A Great Way to Wrap up the Course

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This week we read Ted Steinberg’s book Down to Earth and like Sean, I thought it was a great way to finish up the course. While we could have read this at the beginning of the course to really lay out for everyone what environmental history is, I liked reading at the end as a way to sum up everything we’ve been discussing. The book is quite ambitious, detailing the huge role nature has played in all aspects of America’s entire history. For example, in the first part of the book, Steinberg analyzes the process by which New England’s landscape shifted from its original state of being covered in forest as American agriculture expanded.


One of the things we’ve been discussing nearly every week is whether the ways Americans have changed the landscape and interacted with nature have been “natural” or not. I prefer to look at the questions in terms of their economic intentions and consequences. So, consider the example of farming in general. I consider a small-scale farmer who simply looks to support himself through agriculture to be participating in a more “natural” interaction with nature than a big industrial farm that is creating food that will be sold to the masses. The lone farmer is simply using the natural resources he needs to survive individually—he is himself a part of the food chain. However, once the intention of the interaction with nature is to participate in the capitalist economy (something created purely by humans), I would consider it to no longer be a “natural” interaction. I am not negatively judging such activity, but I would definitely not consider it all that natural. That kind of interaction between nature and the economy has been my biggest takeaway from the course.

Class Conflict in American Environmental History

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In Crimes Against Nature, Karl Jacoby looks at the American conservation movement in a more class-based way than many previous historians have. As he outlines in the epilogue, a big part of his argument is the way that the elites in control of ecological movements demonized and illegalized the environmental practices of poor, rural Americans in order to exert control over both them and the land. (194-195) As Justin notes in his post, the conservation movement seemed to create new norms of ecological practice that were favorable to those in charge. I also noticed something interesting about Jacoby’s research in the book’s preface. He says that he did not originally intend to focus on conflicts between those in charge of the state park movement and poor people breaking the law, but that he found so many instances of that happening in his initial research that he decided to change his topic around. (xv-xvi) He also says that his perception of such conflicts was that they only happened in third world countries in places like Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where the conservation movements were led by European colonists. (xv)


This peaked my interest because of an African environmental history class I previously took at Davidson, where we learned a lot about such movements in colonized countries in Africa. Many authors we read argued, much like Jacoby does, that the Europeans in control of these countries used environmental policies to oppress the native Africans under the guise of a desire to protect resources. For example, colonists in South Africa prosecuted poaching quite severely and enacted rules banning natives from owning hunting dogs, claiming that their efforts were guided by a desire to protect hunted animals. Like Jacoby, I find it especially interesting how easily comparable the conservation movements of Africa and the U.S. are in regards to what it points out about the relationship between elites and non-elites. If one accepts Jacoby’s argument, then in this particular aspect of environmental preservation, there are legitimate comparisons to be made between the way elites treated poor Americans and the way Europeans treated Africans. I believe most people would be quite surprised to hear such a comparison be made. And ultimately, that sense of surprise is why I enjoyed Jacoby’s book. It was very interesting to see the American conservation movement studied in this new light, and I believe it represents a big corner being turned in the historiography of American history, both environmentally and in regards to class conflict.

American Exceptionalism and Natural Disasters

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In People of Calamity, Kevin Rozario discusses how Americans, beginning with the earliest settlers of New England, came to view natural disasters in a somewhat positive light. That is, they began to see them as tests from God that would ultimately help them progress and become better people. It is important to note that these early settlers were coming from Europe, where there were fewer disasters and also better infrastructure to shelter people from nature in general. The New England puritans were intensely religious, and actually developed a sentiment that the frequent disasters they faced were actually a sign that God favored them over others.  Rozario actually quotes one New England settler comparing the natural disasters they faced to those God used to test his “chosen” people of Israel in the Old Testament. That settler backs up his thinking by pointing out that the New England colony, a bastion of religion where people lived as God wished (as he believed), faced more natural disasters than other countries where he says the people “sin and do wickedly.” (41)


