Faculty Favorites: Books That Will Change the Way You Look at the Land

Brightly colored painting of two children on opposite sides of a park bench reaching books.

Each semester we here at Edge Effects invite some of our favorite scholars from a range of fields to share with us the environmental books and essays they are most excited to teach in the weeks ahead. This fall’s list features a rich assortment of work that helps us see the land, its inhabitants, and their histories in new ways. We hope you enjoy the recommendations below and find new titles for your bookshelves.

For more suggested readings, peruse our lists from Spring 2018, Fall 2017, Spring 2017, and Fall 2016.

Claire Campbell, Professor of History, Bucknell University

Course: History/Environmental Studies 213, “North American Environmental History: Rivers of North America”

Recommendation: Wabanaki Homeland and the New State of Maine: The 1820 Journal and Plans of Survey of Joseph Treat edited by Micah A. Pawling (University of Massachusetts Press in conjunction with the Penobscot Indian Nation, 2007)

The cover of the book Wabanaki Homeland and the New State of Maine: The 1820 Journal and Plan of Survey of Joseph Treat, edited by Micah A. PawlingTreat’s survey is a wonderful source for evoking the landscape of the early 19th-century northeast. His notes convey the larger historical context (of British/American boundary negotiations and Euro-American settlement), and the immediate physicality of surveying and river-based movement. As he ascends the Penobscot and Allagash Rivers and descends the Saint John, guided by Penobscot John Neptune, Treat observes numerous types of landscapes as well as communities on both sides of the border. The brief entries and field sketches are a great entrée for students into working with primary sources, learning how to read Treat’s evaluations of nature and the marks of Wabanaki (Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy) occupation. Pawling’s readable introduction frames the survey in a way that introduces any number of questions of environmental, Indigenous, and political history.

Elizabeth Cherry, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Manhattanville College

Course: Sociology 2000, “Environmental Sociology”

Recommendation:Being Prey” by Val Plumwood, from The Ultimate Journey: Inspirational Stories of Living and Dying, edited by James O’Reilly, Sean O’Reilly, and Richard Sterling (Travelers’ Tales, 2000)

Val Plumwood looks through reading glasses down at her laptop and smiles in a room with a woman sitting in the background in this black and white portraitCelebrated ecofeminist Val Plumwood’s harrowing first-person essay about surviving a crocodile attack in the Australian outback perennially takes the spot as my students’ favorite reading of the semester. Plumwood’s thoughtful discussion of seeing herself as food to be eaten by another animal compels students to think about the status of humans in a food chain based on industrialized animal agriculture, humans’ relationships to other animals, and how we might cross the symbolic boundaries that separate culture and nature in order to form more sympathetic relationships between the two socially constructed worlds.

Mark Fiege, Wallace Stegner Chair in Western American Studies, Montana State University

Course: American History 491, “Nuclear America”

Recommendation: Doom Towns: The People and Landscapes of Atomic Testing—A Graphic History by Andrew G. Kirk and illustrated by Kristian Purcell (Oxford University Press, 2016)

The cover over the book "Doom Towns: The People and Landscapes of Atomic Testing, A Graphic History" by Andrew Kirk

Earth’s vast deserts and ocean expanses are littered with the eerie, mysterious, and fearsome remains of the planetary nuclear weapons complex. Doom Towns offers a multi-layered, open-ended history that helps make sense of these places and the people who inhabited and worked in them. The engrossing graphic history at the core of the book blends factual details and dramatic narrative with the imaginative and emotional power of visual art. Introductory passages, selected primary sources, and other features explain the basics of historical methodology, including public history. Doom Towns is a model of openness, democratic inclusiveness, empathy, and humility—the opposite of the values and practices that drove the global buildup of nuclear weaponry.

Abby Goode, Assistant Professor of English, Plymouth State University

Course: English 1555, “Wilderness Literature”

Recommendation: “Everything is a Human Being” by Alice Walker, from Living By the Word: Selected Writings, 1973-1987 (Houghton Mifflin, 1989)

The writer Alice Walker poses for a photograph wearing a bright purple scarf and clutching a bright peach rose.The first half of “Wilderness Literature” introduces students to writers such as Thoreau, Whitman, Muir, and Abbey. But the second half of the course focuses on voices that critique and reframe the underpinnings of this white, male tradition. As part of this second half, Walker’s thoughtful and accessible essay links environmental destruction with colonialism and Native American genocide. Taught alongside Evelyn White‘s “Black Women and the Wilderness” (1999), Walker’s essay allows students to see wilderness not as a pure, pristine landscape welcoming human intervention and colonial destruction, but rather a dynamic, multispecies world of resistant, elusive lifeforms. The essay features a talking tree, which invites students to explore questions of personification, difference, anthropocentrism, nonhuman subjectivity, and dark ecology. It contrasts nicely with Whitman’s poem “Song of the Redwood-Tree” (1873), in which a talking redwood invites destruction and colonization. Read in contrast to Whitman, Walker’s essay poses important questions for students of environmental literature: What does it mean to personify a tree? And can the nonhuman truly speak?

