there something "out there" in nature worth preserving or protecting?
  • If the idea of Clementsian ecology--that is, an equilibrium state in natural environments--has been undermined by the scientific discoveries of the last 70 years, then what do we use as a baseline for measurement of land health?
  • Did Native Americans in the pre-contact period manage the landscape intensively? How much "wilderness" existed before British colonists came to America?
  • How can a commitment to wilderness preservation as the ultimate goal of environmentalism undermine and erode our relationships with other natural and cultural environments, and with human communities?
  • How much does the physical environment determine the course of human history and culture?
  • How has capitalism shaped our relationship with the land?
These questions are admittedly very broad. But they do underlie much of the foundational work in my discipline. (For a good introduction to the positions of some leading environmental historians on these issues see Worster, Donald, Alfred Crosby, Richard White, et al., “A Roundtable: Environmental History.” Journal of American History 76 (1990), pp. 1087-1147.)

Not all environmental historians engage with all these issues in all of their writings, of course, but at least some of them are at the core of most of the work we do. The problem with translating this work--and the importance of it--to our friends and families is that most people take the answers to many of these questions for granted, even if they don't think about them too hard. For example, most people outside my discipline (or at least most people I spend a lot of time talking to, which, admittedly, isn't really a representative group) believe in a wilderness "out there" that exists separately from human intervention. Believing in this wilderness is what lets us fawn over the Sierra Club calendar, lets us condemn polluters and destroyers of the earth, lets us revel in weekend hikes in the mountains...but which also lets us ignore the problems of environmental racism, lets us privilege problems of Arctic refuges over the problems in our own neighborhoods, lets us imagine that our own daily lives have little effect on the state of "the environment" so long as we recycle our plastic water bottles and donate yearly to conservation organizations. (Bill Cronon discussed these issues far more eloquently than I could in his famous/notorious essay, The Trouble with Wilderness.)

Alright, I guess I've maybe only chewed the apple through the skin for now--not quite reaching the core--but I think I'll continue with more thoughts soon.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

You're the Historian: The most disgusting of pronouns...

A few days ago, I picked up the next book I was going to read in the "Nature's Nation" section of my Science in America list, The Humboldt Current, by Aaron Sachs. I flipped the hardcover book open to look at the blurb and author's photo on the book jacket, as I always do. I was first struck by this author's photo. He looked young and happy and like someone I'd actually like to hang out with. This is in stark contrast with many authors' photos, in which they often look overly serious, overly ivory-tower-ish, or overly posed. So I decided to read more about this Aaron Sachs before diving into his book, and I came across a profile of him on the History News Network's Top Young Historians pages. In this profile, he describes his experience trying to publish his senior thesis and the criticism he got for using the first person singular--for daring to refer to himself in a work of history.

In reflecting on this, Sachs writes that the use of the "I" has "allowed me to maintain a sense of self in the all-too-impersonal world of academia..has made a better teacher...adds a layer of depth to my analysis...[and] allows me to tap different aspects of what I take to be my core identity." He continues, "I enjoy being a historical scholar, but I also want to be a teacher, an environmental activist, and a writer of creative non-fiction—preferably, all in the same essay, however short or long. I doubt I'll ever succeed at wearing all of those hats simultaneously, but no set of rules is going to keep me from the head-spinning joy of trying."

I couldn't agree more.

I suppose I've only sometimes reflected on how the injection of the "I" into my writing can help me wear these simultaneous hats, but I reflect unceasingly on all the ways I can go about trying to maintain these varied--but crucially connected--aspects of my intellectual life. Right now, I'm feeling entirely one-sided as I find myself being all historical scholar (or even just historical reader!) and not at all teacher, environmental activist, or writer of creative non-fiction (although I guess this blog is helping out a little with that last piece). I'm going to take Sachs as a model and am going to work in a pointed way (after these prelims are over, that is) on combining these different roles I want to embody--and perhaps I'll start by inserting that pronoun that too many historians consider a barrier to "objectivity."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Madison in June

Sometimes, in these short and dark February days, when the sky is gray, the sleet and snow fall outside (but not quite enough for cross-country skiing or ice skating), my diet is deficient, and my companions are the books on all sides of me instead of the fresh summer air, I come to this blog just to look at the photo strip at the top of this page. One look at the fruit and vegetable bounty of the farmer's market--the peppers and eggplants and chilies and green beans!--and at the flowers and blue sky of days outside on the Capitol Square and at the beautiful rippling waters of Lake Mendota--with sailboats and live music and bugle calls at sunset--and I'm transported forward in time when my semester will be over, when my toes will once again come out to play, when Mr. Vedder the cat can run around in the backyard to his heart's content, and, this year, when this city I love will be filled with all of the people we love for at least one weekend... And just the imagined thought is enough.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

You're the Historian: Have you heard of Franklin Pierce?

