Faculty Favorites: Books That Will Change the Way You Look at the Land
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.
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)
Treat’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)
Celebrated 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)
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 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,
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)
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)
A 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)
Lauret Savoy, David B. Truman Professor of Environmental Studies, Mount 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)
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.