January 18, 2018

Environmental History Field Notes 1, 2016

Pack Forest Research Station Washington_c
Practicing in Place: The Environmental History Retreat

By Hayley Brazier — University of Oregon — hbrazier@uoregon.edu



noun – re·treat  – \ri-?tr?t\

1:  an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable
2:  a place of privacy or safety: refuge
3:  a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study, or instruction under a director[i]

Thoughts on Retreating

As a child growing up in Kansas, I did not know how to learn from the landscape. My formal education emphasized classroom knowledge while the extent of my outdoor education equated to a month-long summer camp called Back to Nature when I was ten-years-old. I became oriented with the Oregon Trail while playing a computer game, only to be interrupted by a hungry Tamagotchi pet beeping in my pocket. Social scientists have aptly named my cohort the Net Generation: we were encouraged to learn inside while developing fluency with computers, math, and standardized tests.[ii]

That is not to say I was completely detached from the outdoors. I grew up camping, hiking, and swimming in lakes, but I was never expected to learn from the environment on which I played. I could not identify the century-old wagon wheel ruts in the ground or the names of local tree species. I studied photosynthesis using a textbook, not a plant. I understood that Kansas was the breadbasket of the nation, but I never touched the corn or wheat. While I became a strong reader, I was not a strong explorer.

Now as an adult, retreating to the outdoors has a certain je ne sais quoi, a significance that I cannot quite define. Many social scientists have attempted to identify the importance of learning outside and their studies reflect that it is highly beneficial for children and adults. Outdoor education engages the five senses, creating a full-body immersion that stimulates more than just the brain. Studies show that students who participate in outdoor learning ranging from gardening to wilderness survival develop leadership and self-reliance skills while also becoming better caretakers of the environment.[iii]

While I am training to be an environmental historian, I want to avoid the educational pitfalls of my childhood. As logophiles, historians understand the past through documents that tell us a story of the human experience. But we often forget the physicality and tangibility of our ancestors. Documents cannot provide scale and sensation, and they cannot always tell us how altitude, rain, sickness, adrenaline, cold, and heat have affected human decisions. The physical research of a landscape is equally important to the documents accompanying that place. Environmental history retreats provide historians a glimpse into the shared human experience of corporeality.

Most science and environmental management departments figured out long ago that they should send their students to local field schools to learn the basics of their craft. How else does a forestry student identify the Latin names of tree species without practicing on the trees that surround them? However, this is not a routine practice for humanities students. In an age of digital scholarship, retreating to the outdoors seems comparatively old-fashioned to website design or GIS training. Many historians rarely use their own physical experiences to connect them to their research. There should be annual outdoor educational retreats to teach environmental historians how to read the landscape.

This focus on outdoor learning is gaining popularity in our discipline. At its annual conference, for example, the American Society for Environmental History incorporates outdoor field trips and group exercise. The Center for Culture, History, and Environment at University of Wisconsin-Madison holds an annual place-based workshop. And the Public Lands History Center at Colorado State University hosts a Parks as Portals to Learning with its graduate employees. As a graduate student, I have attended two outdoor retreats. While an MA student at Colorado State University in May 2013, I went on a three-day retreat in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. And this past September, during my first quarter as a PhD student at the University of Oregon, I participated in a three-day retreat near Mount Rainier, Washington.

CEHC retreaters hike to Mt. Rainier, Washington. Photograph courtesy of the author.

CEHC retreaters hike to Mt. Rainier, Washington. Photograph courtesy of the author.


Retreats are an innovative form of scholarship designed to entice environmental historians out of the archival and conference settings and into research stations, cabins, and yurts to begin collaborating in spaces that encourage a shared physical experience. As historian Jeremy Vetter notes, retreats offer scholarship that is “deeply immersed in place.”[iv] Retreats transform mountain trails, abandoned mines, agricultural fields, or rivers into landscapes of learning, where retreaters study the topography, informally present their research, and workshop their writing. On these retreats, I have learned to practice in place.

My dissertation may or may not involve the Colorado and Washington landscapes at which I attended retreats, but for me this does not detract from their usefulness. Environmental history retreats have deepened my understanding of how the human body functions outside: the physical energy it takes a human to scale a mountain, the weariness caused by the constant drizzle of rain, the size of a glacier in comparison to the human frame. While I am still digging my way toward a dissertation topic, I cannot help but favor histories that will provide access to their places. I attribute that inclination to the strong influence environmental history retreats have had on me as a graduate student.

