Sunday, April 24, 2011

ASEH 2011 Conference Review, Day 1: Thursday April 14

I departed Denver in a snow storm and left barely enough time to get to the gate. It was only the start of a very hurried day.

The first panel I attended was "Science, Knowledge, and Nature." Panel is perhaps a misnomer because there was only one presenter, Michael Rawson. The other panelist had to cancel. If Rawson's name looks vaguely familiar, it might be because he was a Pulitzer prize finalist for his book, Eden on the Charles. His paper focused on the utopian works of the scientific revolution. He also focused on the lunar utopian books. That stunned me. I had no idea such a genre existed in the 17th century. But after the invention of the telescope imaginations turned to the moon which became a convenient location to displace visions of an ideal society. As I rushed to check into my room I wondered if this classifies as a form of science fiction, but I did not see Rawson for the remainder of the conference and thus could not ask his opinion.

After Rawson's panel, I attended the president's luncheon where Harriet Ritvo gave her outgoing address entitled, "Where the Wild Things Were." There was a controversy within ASEH when Arizona passed its immigration bill. Some members wanted to cancel or move the conference. As president Ritvo made the decision to stay in Phoenix, and this is probably why her address focused on immigrants. She did not speak of people, but of animal immigrants and their reception. It was very interesting and she has a very wry style packed with humor surrounding word play and usage. She covered such animal immigration issues as the English sparrow in the US and rabbits in Australia. She also compared and contrasted the experiences of camels in Australia (they flourished and are an enormous wild herd) and the US (they did not survive in the wild). In the end she concluded that there is a connection between the attitudes towards animals and such things as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and National Origins Act (1924). I agree and have thought so for a long time. Although Ritvo does not mention him, no one better exemplifies the connection between nativism and conservation as Madison Grant, author of racist books and wildlife protection legislation. There was something about purity that crossed the line for both humans and animals to many of these early wildlife conservationists.

Next I attended back-to-back panels on "Biography's Role in Environmental History." As a biographer myself, this topic strongly appealed to me. The individuals covered were Mira Lloyd Dock (a progressive era forester from Pennsylvania), Terry Tarleton Hershey (a Houston socialite and NIMBY activist), Bob Marshall (founder of the Wilderness Society), Ynes Mexia (botanist and explorer), Mary Treat (late 19th century nature education advocate), and the Romero family (early Hispanic pioneers in the Southwest). Of this group, Marshall was the only one I had heard of before. Barry Muchnick argued that too much attention has been given to Marshall's extreme physicality at the expense of fully exploring how other factors shaped his environmentalism. Also, that it puts some distance between Marshall and the average person who cannot relate to Marshall's legendary hiking ability. I think he has a good point, but he needs a good alternative, and, I imagine, one cannot escape Marshall's physicality entirerly. I was amazed by the works of Dock and Mexia because they achieved such success as women in male dominated fields. Discussions on sources was equally interesting. It left me wondering about many people are off the record so to speak because they did not leave enormous collections of documents behind. Then I think of William T. Hornaday (the subject of my biography) who created an enormous collection, but did so less for posterity and more for the younger of his contemporaries. In other words, as he nurtured and educated a younger generation of wildlife conservationists (Irving Brant and Rosalie Edge to name two) he used his scrapbooks and letters as an archive of sorts.

After this panel, it was off to the Cronon presentation that I covered in the last posting. All in all it was a busy, but enjoyable and enlightening day.

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