Sunday, April 14, 2013

Writing Lessons from Environmental Historians (Some Ramblings)

The first piece of environmental history that I ever read as such was William Cronon’s wonderful Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.  Cronon, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, is delivering the Jefferson Lecture on Monday at UC Berkeley’s International House, and in preparation for attending, I dipped into his edited volume, Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature this morning. 

I was happily reminded of how pleasant much environmental history is to read, particularly that written by some of its earliest proponents: Cronon, Donald Worster, Roderick Nash, and co.  Many people would undoubtedly disagree, but I find an almost extraordinary clarity in much of the more “traditional” writing on environmental history (a history which I know some find stodgy).  In a world in which to my mind many people think that narratives stand in the way of a good argument, or fail to distinguish between the ability to make a significant or important point or argument, and the ability to do so in a stylish, discernible fashion, the writing in this sub-discipline stands out to me.

Historians both within and without the environmental history sub-field have strong feelings about where it should be going.  Some believe it should maintain a distinctive character, others believe that it should be better “integrated” into the discipline, or that it is too declensionist—that is, that because it arose in reaction to an era of environmental plunder, that it is preoccupied with environmental decline to the extent that it is a bit blinkered.

Nonetheless, there is something about the sub-field that makes the writing of it special.  The writing of its best practitioners is studiously careful not because—as some seem to think—the subject matter is simple, but precisely because it is not.  For many people—academics as much as anyone else—the idea of taking “the environment” or any of its features or attributes as the subject of historical inquiry is (and certainly was, although it has become less heretical over time) novel and perhaps even troubling.

I took a graduate course on imperial history here at Berkeley, and we spent a couple of weeks using environmental history as an interpretive lens.  Many people found it unintuitive, and some reacted strongly against it.  I took an American Environmental History course as an undergraduate from David Igler, and because my research subject is in some respects ‘environmental’ I’ve read a fair bit around the subject, which only goes some way towards easing the difficulty of grappling with some of the original concepts.

It’s my working hypothesis that because their audience was always unfamiliar, frequently sceptical, and occasionally outright hostile, and because they were writing at a moment when their historical material was the subject of intense social, cultural, and political debate, environmental historians took greater care in choosing their terminology, in explaining their premises and use of evidence, and in constructing their arguments.  Their writing, in this way, tended to demonstrate what was for them a process of discovery, and they chronicled that process carefully.

Put another way, the writing of many environmental historians tends to be dialogic, but not in the conventional academic sense of operating in constant engagement with fellow-travellers within the confines of a discipline, or even academia broadly.  Instead, much writing in the field actively engages in a similar process with readers.  You can see how writers (because yes, good historians wear that hat as well) anticipate various lines of thinking on the part of their readers (because yes, ideally historians have some of those) to refine their point

Their own thought process, the process whereby they construct their arguments and arrive at conclusions, thereby becomes more transparent and comprehensible to readers.  Reading is like other problem-solving processes.  It is more difficult to interpret a “finished” text, which tends to be more closed to readers, than one in which the process of its construction is still in some evidence. 

In this way, I feel that environmental historians are often more successful than their counterparts in other historical sub-disciplines at conveying fairly sophisticated points and arguments in a way that is accessible and “popular”, to put a positive spin on a word often used within academia in a derogatory fashion. 

Re-reading some of Cronon’s work is, I hope, going to make me more self-conscious as I continue my own historical writing at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning in the Free Speech Movement Cafe! 

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