Looking back on this past semester, I realize how little I knew about environmental history before I began this class. I have never been to a state park, and I only went on my first hike, to the top of “Arthur’s Seat,” when I was abroad. I had always thought of the definition of “natural” as something untouched by mankind, mysterious in its sheer expanse, and beautiful. I looked at nature the way Henry David Thoreau viewed nature, as something mystifying and necessary:
We need the tonic of wilderness… at the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. (From Walden: Or, Life In the Woods)
This class and the works that we have read, however, have completely changed my perspective on how I view nature and the wilderness. Nature does not encompass solely the peaceful and tranquil sceneries I once associated with the term, but now I include devastating tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, and floods as natural. To me now, nature includes things not touched and touched by man, because we as humans are as much a part of this natural ecosystem as any other animal. We interact with our environment, affect it, change it, help it, and hurt it, just as other creatures of this world. The environment influences us in the same ways. Our interaction with nature often impacts our decisions, our lifestyles, and our future. Whether the environment dictates military strategy of the Civil War or makes scholars wonder why Los Angeles was placed in a danger zone, mankind’s balance with nature tips back and forth throughout time. This tipping of the scale is certainly natural.
But to what extent? Will there ever be a point where we as humans will tip the scale too far in our direction and forever upset the world as we know it? Will there be a point at which we cannot go back, when nature is forever affected without the capability to recover? These questions are a few that environmental historians study as well as wonder if, perhaps, we have already crossed over the point of no return. Mike Davis believes there is no helping Los Angeles from disaster. William Cronon studies the rise of Chicago as a metropolis and its positive contribution to our American way of life.
American capitalism and market economy contributes to our destruction of our wilderness, yet also contributes to our survival. The line remains blurry between protecting our environment and protecting our American values and way of life. Justin’s comment, that “the environment has the potential to destroy humans as well,” resonates with me because many of the conversations we hear are one sided, placing mankind as the “evil” destroying “good” nature. This course has taught me that there is no duality when it comes to environmental history. Historians analyze this gray area and determine at what points in history men or nature have tipped the scale. I will forever look at nature and study environmental history with a more encompassing and expansive definition while trying to answer who the actors at play are and who appears to be at “fault.” This course has taught me that the answer to that question might not ever be solved, but that environmental history can help us make better and more intelligent decisions about how we interact with the world around us.