In a 2010 Environmental History forum, Adrian Howkins eloquently addressed the “Have You Been There?” question. For many historians, there may be places that are too far, expensive, or dangerous to visit right now: Antarctica, war-torn regions, outer space, or depths of the Atlantic Ocean. In some of these cases, the documents pertaining to that place are not kept at the site itself, and yet we still trust that historians can describe the landscape even if they cannot physically reach it.[v] Visiting there does not provide historians legitimacy within our craft, those skills having been developed while researching in the archive and writing in the classroom. But it does seem that if an historian has the opportunity to go there, they should. Going there can provide historians a corporeal perspective on their topic, a sense of scale, of smell, of sound.

For environmental historians retreating in the western United States, there tends to be trails winding through the mountains. But there may be Saint Basil’s Cathedral for architectural historians or Kamakura for historians of medieval Japan. I acknowledge that the environments on retreats are not likely the same environments each retreater studies. Yet retreats provide a rehearsal, a mock stage on which we can learn to read the landscape. Because of my retreats, I can now recognize almost-imperceptible wagon ruts, the crumbling foundation of a homestead, or the melting stream of a muddy glacier. For historians, identifying those changes in the landscape can influence our interpretation of the archival evidence.

Thoughts on Planning a Retreat

The first environmental history retreat I attended was WEST Network in May 2013. I was the guest of my MA adviser, Mark Fiege. We converged at Pingree Park, a Colorado State University research station just a few hours away from the main Fort Collins campus. We were met by approximately fifteen other graduate students and faculty from Montana, Colorado, and Arizona.

The WEST Network was the invention of Jeremy Vetter, Paul Sutter, Michael Reidy, Mark Fiege, and Katherine Morrissey, who are located at public universities across the Rocky Mountain West. The WEST Network was a collaborative effort to combat intellectual seclusion and bring together environmental, science, and technology historians from four public universities. As Sutter remembers, “The idea was to create a network that was greater than the sum of our individual institutional strengths.”[vi] The WEST Network has become an annual event for this group of historians and their returning graduate students.

In September 2015, I attended a second environmental history retreat hosted at the University of Washington’s Center for Sustainable Forestry at Pack Forest. Pack Forest is located just a short drive from Mount Rainier and about a five hour drive from my PhD program at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Called the Cascadia


Environmental History Collaborative (CEHC), the retreat was the product of Marsha Weisiger and Linda Nash’s desire to emulate the WEST Network concept for their West Coast peers. Now entering its third year, Weisiger and Nash invite professors and graduate students from nearby universities in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. In 2015, they also invited Environmental History editor Lisa Brady and the University of Washington Press senior acquisitions editor Regan Huff.[vii]

CEHC retreaters share their favorite teaching books in the woods outside Pack Forest Research Station, Washington. Photograph courtesy of the author.

CEHC retreaters share their favorite teaching books in the woods outside Pack Forest Research Station, Washington. Photograph courtesy of the author.


I emailed a survey of five questions to the founders of both the WEST Network and the CEHC. I asked permission from the retreat planners to use their email responses to help build this portion of the field note, and I am quoting pieces of their responses to supplement my perspective on the value of the environmental history retreat. While I would emphasize the importance of retreats teaching attendees to read the landscape, many of the organizers I surveyed emphasized the retreat’s ability to foster networking and friendships. Though it is possible for these connections to blossom at national conferences, those meetings are typically larger and increase competition for attendees to access peers or presenters. As Nash astutely noticed, “Conferences provide one avenue for extending networks, but you rarely make ‘friends’ at a conference; you make contacts.”[viii] While rooming, eating, and recreating together for multiple days at the retreat, students and professors familiarize with each other on a deeper level, allowing them to not only meet people from outside their university, but also get to know those whom they have merely passed in the hallways at their own.

One setback of traditional conferences is what Weisiger refers to as “passive engagement with the discipline.”[ix] If not presenting a paper, conference attendees often camouflage themselves amongst a sea of scholars. But at the retreats I have attended, organizers required every single retreater, graduate student and professional alike, to present some portion of their work. This practice is a great equalizer for what is typically a hierarchical relationship. As a student, it has been fulfilling to have my mentors take interest in my research and give their undivided attention to my questions.

Retreats can boost graduate enthusiasm, but they can also act as a recruitment tool. As a faculty member at CU Boulder, Sutter noted that one function of the WEST Network was “to help us compete” with other universities “for quality graduate students.”[x] From a graduate student perspective, I personally considered Weisiger and Nash’s annual CEHC as a real benefit to attending the University of Oregon for my PhD because I had such a rewarding experience attending the WEST Network as an MA student.

Adrian Howkins, Hayley Brazier, and Mark Fiege pose for a photo after listening to Michael Reidy's presentation on mountaineering. Pingree Park, Colorado. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Adrian Howkins, Hayley Brazier, and Mark Fiege pose for a photo after listening to Michael Reidy’s presentation on mountaineering. Pingree Park, Colorado. Photograph courtesy of the author.


