- Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada by Claire Elizabeth Campbell
Nature, Place, and Story visits five iconic historical sites that represent different landscapes and environmental narratives as well as different moments in historical thinking and curatorial culture: l’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland; Grand Pré in Nova Scotia; Fort William in Ontario; the Forks of the Red River in Manitoba; and Alberta’s Bar U Ranch. Historical sites, Claire Campbell argues, are “a place-library of physical texts that record changing ideas about our history, and how we have told our story in the past,” but–and this is central to the [End Page 292] book’s intent–they also document “our history of occupying, transforming, and adapting to new environments and landscapes” (4).
Nature, Place, and Story is concerned with building bridges between humanists and scientists, between past and present, and “between and across regions” (7). Campbell’s primary goal, though, is to bring together her two intellectual passions: public history and environmental history. National parks are now conventionally understood as cultural spaces, but, Campbell asks readers, do we see historic sites as natural ones? It is a question with consequence. The conventional public history approach, which conceives of the environment as a backdrop to human activities or as the raw material for human innovation, suggests that the “land that inspires our actions . . . is never affected or harmed by them” (8). To the contrary, historic sites are not “islands of history” but, rather, “part of a larger habitat of our own making” (24).
To this end, each chapter, after attending to the site’s curatorial history, offers alternative interpretative possibilities inspired by environmental history (though, in the chapter on Fort Williams, this is more implied than stated). For example, Campbell observes that the environment, while present in the site interpretation at l’Anse aux Meadows, is not imagined as a lead actor in the drama unfolding on the shorelines of the Great Northern Peninsula. Nor does current interpretation ask questions about the relationships between the natural world and human ideas and actions. This despite the fact that l’Anse aux Meadows is both the perfect place to see the tangible effects of climate change–“arguably the environmental issue of the twenty-first century”–and an ideal location to connect climate change to human endeavours (37; emphasis in original).
These alternative narratives may be a hard sell to site administrators; as Campbell notes, the stories of nation-building so pervasive at historic sites do not lend themselves to discussions of environmental degradation. Nor do these alternative narratives sit well with the interpretive conservatism common at historic sites. Consider Grand Pré in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. In the seventeenth century, Acadian settlers reclaimed salt marshes along the Bay of Fundy using an elaborate dyke system, which is still in use today. Current interpretation connects the dykeland farming of the seventeenth century with contemporary interest in organic and locavore agriculture. While Campbell appreciates the value of Grand Pré as a “model for small-scale, local, and low-impact farming,” she feels that Grand Pré, by passing over the era of industrial agriculture to which current trends are a deliberate response, clings to a romanticized vision of the past and “perpetuates a rural idyll” (54). [End Page 293]
Campbell offers the Forks of the Red River–a site “unearthed from railway infrastructure in order to provide the city with park space and a signature attraction” (92)–as a successful example of a historic site that “encompass[es] native ecologies and twentieth-century industrial plans in a post-industrial framework” (108). As at l’Anse aux Meadows, the Forks uses ambiance rather than reconstruction to tell stories about the past, allowing for layered interpretations that draw on different historical moments and themes. Much of the current interpretation is concerned with the land itself, though Campbell argues that more attention could be paid to the “politics and problems of urban rivers” (105). She also urges site administrators to resurrect planning documents...