May 26, 2016

Environmental History April 2016, 21.2

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TABLE OF CONTENTS April, 2016 | Vol. 21, No. 2

 

PANAMA CANAL FORUM

Panama Canal Forum: From the Conquest of Nature to the Construction of New Ecologies by Ashley Carse, Pamela M. Henson, Marixa Lasso, Paul S. Sutter, Megan Raby, Blake Scott, and Christine Keiner

ARTICLES

The Engineer as Lobbyist: John R. Freeman and the Hetch Hetchy Dam (1910–13) by Donald C. Jackson

Floods and Flood-mindedness in Early Colonial Australia by Grace Karskens

The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Texas Longhorn: An Evolutionary History by Joshua Specht

GALLERY

Gallery Editors’ Note by Finis Dunaway

LutzFIG5-550The still life is a familiar genre of painting. Often depicting fruits, flowers, and household objects, still-life art emphasizes the careful arrangement and close study of commonplace items. In this issue’s Gallery essay, Raechel Lutz introduces readers to a rather unusual still life: a mural that adorned Food Building No. 3 at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Rescuing this mural from history’s dustbin, Lutz explains how the artist Witold Gordon fused modernist abstraction with nutritional science to produce a complex and innovative portrayal of food. Lutz’s analysis moves from the scientific discovery of vitamins to the aesthetic influence of Paul Cézanne. She emphasizes both Gordon’s embrace of vitamin science—as represented by the mural’s “vitamin bubbles”—and his respect for the earthly roots of human sustenance. In looking at this forgotten image, she grapples with the shifting cultural meanings of food and demonstrates the value of broadening the conventional source base of environmental history.

Read the full Gallery Essay “Still Life with Vitamins: Art and Science at the 1939 New York World’s Fair” by Raechel Lutz

EDITOR’S DESK BY LISA M. BRADY

Issue 21.2 – April 2016

In 1963, noted British historian E. P. Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class, through which he sought “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity” (p. 12). He intended to tell their stories, long overlooked or deemed unimportant, in order to gain a deeper and more complete understanding of the problems and consequences of the Industrial Revolution. His book has since become a classic, one that has inspired generations of scholars to uncover the untold, mis-told, or silenced elements of our past. Each of the articles in this issue follows in this tradition; each examines a new aspect of a familiar story, revealing a fuller view into their chosen subject and providing us with greater insight into larger trends in environmental history.

Panama Canalx550We begin in Panama. There, just over a century ago, the United States celebrated the completion of one of its most ambitious engineering feats: a forty-eight-mile shipping lane consisting of a series of locks and artificial reservoirs. By flooding the Chagres River valley and channeling its water into a new configuration, the Panama Canal connected the Atlantic to the Pacific and transformed global commerce and local ecosystems. The canal’s history is well documented and analyzed, especially by those interested in its engineering, economic, and political implications; its environmental history, however, is yet to be fully explored. Collected in this issue’s Forum is a sampling of the excellent work being done to rectify this omission. Expertly curated by Ashley Carse and Christine Keiner, the essays in the Forum tackle issues ranging from efforts to document the region’s biodiversity to transformations in ecological systems and ecological science; from the dislocation of people and the erasure of their history to plans to expand the canal through nuclear detonations; and from battling disease to developing a tropical tourism industry. Together, the essays demonstrate how construction of the canal radically altered the region’s natural and social landscapes and changed our understanding and practice of ecological science. Moreover, as Carse and Keiner suggest in their introduction, the Forum authors “collectively show how the US Canal Zone, Republic of Panama, and the borderlands that separated them became ecological contact zones and important sites for imagining, understanding, and managing tropical environments transformed through human activity.”

JacksonFIG5x550In December 1913, just months before the Panama Canal opened, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act, providing San Francisco with the legal authority to dam Hetch Hetchy. Much has been written on the debates over the project, but, as Donald Jackson suggests here, there is another part of the story to be told. In “The Engineer as Lobbyist,” Jackson details the crucial role John R. Freeman played in convincing Congress that the reservoir would not only provide essential resources to San Francisco, but it would also improve upon the natural beauty of the valley and make it more accessible. Jackson persuasively argues that Freeman was no mere technician, but was instead a skilled lobbyist with a keen sense of American political culture. By framing the project as an “improvement to the landscape of California’s High Sierra” and by including evocative photos (manipulated to highlight the dam’s potential benefits) in his influential report, Freeman secured support for the project and, Jackson avers, set the stage for the National Park Service Act of 1916. “Freeman’s emphasis on the importance of scenic beauty, on tourism, and on the development of auto roads to make the High Sierra more accessible,” Jackson contends, “aligns with practical efforts to make America’s national parks into ‘national playgrounds,’ in essence, places where visitor comfort often trumps notions of wilderness and untrammeled landscapes.”

KarskensFIG4x550In “Floods and Floodmindedness,” Grace Karskens challenges a traditional “narrative of failure,” one that relies on unexamined generalities, and hones in on particularities to explain why Australia’s colonial settlers chose to remain in places that consistently, yet unpredictably threatened their survival. She vividly describes the environmental and political trials early settlers faced as they laid claim to land in the Hawkesbury-Nepean River valley west of Sydney. In addition to floods, large and small, the farmers battled bureaucrats who attempted to remove them from their hard-won homesteads and who cast the settlers as ignorant and recalcitrant. Karskens offers a necessary and convincing corrective, revealing the people of the Hawkesbury-Nepean to be well aware of the river’s dangers, yet committed to defending their place in Australian society against both natural and political adversities. She reveals them to be savvy, dedicated, and adaptive to a landscape that provided sustenance and self-sufficiency even as it threatened to sweep them away. By combining ethnographic research with environmental analysis, Karskens “unlock[s] the radical potential of environmental history to reveal past peoples more fully, more humanly, in a whole new light.”

SpechtFIG1x550Our final article takes us to the American Southwest, the birthplace of the famed Texas Longhorn. As familiar as the breed may be, its history, according to Joshua Specht, is mired in myth and misunderstanding. Best known today as the mascot for the University of Texas-Austin, the breed first made history—and earned its larger-than-life reputation—on the long cattle drives from Western ranches to Chicago’s meatpacking facilities. Bred from the semi-feral descendants of cattle brought to North America by the Spanish, longhorns were tough, independent, and resilient, which meant the animals could walk themselves to market with minimal human oversight. When transportation technologies and markets changed at the turn of the twentieth century, however, the longhorn’s physical characteristics made it unsuitable and the breed declined almost to extinction. In “The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of the Texas Longhorn,” Specht unravels the fact from the fiction and makes the compelling argument that the Texas Longhorn transcends its legendary reputation through its role as both technology and laborer. Drawing insight from evolutionary history and animal studies, Specht explores the Longhorn’s contributions to Western history and mythology, and he cogently argues that ecology, evolution, and economy converged to create an animal that served as a lynchpin in American history.