On both the retreats I attended, we relied on the environmental expertise of the attendees to guide the group. It may be that among any number of environmental historians, someone is an experienced outdoors person, former park guide, activist, or scientist who can speak to a specific environmental topic.  For example, at the CEHC retreat, we took a day trip to Mount Rainier National Park where Mark Carey led the group along the Moraine Trail to the Nisqually Glacier. Carey once worked as a ranger at the National Park before being trained in history and glaciology. The Nisqually Glacier was an important visual to supplement the group’s reoccurring discussion of the Anthropocene, as the glacier has retreated significantly since scientists began studying it in the 1850s.[xi] Another example, at the 2013 WEST Network retreat, Vetter’s background in science prompted a spontaneous discussion of the surrounding conifer and deciduous tree species.

On these retreats, I have appreciated every opportunity to go outside and hear the scholarship of my graduate peers and professors. Weisiger and Nash hosted an outdoor book share, where retreaters hiked to a nearby location and discussed the books with which they most enjoy teaching. And in 2013 at the WEST Network retreat, Reidy delivered his research on the history of mountaineering while standing on top of a peak in the Rocky Mountains. As you can imagine, the backdrop could not have been more apposite.

For the CEHC retreat, Weisiger and Nash organized a number of indoor informational sessions, a necessity in a region where it continuously rains. Meeting in the main lodge, we workshopped graduate and faculty papers alike, watched the documentary DamNation with a post-film discussion, and participated in the increasingly popular “Anthropocene Slam,” where retreaters presented objects that represent the dilemma of our current, contested epoch. One object presented in the slam was a new, plastic recycling trashcan required by the university’s maintenance staff to replace a decades-old metal can, which had been doing its job just fine. Particularly useful for me were the sessions meant to introduce graduate students to academic publishing. For example, Lisa Brady used a draft of Jake Hamblin’s current research to discuss Environmental History’s acceptance standards. And helpful for both the graduate students and professors, University of Washington Press’s acquisition editor Regan Huff workshopped Alessandro Antonello’s book proposal.

Retreaters prepare for a hike at Pingree Park, Colorado. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Retreaters prepare for a hike at Pingree Park, Colorado. Photograph courtesy of the author.


I have found that it is beneficial that retreat organizers maintain a low cost of attendance. It may be feasible to provide two rates, one for professors and one for graduate students, but ideally the cost will not range over a few hundred dollars a person. For both of the retreats I attended, the history department provided my funding. Without funding, however, I still could have afforded the $212 graduate student cost of the 2015 CEHC retreat, which included travel to Washington, three nights in a furnished cabin, and three meals a day. During travel to both retreats, I carpooled with people in my program, another way to reduce costs and the consumption of fossil fuels.

To keep costs low, the best location for retreats are university research stations. For those historians within the United States, it is useful to know that all land-grant universities operate a research station.[xii] These stations are usually located a few hours from the main campus and host students from forestry or science departments. Typically, they are also available for private bookings and come equipped with cabins, bathrooms, meetings spaces, and a cafeteria.

For those historians outside the United States, organizers can talk to the scientists at their universities to see where they send their own students to perform field research, as these can also be ideal spots for environmental historians.[xiii] Rustic locations, such as research stations, are not only inexpensive but also lend themselves to a richer experience for attendees. Keep the group small, the keep the itinerary simple, and keep the cost low. These are the keys to not only a successful environmental history retreat, but also a successful scholarly experience.


[i] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Retreat,” accessed 1 February 2016, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/retreat.

[ii] For a discussion of the Net Generation, see Pierre Walter, “Greening the Net Generation: Outdoor Adult Learning in the Digital Age,” Adult Learning 24, no. 4 (Nov 2013): 151+.

[iii] Walter, “Greening the Net Generation,” 151+.

[iv] Jeremy Vetter, email to the author, 17 January 2016.

[v] This paragraph is in conversation with Adrian Howkins’s, “’Have You Been There?’ Some Thoughts on (Not) Visiting Antarctica,” Environmental History 15 (July 2010): 514-519.

[vi] Paul Sutter, email to the author, 26 December 2015.

[vii] Marsha Weisiger, email to the author, 12 December 2015; Linda Nash, email to the author, 5 January 2016.

[viii] Linda Nash, email to the author, 5 January 2016.

[ix] Marsha Weisiger, email to the author, 12 December 2015.

[x] Paul Sutter, email to the author, 26 December 2015.

[xi] National Park Service, “Mount Rainier Glaciers,” accessed 1 February 2016, http://www.nps.gov/mora/learn/nature/mount-rainier-glaciers.htm.