I found this line of thinking to be an interesting intersection between the environmental issue of natural disasters and the phenomenon of American exceptionalism, a line of thinking the pious New England colonists very much subscribed to. American exceptionalism is something historians have noted to be a big part of American culture and thought since the country’s settlement. William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth colony, famously decreed that the colony would be a “city upon a hill,” with the eyes of the rest of the world looking to them as an exemplar of morality. That line of thinking stemmed greatly from the Bradford and his followers’ specific brand of Christianity—they saw themselves as the only true followers of god; in other words, as an exceptional people. That belief was the driving force of their very worldview, and we see that fact represented in terms of how they came to saw natural disasters as yet another example of their unique relationship with God. I also believe this creates an interesting tension with the ideas Manish explains in his post about Southern Californians’ experience with natural disasters. As I understand from his post, it seems that Southern Californians approached nature and its disasters with a sense of carelessness. For example, as Manish points out, they seemed to underestimate the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes in their area. I find it interesting to compare this seeming lack of respect for nature with the New Englanders’ deeply serious belief that these disasters, in addition to being something to contend with, were an expression of God’s will for them to be great.

Cronon’s Look at Meat

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            In chapter five of Nature’s Metropolis, Cronon discusses the importance and growth of Chicago’s meatpacking industry in the 19th century. He discusses how, helped by the surrounding railroads, the Chicago stockyards grew over time into a large, vital part of the nation’s meat industry. The meat packing industry is one that has gotten a lot of attention historically. Cronon makes note of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle, which famously prompted reform of the meatpacking industry by outlining the factories’ horrible, unsanitary conditions. (208) Of course, problems still persist today. A simple Google search would reveal countless videos of the inhumane and unclean conditions in many factory farms today—things like hundreds of pigs crammed into tiny, filthy enclosures. While these accounts are quite disturbing, they also point to something Ian discussed in his post—namely, the way commodification of natural things completely changes the way we look at and interact with those things. Ian refers to water as the thing commodified in his post, and I agree and actually believe that the commodification with animals hammers the point home in an even more dramatic way, as in this case the things being commodified are living animals, who are of course hurt in the process.

            In class, we have often discussed how natural resources can be taken advantage of in a way that still seems “natural” to us. One big point of difference between natural and unnatural use of these resources has been the idea of whether the person using them is doing so on a small scale to support their self, rather than on a large scale to sell the end product to a mass market. So, in this case, consider the idea of a farmer who raises some cows and pigs to feed himself as opposed to something like a stockyard or a factory where a corporation is raising the animals to slaughter and sell. Most of us probably consider the activity of the lone farmer to be a more “natural” way of using the animals. Much as animals eat one another in nature, this man is simply using what animals he needs to feed himself in a way that somewhat mimics the natural food chain. I don’t have proof to back this up, but one would assume those animals are kept in better, less abusive conditions than animals being raised to sell to a large market. Again, as Ian discussed, when water was commodified, companies used it as a place to dump waste, which of course hurts the water’s quality. This is analogous to the case of the comparison between the small vs. large farm. In the big farm or stockyard, there is bound to be lower standards of quality and a more mistreatment of the animals. I found Cronon’s chapter on meat to be an interesting example of how, once something natural has been commodified and turned into a product, it is treated more carelessly and most likely suffers in quality (especially interesting because any company would claim to strive to get its customers the highest possible quality of product).

Nature Incorporated vs. Rivers of Empire

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Our readings this week focus on the role that water, particularly in the form of rivers, has played in the history of American attempts to exploit nature for economic benefit. The authors of both the main book and the supplementary reading look at the interplay between water, the historical process of mastering nature to the point of harnessing its resources, and the American capitalist system. Interestingly, both books choose to open their introductions by examining a different work by Henry David Thoreau (a famous lover of nature who campaigned emphatically against industrialization and the accompanying loss of natural spaces). However, both books ultimately differ on the ideas of how Americans have controlled nature.


In Nature Incorporated, Theodore Steinberg looks at how New England mill owners in the nineteenth century would vie for control of the area’s rivers, whose currents they used to power the ever-growing number of factories. He places those struggles in the context of a larger overall process of man slowly but surely gaining control of nature. In Rivers of Empire, Donald Worster makes a longer (and I would argue more complex) argument about the role of water in the settling of the arid western regions of the United States. He challenges the pattern in American historiography that claims the American west was a bastion of freedom and individuality highlighted by its people’s struggles to tame the wilderness. Instead, he uses the history of western irrigation projects to argue that the old west was more characterized by authoritative systems designed to keep power in the hands of a small elite. While the books make different arguments, they do not ultimately oppose one another because they are each case studies of radically different areas of the country. In fact, both works succeed in their arguments by making logical arguments based on strong analysis of credible primary sources.


