Category Archives: environmental history

November 29, 2009, 5:04 pm

Good ways to say what you mean, mean what you say.

Have you ever noticed that bits of the West are like, really amazingly beautiful?1

This is from the base of lower Yosemite Falls—close enough to get wet, anyway.

And this is the view from the balcony of Lookout Studio. I couldn’t manage to take a picture of the Grand Canyon that didn’t look like a “picture of the Grand Canyon.”

Stuff like this goes under the awesomeness of TR category, which we really ought to actually have.2

Previously, on the grandeur of the Grand Canyon.

1Yes, I know I could have borrowed from the Eagles here, but we’re all above that, aren’t we?
2Look, I know this is a bit cliché, but it makes me happy, ok?3
3Yes, I know there are a bunch of defensively phrased rhetorical questions down here. Give me a break, will you?

November 5, 2009, 7:59 pm

The past: kinda sucky.

Speaking of period dramas on television, John Rogers recently told me to watch Life on Mars. So I am. And so far it’s really quite good: early Hill Street Blues meets A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (or something).

Anyway, the thing I’m enjoying most is the show’s relentless critique of nostalgia. The main character, a contemporary British detective who finds himself transported back in time to Manchester in 1973, can’t seem to decide if he misses his friends or his cell phone more. When he’s at his most despairing, in the early episodes at least, he focuses on the dearth of creature comforts available to him. Even if you weren’t trained as an environmental historian, the emphasis on material conditions — a lack of central heat, spotty electricity, a studio apartment appointed with a twin bed — is pretty obvious. It’s a healthy reminder that the past, even the…

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November 2, 2009, 10:47 am

It ate the food it ne’er had eat.

When US sailors first set foot on Midway (then called Brooks) in 1867, the birds were so numerous on the ground that the men could not walk without stepping on the chicks in their nests. Now we can accomplish the same results without traveling to a remote atoll to do it in person.

June 11, 2009, 11:28 am

eloquence in graphic design

Logging Haida Gwaii

I’ve been reading John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce, about the strange eco-vandalism incident in 1997 on Haida Gwaii (aka the Queen Charlotte Islands), northern British Columbia. (If you’re interested, the New Yorker article he distilled from it is a better read.) Mostly I’m indulging a mild obsession with a remote corner of the map — now even more tantalizingly quasi-accessible, of course, via Google Earth and such. But in browsing around, I encountered what might be the most beautiful map I’ve ever seen on the Internet, and certainly one of the most effective in conveying its message.

The map shows the extent of logging, both historical and geographical, on the islands since 1900.  It was produced by the Gowgaia Institute, of Queen Charlotte on the islands. Definitely click through for larger versions (without the superposed town names).

Updated to restrain some overheated…

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May 15, 2009, 6:08 am

100 places.

From the street display in Århus of “100 places to remember before they disappear”, on the web in English here.

April 17, 2009, 2:15 pm

Landscapes of wealth.

Next in our spring speakers’ series, Margaret O’Mara on “Landscapes of Wealth: Globalization and the Private City.”

O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington, will talk about how and why the American suburb has gone global.

Like all CHSC talks, this one is free and open to the public.

March 19, 2009, 7:56 am

Where’s a Volcano Monitoring Station When You Need It?*

On or around this day in history, Mount Vesuvius last erupted in 1944, having the terminally bad manners to interrupt the progress of World War II, destroy several Italian villages, and inspire a wedding proposal.


The volcano is, of course, most famous for its eruption in AD 79, which destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii, an event recorded by Pliny the Younger. But it has erupted periodically since then, with the eruptions coming more frequently in the modern era. The 65 years since the 1944 eruption is the longest time in three hundred years that Mount Vesuvius has gone without an eruption.

The 1944 eruption ranked a 3 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, one below the AD 79 eruption. It came as Allied forces were fighting their way up the Italian boot, having landed at Salerno, just to the south, in late 1943. (more…)

March 13, 2009, 12:13 pm


We’ve had several requests for some California drought blogging. But Eric is too busy installing leaks in his manse’s plumbing (Just because, that’s why.) to think about the issue. And every time I start writing something, it turns into warmed-over Marc Reisner. So we’ve asked a friend, who works on state water issues and writes about water and climate change at On the Public Record, to post something for us. She actually seems somewhat more optimistic than I would have guessed. Unless you’re a salmon. In which case, the news isn’t good. But assuming you’re not — a safe assumption, as our outreach to the anadromous fish demographic isn’t going well — you should pour yourself a tall glass of water and read what follows.

