December 17, 2017

Environmental History July 2016, 21.3


TABLE OF CONTENTS July, 2016 | Vol. 21, No. 3



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

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

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

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


Gallery Editors’ Note by Finis Dunaway

Natural history displays and illustrations often create an illusion of life: they make dead animals appear alive. In this issue’s Gallery essay, Leah Aronowsky unearths a fascinating set of illustrations by Joseph Drayton, a member of the mid-nineteenth-century US Exploring Expedition. Aronowsky examines Drayton’s field illustrations—which portray salmon and trout caught in the waters of Oregon Country—to pose larger questions about the temporalities of natural history representation. She explains how Drayton’s use of color and textual annotations challenged familiar notions of scientific objectivity and conveyed multiple ways of seeing and understanding the lives and deaths of these fish. Aronowsky’s essay will encourage readers to look anew at natural history representation and to reconsider how artists and scientists render their subjects.

Read the full Gallery Essay On Drawing Dead Fish by Leah Aronowsky


Issue 21.3 – July 2016

This issue is all about perspective. Stories that may seem familiar from one angle take on new importance when examined from another. Each of the authors here presents an original interpretation of history that will encourage us to reevaluate what we think we know about agriculture, resource extraction, and even our beloved dogs.

Wilbur mapMaya Peterson explores the intersection of science, politics, and imperialism in her article, “US to USSR.” During the 1920s and 1930s, American agronomists and engineers traveled to the Soviet Union to participate and direct massive infrastructural projects, including irrigation schemes aimed at turning Central Asia’s arid lands into productive farmland. Most had no interest in either socialism or communism, according to Peterson, but went for “the opportunity to participate in an enormous experiment.” They shared a vision of modernization with their Soviet counterparts based “on a notion of progress and a belief in the ability of scientific expertise to conquer nature.” Drawing from their experiences in California and Mexico, and driven by the Soviet Union’s desire to increase its domestic cotton production, American experts, including African American agronomists trained at Tuskegee, replaced what they (and their Soviet partners) saw as Central Asia’s primitive landscape with one dominated by rational science. Peterson argues that in doing so, they “inadvertently helped to ensure the perpetuation of unequal colonial relationships that purportedly had been swept away with the remnants of the Russian Empire in the course of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.” Peterson’s article ultimately encourages us to rethink what being an “expert” means, especially when the holders of that title exert their influence on landscapes far from the environments in which they gained their knowledge and experience.

In “Whale Meat in Early Postwar Japan,” Jakobina Arch asks us to question what we know about Japan’s relationship with whales and whaling. By examining the processes through which whale meat in Japan expanded beyond its original role as a localized culinary specialty into an iconic national food, she provides new insight not only into Japanese cultural traditions, but also into the environmental legacies of that nation’s modern history. She argues that prior to World War II, Japan’s whaling industry, which began in earnest in the early twentieth century, focused primarily on whale oil for industrial and domestic uses, with the harvesting of whales for their meat as a secondary concern. This shifted during the years of the Allied Occupation (1945–52) when whaling resurged as a means to supply inexpensive meat for domestic use and for school lunches. At that time, Arch suggests, “whale meat became the center of complex interactions between a defeated Japan searching for a new national identity and reform-minded Americans taking the opportunity to consciously reshape various aspects of postwar Japanese culture and society.” Thus what began as a measure of expedience to combat postwar dearth became a point of national pride, one that continues to shape Japan’s whaling industry and the politics surrounding that practice.

Figshrimp and petro logoTyler Priest also challenges assumptions that have led to misunderstandings about resources and their role in local cultures. He argues in “Shrimp and Petroleum” that, contrary to what scholars have suggested, oil extraction and shrimp harvesting off Louisiana’s coast were not competing industries, but were instead social and economic complements. According to Priest, “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.” Tracing the labor, social, and cultural history of shrimp and oil in Morgan City, Louisiana, Priest deftly shows that it was global forces, not local environmental degradation and economic decline, that led to the demise of those industries in the region. Unable to sustain those industries, Morgan City has nevertheless retained both shrimp and petroleum as symbols of its identity. Every Labor Day weekend, “close to a hundred thousand people,” nearly ten times the city’s permanent population, attend its Shrimp & Petroleum Festival. “Instead of harvesting shrimp and petroleum,” Priest concludes, “Morgan City now relies on a much smaller harvest of tourist dollars.” Morgan City has had to reinvent itself economically, but has integrated its past relationship with the Gulf’s resources firmly into its future.

Conklin Dog Brokerx550Joshua Kercsmar presents an evolutionary interpretation in his article “Wolves at Heart,” where he argues that “processes operating on scales of time reaching back thousands of years” can provide important insight into Euro-Indian encounters from the seventeenth century through our own time. He traces how “the evolution of dogs, which were the only major domesticate common to Europe and America, structured how Europeans understood Indians and themselves.” European colonizers initially criticized Native peoples for not taming their wolf-like dogs fully, but when their own dogs began to act in less-than-civilized manners in frontier and urban areas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Euro-Americans questioned their own abilities to master canine nature. At the same time, Native Americans, increasingly confined to reservations, found their relationships with both nature and their dogs radically altered. Kercsmar suggests that dispossession of Native peoples created “dysfunctional ecologies in which dogs and humans, reversing millennia of cooperation, are often enemies rather than allies.” Kercsmar follows the evolutionary trail from first encounters through to the twenty-first century, presenting a compelling case for taking biological and cultural adaptations between species seriously in our attempts to understand the past.