Panel 1: Power and Resources
“Surviving the Hard Winter: Landscapes, Climate, and the Continental Army’s 1779-1780 Winter Encampment”
Steven Elliot (Temple)
This paper is an environmental history of the Continental Army’s 1779-1780 winter encampment in Morristown New Jersey. I choose Morristown in part to rectify the historiographical imbalance that has privileged studies of the Valley Forge encampment. This paper looks to uncover the intersections of military and environmental history through the case study of one winter encampment. Military-environmental history is a small but steadily growing sub-field, and this paper draws from the research of scholars including J. R. McNeil, Lisa M. Brady, and David C. Hsuing. These historians have emphasized the importance of food, water, and fuel to eighteenth and nineteenth-century armies. Here I look to expand on the food-water-fuel framework by including the need for wood as a building material, the effects of climate, and the strategic importance of geography. To bring together these disparate themes I center my study on the concept of a landscape. In this case, the landscape was the New Jersey Highlands in which the Continental Army took refuge. This paper thus traces the transformation of the New Jersey Highlands from a civilian environment to a militarized environment as the Continental Army responded to its need for shelter by deforesting the region to construct its quarters. The army’s negative affect on the environment continued throughout the winter as the logistical need for food, water, and firewood further despoiled the Highlands. This paper also looks at the natural world’s agency, such as how the Highlands’ environment constrained the army’s search for a camp site and how the local climate exacerbated supply difficulties during the winter. Overall, it hopes to show that understanding the Continental Army’s interaction with the natural world is crucial to explaining America’s victory in the war.
“India in the Age of Coal: Geology, Hydropower, and Modernization in Princely India, 1920s-1940s”
Matthew Shutzer (New York University)
Do ecological systems produce the territorial boundaries of states, or do states produce the limits of ecological systems? Drawing from the theoretical approaches of science and technology studies (STS) and critical geography, this paper examines the emergence of large-scale natural resource management regimes along the coal seams and river systems of the Orissa and Chhattisgarh princely states of eastern India after the First World War. I argue that the technological conditions of coal production created peculiar linkages between the princely states and British India, resulting in the states acquiring a prototypical ‘special economic zone’ status as a means of rationalizing emergent developmental inequalities. Contrary to historicalstudies that have treated princely India and British India as discrete spaces with distinct sovereignties, I demonstrate how the resource needs of shared ecological spaces, namely the Gondwana Mineral Basin and the Mahanadi River System, created areas of contestation that routinely undermined claims to political autonomy. Further, I show how coal became the pivotal object of future oriented developmental projects on both sides of the political divide, radically transforming a region of fragmented polities into a singular political unit with monopoly rights to minerals, forests, rivers, and laboring bodies in the years leading up to decolonization. The totalizing vision of these new developmental projects was conditioned by technological advancement and the diffusion of geological expertise, yet it was also integrally linked to midcentury questions of resource scarcity and energy sovereignty. Coal, in this analysis, figures as a material object inscribed by the contradictions of Indian national development and the global economy in the first half of the twentieth century.
“Between the River and the Floodplain: The Khaza’il-Ottoman Encounter in the Marshes of the Middle Euphrates Region”
Faisal Husain (Georgetown)
The economic fortunes of Mesopotamian states and grain farmers plummeted following the deterioration of the Sasanian irrigation system during the early medieval period, giving scholars the impression that the region’s environment went through a period of perpetual decline. However, the Mesopotamian alluvium contained several specialized subsistence zones and should not be treated as an ecologically undifferentiated region. This essay utilizes the flood pulse concept and argues that the deterioration of flood control measures and irrigation works restored the natural, unmodified flood regime of the Euphrates and reinvigorated different species and natural systems, particularly the Mesopotamian wetlands and their biota. Vibrant and reviving, wetlands provided the material basis for the rise of the Khazaʿil tribal confederation to political dominance in the Middle Euphrates region at the turn of the eighteenth century. The essay relies on largely untapped Ottoman and Arabic sources and demonstrates that wetland habitation was a viable and effective subsistence strategy for the Khazaʿil in early modern Mesopotamia. Wetlands served the Khazaʿil as an ecological niche and political ally during their struggle with one of the most powerful early modern empires, and their settlement was an environmental and political adaptation. Throughout the eighteenth century, Ottoman officials repeatedly dammed the Middle Euphrates and drained its wetlands that sustained and fortified the Khazaʿil in order to break the basis of their power. Ottoman hydraulic warfare weakened their tribal foes, but it produced unexpected outcomes in the long term that changed the history of the Ottoman Empire and its Mesopotamian provinces forever. Most notably, it forced the Middle Euphrates to shift its channel westward, an environmental transformation that facilitated the revival of the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala’ and the consolidation of Shiʿism as a majority religion in the region.