[xii] Michael Reidy, email to the author, 21 December 2015.

[xiii] Paul Sutter, email to the author, 26 December 2015.


*Cover Photo: Pack Forest Research Station, Washington. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Environmental History Field Notes 2, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 11.30.04
Using digital techniques to broaden participatory approaches in environmental history: the Snow Scenes Exhibition

By Alexander Hall – Coventry University – alexander.hall@coventry.ac.uk

Joseph Hardman had a way of capturing a disappearing way of life. The photographer documented changing landscapes, local events, personalities and regional traditions from the early 1930s to the 1960s. Based in Cumbria in the North-West of England, Hardman covered up to 200 miles a week, usually by taxi, to document a rural way of life that was undergoing significant change. Much like the work of famous US landscape photographers and photojournalists, such as Ansell Adams and Dorothea Lange1, Hardman’s photographs present a great resource for environmental historians in their attempts to narrate cultural and landscape histories that have often left few textual records.

Figure 1: A typical Hardman image, showing a farmer using a horse drawn plough in the Vale of St. John circa 1940. Reproduced by courtesy Museum of Lakeland Life & Industry, Kendal, Cumbria.

Figure 1: A typical Hardman image, showing a farmer using a horse drawn plough in the Vale of St. John circa 1940. Reproduced by courtesy Museum of Lakeland Life & Industry, Kendal, Cumbria.

Last year, whilst working as a research assistant in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham, I came across Hardman’s recently digitised collection, containing over 4,500 wonderful photographs depicting rural life and landscapes in the UK. I came across the photographs whilst doing research for an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project called Snow Scenes, which was attempting to expand regional understandings of snow and severe winters in the UK by collecting personal weather memories and connecting them with archival research on past extreme winters. As the project’s case-study region was in Cumbria, Hardman’s adopted home and the subject of the vast majority of his work, I immediately knew this vast collection could play an important role in our research. I painstakingly began to go through the images, identifying each one relating to snow, ice, or winter conditions. Fortunately for the project, Hardman’s interest in the seasons and the agricultural calendar meant that I counted over 500 images that depicted winter conditions in our case study region.

The images would be a valuable secondary resource for the project, helping us to bridge the gap between the personal memories we were collecting and documentary records. However, I was also keen to use the images as part of the participatory methodology we were developing, somehow using these striking visual aids to encourage communities to participate and submit their memories. The methodology we were developing sought to engage a broad cross-section of the case study community by collecting their memories of periods of extreme cold using a combination of traditional methods, such as focus groups, and digital technologies, such as social media. Adopting a multi-faceted approach for participation, the design of the project was guided by both the medium and the content of the submissions we received. The memories, submissions, and artefacts collected were then to be explored and analysed in the context of historical and archival records from the area, including regional newspaper archives, county and school records, local oral history collections, and meteorological records. This methodology, which relied on an integrated model of public engagement, allowed participants to become more than passive informants to our research, creating a meaningful dialogue within local communities.2

Key to this approach being successful was a need for us to be flexible as the project developed and as initial archival and participant sources were gathered and analysed. So, still pondering how best the project could utilise this newfound resource, I began reading up on Hardman, his collection, and the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, where his archive is held.

Joseph Hardman (1893-1972) moved to Kendal, Cumbria in 1911 from the metropolis of Manchester, and it was here he developed an amateur interest in photography. Encouraged by the sale of a few of his photographs to local newspapers, in the early 1930s Hardman made the leap becoming a professional freelance photographer and set about documenting a rural way of life that was undergoing significant change. His photographs won many awards and featured in local and national newspapers and magazines. Hardman’s vast collection shows he had a deep understanding of the landscape of the region. His photographs often feature a lone figure – a shepherd, a walker, a milk maid – engulfed in the grand terrain of the Lake District and surrounding regions.

After his death in 1972, Hardman’s family donated his vast collection of glass plate negatives to the museum, who in recent years have worked hard to digitise them, making the images available in the public domain via their online photo library. When the collection was donated to the museum, unfortunately it was not accompanied by Hardman’s notes, so details such as the date, subject and location of most images were unknown. The museum has attempted to add as much meta-data to the archive collection as possible, asking local community members, trawling maps, and comparing Hardman’s photographs against other archival images they hold.  It dawned on me that Snow Scenes may be able to help the museum gather more information about the photographs and promote the collection more generally, whilst also using Hardman’s images to generate discussion amongst our project participants.

