American History as Environmental History

This summer when my department asked if I would, for the first time, teach the first half of the US history survey I knew I wanted to assign William Cronon’s nearly-deified Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England for two primary reasons. First, because it is a wonderful example of history—beautifully written, persuasively argued, deeply researched, and if it didn’t create a field, it certainly defined one in a slim 170 pages of text. Second, I want to highlight the role of the environment in American history in my inaugural run at teaching the survey. Part of this desire comes from my intellectual interests, but I also want to focus on the environment to make very obvious connections between the human and non-human worlds in the past and, more implicitly given the chronological scope of the course, the present and the future. In pursuing this environmental narrative, I have, thus far, mentioned topics like companion planting and pre-contact Native American population densities, and the “black rice” thesis and the development of different slave regimes.

I make no claim to being a pedagogical innovator. Using environmental history to teach American history has lately received attention. While often relegated to an entirely different narrative trajectory, one that is removed from the nationalist narratives that inform how the survey is taught, environmental history has recently emerged as an important component of teaching “mainstream” American history. The most sustained and eloquent example of this approach comes in Mark Fiege’s 2012 work The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States. Fiege traces the origins of that book to the realization that the environmental approach can tell us as much about the cotton kingdom and the transcontinental railroad—regular components of any US history survey—as it does about the diseases, deforestation, and pollution that most often constitute American environmental history. Obviously not every aspect of the survey so easily touches on the environment (I wouldn’t even know how to start an environmental reading of the Constitutional Convention!) but environmental forces cannot, indeed should not, be confined to a narrative focused only on national parks, Hetch Hetchy, and Rachel Carson.

Getting back to Changes in the Land, I wanted to use Cronon’s work to address the larger question of Native American and European interaction, and so I asked my students to use Changes to address that very question in the semester’s first essay assignment. I was very upfront about the environment being an explicit theme of the semester and the importance of Changes in developing that historical approach. The responses I got back were surprising but in no way disappointing. I did hesitate somewhat in assigning this book in the fear that the students would get bogged down (pun intended!) in what Cronon describes as “his relentlessly materialist analytical approach” (p. 184). Yet the students have spent little time puzzling over the pollen samples and dendrochronologies that form an important part of Cronon’s source base. In fact, the environment as a dynamic and causal force—the raison d’etre of the field—has largely fallen out of these analyses. Instead, the students focus on things like differing conceptions of property ownership, definitions of commodities, and the emergence of capitalism. These are perfectly fine things to take away from Changes and certainly are important in discussing the friction present in Native American-European interactions. Yet I find it surprising that given my effort to make the environment an obvious and central aspect of the course, it ultimately plays only an incidental role in this batch of essays.

I know I run the risk of sounding like a crank complaining about people not sufficiently appreciating my intellectual hobbyhorse—and by no means am I complaining, the essays show a clear grasp of the conflict engendered in Native American-European relations. But I do want to take the opportunity to raise questions about the degree to which American history can be taught as environmental history. And, of perhaps wider interest, does it matter if students gloss over, ignore, or are simply not interested in the methodological subtleties of any given approach if they emerge with a larger appreciation or understanding of historical thinking? I suspect the answer here is “no.”

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