In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Borders, Intersections, and Ideas of Nature
  • Sean Kheraj (bio)

Nancy Langston’s call for environmental historians of the United States and Canada to think like microbes is a very welcome suggestion that opens new paths for the field on both sides of the border. Much like her predecessors in the American field, her approach to environmental history pushes scholars beyond efforts to add the environment to the pantheon of historical analysis alongside race, class, and gender. Thinking like a microbe compels historians to think about the past from a biological perspective and, perhaps, change our previous understandings of us and Canadian history. But, that biological perspective must also take into account the shared ideas of nature between Canada and the us that have influenced a remarkably common history with the natural world.

While the volume of research in environmental history has grown substantially in Canada within the past two decades, the field has yet to mature methodologically. Canadian researchers have not fully embraced the methodological frameworks for environmental history laid out by the field’s founding scholars, such as Carolyn Merchant, Donald Worster, and Alfred Crosby. Environmental history, according to these scholars, is more than simply a distinct set of topics in historical research concerned with some aspect of the natural world. It is more than just history with trees.1 From her earliest work in the field, Merchant was clear that environmental history “asserts the idea of nature as a historical actor,” or rejects, as Worster put it in 1988, “the conventional assumption that human experience has been exempt from natural constraints.” Crosby was perhaps the most explicit in his argument that the field was an entirely new way of understanding the past. He believed that “[h]istorians were purblind in considering environmental matters,” and that by not viewing humans as biological actors, [End Page 604] “historians and people in general can overlook subjects of colossal importance.”2

Canadian history can be understood and examined in new ways by decentring human actors, and looking at the past from an environmental perspective. We have already seen fine examples of this kind of revisionist work, including Esyllt Jones’s study of the impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic on class relations in Winnipeg leading up to the 1919 general strike, and Liza Piper’s case study of the effects of the 1815 eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora on agriculture in colonial New Brunswick. Paul Hackett’s breathtaking survey of epidemic diseases introduced into the Northwest calls upon historians to rethink the history of Canadian colonial expansion, with Hackett stating that the 1779–83 smallpox epidemic “can arguably be called one of the most significant events in pre-confederation, western Canadian history.” And Shannon Stunden Bower’s analysis of the history of drainage and land reclamation in southern Manitoba revises previous understandings of the constitutional relationship between the western provinces and the federal government by showing how, via the 1885 Swamp Lands Act, water altered Manitoba’s place in Confederation. By considering human and non-human historical actors from a biological perspective, these historians have begun to establish a field that is not merely a sub-discipline of Canadian history, but is something far more pervasive, influencing all approaches to the study of Canada’s past.3

In addition to viewing history from a biological perspective, historians must also consider the role of shared human ideas about nature. The biological actors that most commonly cross the international border between Canada and the us are humans, and their ideas about nature have, arguably, been the most significant transnational component of North American environmental history. Human habitat spans almost [End Page 605] the entirety of the continent and our ideas flow easily and pervasively across the border, influencing the relationship between humans and nature and, to some degree, homogenizing that relationship. When considering the environmental histories of these two countries, the similarities stand out as the most important avenue for understanding the influences that structure the changing interrelationship between humans and nature.

Canadians and their American neighbours have suffered a largely common history with the natural world. We both live in environments where Europeans and their ancestors displaced Indigenous populations and transformed ecosystems...


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pp. 604-609
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