Are we still in a drought even though it rained?

Yes. We went into the winter with reservoirs empty from two dry years. We would have to have gotten 130% of…

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October 10, 2008, 12:01 am

Push-Button Empire

[Editor's note: Paul Sutter joins us today to talk about his research on the Panama Canal. Paul is one of my favorite colleagues in the profession and an outstanding environmental historian. His first book, Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement, is smart, readable, and a great stocking-stuffer. The holidays are just around the corner, people; it's never too early to plan ahead. Thanks, Paul, for doing this.]

On October 10, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, safely ensconced in the Executive Office Building, pressed a button that remotely trigged a dynamite blast on the Isthmus of Panama, a blast that destroyed the Gamboa Dike and, for the first time, created a continuous liquid passage across Central America. It was a moment that the New York Times called, in language typical of the triumphalism that attended the Panama Canal’s…

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October 8, 2008, 7:42 pm

“This Nicholas Sandworm anon let flee a fart, as gret as it hadde ben a thundir dent.”

On this day in 1920, Frank Herbert Jr. was born. Herbert devoted six years to “researching” what would become the most popular science fiction novel of all time. I’ve always wondered what counts as “research” when writing a novel. I can understand the need for writers of hard science fiction to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of a particular field, but for someone like Herbert, wouldn’t “world-building” more accurately describe his efforts? I say this because Herbert describes a world in which the mysticism and magic have replaced science and technology.

This time I am lifting from Adam Robert‘s excellent History of Science Fiction, in which he claims “one of the book’s greatest strengths is its detailed and plausible rendering of the political context” (236). What Herbert spent six years “researching,” then, was the complex political environs of the interplanetary…

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September 8, 2008, 9:05 am

Unnatural disasters.

On this day in 1900, long before the advent of weather satellites or Doppler radar, there could be no detailed predictions about the storm’s path as it raged out of the Atlantic and grew more powerful over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But there were warnings from the Weather Bureau in Washington, insisting that Galveston, Texas’s 40,000 residents should find high ground. The highest available was in the center of town, less than 10 feet above sea level. Thousands headed there and increased their chances of survival. Thousands of others did not.

The 1900 hurricane, equivalent to a Category 4, slammed into Galveston early in the day. The ceaseless noise from the storm was maddening, “a runaway freight train that wouldn’t stop howling” through town all day long. Debris flew through the air. Stately trees snapped. Grand mansions collapsed into heaps of kindling. No anemometer…

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August 13, 2008, 11:45 pm

“Don’t look back. Keep running.”


Cut to this day in 1942, when Walt Disney’s Bambi premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The huge audience was delighted; “from all over the darkened house childish laughter broke forth continuously.” Reviewers also typically appreciated the film. The Times, for instance, gushed:

In colors that would surprise even the spectrum itself, Disney’s cartoon craftsmen have re-created a woodland that shimmers and glows and darkens altogether magically. The wind over a green field, the morning light on the meadow, the hushed naves of the forest inhabited by all sorts of hidden folk, the artists have made with a simple and loving touch.

Still, many critics, even those wowed by the wonders of Disney’s spectacular animation, were somewhat put off by an animal cartoon that lacked madcap hijinks. And after its splashy …

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June 6, 2008, 11:01 pm


On this day in 1874, Harper’s Weekly ran the above cartoon. As recently as mid century, bison, roaming in herds across the continent’s midsection, had numbered somewhere between 30 and 200 million. By 1874, though, many observers assumed the animals, along with the Plains Indians who depended on them for survival, would soon disappear from the American scene, a species and a race vanishing because of the impact of industrialization and white settlement throughout the West.

Buffalo robes became a hot commodity in the 1850s, when settlers, pouring into Kansas Territory, began hunting bison for sport. But it was the arrival of the railroad — it always is in Western history, isn’t it? — following the Civil War, that pushed the species toward the tipping point. The railroads needed to feed workers who laid their tracks. And market hunters were happy to provide relatively cheap bison…

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