In Nature Incorporated, Steinberg uses the power struggles between mill owners for dominance over New England’s rivers (and the energy they could generate) to reveal links between American economic history and the gradual process of gaining control over nature, the latter of which he sees as the driving force behind all of human history.[1] Thus, Steinberg’s argument centers on the process by which people were able to advance enough to obtain power from New England’s rivers, and the subsequent battles over which mill owners could exert the greatest amount of control over those rivers. The coverage of those battles represents a significant piece of Steinberg’s argument. For example, in one section early on, Steinberg discusses an instance in the 1820s in which the Merrimack Manufacturing Company had its power over a section of the Merrimack River challenged when a nearby landowner built a dam in opposition to the one already operated by the company. After some grappling, all of the property and rights to use of the river were transferred to a larger company by 1830.[2] In his telling of these events, in which he cites both business records and legal documents, Steinberg goes to lengths to emphasize the level of control man has managed to impose on the river, to the point that it is now just a commodity to be fought over by business owners rather than an entity with substantial agency or power.


In Rivers of Empire, Donald Worster takes a firmly Marxist view of history in examining the process of irrigating the arid, desert-like regions of the American west in the 19th and 20th centuries. From the beginning of the book, he lets you know that he is arguing against a common thread of thought in American academics and culture that paints the American west as a uniquely individualistic place where a farmer could move to and succeed in if they worked hard and were willing to tame the wilderness of the area without any help. Instead, Worster argues that the west was what he calls a hydraulic society, one with a rigid social order determined by “large-scale manipulation of water” in which a small power elite with “ownership of capital and expertise” were at the top.[3] Worster’s argument hinges on the idea that the task of irrigating the arid western region of the U.S. was such a hugely expensive, and technologically demanding undertaking that powerful Americans had to set up a system of social order (in which the poor were exploited) and “indigenous bureaucracy and corporatism” in order to complete the task.[4] Worster frequently notes in the introduction that his argument is in opposition to most prior scholastic work, which is best embodied by Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous frontier thesis. However, he cites later work in which Turner himself admits that the more desert-like, far flung western regions would not be conquered by “old individual pioneer methods” and would require high levels of “cooperative activity” to solve the water issue.[5] By citing work by an author who is a notable part of the scholarship he is writing against, Worster strengthens his argument greatly.


Worster’s treatment of the passage of the 1902 National Reclamation Act is a great example of his overall argument. The act allowed the government to sell 160-acre parcels of arid land to individuals and use the proceeds to set up irrigation projects on the land, with annual payments for the land creating a refilling fund for more irrigation projects.[6] As Worster points out, scholarship has generally characterized the passage of this act as a progressive move, one in which the government was empowering its citizens to take on the individualistic endeavor of moving out west and setting up a farm.[7] However, Worster’s examination of the congressional debates leading to the passage of the bill reveal a different story. Congressmen voting against the bill tended to argue that by effectively subsidizing western agriculture in this way, the government would be hurting the already struggling eastern farmers. They believed that western expansion should occur at the pace it would naturally based on population growth. On the other side, the congressmen voting for the Reclamation Act focused on all the money that could be made by irrigating and populating the west as quickly as possible, what with the possibility of future railroad projects and new markets to be opened.[8] This line of argument leads Worster to conclude that the Reclamation Act was part of a large-scale implementation of an “established social order” that did not include poor eastern farmers.[9] The section on the National Reclamation Act is a useful microcosm for Worster’s overall argument.


Nature Incorporated and Rivers of Empire each provide excellent narratives of the history of water politics in New England and the American west respectively. Both use thorough analysis of relevant primary sources to successfully make their arguments, though they have somewhat different takes on the way humans controlled nature in the cases each looks at. Steinberg argues in Nature Incorporated that water politics history in New England was a story of the gradual development of mankind’s control over the region’s rivers. Worster, on the other hand, argues that the scarcity of water in the arid west led to irrigation projects that allowed America’s elites to develop the west in a way that economically benefitted them and exploited the poor. In that way, water as a natural element actually exerts control over those many exploited people. However, one can accept both authors’ arguments because each is quite specific to their particular geographic region.












Steinberg, Theodore. Nature Incorporated. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 1991.



Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press. 1985.