So, upon my next trip to the region, visiting archives and recruiting participants in shops, pubs, community centres and libraries, I went armed with print-outs of six Hardman photographs depicting winter scenes, which I suspected were all on, or close to, Lake Windermere. Using my quest to locate where the shots were taken as an opening gambit, I asked those I encountered if they remembered the lake ever freezing, and about their memories of winter in the region, leaving them with a postcard, via which they could submit their memories to the project.

With the help of locals that I spoke to, keen use of my trusted Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure map (1:25,000 scale), and Google maps on my smartphone, I managed not only to find five of the depicted locations, but to pinpoint the exact spot where Joseph Hardman had taken the photographs from over fifty years earlier. Upon returning home and comparing the changes, or sometimes lack of changes, between Hardman’s images and mine, and inspired by websites


such as History Pins and WhatWasThere, I decided to experiment using graphics editing software to merge and blend the originals with my new digital photographs of the locations.3 I hoped to create something that would not only look visually interesting and stimulate conversation, but may also help participants see locations they know well today in a new light, connecting their local past and previous severe winters to today.


Figure 2: The process of creating the composite images. Left: the Kirkstone Pass and Inn as seen in Hardman’s collection and today. Right: the composite image created for the Snow Scenes project.

Figure 2: The process of creating the composite images. Left: the Kirkstone Pass and Inn as seen in Hardman’s collection and today. Right: the composite image created for the Snow Scenes project.

Enthused by my initial results, but still unsure how these new digitally altered images may be any more use for our research than Hardman’s originals, I showed the images to the head of the Hardman digitisation project. The staff at the museum liked the composite images so much that they asked me to produce 14 more to be exhibited in their coffee house exhibition space. Using more originals from Hardman’s collection and a few other famous photographs held by the museum, taken by the nineteenth-century photographer Henry Hebert, I continued to geo-locate further images, photograph them, and blend the old and the new together. In doing so, I began experimenting with some of the many archival photographs that contained people. Many of Hardman’s photographs feature a single figure or groups of people surrounded by breathtaking Lakeland views. These shots, often depicting people at work or play, add a haunting element to the composite images I created. The figures in the images, such as those playing ice hockey below, emphasise the change that has occurred in the region over the last century, with their clothing, demeanour and activities, at odds with the world we are familiar with today.

 Figure 3: One of the fourteen images exhibited at the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry

Figure 3: One of the fourteen images exhibited at the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry


Whilst the exhibition, which ran from January to the end of March 2014, gave the museum the chance to promote the Hardman collection, it also allowed us to further promote our project by placing information and participatory postcards on all the tables in the coffee house. We also subsequently used the composite images to generate discussion at community events and workshops held as part of the project. Through the serendipitous creation and display of these digital images we reached an even wider set of potential participants and greatly increased the number of submissions we received to the project. Further, the process of creating the images and then discussing them with local communities allowed us to explore the role images play in forming people’s memories of extreme weather; shown in a recent study to be of importance to how people engage with the issue of anthropomorphic climate change.4

During the process of creating the merged images I was struck by the fascinating landscape changes often revealed. In an exact reversal of my expectations, it was the buildings, walls, fences, and other directly created human artefacts in the shots that had barely altered. Instead, it was the non-built environment that had changed the most. Obviously things had grown, but more than this, hedges had disappeared, field uses had changed, and large plantations had come and gone.For me the changes highlighted by these composite images reflected wider changes in Cumbrian life and some of the tensions faced by communities in the region. The images made me question the role of national parks in conserving an environment, and ponder how physical changes in land-use have been connected to changing economic and social dimensions of communities.

 Figure 4: the composite images on display in the museum Coffee House

Figure 4: the composite images on display in the museum Coffee House

A full slide show of the images can be found on Snow Scenes Flickr page. Also, I strongly encourage readers to take a look at the Hardman Photo Library and if you recognise any locations or people in the images, or think you can date any of them, please do get in touch with James Arnold at the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry. The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council under project code AH/L50354X/.I created the photographs as a way to explore changes to the Cumbrian landscape, bring historical records to life, and to generate discussion amongst Cumbrians about their memories of snow and winters past in the region. Through this short essay I hope that the photographs have caused a few of you to consider in more detail how imagery, new digital techniques, and meaningful public engagement can greatly enrich environmental history research. As David Biggs asserted in March’s Environmental Field Notes essay, “by detecting new patterns in studies of historic imagery, we can greatly enhance the diversity of storylines, perhaps even avoiding tendencies to fall into declensionist or techno-positivist trajectories.” For Snow Scenes, attempting to collect people’s memories of climate extremes that were often declensionist, techno-positivist or, most commonly, simply nostalgic, the digitally altered images gave us a way of pushing participants to consider the role of changing landscapes, technologies and social conditions when comparing extreme winters over the past seventy years or so.

