July 2, 2015

Environmental History July 2015, 20.3


TABLE OF CONTENTS July, 2015 | Vol. 20, No. 3


Conservation Memories: Vicissitudes of a Biodiversity Conservation Project in the Rainforests of Colombia, 1992–1998 by Claudia Leal

Mapping Permafrost Country: Creating an Environmental Object in the Soviet Union, 1920s–1940s by Pey-Yi Chu

Environmental Consequences of the Peace: The Great War, Dammed Lakes, and Hydraulic History in the Eastern Alps by Marc Landry

Making Sea Cucumbers Out of Whales’ Teeth: Nantucket Castaways and Encounters of Value in Nineteenth-Century Fiji by Edward D. Melillo

Tigers—Real and Imagined—in Korea’s Physical and Cultural Landscape by Joseph Seeley and Aaron Skabelund


Gallery Editors’ Note by Neil M. Maher and Cindy Ott

DunlopFig1crop-550With all the new modeling technologies and advances in the meteorological sciences, it is still hard to get a handle on the weather. We often rely on our common everyday experiences as much as our apps or the nightly news to predict what’s coming, and we turn to poets and artists for a deeper appreciation of weather’s impact on our lives. In this issue’s Gallery, historian Catherine T. Dunlop takes us back to nineteenth-century France in her analysis of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings of the Mistral, the forceful, unpredictable winds of Provence. Her analysis of paintings by Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh points to the ways artistic expression, philosophy, and the natural sciences infuse each other and together shape people’s understandings and relationships with the natural world.

This Gallery marks the end of our tenure as Gallery and Graphics editors. We are extremely grateful to Environmental History editors, the rest of the editorial staff, the Oxford University Press, and the journal’s editorial board for their insight and support of both our work and the Gallery section of the journal. It was a real privilege to serve them and the authors whose work has inspired us. We feel very fortunate to hand over the helm to the talented Finis Dunaway, one of the most influential environmental historians of visual culture.

Looking at the Wind: Paintings of the Mistral in Fin-de-Siècle France by Catherine T. Dunlop

On the days when a cold northwesterly wind called the Mistral sweeps across Provence, the typically warm and tranquil region in the south of France undergoes a dramatic transformation. Wheat fields begin to swirl like ocean waves, cypress trees tilt violently from side to side, and the peaceful Mediterranean waters become frothy and tempestuous. So powerful is … >>


Issue 20.3 – July 2015
by Lisa M. Brady,

Each of the articles in this issue reveals the deep connection between nature and culture. Collectively they remind us that the values—social, economic, or scientific—we place on species or ecosystems have tremendous significance for how we interact with those entities. Individually, the authors impart important new insights into the ways conservation, exploitation, and scientific investigation become manifest on a diversity of landscapes across the globe.

LealFig1-550In “Conservation Memories,” Claudia Leal presents a unique view into the very heart of our practice: she reflects on the ways that we, as actors and as scholars, shape both the historical record itself and subsequent interpretations of the past. She begins with a brief accounting of her experiences with Proyecto Biopacífico, an initiative undertaken in the 1990s to promote nature conservation through social activism on the Pacific coast of Colombia. She contrasts her memories of that work, and those of other participants, with recent scholarly interpretations of Biopacífico’s efforts that tell a very different story than her own. The result is a compelling and multifaceted history of Proyecto Biopacífico, a critical analysis of the role of memory in historical interpretation, and a thoughtful contemplation of the ambiguities, challenges, and values inherent to our profession.

ChuFigure3-550Pey-Yi Chu takes us to a dramatically different place, time, and sociopolitical context, but, like Leal, demonstrates the power of individuals to transform physical spaces and shape the values we associate with them. In “Mapping Permafrost Country,” Chu deftly examines the history of permafrost as a concept and as an object, revealing how one scientist, Mikhail Ivanovich Sumgin, negotiated and exploited internal Soviet politics and Stalin’s industrial imperative to promote his own definition of frozen earth and to promulgate its acceptance throughout the scientific community. Chu convincingly argues that “permafrost is neither a neutral descriptor of frozen earth nor a self-evident environmental object”; instead, it is both a place and an idea that was intrinsically tied to scientific professionalization and industrialization during the early years of the Soviet Union’s socialist revolution.

Fig4Landry-550Concurrent with Sumgin’s introduction of permafrost to the scientific lexicon, engineers in Bavaria completed a massive hydroelectric project that transformed the Isar River and its cultural and ecological watersheds. Marc Landry explains in “Environmental Consequences of the Peace” that local communities had for years opposed such a massive intervention because they used and valued the river and its lakes in their more natural state. The crises of the First World War, however, and the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, more importantly, prompted a reevaluation of the Isar’s potential and opened the way for the project. Landry persuasively suggests that peace brought greater challenges for and changes to the Isar valley than the war; by imposing heavy reparations and redrawing political boundaries, which necessarily altered Germany’s access to resources, Versailles successfully shifted the foundation of that nation’s electrical generation away from mineral resources toward hydropower.

Fig4Melillo-550Value is at the heart of Edward Melillo’s article, “Making Sea Cucumbers Out of Whales’ Teeth.” Melillo scrutinizes the ecological and social consequences of the “encounters of value” and acts of “cultural arbitrage” that connected Nantucket, Fiji, and China in the nineteenth century. Central to his story is the sea cucumber; imbued with high value in China for its gastronomical and medicinal qualities, the sea cucumber (genus Holothuria) held little worth for Fijians (who had easy access to them) and Americans (who considered them strange and unpalatable). Merchants from the United States exploited this divergence of value, paying Fijian Holothuria harvesters with muskets and whales’ teeth (which had relatively little value for Americans but were highly desired as spiritual and cultural objects by Fijians) and taking the sea cucumbers to markets in China and the Philippines. In doing so, Melillo provocatively argues, the American whalers conducted “large-scale economic theft, transferring Fijian sovereign wealth and degrading the Fijian environment while providing minimal returns to Fijians.”

Disparities in value happen not just between cultures, but also within them. Joseph Seeley and Aaron Skabelund tell the remarkable tale of the tiger’s demise in Korea, despite that animal’s deep cultural importance for the people who call the peninsula home. Seeley and Skabelund reveal that although the tiger had many incarnations over the centuries—a divine messenger, a benevolent protector, and a symbol of national unity and resistance to imperial rule—the realities of living with wild tigers more often than not led to violence. By the mid-twentieth century, tigers were extinct on the peninsula because of overhunting and habitat loss. The disappearance of the real animal did not diminish its cultural appeal, however; as Seeley and Skabelund explain, the tigers’ “very elimination encouraged a feeling of closeness and affinity for the animal.” Nevertheless, the authors conclude, the tiger’s value as a symbol far exceeds its value as “a living member of the natural environment.”