Textbook

Ideas v. Chronology Again

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Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (Connecticut River near Northampton), 1836

I'm rereading Leo Marx's 2008 essay, "The Idea of Nature in America," to decide whether I want to use it again as an introductory reading in my EnvHist class. I was thinking I might assign it, but urge the students to try to read it critically. The article brings up some important ideas, but in a way I think is too long, intellectualized, and roundabout.

The essay is a little like a journey. In the first paragraph, Marx states his thesis that the "idea of nature" has been one of the core ideas, along with freedom, democracy, and progress, that have defined what it means to be American. Up until the closing of the frontier in 1890, Marx says, "wilderness -- unaltered nature -- was
the defining American experience" (the article appears in Daedalus, Spring 2008, p.8-18).  As I'm reading this section, I'm thinking I will assign the piece, but with a series of "discussion questions" to point out a few things to the students along the way. For example: How is the idea of nature like and unlike the ideas of freedom, democracy, or progress? (I think we'll find over the course of the semester that it is both vaguer and more subject to change over time than these other ideas) Or: "wilderness -- unaltered nature"? Is this what most Americans have experienced? Even white settlers on the frontier?

But Marx does have a point that by the end of the first quarter of the 20th century, more than half of Americans lived in cities. Of course, that means that up until a hundred years ago, most Americans lived "on the land." why does this lifestyle not count in Marx's mind as a connection with nature?

Marx remarks that in the seventies (when Environmental History became a field of study) the word nature was partly replaced by the "refurbished, matter-of-fact word
environment" -- the implication being that there's something wrong with trying to be a little more specific. Marx then turns to the many meanings of the word Nature, which he observes can also be used to describe the "nature" of something. This usage, he says, is "idealist or essentialist -- hence ahistorical." As if people are unable to distinguish between "human nature" and trees, grass, mountains, and animals; and might be misled into believing the "nature" out their windows is some type of unchanging ideal.

The only people likely to fall into this trap, I think, are people who never go outside. Marx is impressed by Raymond Williams's assertion that "
nature is probably the most complex word in the English language," and he wants to explore the "historical trajectory traced by the idea of nature in American thought." But what is "American thought"? How many Americans have ever really been so completely in their heads that this type of discussion even makes any sense? Is this "historical trajectory" about the way most Americans experienced the natural world? Or about how writers and painters used it in their art? Or about how preachers and politicians used it in their polemics?

The essay moves on to the idea of mankind's loss of a connection with nature. Emerson worried about it in 1836, Marx says. And Darwin defined nature as "all that is
separate from us." Again interesting -- but this is material for either intellectual history or high-cultural history. Is this environmental history? Carolyn Merchant seems to think so, as Marx notes. Her Death of Nature is the story of patriarchy and in-the-head "male-oriented Newtonian-Cartesian philosophy" conquering a more grounded and obviously matriarchal reverence for Earth. But once again, what does this imagined war between Bacon and the Mother Goddess have to do with the environmental history of America?

The point of Marx's essay, I think, is to take the reader on a journey of sorts. We tend to go along with the argument in this type of piece, and Marx uses this tendency to try to give the reader an aha moment of discovery. You get all comfortable in the ideas I challenged at the start, and then at the end he flips them over. The "mythic image of a 'virgin, uninhabited land,'" he says, "was an ideological weapon in the service of the white European conquest of the Americas." But he notes that even William Cronon (whose
Changes in the Land debunked that myth of virgin land) "cannot bring himself to repudiate the idea of wilderness." In the end, Marx proposes a perspective that embraces a "first nature" (the physical world as it existed before humans) and a "second nature" ("the artificial -- material and cultural -- environment that humanity has superimposed upon first nature").

But how much help is this, really? Is second nature the Merrimack River in the 1850s, dammed for the hydropower needs of the Boston Associates' textile mills? Or is it Turner's idea of the closing frontier? In other words, how does it distinguish between the altered physical environment that we actually live in (and that
everyone, including the Indians, has always lived in) and our ideas and cultural constructions? Sure, there's an interaction between the two, and that interaction is central to Environmental History. But I don't think we're any closer to it a the end of this essay.

So I guess that's it. I won't assign this essay. My goal in this class is to tell the story of American Environmental History to regular people. The students in an online class are almost never History majors. Most often they're adults finishing a degree program in another field, filling the Gen Ed requirement they had left to the last minute. But that's great for me, because it's an opportunity to get outside the academic box and try to figure out how and why environmental history is important to regular people (it is, and it should be!) -- and then how to communicate this importance. I'm going to have to keep looking for a way to introduce the dialog between chronology and ideas in Environmental History. Maybe I'll just write it myself.

