Without fail, the first question I’m asked when I explain to people that my academic focus is environmental history is “what is environmental history?” This is a somewhat difficult question to answer, seeing as how environmental historians are constantly debating how to define our field, and sometimes even whether the field actually exists. A fundamental definition would be something like the study of past interactions between humans and non-human nature. Of course, that’s pretty vague, and the easiest way to add some nuance to this definition might be through the use of a visual aid.
If you’ve visited my site before, you probably noticed that the header consists of part of this photo:
There’s a short story behind this photo. A few weeks ago, my partner and I went for a hike with some friends in a conservation area near the town of Millbrook, Ontario (information on the conservation area here). After an intense trek on one trail that was covered in poison ivy, we decided to hike along Baxter Creek, where I came across the view pictured above. I thought, “Wow, this would make a great wilderness shot,” and so I took the photo that you see here.
The more I reflected, though, the more I realized that it was problematic to think of the photo as a representation of wilderness. The concept of “wilderness” denotes a limited amount of human modification to the landscape, and that was definitely not what we saw on our hike that day. From time immemorial, Indigenous peoples would have interacted with this landscape, and then after the arrival of Europeans, lumbering became a major economic activity in the area, hence the reason the town is called “Millbrook.” Even now, the landscape has been set aside as a conservation area, to be enjoyed by locals and tourists alike, yet there is evidence of human modification everywhere, from boardwalks to trees that have been cut down. In other words, the creation of a landscape that appears wild but easily accessible for hikers.
Perhaps what struck me most about the photo were revelations about the pretty flowers in the foreground. One of my fellow hikers, a friend who works for an environmental organization in Peterborough, identified them as dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis). Widely considered to be an invasive species or weed, they were introduced as an ornamental for the benefit of European settlers. Thus, one of the most visually appealing aspects of my so-called wilderness photo is not technically natural to North America.
All of the reflecting that I just described was me, in a very basic way, doing environmental history. It’s a way of looking at the landscape around you or in other places, realizing that it hasn’t always just been the way it is now, and working out what sorts of changes the landscape has gone through, and why they occurred, over time. This explanation is still not perfect (believe me, my colleagues will point this out), but hopefully gives you some sense of what it is that we do as environmental historians.