Further Resources


1. For just two of many examples of environmental histories that feature the work of these specific US photographers see Mark Stoll, “Milton in Yosemite: Paradise Lost and the National Parks Idea,” Environmental History 13 (2008): 237-74 and Kenneth M. Sylvester and Eric S. A. Rupley, “Revising the Dust Bowl: High Above the Kansas Grasslands,” Environmental History 17 (2012): 603–633.

2. For more about the methodology developed see the Snow Scenes project website where information on a forthcoming journal article on the project will be posted..

3. I used the open source vector graphics editor Inkscape, available free online. Other popular raster editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop or GIMPwould have been equally, if not more, capable of achieving the same results.

4. Brigitte Nerlich and Rusi Jaspal, “Images of Extreme Weather: Symbolising Human Responses to Climate Change,” Science as Culture (2013): 1-24.

Environmental History Field Notes 1, 2014

New Spaces for Stories: Technical and Conceptual Challenges to Using Spatial Imagery in Environmental History 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This Field Notes Essay is a companion piece to the author’s Gallery essay “Frame DS1050-1006DF129: March 20, 1969” in Environmental History 19.2 (April 2014): 271-280. Available here.

By David Biggs

Surreal and Subterranean

On a cold January morning in 2011, I met a French colleague at a train platform in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris. We were headed to a 19th century French fort, Fort de l’Est, to re-photograph prints of air photos taken by French forces over central Vietnam in the 1940s and 50s. A few days earlier, she had introduced me to the lone archivist responsible for maintaining all of France’s historic military air photography, a collection covering much of Europe as well as North Africa and Indochina. At his main office at the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) inside the walls surrounding the historic Chateau de Vincennes, the archivist navigated a wholly analog system of hand-denoted, paper index maps and plastic overlays to identify specific rolls of film and photo frames for my area of interest. The film and photos are stored separately at Fort de l’Est because the “caves” built into the mounds surrounding the fort provide a natural form of climate control.

Compared to most archive sites, the SHD facility at Vincennes and the French Air Force’s storage at Fort de l’Est are surreal. Working inside these buildings, a belle epoch ballroom and an unheated cave of a mid-19th century French fort, its easy to put oneself in other times. The archives at Vincennes occupies a series of elaborate 19th century buildings adjacent to a 14th century castle that housed French kings, a 17th century dungeon that imprisoned the Marquis de Sade, and a plaza that served as the execution spot for Mata Hari in 1917. Approaching both places, one travels through gates that separate the outside world of urban Paris from an internal, military and historical realm. Even outside Fort de l’Est in the industrial suburb of Saint-Denis, I was surprised to see a gypsy camp situated in the moat outside the fort’s walls. Inside the fort was an active military facility. The historic air photography is stored beside the contemporary air surveillance activities of the French military, a program called “Plan Vigipirate.” Whereas photointerpreters pored over air photos in the 1960s, today’s surveillance technicians stare at computer monitors connected to satellites and thousands of cameras. We walked past the contemporary air surveillance activities into concrete-lined “caves” to meet our archivist friend and pour over air photos taken in the early 1950s over Hu?, Vietnam. My reward for this long-planned, complicated and expensive archive visit was wholly worth it. We found hundreds of air photos detailing built and natural features in Vietnam in an otherwise obscure period, the two decades after World War II and before American troops arrived.

While American reading rooms in such places as the National Archives at College Park may lack the ambience of a Vincennes, the system for storing air photos and the cans of film is no less surreal. The cartographic records of the Defense Mapping Agency include the air photos used for military photo intelligence (World War 2 era) and photos that served as base materials for the production of topographic maps. The sterile veneer of an American reading room serving up historic air photography belies the national network of subterranean vaults storing millions of cans of film. The American solution is to subcontract the work of maintenance to the world’s largest underground storage company, Iron Mountain, named after the first facility, an iron mine in upstate New York.1 Today the company maintains hundreds of storage sites above and below ground around the world. My cans, I was told, were stored at a facility near Saint Louis MO along with millions of military personnel records. From these modern catacombs, the cans I had selected (Figure 1) were pulled from deep underground and then sent up to the surface. An Archives plane takes off daily from Saint Louis, delivering these materials to the Washington area.

Figure 1. Photopositive film of air photos in Record Group 287: Defense Mapping Agency. Source: Author. Click image for high-resolution version.

Given the expense involved in storing, accessing, and transporting these cans, its understandable that the National Archives limits public users to approximately 10 cans within one week. The cans in Figure 1 were from 1943 and represent the first American air photographs taken over Vietnam.

