Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Environmental history and legal history in the Republic of Nature

The new (August 2013) issue of Environment and History has a review by Lisa Brady of Mark Fiege's The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (U. of Washington Press, 2012), which she calls "a sweeping, challenging and utterly engrossing study of America’s past".
Environmental factors, Fiege contends, are present in all aspects of the nation’s past but often have been obscured by a failure to recognise them. Fiege seeks to remedy this by analysing nine historical episodes, most without obvious connections to nature, and by focusing on individuals not known for their environmentalism.
As Brady describes it, the book shifts attention away from the "environmental canon" (e.g. Thoreau, Muir, Carson) to aspects of the American past not typically noted for their connection to environmental history.

Interestingly, at least half of the topics covered by the book are part of the legal history canon
the witch trials of colonial New England, the Declaration of Independence, southern slavery, the Gettysburg Address, and Brown v. Board of Educationand many of the remaining topics (the transcontinental railroad, for example) also have connections to the literature of legal history.

For more, I suggest Historiann's March 2012 interview of Fiege; here's a taste of Fiege's responses:
Somehow, many Americans have segregated–and I use that word deliberately–race and nature not only in scholarly discourse, but in much of our popular and political discourse, too. Nature is John Muir and Henry David Thoreau; race is Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. Du Bois. In fact, Douglass and Du Bois had plenty to say about nature, it’s just that to them, nature was wrapped up in the problem of race, and race was wrapped up in the problem of nature. I can no longer read their works without imagining them to be nature writers.
Some friends and colleagues... have been skeptical that the Brown v. Board of Education case as experienced in Topeka really is environmental history:  too much pavement, buildings, schoolrooms, ideas of race, and so forth. Their objections raise basic questions about what is, and is not, environmental history. Obviously, I would like to extend environmental history analysis into other realms of American history, beyond the histories of agriculture, forests, rivers, national parks, animals, and the like, my own work included, that have defined the field. The color line, it seems to me, was more than just a legal abstraction; it was a material practice grounded in the social experience of landscape and its physical properties. The color line ran through fields, forests, wildlife, water, and fish, to be sure; and its architects drew it into the urban landscape, where it ran up and down hills, through freezing weather, along muddy streets and into flood-prone neighborhoods, through houses and schoolrooms, and into the organic bodies of people. 
Lots here for people interested in the history of law and the environment to sink their teeth into!

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