[1] Theodore Steinberg, Nature Incorporated (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991), 12

[2] Ibid, 64-65

[3] Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 7

[4] Ibid, 10

[5] Ibid, 12

[6] Ibid, 160-161

[7] Ibid, 162

[8] Ibid, 164-165

[9] Ibid, 166


Nature’s Role in Warfare

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In War Upon the Land, Lisa Brady looks at the way nature played an active role in the Civil War, both in how it drove strategy on both sides and was often a foe in its own ride to both the Union and Confederacy. She does this in tight, thorough analyses of nature’s role in four different theaters of the Civil War, with each getting its own chapter. For example, as Ian covers in his post, Brady spends a chapter detailing how a desire to control nature determined much of General William Sherman’s strategy in his famous March to the Sea, as well as the challenges brought on by natural agents such as disease and weather. In another chapter, Brady looks at how Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley, led by Philip Sheridan, ravaged the landscape of what Brady calls the “granary of the confederacy.” (73) The strategy originated from Ulysses S. Grant, who ordered that resources in the Shenandoah Valley such as crops, farms, and mills be destroyed in order to weaken the Confederacy. (78) Grant’s strategy paid off in 1864 when he gave control of the area’s forces to Philip Sheridan, a young general who agreed with Grant on the importance of destroying enemy resources in the region. Brady quotes Sheridan as saying that the resource rich territory of the Shenandoah Valley was “a factor of great importance,” showing that Sheridan’s strategy was directly influenced by the region’s natural features. (79) Finally, Brady also points out how ruthless Sheridan was in implementing his strategy, quoting him as saying that he wanted the area to remain a “barren waste” for as long as the war lasted, which of course meant continued hardship for Confederate civilians in the area. (80)

In my Ethics and Warfare class, we have spent some time debating strategies such as Grant and Sherman’s that destroy enemy resources in such a way that the the opposition’s civilians must suffer. We learned that military leaders and ethicists of the Civil War era generally accepted the idea that it was ethically acceptable for civilians of an opposing state to be made to feel the hardships of war, and that therefore such strategies were permissible. I believe that looking at these strategies with a focus toward nature and ecology adds another wrinkle to the moral debates regarding those strategies. In this class, we often look at our subjects of study asking the question of “is this natural” or “was this a natural occurrence.” Therefore, my question is would we consider strategies like enemy crop destruction natural, given that they are driven by an understanding of the importance that control over nature (in the form of agriculture) plays in military strategy. One could argue that it is therefore inevitable in military conflict that opposing forces will mar the landscape in ways to make it less useful for the enemy. However, does that sense of inevitability mean it is morally acceptable to destroy crops when doing so will clearly harm enemy non-combatants? I enjoyed the chapter on Sheridan, as well as Brady’s book as a whole, because it prompts these kinds of tough questions and provides an interesting look at how nature has affected into military history.

Issues with Slotkin’s Method

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In The Fatal Environment, Richard Slotkin examines the way in which a national mythology, built up mostly through literature, contributed to Americans’ beliefs on what constitutes nature versus civilization. As Ian seemed to be driving at in the beginning of his post, Slotkin believes that lots of American literature glorifies as heroic the application of civilized values to the more dangerous, savage nature. For example, according to Slotkin, James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, and their main character of Natty Bumpo, represent this theme. Specifically, he believes the character’s dealings with nature and with Native Americans (generally seen as a part of nature rather than civilization) are meant to assert the belief that Americans are entitled to self-government. (89)

My high school offered a mandatory class that blended the study of American literature and history in much the same way as Slotkin does in his book. We studied many classic works of American literature, including the Leatherstocking Tales, to look for certain veins of thought in the American consciousness. It was one of my favorite classes in high school and provided me with great experience in analyzing literature within its historical context. Like Slotkin, I would definitely agree that a work’s literary themes can reveal a lot about people’s thinking in its time. However, I believe the problem is that it is difficult to say the ideas reflected in literature could truly speak for all Americans’ thinking at any given time, and perhaps not even a majority. For example, it is difficult for us to know how many Americans ever read the Leatherstocking Tales. At the time of those books’ release, a significant amount of the American population (mostly non-elite) was not literate. As for those who could read, we cannot really know what percentage of them actually read those books. And, for those who did read them, who is to say that they understood and/or agreed with the books’ themes? Furthermore, it is a bit difficult to say that a handful of authors and newspaper writers had their hands on the pulse of the entire country’s consciousness—in fact, I would argue no one is capable of that. Literature is a great way of understanding the thinking of certain segments of the population, but it is difficult to say just how many people that applies to. In that way, I believe Slotkin opens himself up to some justified criticism.

