Thursday, May 26, 2011

Recent Reads

As I am devoting maximum labor to finishing my biography of William Temple Hornaday, I am behind in both my blogging and reading. But here are three recent reads:

Timothy Egan, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.

The Big Burn covers the massive forest fires that struck the northwest in 1910. Prolonged dryness and lightening storms produced several large fires that converged into a single mega-fire that scorched over 3 million acres and several towns. As in his history of the Dust Bowl, Egan does an excellent job of portraying the drama of the moment through the eyes of the common people who lived through it. Without a doubt, that is the strength of the book. He also explains the conservation policies of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, as well as the attitudes of those powerful western Senators who represented the timber interests. In the end, the arch anti-conservationists were discredited. Egan emphasizes the words of those Forest Service officers who realized that had this fire occurred a few years earlier, the entire conservation program might have been destroyed. Those few years bought the Forest Service some time to win over local populations and prove a valuable asset, even if this was a slow and difficult process. President Taft, as always seems to be the case, comes off as bumbling, indecisive, and on the wrong side of the event. And, yes, his weight is lampooned. If the fire wrecked the lives of thousands of people, it at least saved the conservation movement in Egan's eyes. Even if a stingy Congress would not reimburse the hospital bills for those badly burned Forest Rangers, the lawmakers passed the Weeks Act to acquire forests in the East and generally accepted the utility of what the little GPs (Gifford Pinchots) did.

H.W. Brands, American Colossus.

In American Colossus Brands turns his attention to the Gilded Age where, during a short time, modern, industrial America emerged. It was an ugly birth. The positive is that he paints vivid portraits of many different types of people from immigrants to robber barons in a way that grants insight into their daily lives. He is really very good at this. The negative is that it

seems dated to me. The theses is not particularly new nor is the bibliography. I have no doubt that Wallace Stegner's biography of famed explorer John Wesley Powell was the best ever at one point, but Donald Worster's more sophisticated and detailed work, which has the hindsight of some great environmental historiography, a field that was, at best, vaguely defined when Stegner first put pen to ink in the 1950s, would better serve anyone studying the time period, western development, exploration, or water. There are other examples of this sort of thing. I was also a bit disappointed by Brands's lack of manuscript sources. I have always enjoyed his work and found his use of primary sources, quite frankly, comforting in books written for a larger audience.

John Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History.

I know this is out of place in my Gilded Age/Progressive Era blog, but I read this in part as a refresher for a US Survey II class I will teach in the fall. This is a very top level view of the Cold War with a emphasis on ideas, not events. Thus Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan get significant coverage because of their ideas, while Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Bush receive much less attention. In fact, Johnson and Kennedy are mentioned only in passing and

Carter and Bush come off as out-of-touch. Gaddis incorporates the non-aligned powers into the picture. As most of my Cold War reading tends to focus on the USA, this provided me with some excellent perspective on the role of China without overloading my brain with details I really do not need. It may be silly, but I still get chills thinking back to 1989. I was in college and, as a young cold warrior, quite absorbed with the downfall of Eastern Europe. Gaddis's handling of that event certainly bought back memories.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

ASEH 2011 Conference Review, Day 3: Friday April 16

Sorry for the long delay in posting the final installment of my account of the ASEH conference, but here it is.

I struggled picking out which morning session to attend. There was a panel on militarized nature and I find the intersection of warfare and the environment an interesting one, as well as one modestly growing as a topic of study. On the other hand, there was a roundtable on Aldo Leopold, a favorite topic of mine. Go with something new or something familiar? The feather that tipped the balance in favor of Leopold was simply that I planned to mention him, even if only in passing, in my own presentation later in the day.

Julianne Lutz Warren focused on how much of Leopold's work sought to bridge the gap between private and public land, thus redefining conservation. Dan Schilling studied Leopold's experience in the southwest between 1909 and 1924 as a member of the US Forest Service and sees some definite Native American imprints on Leopold's later thoughts. Even the concept of "thinking like a mountain" is Native American. Bryann Norton examined Leopold from the perspective of an intellectual historian, concluding Leopold was a moral pluralist who ascribed to many ideas. In other words, he was a well and widely read man, familiar with ideas, and clearly influenced by pragmatism. Finally, Susan Flader focused on Leopold's legacy within the Forest Service. Ironically, he was not well received by his peers or the generation that followed. They considered him, in Flader's words, "a flakey idealist." Leopold's stock did not improve until historian Roderick Nash's classic Wilderness and the American Mind (1967) put him in line with such great naturalists as Thoreau and Muir. Then Earth Day came and Leopold truly joined the pantheon of great environmental thinkers. It is important to realize, of course, that thoughts form slowly. Flader reminded us that as slowly as it took for Leopold's ideas to gain credence among the mainstream was about the same length of time between the moment he famously saw the green light go out in the wolf he killed and when he wrote about it in Sand County Almanac.

Because I enjoyed the roundtable so much I decided to stay for the session following, which was a screening of "Green Fire," a bio documentary of Aldo Leopold narrated by his biographer Curt Meine. I thought it was a superb film for several reasons. First, his daughter's presence gave it a very personal touch. As an historian I always try to emphasize to my students that historical actors are people just like us with all that humanity entails. This captures that. Another aspect I enjoyed was the piecing together of Leopold's life in progression. If nothing else, his ideas evolved. Who knows what might have come after Sand County Almanac had he lived. Static he certainly was not. Finally, in her Aldo Leopold's Odyssey, Julianne Lutz Nelson (now the aforementioned Julianne Lutz Nelson of the earlier session) called attention to Leopold's great, almost poetic, writing ability. Using some great Leopold quotes read out by Peter Coyote captured that important aspect of Leopold very well, I thought.

I skipped the early afternoon session to work on some powerpoints for my upcoming late afternoon presentation. Nothing like waiting for the last moment!

Because I posted my paper on this blog on April 17th, there is no need for me to go into anymore of my presentation. But I did want to give a brief synopsis of the work of the other two panelists on the Print Culture of the Environmental Movement. Andrew Case presented on the Rodale Press, a magazine publisher dedicated to organic farming. Andy argued that the magazine (which had several names over the years) started as information sharing, but evolved into a forum to discuss larger environmental issues and later coordinate political action. Honestly, I have to admit, I never heard of Rodale before. An embarrassing admission as I worked for five years at Wild Oats, a largely organic natural foods grocer bought out by Whole Foods. Cheryl Knott Malone's paper covered Stuart Udall's classic The Quiet Crisis. Cheryl argued that Udall's book was an important contribution at a critical time in the development of the environmental movement. It differed from its contemporary, Silent Spring, in some important ways. Namely, it was less a scientific treatise, a more an intellectual endeavor drawing on history and biography to demonstrate the necessity for humans to revise their relationship to the earth. I was much more familiar with Udall and The Quiet Crisis, having written an article on him for the the Modern American Environmentalists: A Biographical Encyclopedia edited by George Cevasco and Richard Harmond and published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. What I found interesting in Cheryl's discussion, and what I had not really considered in my own brief article on Udall, was that he was writing something of an environmental history long before there was even such a field.

I finished the day with a short walk to catch the Diamond Backs and Giants.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ASEH conference and want to thank Cheryl for organizing our panel. I hope to see everyone I met next year in Madison.