April 27, 2017

Photographing Slow Disaster: Zoe Strauss’s Grand Isle Beach by Ellen Stroud

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Extract

The shock of orange shouts a warning: Danger. Pay Attention. You might miss it, so be careful and Look. Grand Isle Beach by photographer Zoe Strauss is a brown and gray beach scene, cut sharply by an orange gash (figure 1). What are those bright, odd, out-of-place plastic tubes running parallel to the waves? Are they pipes, carrying something foul or expensive across the sand? Are they a barrier, keeping poison away from water? Barring a toxin from reaching land? Would the beach be beautiful without them, or bland? Are they temporary, or are they now a fixture in this place?

The ambiguous orange stripe and the distant horizon between sea and sky trisect this photograph into a series of tidy strips: the solid land on which the viewer stands, perhaps on the side of safety, or possibly amid disaster; a chaotic middle stripe, with the orange plastic barrier, sand being lapped by waves, and bubbling water that may be dangerous, or is perhaps being shielded from harm; and then sky. Wherever it is that the danger lies, we are on the sandy side of the barrier, the place that has no water and no sky, and something troubling is happening in that middle band, just beyond our reach.

Strauss made this image along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana in the summer of 2010. On that same trip, she photographed flames in the water, oil speckling the beach, and …

by Ellen Stroud

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Capital in Nature/Nature by Capital: Global Integration and New Zealand’s Forests, 1870–2000 by John Weaver

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Abstract

From earliest colonization, New Zealand’s forests have been altered by timber merchants, land-hunting settlers, acculturation societies, and plantation enthusiasts. Many stages in remaking the forests involved the state. From 1920 forward, the State Forest Service established pine plantations; these extensive tracts of introduced species inspired private corporations that planted further acreage. A salubrious climate allowed radiata pine in particular to mature in thirty rather than sixty years. Consequently, by the early 1950s, public and private forestry industries, managing immense plantations, emerged as substantial employers and town builders in the central North Island. A Labour Party government in the late 1980s resolved to privatize the state plantation forests for fiscal reasons and to end the conflict of interest that existed with locating conservation and commercialization in a single Department of Forests. The decision to sell forests precipitated impassioned debates about national identity, recreation, aesthetics, the organization of industry, the paternalism of state forestry towns, and the relations of Māori with the state.

by John Weaver

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Nature’s Emporium: The Botanical Drug Trade and the Commons Tradition in Southern Appalachia, 1847–1917 by Luke Manget

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Abstract

From the 1840s through the end of the nineteenth century, the southern Appalachian region emerged as the United States’ most important supplier of so-called crude botanical drugs to the growing pharmaceutical industry centered in the northeastern and Midwestern United States. This article investigates the role of ecology, markets, and local culture in sustaining this trend. It argues that mountain entrepreneurs and the remarkable biodiversity of the Appalachian ecosystems combined with harvesters’ intimate knowledge of the landscape and a local commitment to common rights to make the region the nation’s foremost supplier of crude drugs. The botanical drug trade provides an interesting divergence from the typical narrative of commodification. Instead of restructuring nature into productive landscapes governed by capitalist values, the commodification of medicinal herbs helped reinforce common rights and expand ecological knowledge of the landscape. This process shaped late nineteenth-century Appalachian life by increasing the importance of the forests in rural economies. Although mountain people continued to harvest medicinal herbs well into the twentieth century, resource depletion, habitat destruction, economic changes, and other factors fundamentally changed the dynamics of this gathering commons.

by Luke Manget

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Lewis Mumford’s Urbanism and the Problem of Environmental Modernity by Aaron Sachs

Abstract

This essay reconsiders the early career of Lewis Mumford and the assumption that modernity has been disastrous environmentally. Might it be possible to see Mumford, especially in his writings of the 1930s, as an early exemplar of green urbanism? Within environmental history, Mumford has been treated mostly as a regionalist—sometimes even as an opponent of the city. This essay argues that in fact his path toward ecological “balance” led directly through the city, not out of it. Indeed, he gives us access to modernity’s ambivalence and complexity by accompanying his trenchant critique of modern cities with a positive vision for how people might design and occupy urban spaces more sustainably. To rediscover Mumford is to reconsider the city not just as a site of erasure and hubristic “renewal” but also as a landscape full of what he called “remnants” and “persistents”; it is to rediscover modernity’s environmental possibilities, in line with current trends in urban ecology and design, and with the new momentum in urban environmental history to combine material and cultural perspectives.

by Aaron Sachs

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Nature Sounds: Anthony Philip Heinrich and the Music of the American Environment by John Herron

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Abstract

This essay examines the life and legacy of Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781–1861), a European-born composer who migrated to America in 1811. Heinrich is a nearly forgotten musician who spent his professional career working in an equally forgotten repertoire of music—the American symphony. In the nineteenth century, European composers, especially the German masters, dominated musical tastes on both sides of the Atlantic. Throughout this period, however, many Americans longed for a distinct musical identity, but the effort to place music from American authors in the performing canon was often rebuffed by critics and audiences alike. As a result, Heinrich would never become a mainstream voice, but in this battle for artistic supremacy, he deserves our attention because he wrote unique compositions influenced by the physical environment. Like the romantic poetry and landscape paintings drawn from the same era, Heinrich’s nature-inspired symphonies celebrated American political achievement by glorifying the nation’s environment.

