- Farming across Borders: A Transnational History of the North American West ed. by Sterling Evans
The North American West, from its plains and prairies to its mountains and deserts, has long been marked by the exchange and circulation of people, ideas, commodities, plants, and animals. During the nineteenth century, however, that vast space was carved into three distinct nations: the United States, Canada, and Mexico. As a result of that division, their histories have been increasingly isolated and compartmentalized. Farming across Borders, a sweeping and ambitious volume edited by prominent environmental historian Sterling Evans, demonstrates that North America's West cannot be understood within the restrictive national containers in which it is too often held. With agriculture as its focus, the book successfully reveals how national borders shaped but by no means contained the agricultural transformations of northern Mexico, the western United States, and western Canada. This impressive volume should not only appeal to agricultural historians; scholars of environmental history, labor, migration, and capitalism will all find much value within.
The book's nineteen essays, five of which have been previously published, cover a wide geographical and chronological span. Several chapters stand out for their innovation and historiographical significance, and many of them focus particularly on the U.S.–Mexico borderlands. Todd Meyer's exploration of New Mexico's fabled chile industry reveals its continued dependence on cultivation techniques and biota imported from "Old" Mexico while simultaneously demonstrating that growers' rhetoric of "natural advantage" concealed endless human and technological interventions in chile plant biology. Evans's essay "Baja and Beyond" describes how one wildly successful agro-industry—tomato growing in Baja California for U.S. consumers—sent unexpected ecological ripples far beyond: the forests of southern Sonora were stripped bare of yara blanca wood to stake tomato plants hundreds of miles away. John Weber's exploration of pecan shelling in early twentieth-century San Antonio upsets neat dichotomies of agricultural versus industrial labor in its evocation of how Texas [End Page 217] labor contractors forged a thoroughly exploitative, yet thoroughly "modern," relationship with its seasonal workers.
The volume's explorations of the U.S.–Mexico borderlands are neatly balanced by studies of the forty-ninth parallel separating the United States and Canada, providing vital comparisons to the southern border more familiar to this journal's readers. Jason McCollom's examination of the entangled farmers' movements in 1900s' North Dakota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta reveals that rural political unrest had a distinctly cosmopolitan bent. Anthony Carlson's study of water disputes across the Montana–Alberta boundary shows that they nearly match those between the United States and Mexico in their vituperation and antagonism. And likewise, the few studies that engage both northern and southern borderlands, such as Evans's "Dependent Harvests: Grain Production on the American and Canadian Plains and the Double Dependency with Mexico, 1880–1950" and Kristin Hoganson's "Meat in the Middle: Converging Borderlands in the US Midwest, 1865–1900," are particularly instructive and revealing.
Farming across Borders is clearly inspired by the transnational turn of the last twenty years in the writing of history and its open challenge to overcome the so-called "tyranny of the national." Somewhat disappointingly, however, many of the volume's essays are conventionally national in regard to their archival research and use of primary sources. Laura Hooton's exploration of an African American colony in Baja California is fascinating, yet based exclusively on English-language U.S. sources; Alicia Dewey's essay on ranching in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands details its protagonists' border crossings, yet the endnotes do not give evidence that the author crossed any in her research. This imbalance is not confined to studies of the U.S.'s southern border. For example, despite its trans-national framing, Carlson's essay on the Montana–Alberta water dispute cites a wide variety of U.S. archival material, but not a single Canadian source. Unfortunately, such disparities are common here, where multinational and...