Today’s post is the first of a two-part interview with Mark Fiege (pronounced FEE-gee, rhymes with BeeGee), who has just published The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012). Mark is a colleague of mine at Baa Ram U., and his book delivers what its sweeping subtitle suggests–a striking reinterpretation of American history as environmental history, with chapters that span the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.
Because we have had conversations on this blog about many of the issues Mark addresses in his book, I believe that many of you will want to learn more about The Republic of Nature. Those of you who are training graduate students in history and who are looking for ways to bring environmental history into your survey and upper-division lectures and readings will find this book indispensible. American historians will learn something new, and non-U.S. historians will behold a model for using environmental history in telling a national story. Furthermore, all readers who enjoys brisk prose and surprising insights into stories you thought you already knew will be rewarded with discoveries on nearly every page.
The Republic of Nature is not a textbook, but rather an attempt to interpret key episodes or turning points in American history as environmental history, reconsidering them from the different angles employed by environmental historians and their extra-disciplinary colleagues. Its nine chapters explore New England witchcraft, the Declaration of Independence, “King Cotton,” Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address, the Transcontinental Railroad, the atomic bomb, Brown v. Board of Education, and the energy crisis of the 1970s. (Click here to learn more about the book at its own website.)
In today’s conversation, we talk about nature, race, and their central roles in American history:
Historiann: Abraham Lincoln and race are emotionally and actually at the center of your book: Lincoln’s profile at Mt. Rushmore greets us on the dust jacket of your book. Your introduction opens with a fascinating meditation on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Chapters 3 through 5 focus respectively on slavery and cotton production, the mythic and actual biographies of Abraham Lincoln, and the Battle and Address of Gettysburg. And finally, your interest in race and the color line in American history are evident again in your choice to focus on Brown v. Board of Education in chapter 8. What is it about Abraham Lincoln and America’s record on race that attracted your interest as an environmental historian? I can’t help but perceive a rebuke to environmental historians who perhaps have not attended to this aspect of the American historical landscape–or is that an unwarranted assumption?
Mark Fiege: Researching and writing this book has convinced me that race and the black freedom struggle are central to American history, perhaps even its defining elements. But I’m an environmental historian, and another part of me recognizes that all social struggles unfold in the material medium generally known as nature. So I felt that I had to explain how race and nature are at the heart of the story.
While working on the book, I came across ”Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the national anthem composed in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. I had never heard it performed, so the ethnomusicologist Deborah Wong gave me a version of it on a CD. It is profoundly moving, as great as any of the other national anthems. In it, people wander across an awesome providential landscape until they come to a place where they can live in God’s sheltering grace. It presents a kind of alternative Manifest Destiny that is about redemption, not conquest. It captures perfectly the sense that the struggle is centered in a landscape and involves a people’s special relationship to nature.
So I think my focus on race is less a rebuke to anyone than an embrace of what I take to be the truth of the matter–that this is what American history, at its core, is really about.
This is fascinating—although in many respects it’s not a surprise, is it, that people who were overwhelmingly or are descended from agricultural laborers would use nature as a powerful expressive concept? Your work in the chapter “King Cotton” on the harnessing of the”bio-power” of “natural increase” and the new staple crop to spread slavery into the southwest, speaks to this intimate relationship between African Americans and nature.
MF: You’re right, it’s not a surprise that agricultural laborers would use their experience of nature as the source of ideas about themselves. What is surprising is how important this was but how little scholarly attention it has received. Somehow, many Americans have segregated–and I use that word deliberately–race and nature not only in scholarly discourse, but in much of our popular and political discourse, too. Nature is John Muir and Henry David Thoreau; race is Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. Du Bois. In fact, Douglass and Du Bois had plenty to say about nature, it’s just that to them, nature was wrapped up in the problem of race, and race was wrapped up in the problem of nature. I can no longer read their works without imagining them to be nature writers.
One of Du Bois’s most stunning books is Darkwater (1920), which is shot through with discussions of nature–and race. At one point in the book, Du Bois describes his visits to the Grand Canyon and what is now Acadia National Park in Maine. Is it possible that nature writing somewhere along the line underwent a kind of whitening that has enabled its otherwise well-intentioned enthusiasts seemingly to avoid the problem of race? Is it possible that 21st century academicians have inherited intellectual categories constructed in the Jim Crow era and the origins of which we have forgotten?
It’s interesting that you describe consulting a musicologist. I’m sure that in writing such a sweeping retinterpretation of American history that you had to rely on the guidance and support of experts outside your original field of expertise in history, as well as people like Wong outside of history entirely. That’s one of the things I really enjoy about environmental historians—their methodological catholicity, or promiscuity, if you prefer. Are there particular chapters that have received strong pushback from “traditional” experts in their fields? Do you anticipate that one or two chapters in particular might be controversial?
Mostly people have received my work with great interest, which I appreciate, but there has been some pushback from friends and colleagues both inside and outside of environmental history. Some are uncomfortable with my interpretation of the atomic bomb, for example. This is an emotionally disturbing and morally unsettling topic, and it filled me with intense anguish when I researched it and wrote about it. In the story, childhood nature study and the emotion that Rachel Carson called “the sense of wonder” inspired the atomic scientists to produce the knowledge necessary to build the bomb. I now believe that an honest appraisal of the bomb requires us to understand that it embodies the purest of tragedies, that the emotions we associate with children and the impulse to align innocent human life with a fundamental order in the universe enabled the atomic scienstists–consciously, and with the best of intentions–to produce a weapon of overwhelming malignity. I did not enjoy writing this story, and I hope that angry readers will forgive me for telling the truth as I saw it.