I had no idea he was the 14th president of the United States. In fact, before tonight I would've said that I had never heard of him. Bah!

You're the Historian: The Best Time of my Graduate School Life

This semester (and portions of the last one, too) I'm focused on reading the nearly 200 books on my preparation lists for my preliminary exams, which I'm scheduled to take, in oral form, on Thursday, May 14 at 10 am (preceded by the written exams, which I'll receive by about April 15). I'd heard a lot about this process since beginning my Ph.D. program and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into. I would spend a semester curled up on my futon, reading books in my sweatpants, gulping down information and ideas, developing the breadth and mastery of my subdisciplines that would prepare me to write my dissertation and to teach courses in these areas one day in the future. Oh, I knew there'd be tedium and difficulty and procrastination involved, but I was looking forward to it. And my advisor and other faculty kept telling me that reading for prelims would be the "best time" of my graduate school life. After all, how often do you get to spend a whole semester just reading all those books you've been meaning to catch up on? All your other time is spent racing to finish reading for class, putting together a lecture, prepare for discussion, attending meetings, and so on. But here was an oasis of self-scheduling and reading books I wanted to be reading, in sub-disciplines I chose.

And now that "best time" is here, and instead of reading those amazing books on the history of Science in America, Environmental History, and the History of Public Health, I'm fretting over my inability to be an intellectual, looking for yellow shoes online, and (somewhat more productively) attending to this blog. The weight of reading book upon book every single day--no matter how interesting they are--is pressing down on me, and I'm wondering how such sustained attention to on any one thing can lead to the right outcome. I compare this whole process to the scene in Roald Dahl's Matilda where one of Matilda's classmates sneaks a piece of chocolate cake he wasn't supposed to eat and so, to punish him, the evil head-mistress, Mrs. Trunchbull, makes the chubby boy eat an entire chocolate sheet cake, in front of the whole school.

Sure, one piece of cake is delicious. Even two or three pieces can sometimes be a welcome treat. But when you have to eat 2 or 3 or 4 pieces of cake every single day for months on end, I'd bet anyone would come to hate cake.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Words in all directions...

I've not been much of a blogger lately, due in part to an overload of academic work and, in part, to a lack of conviction about whether or not this is something I want to keep up. In order to address the first concern, I've decided to combine my semi-desire to blog with my academic work; the solution: an academic blog! You can read my thoughts on graduate school, environmental history, prelim exams, and all the rest at You're the Historian

We'll see if I do a better job updating over there. (And I'll try to overcome the second concern and still do a bit of updating over here--on life-related or wedding-related topics--when the mood strikes me).

Saturday, February 14, 2009

You're the Historian: Beginning Thoughts...

It just occurred to me tonight that pretty much no one knows what I do. Not only do they not understand what I--specifically--do, but they also don't really understand the content of my discipline when they happen across it in other contexts.

Tonight, I was sitting around, eating valentine cupcakes with a group of our close friends (three other philosophers and their partners, with whom Justin and I hang out at least once a week) when people got to talking about the Civil War and how much slavery really had to do with it. Justin turned to me and said, "Hey, You're the Historian..." He says this sometimes as a sort of joke since he knows that what I do isn't just an explication of major events in American history. I said, "In my work, the Civil War usually isn't that important as an event in itself, but as a backdrop to how the War changed people's relationship to nature or how the physical environment restricted or affected the way that the Civil War proceeded" (or, for another example, how the War changed American public health...)

One of the group is taking an undergraduate course on environmental conservation, taught by one of my friends who does environmental history and works with Bill Cronon. Because of this class, she realized that what I had said had some connection to the material she was studying in her course--the "Trouble with Wilderness," the difficult legacy of conservationist policies in developing countries, and so on. But as she explained her understanding of this material to the rest of the group, I felt a rising panic as I realized that not only were they hearing these ideas for the first time (which means I had not sufficiently talked about them) but that the nuances and importance of these ideas were not hitting home. I realized just how counter-intuitive some of the core ideas of environmental history are (even--or perhaps especially!--to intelligent, environmentally-minded citizens) and also that, for the first time, I think these questions are really damn important. I want very much to work out what I think that importance is, to clarify it, distill it, break it down, and share it with those around me who I care about--not only so that they can know me better, but so that the relevant and fascinating themes of environmental history can escape the confines of the ivory tower and actually affect the daily conversations intelligent people are having when they discuss environmental ideas. So, here's to that.


Also, on a somewhat related note, since today is Darwin Day, there have been different discussions all over about evolution vs. whatever-people-like-to-think-there's-a-controversy-with. And on both the Rachel Maddow show and on the Daily Show, who should be there to represent evolution, but Ed Larson--a graduate of my very own department. Not an evolutionary scientist, but a historian. What does this suggest about the importance of historians of science in contemporary debates? And is this particularly the case for science/religion (and if so, why?) or are there are other scientific topics today that would seem to benefit from historical input?