The Map is Not the Territory

"The map is not the territory." Although this idea has been picked up by everybody from post-modernists to new-agers, the guy who said it was Alfred Korzybski, a Polish-Russian aristocrat who established the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago in 1938. But what's even more interesting about Korzybski is that most people who recognize the name or the quote learned of it not in school or by reading philosophy, but in the Null-A book series by science fiction author A.E. Van Vogt.

I
did not bring golden age sci-fi or Korzybski's name into my Environmental History class this week. Our topic was the Columbian Exchange, the transfer of biological material between Europe and the Americas that resulted in the deaths of 90% of the natives living here. So there was quite enough drama and suspense already, which I really didn't want to distract people from. But I did talk about maps and how they alter our perception of the environment and our ideas about it.

The world map we're most accustomed to is the Mercator projection, which was developed by a Flemish merchant in 1569. Its purpose was to help travelers get from one place to another, so its point to point accuracy is really good. But there are always trade-offs when you project a sphere onto a flat surface. Mercator got distances from point A to point B right. He got sizes and areas of the continents very wrong.

For example, on the standard Mercator map, Africa and Greenland look about the same size. But you could fit 14 Greenlands in Africa. What does it do to our perception of the relative importance of Africa, when it looks so small? The image below shows the two maps in overlay.

peters-projection-comparison-world-map

I've been using diagrams last week and this week drawn on a Peters Projection map. The Peters map gets relative size and area right; it's not so good if you want to measure distances. But given what we normally use maps for, it's probably a less culturally biased point of view. And unlike many (but not all) Mercator maps, Peters gives equal space to the northern and southern hemispheres.

Now if they would just make one that didn't follow the convention of always putting the Atlantic in the middle and marginalizing the Pacific…

Columbian Exchange or 1491?

It's interesting that "Columbian Exchange" is now shorthand for the series of unintended consequences of the early European voyages of discovery -- especially the diseases that killed something like 90% of the American natives. I had a chance to converse with Alfred Crosby by email a couple years ago, and his most vivid recollections of his career were the difficulty he had finding a published for this book. His manuscript was rejected by a dozen reputable publishers, and finally printed by a small house specializing in short-run antiquarian monographs. Were lucky Crosby was as tenacious as he was -- maybe there's a lesson in this for authors and also for readers.

 
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Last time I taught, rather than assigning a chapter from
The Columbian Exchange, I used the journal article that led up to it. Crosby wrote "Conquistadores y Pestilencia" in 1969, and it covers the gist of his argument in the book, but slightly more economically. Even this, however, is an academic article, and part of my focus this semester is on the interface between Environmental and popular history. So I'm thinking this time I'll find an excerpt in Charles Mann's 1491. This will give me an opportunity to write a short piece about the way Mann has popularized Crosby's ideas, and how he has added to them.
I think when I rework the EnvHist textbook project, the chapters are going to include short essays about the big books of the field. This will fill the hole left open by not being able to include long passages of these texts -- as you can when you're assigning readings in a University class. The "how have our ideas about the environment changed over time" element of the course can be partly illustrated by this, what would you call it? Popular historiography?

My full review of Crosby's book is up at
Goodreads and LibraryThing. Also on my own EnvHist Library, until I decide what I'm doing about that website.

Chronological or Thematic?

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Last spring I was approached by an editor at a major academic publisher and invited to propose a new American Environmental History textbook. I had been shooting my mouth off a bit about how I didn't think there was a really good undergraduate generalist textbook. There are plenty of books for history majors, and there's a wide "historiography" for grad students. And there are also a number of good popular histories that deal with an particular period or issue. But there really isn't a comprehensive synthesis of American History from an environmental perspective.

The editor apparently got wind of this (I mentioned it to a sales rep at his press who passed it along), and invited me to put my money where my mouth was. Interestingly, he was the editor who had managed (and some say who had commissioned) the book that's most often used in undergraduate courses, which I had criticized. So I worked up a proposal and he critiqued it. Then I revised it a bit and he sent it out to five reviewers.

The reviews came back mixed. A few people said they would definitely use my book, a couple said they wouldn't. All gave detailed criticism which is extremely valuable as I redesign the course for this coming semester and rethink the textbook. And, most interesting, all agreed that a general textbook was badly needed in American Environmental History.

One of the issues the editor and one or two readers challenged me on was whether I was going to go with a chronological or a thematic approach. When I taught the course, it was a little of both. There's definitely a chronological element -- the material begins in prehistory and ends in the present day. But there are also several themes we keep coming back to. So as I redevelop the course material for this semester, I'm going to try to be more explicit about this. Or at least to think about it and try to reconcile it for myself, even if it ends up in the background and isn't in sharp focus for the reader.

My gut feeling is that I should stick with the chronological approach. What do other readers think?