Besides air photography, the United States in 1995 declassified its entire collection of spy satellite photography. Discussed in the companion Gallery essay, these images are particularly valuable for their coverage of vast areas at high resolution in the late 1960s. Since declassification, the National Archives preserves the original film while the U.S. Geological Survey allows public users to obtain frames using its online data finder, Earth Explorer. For scholars working outside of countries such as France and the United States that provide free, accurate imagery as a public service, such images are invaluable.

Technical Challenges

Besides obtaining historic images, there are significant technical and conceptual challenges involved in using them. In order to compare different air photographs of a given landscape at different times, one has to find a way to compare them in the same spatial framework. Geographic information systems (GIS) are the most popular means to do this. As a kind of database with important visualization and geo-referencing the digital (raster) images derived by scanning, re-photographing, or other means. Any introductory GIS textbook contains a chapter or two about the mechanics of assigning a coordinate reference system, identifying anchor points between an unknown and a known point in space, and ultimately choosing from one of many mathematical equations to re-project a raw photo into geographic space. Figure 2 below shows the same Corona satellite frame in a linear or affine transformation (top) and a 2nd order polynomial (curved) transformation (below).

Figure 2. Corona satellite frame in a linear or affine transformation (top) and a 2nd order polynomial (curved) transformation. Click image for high-resolution version.

Working with spatial imagery requires one to consider authenticity or accuracy of representation in a very different way. With spatial imagery, one has to consider margins of spatial error as well as representational error. When looking at a feature, such as the detail of a helicopter pad at an American base (below), if the resolution of the image is too low, how can we be sure? Further, what does an image permit us to say about the landscape: paved, bare ground, sand, clay, built up? The view on the left is from the satellite photo in Figure 2. The comparable image on the right is from a low-altitude air photo taken in 1972.

Figure 3. The view on the left is from the satellite photo in Figure 2. The comparable image on the right is from a low-altitude air photo taken in 1972. Click image for high-resolution version.

The Conceptual Challenge: A Visual Turn in Environmental History?

Assuming we can build up a GIS catalog of historic imagery sources such as maps, air photographs and satellite imagery, what then do we do with this information? Here I think is the primary challenge for environmental historians, historical geographers and others concerned with processes of environmental change. The field of environmental history is largely oriented to the phenomenological flow of stories rather than static, areal depictions of the Earth’s surface. Yet images and maps of the earth’s surface can tell us a lot about both changing land uses over time and spatial relationships within a given moment. Incorporating a temporally static, areal description of a given landscape into a narrative about phenomenological processes — ecological and human — shaping it has been a recognizable goal of geographers well back to the days of Carl O. Sauer at UC Berkeley. Sauer’s classic essay “The Morphology of Landscape” argued for a phenomenological view of landscape as a central preoccupation for geography as opposed to more


narrow functions such as chorology and geodesy. Only a more holistic account of the intertwined cultural and physical processes shaping landscapes could accurately describe how and why a given area changed from one form or state to another.2 Sauer’s writing reflects the deep schisms that still divide many geography departments, but his ideas have helped to shape the bases of inquiry in newer sub-disciplines such as environmental history, environmental anthropology and human ecology.

Yet these newer heirs to Sauer’s phenomenological perspective, especially environmental history, have yet to make full use of the spatial or areal elements of the archives. Maps in environmental history, with some notable exceptions, serve the most basic of functions – showing general locations of historic events. In those notable exceptions, mainly works of historic visualization, we may be amazed when gazing upon a visualization of what Manhattan may have looked like in 1609. Digital mapping tools even permit a flythrough of a 3-d visualized landscape, allowing the viewer to fly like a bird through a digital time machine.3

Unfortunately, I have not yet arrived at a comprehensive solution to the problem of space, nature, culture and phenomena as discussed by Sauer and many others. However, in my own research I have developed two primary ideas about the uses of spatial imagery. First, historic air photos carry the potential to uncover new “places for stories,” to borrow from William Cronon’s well-read essay.4 By this I mean that a spatial image as a photo-graph does not discriminate in choosing which features of the landscape to record or not. If it reflects sufficient light and fits within the scope of the lens, then it’s in. Historic air photographs not only show us what we’re looking for; but in many cases they also show us things we didn’t expect to see. Since the advent of aerial photography in the early 1900s, archeologists have used them to delineate crop markings showing the outlines of ancient roads and foundations. In England in 1906, an exhibit of photographs taken by balloon over Stonehenge revealed for the first time a system of roads and other structures stretching across the heath. Over the next few decades, aerial photography played a central role in re-writing the history of Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain.5

How might photographs of modern historical places such as California or Vietnam in the 20th century open up new places for stories? In my own research of historic and contemporary images of the landscapes around Hu?, I am repeatedly struck by the incredible persistence of seemingly soft features such as field boundaries, estuarine impoundments (dikes) and bamboo hedgerows. Comparing maps from 1927 with photos in the 1950s and satellite imagery today, these lines are for the most part fixed while urban and industrial spaces including military bases go through many changes. More along the lines of the crop markings at Stonehenge, photos also reveal persistent traces from earlier occupants. These include the ruins of old citadels from the 14th century and family tombs that survived inside the fence lines of American bases and are still visible today. Aerial photographs more than textual records and even topographic maps can help us appreciate the layered nature of landscapes.

