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A Companion to American Environmental History

A lone Indian paddles a birch bark canoe downstream. The churning river passes through lush forestland and then empties into open water. Pounding drums give way to strings, woodwinds, and horns as the canoe bumps against floating trash and the landscape morphs into a steaming industrial landscape of smokestacks and rusting steel beneath a blood-red sky. The music reaches a hammering orchestral crescendo then fades as the canoe lands on a litter-strewn beach. The camera follows the lone Indian on to the side of a freeway teeming with cars. The music slowly rises as the narrator intones, “Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country, and some people don't.” A passenger flings a bag of garbage out a car window; it explodes in front of the Indian, splattering his beaded moccasins. The Indian looks up and slowly turns towards us as the camera zooms in on a single tear running down his cheek. The music swells to a sustained note as the narrator concludes, “People start pollution; people can stop it.” The music dies, the screen fades to black, and the logos for the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful campaign appear. It all happened in 60 seconds, in an ephemeral television Public Service Announcement (PSA) launched on Earth Day 1971, but that final image – the “Crying Indian” – persists in our cultural memory forty years later.

A Companion to American Environmental History

by Douglas Cazaux Sackman (Editor)
Wiley-Blackwell, 2014

While the study of environmental history in America emerged in the 1970s, the object of its inquiry - man's interactions with nature - dates back to the earliest human inhabitants of this continent.  The contributions of more than 30 scholars in this text represent the broad range of the field, exploring topics as diverse as evolution, fire, consumerism, energy, extractive industries, Native Americans and gender and their environmental impacts.

The book opens with essays dissecting the field of environmental history down to its basic elements, followed by a section on the influence of race and cultural identity on environmental attitudes. The middle section is concerned with the American experience, from Columbus and Roanoke to the present day, and the changing nature of its environmentalism. Concluding sections examine particularly places where Americans have interacted with the natural world, both at home and abroad, and how the field of environmental history is currently being defined conceptually, spatially, and chronoligically.

Earth Day, New York City, April 22, 1970
Earth Day, New York City, April 22, 1970.
Demonstrators carry a tree down Fifth Avenue.

Food in America's Environmental History

Staking out American 'food history' is a promising way to change perceptions about the place and importance of the 'environment' in American history.  Food connects to the mainstream of 'American history,' and puts standard narratives in a new light: think of food and native America; establishing colonial societies; protests over tea and trade relations swirling through the American Revolution in the economic and political context of an Atlantic world; slaves growing rice and tobacco and the role of food in fighting the Civil War; the long westward conquest and the wholesale reordering of landscapes to support both a new regime of property and food production; immigration, foodways, identity, ethnicity and America as a Melting Pot; progressivism, home economics, and food reform; industrialization and corporate capitalism from Swift to Sunkist and Monsanto; the rise of tourism and consumer culture - especiallty consumer culture.

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Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau

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Nature (Key Ideas in Geography)

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