In an effort to define the unique contribution of the environmental history of the Northeast (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau) to the larger North American framework, I’m offering the following statement. Its purpose is to encourage comment, criticism and an opportunity for others to add, subtract and amend along the way. To begin, it’s important to acknowledge the robust nature of what we already have to support our ongoing quest for definition. We have an annual seminar series sponsored by The Massachusetts Historical Society, a book series on the environmental history of the Northeast published by The University of Massachusetts Press, and now an annual conference sponsored by the Northeast-Atlantic Canada Environmental History Forum (NACEHF). The host of its fourth meeting will be Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. in August 2015.
Many of you will recognize what follows because some of it draws from materials located in published sources and cited below. So, here goes!
“From Atlantic Canada and the northern forests of Maine to the industrial corridors of western Pennsylvania, the ecosystems of the region, in contrast to the western United States according to Richard Judd, has been distinguished by “the length, continuity, and intensity of Euro-American settlement.”1 As Matthew McKenzie pointed out more recently, “Rather than a simple declensionist narrative chronicling the end of the frontier and the environmental legacies that ensued, Judd sees New England differently (For the purpose of discussion, I would expand it to Atlantic Canada). 2 “New England’s post-frontier history (Can we add Atlantic Canada here?) brings to light a series of oscillations: deforestation and reforestation, depletion and renewal, settlements and abandonment, pollution and recovery.”3
Add to these oscillations, the region’s complex social and cultural history that has been shaped by a complex natural history of geological upheaval and climate change. Despite these oscillations and possibly because of them, the region’s nineteenth industrial economy encompassed farm and village life as well as fishing, logging, textile and shoe manufacturing, lumber mills and other industries into the twentieth centuries and transitioned to financial services, high technology, medical sciences, and military procurement during the post-WWII period. Today, the economy of the region, the wealthiest in North America with a GDP of about $4 trillion, exceeds that of Germany. It seems to me that we have only begun to explore the environmental impact of these oscillations in specific localities and/or in regional contexts. Have any of the accepted papers at our three NACEHF conferences addressed the above, directly or indirectly?
As Judd pointed out that farms and factories coexisted in nineteenth century New England (Can we say the same for Atlantic Canada?), Ellen Stroud 4 explores the Northeast’s interconnected urban and rural spaces. Challenging the often-repeated assertion that the region’s forests regenerated naturally after decades of clear-cutting, Stroud focuses on the crucial part dedicated citizens and governments played in protecting forests and promoting their return. She highlights the role of urban citizens “in creating and maintaining the new northeastern forests” and to show their “humanizing presence against “the cliché of environmental decline that pervades so many environmental stories.” (p. 10) Being the first region in North America to experience reforestation should add to our definition of the region’s uniqueness. Richard Judd points out that exploitation and conservation occurred simultaneously in New England (Can we add Atlantic Canada?) and like Stroud argued that New Englanders pioneered some of the nation’s earliest grass roots conservation efforts. This conclusion again speaks to the Northeast’s uniqueness and contribution to the larger environmental history framework.
Since the history of New England is the longest (add Atlantic Canada) and its archives are also the richest, it seems to me that we have only begun to tap into this richness. Our region includes dense metropols, small nineteenth industrial cities, twentieth century rim cities, sprawling suburbs and exurbs, villages and towns. Waves of immigrants have passed through; some have left an environmental imprint.
I’ve said nothing about the region’s rivers, lakes, estuaries and the oceans and Matt McKenzie has suggested that New England’s marine environment is much more complicated than the complex story outlined above. Unlike the successes experienced on land over the region’s long history, the “marine realm still lies in a state of calamity.” (p.3) And as Matt has pointed out in the conclusion to his paper presented at the August 2, 2014 conference, human use of the North Atlantic marine resources came to a crashing halt in the mid-1990s. As a result, management of marine resources looks more akin to urban planning. That the Atlantic Canada and the Northeast landmass borders this great ocean adds immeasurably to the region’s uniqueness.”