My second observation on potential uses of aerial photography in environmental history stems from more of an activist interest in environmental sustainability and addressing what I perceive as residual problems from the past documented in historic imagery. As Sanderson and others have acknowledged with the Manahatta project, visualization can serve as a powerful motivational tool. It stokes the imagination, allowing one to experience a god-like distance and visual perspective relative to objects on the ground. There are obvious shortcomings to people assuming this perspective, what Donna Haraway calls the god-trick. Her writing on “The Persistence of Vision” gets to the core of this problem:

The eyes have been used to signify a perverse capacity-honed to perfection in the history of science tied to militarism, capitalism, colonialism, and male supremacy-to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power. The instruments of visualization in multinationalist, postmodernist culture have compounded these meanings of disembodiment. The visualizing technologies are without apparent limit… But, of course, that view of infinite vision is an illusion, a god trick. I would like to suggest how our insisting metaphorically on the particularity and embodiment of all vision (although not necessarily organic embodiment and including technological mediation), and not giving in to the tempting myths of vision as a route to disembodiment and second-birthing allows us to construct a usable, but not an innocent, doctrine of objectivity.6

By digitally resurrecting satellite and airplane photography over the war-scarred landscapes of Vietnam, my intent is not to facilitate nostalgic god-trickery, although I do admit to a degree of pure childish wonder at bird’s-eye views. Rather, my activist concern is more focused on the post-war silence surrounding the full extent of war-related environmental impacts in Vietnam.

While the United States and other countries including France possess well-catalogued, mostly-classified collections of imagery that could be used to locate such persistent hazards as military base landfills, unexploded ordnance, bomb craters and herbicide spray sites, these governments have yet to declassify and make public their collections. The same images that once permitted a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield in 1969 now via archives can potentially offer concerned citizens a view into their community’s environmental past. I am not sure that any state, including Vietnam, is excited for people to have such a clear view of a given landscape’s potential hazards. Nevertheless, access to such information played a powerful role in citizen-led campaigns for environmental cleanup in the United States, Europe and Japan; and it may facilitate similar efforts in less affluent, more war-torn places such as Vietnam.

By incorporating spatial imagery into the analysis, environmental historians can find new places for stories. Spatial imagery is inherently story-less in the sense that a single image typically contains no text, and only in comparing images can someone detect patterns of change or persistence. However, by detecting new patterns in studies of historic imagery, we can greatly enhance the diversity of storylines, perhaps even avoiding tendencies to fall into declensionist or techno-positivist trajectories. Along the same lines, air photography lacks the familiar geo-lines of national boundaries and place names. Thus by contemplating the areal patterns and features captured in a single image, we are leaving the boundary lines and place names of the derived map for a less structured space.


1. The New York facility was recently featured on The New Yorker’s online blog. See Joshua Rothman. The Many Lives of Iron Mountain. Posted on October 23, 2013. Last accessed December 01, 2013.

2. Carl O. Sauer. “The Morphology of Landscape,” University of California Publications in Geography, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 19-54 (1925).

3. One great exception is the Spatial History Project at Stanford. However, a reading of the papers published by the Project shows a general tendency to quantify or categorize areal changes over time with less discussion of underlying logics or phenomena. Most of the work aims at producing historic visualizations using maps, oblique, bird’s-eye views, and reliance on GIS software. Another popular example of such historic and spatially-referenced visualization is the Mannahatta/Welikia Project. The Wildlife Conservation Society collaborated with other institutions and many volunteers to visualize New York City’s pre-European ecology and landscapes. See also Eric W. Sanderson. Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. New York: Abrams, 2009. An excellent critique with Sanderson can be found at Reuben Rose-Redwood. Encountering Mannahatta: A Critical Review Forum. Cartographica 45:4, pp. 241-273.

4. William Cronon. A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative. Journal of American History, March 1992, pp. 1347-1376.

5. For a comprehensive history of English aerial photography and archeology see Martyn Barber. A History of Aerial Photography and Archeology: Mata Hari’s glass eye and other stories. London: English heritage, 2011.

6. Donna Haraway. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14:3, pp. 575-599.

Further Resources