Taking the Longer View: Environmental History as Early Modern History

Claire Campbell

Welcome to our series on the environmental history of the early modern period! A project of NiCHE, the series is cross-posted here at Borealia.

The idea for a series featuring scholarship from the early modern period – and querying the larger temporal character of the field of environmental history – came out of this year’s American Society for Environmental History conference in Riverside, California. At a roundtable of historians teaching in environmental studies programs, Edward Melillo of Amherst College commented that one criticism of environmental history (even among environmental historians) was its tendency toward presentism. But Melillo said he didn’t consider the charge of presentism a serious one. It may be that others don’t, either; after all, many of us went into this field in order to explain the roots of contemporary problems, many of which anchor in the Anthropocene. So presentism could be considered necessary, and even more than that, a mark of effectiveness. On the other hand, with most of us clustering in the late nineteenth through twentieth centuries, it may also mean that many other histories go understudied, and that we are missing important antecedents and origin stories. (Melillo also admitted his current work was taking him further back into the nineteenth century.)

When I started teaching at Bucknell, and they didn’t know what to do with a Canadian/ist, they asked me to teach a class on the French and Indian War. With my interest in Washington extending only to Christopher Jackson’s portrayal of the guy, I deflected that into a course on environmental history in the eighteenth century … and, unexpectedly, fell in love with the period as environmental history. As the course matured through questions of territory, energy, climate, land tenure, urban design, and so on, I have been repeatedlystruck by how relevant the period is to understanding the world around me. (Of course, even that is presentist.) Scratch the surface of Halifax, or rural Pennsylvania, and it’s right there. So why don’t more environmental historians move back from the industrial age? How do our early modern colleagues feel about the state of affairs and the state of nature?

Over the next few months, we’ll hear from scholars whose work ranges across the Atlantic world and the North American continent, and across several centuries:

  • Jack Bouchard, Folger Shakespeare Library
  • Anya Zilberstein, Concordia University
  • George Colpitts, University of Calgary
  • Kirsten Greer, Nipissing University
  • Gregory Kennedy, Université de Moncton

Each contributor was asked to consider the value of the early modern period to environmental history; presentism in the field; and the conversations that early modernists and modernists might be having with each other. We hope you’ll join us. And we’re delighted that our friends at NiCHE have invited us to cross-post the essays for Borealia readers. [Check out our previous collaboration, on early Canadian environmental history.]


Claire Campbella Professor of History at Bucknell University, is interested in the environmental history of North America and the North Atlantic world. She has taught at universities across Canada and in Denmark, in the areas of history, Canadian Studies, and Environment and Sustainability. Publications include Shaped by the West Wind: Nature & History in Georgian Bay (2004), A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011 (2011), and Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada (2013) with Robert Summerby-Murray. Her most recent work, Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada (2017), uses environmental history to expand public history and discussions of sustainability at national historic sites. She’s currently working on a new project, “The Islands of Canada: Canada as a Coastal Nation.” You can find her on Twitter @HKHClaire.

Featured image:  Guys in boats navigating rivers during the Little Ice Age, aka Washington Crossing the Delaware (detail; 1851) by Emanuel Leutze, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, via Wikimedia commons.

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