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From Sea to Shining Sea: Key Resources in U.S. Environmental History (March 2015): Home

by Larry T. Spencer

Issue

This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Choice (volume 52 | number 7).

Abstract and Introduction

Compared to other historical disciplines, environmental history is relatively young. The American Society for Environmental History was founded only in 1977, and the first celebrated Earth Day was April 22, 1970. This is not to say that books and articles on the topic had not been published earlier. The growth of the discipline has somewhat paralleled the nation’s interest in the environment. However, recent events would indicate that although political interest has waned, interest by citizen groups has not, nor has interest in the history of the environment decreased.

This essay will focus on environmental history books dealing primarily with North America, with emphasis on the United States. It begins with a discussion of general works on environmental history and is followed by sections on environmentalists, regionalism, and related topics. In selecting books for this essay, the following criteria were used: the titles should deal with the environment but not with the ecology of things that are found in the environment; they should be biographies or discuss a person who wrote about the environment, but they should not be the person’s own writings on the environment; and lastly, the books should deal with the history of a region’s environmental change over time, and not the natural history of a region. Unless the book is a classic, the books in this review date mostly from 2000 on.

To illustrate the preceding criteria, here are a few examples. One title that would appear on the syllabi of most courses on U.S. environmental history is Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and not Peter Matthiessen’s Wildlife in America. Probably the most well-known naturalist in the country is John Muir, but rather than discussing Muir’s numerous books, this essay will discuss Donald Worster’s A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. Finally, instead of discussing The Geology of New Hampshire’s White Mountains by J. Eusden et al., this essay will discuss William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.

As is true for most disciplines today, the respective websites of the disciplines’ organizations are a good place to begin exploring. Accordingly, readers interested in environmental history should consult the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) website (http://aseh.net/). As mentioned above, the society was founded in 1977 and thus, compared to other historical societies, is rather young. As noted on its website, the society “increases understanding of current environmental issues by analyzing their historical background.” Particularly useful is the Teaching and Research section. There the user can access syllabi for undergraduate and graduate courses, suggested readings, archives, and related websites. The society’s quarterly journal, Environmental History, features articles on a variety of topics as well as useful reviews on recently published books.

A good introduction to environmental history is William Cronon’s 1996 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” The essay would be a quicker read than Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, and it also provides an overview of the problems of our relationship to nature by one of the top environmental history scholars in the United States. Cronon essentially states that by focusing on the preservation of wilderness, we forget that we live in nature and that wilderness is a concept defined by us. Another more recent article by J. R. McNeill, “Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History,” defines more explicitly the field and its goals than the ASEH website does; it describes the growth that has occurred since 1985 when Richard White took it upon himself to spend the summer reading all the literature of the field; and it provides a broad but selected bibliography of books that McNeill finds useful.[1] His overview is far more global than this essay.

[1] Richard White, “Historiographical Essay: American Environmental History: The Development of a New Field,” Pacific Historical Review 54 (1985): 297-335.


Larry T. Spencer is professor emeritus of biology at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.