Redefining Nature in Cronon’s Argument

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            In Nature’s Metropolis, the thing that struck me most was how from extremely early on, people seemed absolutely certain that Chicago was destined to become the great metropolis of the American West. We know that for two reasons. The first is economic; Cronon says that the 1830s was a period of ultra-lucrative land speculation, with the area that would become Chicago at the center. He references lots in the area being bought for $29 in 1829 and selling for over $100,000 just four years later. (29) Such an enormous jump in value clearly indicates that people in real estate saw big things in that area’s future. The other way we know Americans’ high hopes for Chicago was simpler—they said it. Cronon quotes 1830s real estate investor Charles Butler as saying the city was “marked for greatness” because the natural features around it made it a great nexus of trade and shipping. (34) So, Chicago’s natural features were the reason Americans saw such bright possibilities for its future. However, it would obviously take decidedly unnatural processes, namely the building of railroads and a canal, to realize Chicago’s potential.

            At first, this point made me a bit doubtful in terms of how it supported Cronon’s central argument as presented in the prologue. As I understand it thus far, Cronon’s thesis is that Chicago is the perfect example of how the ideas of city and nature are not exclusive to one another. He seems to be arguing that the city is a part of nature. My initial reaction while reading about the speculation as to Chicago’s bright future was to wonder how true Cronon’s thesis could be given that, while natural features were important to Chiacgo’s value, it would take a radical changing of nature through the building of manmade structures for the metropolis to take form. How natural could the city remain if its existence was predicated on imposing things like railroads on the natural landscape? After grappling with that question for a bit, I came to realize that an important feature of Cronon’s argument was his redefinition of “nature” or “natural.” People generally take nature to refer to features of the earth that are there independent of any manmade processes. However, to Cronon, saying that something is “natural” means it is referring to something that seems to be in its normal place. When he refers to the city, the railroads, or the canal as natural, he means that the people of the time saw those things as proper—they felt they should be there and the reasons for that were practically self-evident given the already existing natural (in the more general definition) features of the land. Understanding that redefinition of “nature” is vital to understanding Cronon’s argument.  

Nature’s Destructive Power

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For our first day of class, we went to the rare book room of the library and got to look at some old maps and pictures of Davidson’s campus, showing everything from topography and vegetation to building layouts. It really gives a sense of how the campus has evolved and grown over time (personally, the change I most appreciate is not having to live in the same building where classes are held). However, the thing that I noticed most in the maps and pictures was how the old Chambers building burned in 1921, and how the lot where it once stood remained untouched for many years after.

In many ways, mankind’s history, particularly in the United States, has been a story of a slow but sure mastery over nature. As technology has advanced, humans have conquered many of the obstacles nature presents. We have cities full of buildings, some a hundred stories tall, which protect us from the cold and other elements. To cross North America was once a long, dangerous task—now, one can simply fly across the country in six hours. Unsurprisingly, this has given humans a sense of superiority over nature, a belief that nature no longer poses us a threat. However, disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis strike often enough for most people to retain a healthy respect for the power of nature.

Davidson seems to have gotten its own lesson in nature’s wrath when the old Chambers building, the focal point of its campus, burned down. In a letter to his mother, one student present for the fire writes that he “never saw such a magnificent, awe-inspiring, heart-rending sigh in all my life and never hope to again,” also noting that people could see the glow from the fire from as far away as Winston-Salem. The student also describes that the building looked “ghastly,” with only its walls and pillars still standing. That leads me to the next thing I found interesting—the school’s choice to, after leveling the ruins, leave the empty lot, which became known as the “Ghost of Old Chambers” where the building once stood. One could look at the decision to leave the Ghost as a simple memorial to the old building. However, one could also view the Ghost as constant reminder to Davidson students and faculty that, no matter how much we advance, we are still vulnerable to the powers of nature. Looking at a picture of the Ghost on the school’s online archive, one must admit that it functions as an ominous reminder not to become overconfident in our dealings with nature.


Link to page with letter: http://sites.davidson.edu/archives/encyclopedia/fire-old-chambers-primary-sources

Link to photographs: http://sites.davidson.edu/archives/encyclopedia/fire-old-chambers-photographs