Edge Effects: 2016 in Review
As 2016 draws to a close, Edge Effects celebrates its third year of publishing insightful, creative content on the interactions between people and environment over the full sweep of human history. We’ve had the good fortune to draw content from an inspired and growing cast of contributors from within CHE and beyond. And we really have covered a lot of ground!
In over seventy posts, our authors have taken readers from the depths of marijuana-growing country in Northern California to the running paths of Kenya; from inside a sealed ecological experiment to the compost bins of New York City. We’ve published tales of mapping, from German soldiers to Syrian refugee experiences; roundtables on the Flint water crisis and Chernobyl; essays on caring for others, and lessons for doing so even in dark times. We’ve collaborated with NiCHE to bring you fieldnotes from environmental historians, exploring “Pure Michigan,” memories of mining, and the history of longleaf pine. And we launched a podcast to boot, in which members of the CHE community have talked race and place with Lauret Savoy, Arctic history with Andrew Stuhl, race and the environment with Carolyn Finney, and more.
In what follows, our editors share their thoughts on some notable, and perhaps overlooked, posts from Edge Effects in 2016.
-Rachel Boothby, Managing Editor
My favorite pieces this year both had the ability to take familiar things and turn them on their heads. Ben Kasten’s piece, “Damming God? Making Sense of the Plan to Fix Niagara Falls,” takes one of the most iconic American landmarks and traces how its image has changed through history. When the falls were first discovered in the seventeenth century, they were described as “frightful.” Yet, by the early nineteenth century, thousands flocked to Niagara to catch a glimpse of one of the United States’s most sublime romantic landscape.
Phil Cerepak’s piece, “Coconuts: Catalysts of Conflict,” does much the same with an increasingly common kitchen staple: coconut oil. His piece shows how a the demand for the popular ingredient, used in food products from movie theater popcorn to cakes, changed forests to farmland, helped enable local revolutions in the Philippines, and became an integral link in the smuggling chain that existed throughout Southeast Asia in the mid-twentieth century. I love both of these pieces because of how they take well-known products and places and reveal the hidden histories that made them what they are today.
In the second half of 2016, few non-election stories caught the nation’s attention quite like the events at Standing Rock, North Dakota. Countless news outlets, media pundits, and activists across the political spectrum shared their thoughts on the implications of the Standing Rock Sioux’s fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Scanning the headlines, one could find articles on the benefits and pitfalls of the proposed oil pipeline that would cut through Indian lands. In a refreshing approach, Charles Carlin looked past the binary of indigenous rights versus state development, to instead reflect on some of the wider meanings of “ceremony.” Carlin’s insightful essay highlighted not only the forms of ceremony practiced at Standing Rock, but the idea of ceremony itself, as both a vehicle and a product of social struggle and cohesion.
Helen J. Bullard
Heather Swan’s poignant piece Turning Toward was published on Edge Effects only three weeks ago, and yet this powerful cautionary tale has already made a deep impact on me this year. Turning Toward weaves together stories of love, loss and empathy, and asks us what might happen if we all turned toward kindness and each other, instead of away. Just take a moment, and read the last part of that sentence again. It’s the question I can’t quite get beyond. We don’t re-publish many pieces here on Edge Effects, but there is a reason we wanted to post this (lightly edited) version of Heather’s piece, first published in About Place Journal.
I strongly recommend reading (or rereading) this moving piece, and embracing those thoughts as we move into the new year.
Many photographers have paired contemporary images of landscapes with historical photographs. Zane Williams’s Double Take: A Rephotographic Survey of Madison, Wisconsin is a great example of this genre. Williams pairs his own photographs with images taken of Madison from the 1920s-1950s, creating a stunning commentary on landscape change. I was pleased to see Robert Lundberg take a similar approach in his 2016 photos of Prairie du Sac. Lundberg does more than revisit the dam in Prairie du Sac on the Wisconsin River from the same angles, however. He explores the underlying assumptions in the process of repeat photography, namely, how we look past the idea of “truth” for a more nuanced understanding of the cultural assumptions behind the images.
One of my favorite narrative history movies is Matewan, John Sayles’s thrilling (if not at all nuanced) retelling of a violent 1920 conflict between West Virginia coalminers and the mining company’s hired guns. One of my favorite documentaries is The Battle for Orgreave, which documents an historical reenactment of the climax of Britain’s miners’ strike of 1984-85. And one of my favorite history books is Thomas Andrew’s Killing for Coal, a retelling of a pivotal moment in Colorado’s “Great Coalfield War” a century ago.
So it’s curious that I’ve never thought to ask myself the question Elena McGrath poses in her fascinating piece on the long history of mining in Bolivia: “Why are industries that have been so intimately linked to colonialism, human rights abuses, and environmental damage so persistently attractive for radicals and revolutionaries who want to create a redistributive, equitable social order?” McGrath unpacks this question as she plots the interactions among laborers, states, corporations, and natural resources from the colonial period up to the administration of current President Evo Morales.
This year was the centennial anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service, so it was a fitting time for Edge Effects authors and editors to reflect on what the Parks mean to American society. In her piece “A Park Service for Both Bison and Bombs,” Kathleen Conti reminded us that National Parks preserve far more than flowers and wildlife—that in fact many Park Service units preserve cultural landscapes, everything from civil war battlefields to nuclear arsenal hotspots. Bailey Albrecht interviewed historian Michael Edmunds about the legacy of John Muir, the father of the National Parks, in his boyhood state of Wisconsin. Finally, at the end of September, the Editorial Board put forward our picks of stories relating to the National Parks Centennial—covering everything from the kerfuffle over naming rights to Yosemite’s Ahwanhee Hotel to the regulating and criminalization of subsistence activities in the parks.
The 2016 Olympics took the world’s attention in August, but now, just months later, Simone Biles’ back flips seem far in the past. However, the legacy of the Olympics endures in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Here, the city’s citizens—and especially its poorest—are experiencing the aftermath of hasty urban planning decisions made to benefit the city’s temporary summer visitors. Meg Healy explores the legacy of the Olympics in the city’s housing landscape through her own investigative reporting in Rio’s informal neighbrohoods, or favelas, and in its newly constructed low-income housing.
Featured image: Close up shot of the foaming mousse bubbles from a glass of champagne. Image by Quinn Dombrowski.