Emmanuel Kreike, Professor of History, Princeton University

Course: History 507, “Environmental History: Plural, Global, and Local Narratives”

Recommendation: Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown (Oxford University Press, 2013)

The cover of the book Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown, depicting children running in front of a row of quonset huts.Kate Brown argues that environmental exploitation and pollution (in this case by nuclear arms factories) is not merely due to a more or less abstract capitalist system and a resulting commodification of nature. Her comparison of highly secret weapons-grade fissure materials producing facilities in the post-WWII USSR and United States demonstrates that there were many similarities in how political and military leaders, scientists, and technicians and workers in the capitalist United States and the communist USSR used and abused the environment they depended on. She highlights in particular the Cold War context which led to the cutting of corners even in existing insufficient safety procedures and massive and sustained human, animal, plant, water, and soil exposure to nuclear pollution.

Laura Martin, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Williams College

Course: Environmental Studies 101, “Nature and Society: An Introduction to Environmental Studies”

Recommendation: This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent by Daegan Miller (University of Chicago Press, 2018)

The cover of the book "This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent," by Daegan Miller, which features a black-and-white photo of a large group of people standing beneath a tall pine tree, with one person at its topA book is a sustained conversation. A good book will explain and explore a difficult topic, whose complexities a tweet, or even an article, cannot fully fathom. To make space—and time—for such a conversation takes work; and I want my students to do such work immediately upon entering college. This semester I am excited to teach Daegan Miller’s This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent. With This Radical Land we cross time and space to meet radical 19th-century thinkers who rejected slavery, Manifest Destiny, and oppressive capitalism—thinkers who sought instead to sustain landscapes of freedom and justice. And we enter a conversation with them, and with Miller, about resistance. It is a conversation from the 19th century that has never ceased, that matters no less in 2018 than it did when it first started.

Daniel Rück, Assistant Professor of History, University of Ottawa

Course: History 2300, “Global Environmental History”

Recommendation: The Clay We Are Made Of: Haudenosaunee Land Tenure on the Grand River by Susan M. Hill (University of Manitoba Press, 2017)

The cover image of the book "The Clay We Are Made Of: Haudenosaunee Land Tenure on the Grand River" by Susan M. HillThe Clay We Are Made Of is a national and community history of Six Nations of the Grand River (in Southern Ontario), one of the most populous and influential Indigenous communities in Canada and part of the larger Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. Dr. Susan Hill (Haudenosaunee) does not write specifically for environmental historians, nor does she engage with the environmental history literature, but this is an excellent book for environmental historians to read to reconsider some of our basic assumptions on how Indigenous peoples and lands fit into our narratives. The book is a re-examination of the historiography and the archives in light of Haudenosaunee epistemology. Hill has chosen land as her reference point for analysis, and the book maintains consistent focus on a broad range of land-based issues including treaties, war and dispossession, Haudenosaunee environmental ethics, gender and the land, property and race, relationships between humans other creatures, and colonial land governance. The Clay We Are Made Of is accessibly written and ideal for helping students understand the ways in which colonialism and Indigenous dispossession, and legitimate claims to land restitution, must be a starting point for many of the stories we tell about our pasts.

Lauret Savoy, David B. Truman Professor of Environmental StudiesMount Holyoke College

Course: History/Environmental Studies 317, “American Environmental History”

Recommendations: Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast by Christine M. DeLucia (Yale University Press, 2018) and Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War by Lisa Brooks (Yale University Press, 2018)

The cover image of the book "Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip's War," by Lisa Brooks, featuring a map with the words Sokwakik, Nipmuc, and WampanoagThe cover of the book "Memory Lands: King Philip's War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast," by Christine M. DeLucia.What does it mean to remember and create history? In groundbreaking reinterpretations of the devastating 17th-century conflict known as King Philip’s War (1675–78), these books open a rich conversation on the complexities of tribal identities, memory, and violence in the land. They revisit and reframe historical landscapes of the Native northeast and of colonial New England by giving voice to Indigenous recollections and understandings of place, homeland, kinship, and tradition. Together the books reveal deeply complex dimensions of history in the land, including colonial attempts to control space as well as narrative.

Editor’s note: You can learn more about two of the titles above by reading or listening to Edge Effects conversations with Kate Brown and Daegan Miller on the Edge Effects podcast. You can also hear contributor Lauret Savoy visit the podcast to discuss her book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint Press, 2015).

Featured image: Painting by Tony Paraná, 2015. Image from Wikimedia Commons