Hiking the Chilkoot Trail on the hundredth anniversary of the Klondike gold rush two decades ago may have paled in comparison to the thousands of miners who braved the difficult route a century ago, but the lure of nostalgia for the gold rush days still pulled hundreds northward. Because the trail is a national historic site on both sides of the Canada–US border, park staff had set up commemorative displays in wall tents celebrating the courage of the miners who endured such hardship on their quest for gold. Conspicuously missing was interpretive material about the environment—nothing about dredging of rivers, the hydraulic dismantling of hillsides, the destruction of wildlife, and the mass cutting of trees (to melt permafrost) that accompanied the exploitation of Yukon gold. Claire Campbell’s important new book, Nature, Place, and Story, examines why the omission of environmental stories is the rule rather than the exception at historic sites in Canada. She argues that the historic sites have tended to serve as celebratory markers of national development and material accumulation as their dominant interpretive theme, a tendency to “heroize imperial and industrial expansion without environmental context” (p. 9). Lost is the opportunity, Campbell suggests, to develop public history programs that address environmental issues at the historical sites in the past and the present. Campbell’s fascination with historic sites and national parks stems from childhood summers spent car camping with her father, an experience that left her “converted early and completely to the belief that history is affected by where it happens, and that learning history in situ, or ‘in place,’ can be extraordinarily powerful” (p. 3). Built on fieldwork excursions to five Canadian historic sites, Campbell’s book is an eloquent testament to the latent potential of historic sites as vehicles for place-based environmental history. At Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows, the first and only known continuous Norse settlement in North America, Campbell imagines an interpretive program that would foreground the impact of climate on human settlement while acknowledging the broader impacts of European settlement on the terrestrial and ocean environments of the North Atlantic. Moving to Nova Scotia’s Grand Pré, Campbell argues for a shift from the prevailing romantic idyll surrounding Acadian dykeland farming toward a more serious discussion of sustainable agriculture. Further west Campbell visits Fort William near Thunder Bay, presented to the public as an isolated outpost civilization in the wilderness rather than the vanguard of an international fur trade that wrought significant changes to wildlife populations in the North American interior. At Winnipeg’s Forks of the Red River (where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet), the site’s designation as a historical meeting place and a gateway for westward expansion ignores key environmental issues associated with urban waterways. Campbell finishes her westward journey at Alberta’s Bar U Ranch, contrasting the romantic presentation of early cowboy life with the environmental changes agricultural settlement and hydrocarbon development have wrought on the Prairies. In all of these case studies, Campbell argues persuasively that Canada’s historic sights should offer less absolution for, and more reckoning with, the environmental costs of modern development. Nature, Place, and Story provides rich material for students and practitioners of environmental history who are interested in memory, public history, and the politics of representation. Although a slim volume, Campbell manages to pack a wealth of insight about her case study sites into each chapter. The writing is captivating, deftly combining the clear prose of a popular travelogue with complex and nuanced arguments about the conceptual strengths and weaknesses of state-sanctioned public history. While some historians might wish for more engagement with archival evidence from the Parks Branch records at Library and Archives Canada, Campbell states at the outset that Nature, Place, and Story is meant to be the product of fifteen years spent visiting, researching, and thinking about Canada’s historic sites. Her immersion in the physical environment of the book’s study sites has paid ample dividends, producing an outstanding volume that highlights the need to better integrate the “first nature” represented at national parks with the “second nature” that is the stock and trade of national historic sites. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 15, 2018
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