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  • The Historiography of the Enigmatic North
  • Sverker Sörlin (bio)

In 1995, I came across a new collection entitled Consuming Canada: Readings in Environmental History, simultaneously the first Canadian book in the field so named and the obligatory anthology of canonical texts.1 The arrival of this volume was both encouraging and a bit puzzling. As an observer from Sweden, a circumpolar country that already had a sizable library of environmental history, I scratched my head: hadn’t Canada advanced further? The land of Innis, the land of “too much geography” in Mackenzie King’s famous phrase – would it not have been the perfect place to think historically about resources and environments, not least in the North?

Maybe not. Perhaps it was precisely because of Innis and his school, precisely because of the widespread influence of geography and geographers in the Canadian tradition that environmental history had made so few inroads. Unsurprisingly, something similar can be said about environmental history in the United Kingdom, which had been usurped by landscape geography, economic history, and many strands of the sciences.2

For Canada this was soon to change, even more decisively than in the uk. Environmental history in Canada has come of age. It is now commonplace to argue this point, as David Freeland Duke remarks in his own edited volume of “essential readings” in Canadian environmental history (a book that opens, notably, with four seminal American texts).3 But, for quite some time, this “lagging behind” was a common self-perception, which Freeland Duke makes a point of emphasizing, if only to add that it is now something of the past. The trope was [End Page 555] everywhere. Alan MacEachern noted it in a 2002 article on the state of the field, as did Graeme Wynn and Matthew Evenden in 2009.4

Whatever might be said about the initial slowness of Canadian efforts in the field, it is nonetheless true that growth in the literature has been remarkable in the last fifteen years. Even when limited to things circumpolar, there is a vast literature to consult. What follows is an impressionist approach: a selective reading by a curious foreign colleague who will, hopefully, be regarded with compassion for his inaccuracies, splendid misjudgments, and erratic idiosyncrasies.

an enigmatic historiography?

A point of departure may be the fact that so many scholars, and not least environmental historians, take such interest in the North. What is the rationale? The North is rich in content, narrative, detail, and fascination to do with disasters, dilemmas, and distances, but what are the overarching analytical questions guiding the research? Perhaps the interest is not so rational; as Graeme Wynn put it in his long and insightful foreword to John Sandlos’s Hunters at the Margin (2007), it is an “Enigmatic North.”5

In the twentieth century, Canadian icons such as Vilhjalmur Stefansson and John Diefenbaker presented the North as the backbone of Canada’s national narrative and its exploration; as a holy mission for her brightest minds and boldest men.6 The exploration demanded then was geographical, and oriented toward natural resources, future wealth, and national sovereignty. These siren calls still echo in some political historiography.7 But for environmental historians? Is it the [End Page 556] vulnerability of the North that explains the attraction? Its position as an “arena,” a white canvas of nothingness, on which tales of race and environmental change can be written?8 Its putative simplicity, with nature in a starker role, and with lots of low-hanging scholarly fruit? Is it the Arctic as epicenter of the imminent climate apocalypse? Or are the scholarly passions in themselves a political heritage, a way of providing “Canadian content” in an ever denser universe of environmental historiography around the world?

This does not preclude the fact that the most major environmental history issues can be dealt with in a northern context. Take that of ecological imperialism, for example, historian Alfred Crosby’s thesis that European colonization was aided by the vegetation, animals, and diseases they carried with them.9 Ecological imperialism has typically been described as a phenomenon of tropical and temperate zones, but in a 2007 special Canadian issue of the field’s leading...


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