Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How To Forge Public History From The Land.

There is little doubt that environmental history is in vogue currently. The rise of environmental history has opened up a number of new opportunities for public historians. Research is being done on landscapes, environmental resources, the impact humans have on the world and various other topics. Environmental history has a place for public historians, even if at times they have to create their own niche.

One of the environmental research areas in which public historians have recently devoted attention to is the historical interpretation of landscapes. According to David Glassberg "Landscapes are the product of human interaction with the environment over time."[1]This suggests that landscapes are a valuable resource for learning about cultural, economic, and social trends over time. Learning from the physical past is not something horribly new, anthropologists, geologists, and numerous other fields have been doing this for years. However, with the rise of environmental history the use of landscapes in historical narratives is increasing.

Natural landscapes are altered over time by both nature and humans, these alterations reflect significant adaptations to the environment and larger societal trends. Glassberg discusses the development of water ways, canals, and transportation networks in the United States.[2] These man made alterations of the natural landscape reflect economic and cultural desires. Waterways, bridges, and canals were often created to allow for easier transportation of goods, which reflects a growing emphasis on a material culture. By examining human influence on landscapes it is possible to learn about the interaction of the environment and culture, and how they influenced each other.

Paired with the use of landscape by historians is a growing number of movements concerned with natural landscape. Historic preservationists, environmentalists, and land owners all have agendas when viewing the past. Rebecca Conard notes that often human built landscapes and natural landscapes are intertwined, and that to fully appreciate the environment these landscapes need to be examined together. [3] Human constructs such as roadways, benches, buildings, and numerous other structures are common place in many national parks and green spaces. These buildings have their own history and reflect the human trend of preserving the environment while still catering to the desire to have modern amenities. Removing all human constructs from a landscape destroys valuable history. [4]

The history of landscapes can be seen in parks, cities, rural farming communities, and waterways. By examining the way in which landscapes have changed public historians can learn a lot about the way that society has developed. For example, examining the development of national parks as tourism attractions highlights the commercial nature of society, and the growing emphasis on heritage tourism. The use of heritage tourism in Canadian national parks is particularly evident in the establishment of PEI's national park and it's focus on Anne of Green Gables. In this instance golf courses were created, beaches were included, and "Anne's House" was fixed up to be a tourist attraction.[5] All of these acts changed the natural landscape in PEI and are telling of the economic and cultural motivations of society. By using landscape as a stepping stone it is possible for public historians to expand their interest in environmental history to other fields, and expand their knowledge of a society's history in general.

[1] David Glassberg, "Interpreting Landscapes," Public History and the Environment, ed. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino, (Florida: Kreiger, 2004), 23.
[2] Glassberg, 24-25.
[3] Rebecca Conard, "Spading Common Ground." Public History and the Environment, ed. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino, (Florida: Kreiger, 2004), 8-12.
[4] Conard, 18.
[5] Alan MacEachern, "The Greening of Green Gables: Establishing Prince Edward Island National Park, ca. 1936." Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970, (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001), 75-78.

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