by John Herron

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Wolves at Heart: How Dog Evolution Shaped Whites’ Perceptions of Indians in North America by Joshua Abram Kercsmar

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Abstract

This article explores how, as dogs evolved and were bred into distinct varieties in Europe and North America from precontact to the present, whites in America used them to judge both Indians and themselves as natural improvers. When colonists first compared their own dogs to those of Native Americans, they found Indian dogs too wolf-like and vicious. But as ecological pressures in cities and rural spaces threatened to undo European breeds during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many whites came to doubt their status as nature’s masters. It was only during the twentieth century, as whites observed the spread of feral dogs on reservations, that they reimagined Indians and their dogs as savage and themselves as potential rescuers. This study highlights the importance of biological evolution to European perceptions of Indians. It also refines the field of evolutionary history by treating biology and history less as distinct forces and more as mutual processes.

by Joshua Abram Kercsmar

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Shrimp and Petroleum: The Social Ecology of Louisiana’s Offshore Industries by Tyler Priest

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Abstract

This essay examines the intimate historical relationship between two of south Louisiana’s most important industries, shrimping and offshore oil. Analyzing the social, cultural, and labor dimensions of environmental change, the essay argues that petroleum did not undermine the environmental sustainability of shrimping, as many scholars assert, but rather evolved in an intimate and complementary relationship to it. The organization of labor, transportation, and physical space by shrimp and petroleum were mutually reinforcing, the products of a similar social ecology of waterborne extraction and commerce. The essay also explains how the close bond between shrimp and petroleum found cultural expression in the Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, long held each Labor Day weekend in Morgan City, Louisiana. Ultimately, the threat to the local survival of these industries came not from oil-driven environmental degradation and resource depletion, as often implied, but from global competition and industry migration.

by Tyler Priest

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Whale Meat in Early Postwar Japan: Natural Resources and Food Culture by Jakobina Arch

Abstract

In the face of strong opposition from anti-whaling groups, whale meat consumption became a point of national pride and cultural importance in late twentieth-century Japan. Current efforts to expand inclusion of whale meat in school lunches to preserve Japanese cultural traditions have their roots in the postwar normalization of whale meat as a part of Japanese cuisine. This article focuses on the immediate postwar period of the Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–52) when whales became entangled in state policies dealing with food shortages and democratization. During the Occupation, the distribution of whale meat in school lunches shifted how people should use and think about whales in Japan. Thus policies for maximizing resource use for reconstruction had effects that still reverberate in arguments about the value of whale meat today. Food shortages both during and after the war were instrumental in promoting widespread consumption by fitting whale meat into a new framework of distribution for a whole new generation of children fed whale at school. As these children grew older, whale meat became normalized as something that Japanese people ate, no matter where in the country they lived. Tracing whale distribution both physically as meat and more intangibly as discourse about whales in a variety of media, from policy to children’s magazines, this article provides new evidence for one of the long-term environmental legacies of the Allied Occupation of Japan.

by Jakobina Arch

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US to USSR: American Experts, Irrigation, and Cotton in Soviet Central Asia, 1929–32 by Maya Peterson

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Abstract

In the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of Americans traveled to the Soviet Union to help build the first socialist country in the world. American experts in the Soviet Union offered general scientific and technical advice that was grounded in a seemingly apolitical transnational ideology. And yet development work is inherently political. Using published and unpublished sources from archives and libraries in the United States and the former Soviet Union, this article looks at one particular case of American technical assistance—assistance to Soviet irrigation and cotton-growing schemes in Uzbekistan—to explore the little-known story of American participation in the perpetuation of Russia’s colonial relationship with its Central Asian borderland. By privileging Russian dreams of landscape transformation in Turkestan over local uses of the environment, American experts in the region helped to ensure Central Asians’ dependence on cotton cultivation while assisting in a process of environmental degradation that continues to this day.

by Maya Peterson

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On Drawing Dead Fish by Leah Aronowsky

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Extract

Deep in the storerooms of the Smithsonian Institution resides a collection of specimens that could aptly be described as “very dead.” Long forgotten by most scientists—the collection is in fact housed at an off-site storage facility in Suitland, Maryland, about ten miles south of the National Museum of Natural History in D.C.—these are the fish of the US Exploring Expedition, the nation’s first major foray into the world of global maritime exploration. Encompassing a squadron of six ships and just over four hundred naval officers and sailors, the expedition sailed from August 1838 to June 1842, making anchorages in South America, Tahiti, the Fiji Islands, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, and Antarctica. Along the way, the crew’s nine civilian “scientifics”—naturalists culled from the small but growing coteries of urban elite gentlemen-scientists—collected hundreds of thousands of zoological, botanical, and geologic specimens (including these fish), many of which made their way into the foundational collection of what became the Smithsonian. Preserved in spirits, their vibrant colors now faded, these fish today are but sinewy versions of their living selves.

by Leah Aronowsky

Leah Aronowsky is a PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. Her current research focuses on the history of the concept of the biosphere in late twentieth-century earth and environmental sciences, especially as it related to new ideas about “life” as a biogeochemical phenomenon and process.

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