Posted: August 7, 2013
nvironmental history has become a respected field, and many colleges and universities offer courses in it. It originated as a distinct academic subdiscipline with Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind (1967). Other early environmental historians, following Nash, often wrote a version of intellectual history, classically exemplified by Donald Worster's Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (1977). A different kind of environmental history arrived with Richard White's Land Use, Environment, and Social Change (1980) and William Cronon's Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983), which described the alterations in ecosystem as wilderness gave way to a series of different human land uses including hunting, agriculture, logging, and commerce. Ted Steinberg's widely used textbook Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History, written for the general reader, has gone through three editions since it was first published in 2002.
Mark Fiege, the William E. Morgan Chair of Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, seeks to impart to the genre of environmental history to a much grander scope. His first book, Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West (1999), applied an intricate version of White's and Cronon's approach to the irrigation technology of the Snake River Valley in Idaho. But in his latest book, The Republic of Nature, Fiege undertakes a new kind of environmental history—ambitious, original, and diversified—in order to show that environmental history has a kind of universal applicability, contributing important new insights to virtually any historical subject. To demonstrate his point, Fiege takes nine subjects (ten, if you count the introduction) that are not generally considered "environment" or "nature" topics and seeks to demonstrate how much value can be added to our understanding by treating them as such. All the topics come from American history, since Fiege's project has another goal as well: to show that the United States has been a nation distinctively shaped by its natural environment. Hence it is "The Republic of Nature."
As an introduction, Fiege supplies a beautifully written, almost mystical invocation of visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. But then he reminds us that the inspiring, eternal principles celebrated by the Memorial have a material and technological infrastructure. He describes the monument's construction on land created by the dredging of the Potomac River, and the quarrying and transportation of the marble to its site. The building of the Lincoln Memorial serves as a microcosm of the way Fiege will analyze American history. The material basis for historical aspiration and achievement is the recurring theme of his new environmental history.
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He begins with an interpretation of witchcraft in 17th-century New England. As Fiege describes them, the Puritan settlers determined to impose an "inflexible" order upon all experience, including physical nature and human society. "They would transform a savage environment into a stable, wealthy landscape of churches, solid homes, fertile fields, and pastures filled with lowing cattle. In the process, they would purify themselves and create tight-knit communities in which each person knew his or her place and obeyed God's will." But the perfect order the Puritans idealized could never be achieved. When things went wrong—usually things involving "land, animals, diseases, bodies, and other biophysical things"—the Puritans overreacted with a sense of crisis. Sometimes they blamed the supernatural evil powers of witches.
Fiege's portrait of the Puritans is a hostile caricature, taking no account of their devotion to popular literacy or government by consent, in a world where these were radical innovations. He never points out that within a few years, many of those involved in prosecuting people for witchcraft, like Judge Samuel Sewall, publicly confessed their error and guilt. Within five years, the Massachusetts legislature ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the tragic executions perpetrated in 1692. And in 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused and granting £600 restitution to each of their heirs. The prosecutions for witchcraft were an aberration, not a fundamental characteristic, of Puritan culture. Although the contrast between a dream of order and the reality of nature reoccurs in some of his later chapters, the witchcraft episode falls short of the standard set by the Lincoln Memorial, and gets the book off to a weak start.
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Fiege titles his chapter on the American Revolution "By the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." He treats the founders' "Natural Law" as if it were a synonym for the laws of nature described by biologists, geologists, and meteorologists. The word "nature" has many meanings, of course. It can mean "essential character," or "the physical universe," or (in theology) "the human state without divine grace," to mention a few. Fiege conflates them all. "The Declaration of Independence marked a shift in ideas about nature," he writes, "and was integral to the environmental history of the Revolution," without describing how such ideas effected changes in the landscape over time. The chapter devotes a lot of attention to whether the Revolution protected the natural rights of women and blacks, but doesn't manage to offer much that is new, or relevant to environmental history.
The book's best section examines the connection between cotton production and the Southern slave system. It tells with vivid specificity how the characteristics of the cotton plant and the environment in which it was cultivated shaped the lives of the slaves assigned to work it, while constraining the intentions of their masters. "For various biological and environmental reasons, cotton resisted complete systemization and thus weakened the farmers' and planters' power over their kingdom. It is reasonable to speculate that southerners' use of a related term, King Cotton, subtly acknowledged that the plant had mastered them at least as much as they had mastered it."