Some friends and colleagues also have been skeptical that the Brown v. Board of Education case as experienced in Topeka really is environmental history: too much pavement, buildings, schoolrooms, ideas of race, and so forth. Their objections raise basic questions about what is, and is not, environmental history. Obviously, I would like to extend environmental history analysis into other realms of American history, beyond the histories of agriculture, forests, rivers, national parks, animals, and the like, my own work included, that have defined the field. The color line, it seems to me, was more than just a legal abstraction; it was a material practice grounded in the social experience of landscape and its physical properties. The color line ran through fields, forests, wildlife, water, and fish, to be sure; and its architects drew it into the urban landscape, where it ran up and down hills, through freezing weather, along muddy streets and into flood-prone neighborhoods, through houses and schoolrooms, and into the organic bodies of people.
Here and in your Brown v. Board chapter; you’re making a forceful argument for understanding the embodied consequences of segregation, in effect asking your readers to consider the long-term material effects of the color line. You are working in the grain of environmental historians who see the human body as a subject for environmental history. Is that at the root of the controversy you allude to here–your inclusion of humans along with non-human animals, whereas your critics are resistant to including humans and their bodies as part of nature? You and I have talked about this before, and you know that I (along with many other historians of women, gender, and sexuality) agree with you that human bodies must be considered as part of environmental history.
Do you see this controversy mostly among environmental historians who (as you wrote above) want to restrict environmental history to “agriculture, forests, rivers, national parks, [and] animals,” or do you see this pressure as coming from non-environmental historians who see you (and others) as “invading” their turf? Or is it a little of both?
It may be that some environmental historians are uncomfortable with collapsing the boundary between people and nature. One strain of thought in the environmental movement has separated people out as either a special (and deeply problematic) part of the creation or as inherently unnatural. Much early environmental history, my own work included, assumed a “people and nature” dichotomy even as it broke down that dichotomy. That dichotomy is now virtually untenable as historians such as Linda Nash, Conevery Bolton Valencius, and Nancy Langston point out that the body (setting aside the fact that it is an evolved organism) is permeable to the substances in the environments through which it moves. I think this is one of the most exciting trends in environmental history, because it enables us to talk to colleagues outside the field who study the body in cultural and social terms.
I think we now have a historiography that enables us to locate people at the center of history but also in relationship to the material substances of which they are made and which surround them, a historiography that takes into consideration the ways that bodies are culturally constructed, socially conditioned, material things. Probably there is an inherent tension in this because environmental history has prided itself on making non-human things relevant to human history. Ultimately I don’t see this as an irresolvable problem because the focus on the body’s materiality can help us see how human life and history are inextricably bound up in the lives and histories of plants and animals and in the properties of the matter, energy, and forces that make up our world.
If there is or will be resistance to this approach from outside the field of environmental history, it might derive from our inescapable but nonetheless problematic use of the term ”nature.” As Raymond Williams pointed out years ago, nature is one of the most complex, difficult, but extraordinarily useful words in the English language. The problem for many historians is that some people often made claims on nature to suppress other people and to legitimate hierarchies of power and domination. According to the logic of the powerful, because some people are “naturally” inferior or their behavior “unnatural,” those people must be suppressed, marginalized, excluded, removed, enslaved, or exterminated. I don’t think that environmental historians will ever resolve this problem, but I don’t think that the answer is to assume that there is nothing in the world that is nature or natural. It seems to me that the utility of “nature” is that it allows us to describe the holism of human history in a way that incorporates but is not limited to economics, geography, technology, ecology, and other material relationships, processes, and things.
Having spent hours and hours pondering this, I have to say that “nature” is a problem for any historian, environmental or otherwise. But I don’t think the answer is to run from it; quite the contrary, I think the answer is to embrace it and wrestle with it. To do otherwise is to ignore a huge part of the human experience, and it is to ignore the ways that past people who resisted oppression, people such as W.E.B. Du Bois, themselves made legitimate, justifiable, compelling claims on nature.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on “The bloody, rich mulch of life.” (Aren’t you curious?)
Mark’s national book tour begins today in Madison, Wisconsin, and continues in the East through the end of April. The list price for The Republic of Nature is $34.95, an amazing deal, considering that this is a handsomely produced hardback with three lengthy and lavish photo essays interspersed in its pages. (You can find it for as low as $22.83 at major internet book sellers, too.) Here’s Mark’s book tour schedule–specific dates and locations for his Pacific Coast tour will be announced later.
March 27, Tuesday, 4:00-5:30pm, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center for Culture, History, and the Environment
April 2, Monday, 4:00-5:30pm University of Chicago, Program on the Global Environment and the Workshop on American Social History
April 3, Tuesday, 4:00pm, Georgetown University Department of History
April 9 and 10, Monday and Tuesday, public talk Tuesday, 4:30-6:00pm, Bryn Mawr College
New York City:
April 11-12, Wednesday evening TBA, Thursday morning TBA, New School for Social Research
Marlton, New Jersey:
April 14, Saturday, 2:00pm, Marlton Barnes & Noble
April 16, Monday, 4:00-6:00pm, Educator Event, and 6:00pm, book talk, Barnes & Noble downtown
April 17, Tuesday, 6:00pm, Warwick Barnes & Noble
April 18, Wednesday, 7:00pm, Harvard Co-Op Bookstore
April 20, Friday, 1:30pm, Organization of American Historians conference
Fort Collins, Colorado:
April 29, Sunday, 2:00pm, Old Firehouse Books, Old Town Fort Collins
May 24, Thursday, 7:30pm, Boulder Book Store
May 26, Saturday, 2:30pm, Tattered Cover Books, Lo Do location