Panel 2: Water and the Urban Environment
“Hyperion as Icarus?: The Delights and Disappointments of a Space-Age Sewage Treatment Plant”
Sarah Randle (Yale University)
On May 15, 1950, before a crowd of nearly 2000, Mayor Fletcher Bowron smashed a bottle of champagne to celebrate the opening of the newest, most modern piece of Los Angeles’s infrastructure: the upgraded Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant. According to many Angelenos, the upgrade was long overdue. After all, the city’s beaches had been closed for nearly a decade due to outbreaks of bacillary dysentery among bathers from contact with untreated sewage. In 1956, following a tour of the plant, the usually tech-cynical Aldous Huxley was moved to publish an essay stating that the plant “triumphantly solved” the problem of keeping a great city clean, once and for all. Just three decades later, however, Hyperion was no longer an object of celebration, but the target of noisy environmentalist protests for its perceived role in the fouling of the Santa Monica Bay and the killing of local marine species. Rather than a triumphant solution to the problem of urban pollution via human waste, Hyperion was widely understood to be the cause of drastic environmental degradation. Drawing on historical newspaper coverage, city records, and the collected papers of L.A. engineers and activists, this paper uses these two rare periods of public attention to a city’s sewage treatment plant to investigate the shifting meanings of pollution and the urban environment in the global North. By focusing on public representations and interpretations of such a rarely remarked upon piece of a city’s infrastructure, the essay also offers a novel angle through which to examine the ways in which urban material networks and spatial politics quietly co-produce one another – and how these relationships evolve over time.
“‘The Ravages of Teredo’: The Impact of Marine Wood-borers on Late Nineteenth Century and Early Twentieth Century American Society and Culture”
Derek Nelson (University of New Hampshire)
An important aspect of late nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S. commercial
expansion is the large incidence of wood-boring worms along the American coastline. This study of a particularly nasty organism called teredo shows just how dramatic the impact of wood-borers was on U.S. society and culture. Teredo is an invasive species to the American coastline and is now endemic throughout the world. Its penchant is to bore into and inhabit wharves and ships washed by seawater until commercial infrastructure crumbled from multiple infestations. Fear of teredo cannot be understated. Engineers and waterfront goers rarely spoke about the wood-borer separate of the ominous phrase “the ravages of teredo” or the “ravages of the worms.” Even robber barons and senior statesmen monitored its ravages and worked hard to lessen its impact. Teredo is rarely remembered today (largely because of the adoption of steel and fiberglass hulled vessels as well as better pile preservation methods) but the historical presence of teredo (or lack thereof) signaled to engineers and investors which coastal communities were worthy of commercial investment. Thus, teredo shaped the geography of commercial capitalism during a period of rapid expansion. Teredo also wormed its way into language and became a cultural icon of sorts. The word “teredo” became synonymous with terms like “damage,” “unstable” and “furtive.” Because teredo enters wooden planks and piles as microscopic juveniles, and grows to maturity beyond view, it was often detectable only after wharves collapsed and waterfront strollers were injured. This negative association made the word “teredo” a handy metaphor in songs, poems and short stories. A study of teredo has several historiographical implications—it can draw connections between marine environmental history and other fields such as urban, terrestrial and global environmental history.
“Missing the Rivers for the Forest: Regional Planning and Long-Term Continuities in the Representation of Amazonian Nature in Twentieth Century Brazil”
Adrián Lerner Patrón (Yale University)
This paper is an exploratory approach to the roles attributed to rivers in the history of regional planning projects in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest during the twentieth century. Using government-issued planning documentation as well as secondary sources, I focus on the foundational, yet understudied period of developmental regional planning of the Second Republic (1945-1964), and particularly on the ways in which Amazonian rivers were depicted and conceptualized. I argue that the ideas about Amazonian nature featured in planning projects formulated during this period included remarkable continuities with received ideas about the region dating at least from the years of the Old Republic (1889-1930), while, at the same time, they laid the ground for the earthshattering, authoritarian development planning projects put forward by the military after 1964. Regional planning for economic development is often presented as a radical rupture with the past. Nevertheless, close attention to specific elements, such interpretations of nature, and roles attributed to it and, by association, to the peoples that inhabit it, can show remarkable continuities between allegedly opposed strategies. The case of rivers, defining and distinctively prominent environmental features of the Amazon rainforest, shows the persistence of long-term historical patterns in the understanding of the region and of its role in the national development of Brazil. As some of the less encouraging social and environmental consequences of the process of modernization of the Brazilian Amazon during and after the military dictatorship have shown, these also had important and long-lasting practical consequences.
Panel 3: Science and Knowledge Production
“Making Global Nature Visible: The Field Illustrations of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-1842)”
Leah Aronowsky (Harvard)
As the United States Exploring Expedition sailed across the globe from 1838 to 1842, Joseph Drayton, one of the Expedition’s two official artists, drew the fishes that were caught along the way. Fish were not the only animals of interest during this voyage—as the first major federally-sponsored nautical science expedition, naturalists and other crew members collected and illustrated over 160,000 botanical, zoological, and geological specimens during the four-year journey. These objects composed the foundational collection of what eventually became the Smithsonian Institution, and represented the United States’ first major foray into the sponsorship of oceanic scientific exploration.