Even a domesticated ecosystem, like the cotton fields of the Old South, can impose demands on the human beings who make use of it. Fiege relates in superb detail a host of difficulties in the planting and cultivation of the cotton plants, including pests, fungi, and unseasonable weather. The masters responded by breeding new hybrid varieties of cotton that produced ever larger and more numerous bolls with stronger resistance. But their very successes ironically produced a new problem. Eventually, the growers developed such fertile cotton that it became difficult for their enslaved work force to harvest the whole crop. Masters were then driven to offer positive incentives, including money payments and privileges like gardens of their own, to motivate slaves to pick ever larger harvests of cotton. In this way, he points out, environmental change dictated change in the relations between masters and slaves.
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Fiege next turns to Abraham Lincoln's dedication to "improvement" of the environment—making it more productive by dredging rivers and harbors, digging canals, building railroads. Members of the early Republican Party and its predecessor, the Whigs, encouraged government support for economic development and infrastructure at all levels: municipal, state, and federal. The author relates a little-known but revealing episode. In 1832 the young Lincoln helped clear away physical obstructions on the Sangamon River and then piloted a riverboat upstream almost as far as Springfield. The goal was to demonstrate the economic potential of the Sangamon and the towns along it, with a modest investment in improving the navigability of the stream. As Fiege notes, Lincoln patented a device for helping riverboats float off when they ran aground on unmarked shoals.
Improvement was a moral goal as well as a political policy for Lincoln and many others of his generation. Self-improvement meant more than upward mobility; it meant developing and fulfilling one's potential. Fiege makes good use of Lincoln's seldom-cited 1858 lecture on "Discoveries and Inventions," an address he delivered "six times to paying audiences." In the speech, Lincoln traces the discoveries and inventions that have empowered humanity: clothing, agriculture, iron tools, the wheel, windmills, and the most important of all inventions, he insisted, language itself. The development of printing and the spread of literacy enabled the subsequent fulfillment of this greatest of all inventions, particularly in the United States, with its public schools, newspapers, and democratic politics. Fiege rightly points out how much of himself and his own ambitions Lincoln put into that speech.
The Homestead Act, the transcontinental railroad, and the creation of land-grant universities all demonstrated the Republicans' determination to improve both human beings and their material environment. The destruction of slavery and the preservation of the Union represented the logical core as well as the greatest achievements of this program.
Fiege even takes up the Battle of Gettysburg as an episode in environmental history. He emphasizes the material shortages that hampered the Confederate war effort as a result of the Southern economy's concentration on agricultural staples to the neglect of industry. Robert E. Lee's army invaded Pennsylvania in 1863 partly in an effort to capture badly needed supplies, including shoes. Fiege relates how the physical environment—mountains, hills, and streams—dictated the course of the campaign and battle, and how the rival armies competed for control of key geography, especially high ground. All of this is perfectly true, of course, but hardly new to anyone with an interest in the Civil War. What the author presents as novel environmentalism is conventional military history. How armies aim at control of the high ground is something cadets learn in high school ROTC.
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Fiege emphasizes how the routes chosen by the surveyors and engineers of the transcontinental railroad followed geographical contours. He writes with appropriate drama of the binding of the continent with rails of iron, showing wonderful sympathy for the Chinese laborers on the Central Pacific and the Irish laborers on the Union Pacific. The chapter is a fitting climax for a book about the human aspiration to dominate nature, and the limitations nature imposes on humanity.
Fiege is at his best dealing with the mid-19th century. The remaining chapters, on the 20th, ranging from the building of the atomic bomb to the effects of the 1973-74 gasoline shortage, seem less exciting.
Mark Fiege has set out to create a new sort of book to demonstrate the universal relevance of environmental history. A mixed verdict seems inevitable on so diverse an undertaking. Much of The Republic of Nature shows the importance of the environment to human history, but not necessarily in surprising or novel ways. Actually, the moral of the story turns out to be very much the same as that of Irrigated Eden. Fiege's first book described the creation of a whole new agricultural landscape through technological intervention, while showing how the results did not always conform to the intentions of engineers and farmers. Choice magazine commented at the time, "No matter how we try to alter the natural world, the unexpected consequences of our actions will always come back to haunt us." The Republic of Nature, through its varied parables, teaches the same lesson.
As for Fiege's second goal, to show that the United States is more influenced by its natural environment than other nations (or at least other republics), that kind of assertion cannot be demonstrated without a demanding venture into comparative history.