January 19, 2018

Archives for March 2016

“Still Life with Vitamins: Art and Science at the 1939 New York World’s Fair”



At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, artist Witold Gordon created a mural depicting common foods such as dairy, fruits, vegetables, and seafood on the exterior of the main food exhibition hall. Alongside the foods of the mural, Gordon painted vitamins in little circles and letters. This essay argues that the inclusion of vitamins in the mural illustrates a moment when nutritional science was becoming an important way of understanding the relationship between food and health. To do this


conceptual work, Gordon played with abstraction and painterly styles to create a scene that both emulated the scientific message of the fair and depicted reverence toward nature as a guiding force in human life. The end result was an optimistic still-life mural that demonstrated the effort to popularize scientific ideas about vitamins and nutrition to the American public in the 1930s.

by Raechel Lutz

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



This article examines the history of the Texas Longhorn, a cattle breed that emerged in what is today the American Southwest during the nineteenth century. Using the methodologies of evolutionary history and animal studies, this article argues that the Texas Longhorn was both technology and laborer. Longhorns were ideally suited to nineteenth-century ranching, largely because the animals themselves performed much of the labor involved in beef production. Initially celebrated for its ability to endure grueling cattle drives, the breed was later abandoned in favor of more market-friendly breeds. In the twentieth century, however, the Texas Longhorn was rehabilitated as a symbol of Texas history and culture. Yet this memorialization was predicated on a false view of the longhorn as a more natural and premodern breed. By contrasting their earlier contributions to ranching with the breed’s twentieth-century memorialization, this article argues that animals are not simply inputs in our agricultural system, but key agents for creating and operating this system.

by Joshua Specht

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Floods and Flood-mindedness in Early Colonial Australia



To date, environmental histories of rivers, floods, and settlers in early colonial Australia (1788–1820) have meshed with colonial historiography rather than challenging it. Missing from these studies are problem-oriented questions about the behaviors of rivers and people alike. What were the specific histories and impacts of floods and freshes? How did settlers survive, conceptualize, and understand floods? Why did they stay on the riverbanks, even defying governors’ orders to move to higher ground, when they well knew the river’s destructive power? These are questions we might ask of all humans who live on floodplains. This


article argues and demonstrates that a deep ethnographic and environmental approach can do more than graft new environmental research onto existing historical narratives. It can unlock the radical potential of environmental history to reveal past peoples more fully, more humanly, in a whole new light—in short, to change the way we think about them and their environments.

by Grace Karskens

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



The damming of Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park is a watershed event in environmental history, a presumed travesty that brought anguish to John Muir and his many supporters throughout the United States. Exactly how San Francisco won the right to transform the bucolic valley into a reservoir has been little studied up to now, although historians recognize that the East Coast hydraulic engineer John R. Freeman played a critical role in the campaign. This article examines how Freeman created a provocative water supply report that, using a wide range of visual images, successfully promoted the Hetch Hetchy Dam as an improvement to the landscape of California’s High Sierra. As part of this, he emphasized how few people had visited Hetch Hetchy prior to 1912, and he championed the development of roads to make the reservoir and the park


more accessible to tourists. The article highlights how Freeman drew upon his engineering skills to design a high-pressure aqueduct capable of generating 200,000?hp of hydroelectricity, and also how his knowledge of America’s political and social culture proved essential in winning congressional approval for the dam in 1913. Readers familiar with the environmentalist side of the Hetch Hetchy controversy will find this account revealing, especially in how Freeman operated as a political advocate advancing the city’s cause. They will also find important parallels between Freeman’s work as a dam lobbyist and the effort that underlay passage of the National Park Service Act in 1916.

by Donald C. Jackson

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Panama Canal Forum: From the Conquest of Nature to the Construction of New Ecologies

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Forum Introduction extract by Ashley Carse and Christine Keiner

The year 2014 marked the centennial of the opening of the Panama Canal. Its construction is often narrated as a tale of triumph in which the US government conquered tropical nature using modern science and technology: dominating diseased landscapes, unpredictable rivers, and even physical geography itself. In this Forum, we combine environmental history with the histories of science, technology, and empire to complicate that well-known story. The essays that follow explore the new ecologies that emerged around the canal during its construction and the decades


that followed. We collectively show how the US Canal Zone, the 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. Rural and urban residents, health officials, natural scientists, and tourists discursively and materially constructed different environments on the isthmus. Their efforts were facilitated and hindered by the US government’s numerous environmental management projects, from flooding artificial lakes and depopulating the Canal …

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