This paper takes Drayton’s fish illustrations as its primary source to examine the distinct artistic and epistemic priorities of natural history illustration as practiced in the field versus the artist’s studio. Working in the field, Drayton grappled with how to accurately represent the recently-captured fish as they transitioned from life to death and rapidly changed in coloration and appearance. These questions were less of a concern to artists working with specimens back in the studio, who worked with fish specimens that, although vastly different in appearance from the moment of their capture, had by this point stabilized in appearance. Studio artists, then, were most concerned with producing a reasoned image that highlighted a specimen’s taxonomically relevant features. This paper shows how even the same practice—in this case, natural history illustration—can take on very different meanings across different sites, and argues that illustrations like Drayton’s fish constituted a new relationship between specimen and its representation. Working at the intersection of visual culture, history of science, and environmental history, this paper also makes a case for the value of images as source materials in their own right.
“Cultivating Pleurotus: Species and Substrates in Mushroom Science”
Peter Oviatt (MIT)
Pleurotus, a genus of edible fungi commonly known as oyster mushrooms, entered mushroom science in the early 1970s. Before this time, mushroom science—a field devoted to the cultivation of mushrooms—still focused on one species, and was largely restricted to the Western world. Mushroom production was homogenous, highly mechanized, required extensive inputs, and left behind xenobiotic waste. Pleurotus promised to change this scenario. Experiments involving Pleurotus began to accumulate, and they contained the same rosy conclusion: the aggressive fungus was found to grow readily on a wide array of agricultural and forestry waste. Not only does Pleurotus break-down waste into compost, it does so while providing a source of protein (or income) for rural economies. Moreover, this dual feat is accomplished with minimal inputs and simple procedures. This research gave Pleurotus an environmental and humanitarian face, a move that added value to mushroom science. In the decades that followed, experiments continued, cultivation manuals were written, and mushroom science congresses held. The new methods of production introduced new materials, new geographies, and new actors to mushroom cultivation. For example, rural communities in India and Nigeria began cultivating Pleurotus on agricultural wastes; non-professionals in the West also began to experiment with the fungi. This paper tracks the story of Pleurotuscultivation as a low-tech, low-cost technology that aids economies and repairs ecologies. However the application of Pleurotus science is still emerging and has yet to achieve consistent success. The promise of Pleurotus continues to grow, with applied results trailing behind. Finally, this paper moves beyond the science and technology, to consider the organism itself. After all, the uniquely adaptive and aggressive biology of Pleurotus is responsible for the added value and context this paper explores.
“G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s Geochronometric Laboratory and the Construction of Ecological Time”
Laura Martin (Cornell)
In the late 1940s, Willard Libby of the University of Chicago suggested that the decay of carbon-14 could be used to date organic matter. G. Evelyn Hutchinson, a limnologist at Yale, was among the first to apply Libby’s method of radiocarbon dating to biological specimens. At the time, students in the Hutchinson laboratory were immersed in established methods of historical dating: analysis of pollen trapped in peat cores, examination of tree rings, and fossil stratigraphy. Radiocarbon dating emboldened ecologists to make new claims about the conditions of past climates and ecological communities.
Historians of ecology have illuminated the ways in which atomic fieldwork reorganized spatial understandings of the natural world – a reorganization that can be broadly characterized as a shift from habitats to ecosystems. But atomic fieldwork also reorganized temporal understandings of the natural world. Radioisotopic “chronometers” led to new constructions of ecological time, and with them, new forms of environmental governance, such as the Nature Conservancy’s “living museums” and federal plans to restore “degraded” wetlands. The importance of ecochronological research also inheres in the work of Aldo Leopold, whose essays of the late 1940s repeatedly assert biologists’ abilities to read history through species, describing the burr oak as a “historical library,” the hen plover as an “immemorial timepiece,” an Illinois corn field as a “garden of forgotten blooms.” The work of G. Evelyn Hutchinson and other ecologists gradually became manifest in American ideas wilderness, restoration, and ecological legacy.
“The Sweetness and the Fever?: Sugar Production, aedes aegypti, and Dengue Fever in Natal, South Africa, 1926-27”
Philip Rotz (Boston University)
This paper is an old new thing. Thirty-five years ago, James Goodyear offered “a new perspective” on the history of yellow fever in the Caribbean and coastal United States. He argued that sugar processing, shipping, and refining created favorable ecological conditions for yellow fever’s vector mosquito—aedes aegypti—by providing ready sugar for sustenance and plentiful breeding sites. Across ten examples, Goodyear noted “an apparent connection in time and place” between yellow fever “and the presence of sugarcane cultivation, milling, refining, or shipping.”
A handful of historians have mentioned or marshaled Goodyear’s sugar connection. It appears no one has tested the argument. Nor has it been integrated into the literature on other viruses transmitted by aedes aegypti—like dengue. As such, examining epidemiological links with sugar production offers a new perspective on the history of dengue.
This paper uses an occurrence of dengue in another sugar region to test Goodyear’s thesis. Did the sugar business impact the sprawling dengue epidemic that gripped Durban and the Natal coast in 1926-27? I explore this question in two ways. First, by examining whether sugar cultivation, milling, and refining in 1920s Natal created favorable ecological conditions for aedes aegypti. And, second, by tracing “sugar connections” in time and place based on newspaper accounts of the 1926-27 epidemic.