Lecture #1: Ghost Landscapes: Getting Started with Environmental History

Suggested Readings:

William Cronon, “Kennecott Journey: The Paths Out of Town,” in Cronon, ed., Under an Open Sky (1992) Download here: PDF

Grady Clay, Real Places: An Unconventional Guide to America's Generic Landscape (1994)

Stephen Harrison, et al, eds., Patterned Ground: Entanglements of Nature and Culture (2004)

Douglas Cazaux Sackman, A Companion to American Environmental History (2010)


I. The Ghost Town in Question: Kennecott

located in midst of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, at the end of a 63-mile gravel road which was once a railroad

in 1900, prospectors discovered above Kennicott Glacier one of world’s richest lodes of copper ore: 70% pure

Stephen Birch, mining engineer, formed Alaskan Syndicate with $10 million of Guggenheim and Morgan capital from New York City, dug mines, erected mill town, and constructed railroad from Cordova on south coast

1st copper shipment reached Tacoma, WA, in 1911, mine produced $200-$300 million of ore over 27 years

then: collapsed. mineral began to give out, copper prices collapsed in depression of 1930s, mines closed in 1938; Kennecott Copper Co. would outlive its namesake to become world’s largest copper producer

II. The Meaning of Place: Asking the Questions Environmental Historians Ask

environmental history integrates 3 perspectives on past: ecology of people as organisms sharing universe with other organisms; political economy of people as social beings reshaping nature and each other to produce collective life; and cultural values of people as self-reflective beings trying to find meaning of lives in world

questions begin with environment: catalog of features that help define place: climate, soil, vegetation, etc.

one danger of catalogs is their apparent disconnectedness: the task of environmental history is to find connections

how to connect people to their environment: one starting point is to ask what they eat: each article of food follows complicated pathways from ecosystem to dinner table to waste; not just physical but spiritual

Ahtna people who inhabited the region before Kennecott existed saw few boundaries between people and animals; instead, powerful spiritual connections, gift-giving relations crucial to success or failure of hunt: luck and bad luck as signs of whether relationships between people and animals were as they should be

another place-defining question: how does a place cycle, across the hours of the day, the seasons of the year? when is food abundant, when scarce, and how do people accommodate themselves to these cycles? what, for instance, are the effects of such seasonal cycles on travel?

key choice of each human community: live "upon the country" (using local resources) or import from Outside:

cf. Ahtna natives with Lt. Henry Allen’s Army exploring party into Kennecott area: local vs. imported food

trade ties people in different parts of world to ecosystems in which they do not live: distant ecological effects

such linkages form new “paths out of town,” and become powerful causal forces for environmental change

in Alaska, one consequence was destruction of fur-bearing mammals for fur trade; another was copper mining

at Kennecott, Lt. Allen brought new cultural conceptions of what copper meant: conductor for electricity, placed lower value on its decorative qualities

along with ideas: introduction of new species, as when mining families at Kennecott planted alien garden crops

for Kennecott copper to be mined, it had first to be owned: systems of property ownership partitioned the landscape, turned parts of it into commodities, and made them available to be owned and sold: capital

because owners new mining company could conceive of land as capital, and because their own livelihoods did not depend on local resources, they could exploit land much more than Ahtna had done: consume the copper for profit, then abandon the mine and move on

at Kennecott, a human population that depended almost entirely on the local landscape was invaded bya human population that depended on local landscape almost not at all: converting copper to cash, with massive environmental and economic effects

note also the subtler, more intimate effects on local landscape of mine: complex geographies of class and gender

mines on hillsides above town, in bunkrooms whose residents were almost entirely working-class and male

Kennecott, called “Camp,” was dominated by middle-class managers and their families, subtle hierarchy of dwellings and other structures

McCarthy, the private town farther down the valley, sold entertainment and services to miners

III. The Search for Meanings

contrast the images of two young girls gathering berries: for a Danish dessert, or for Ahtna food, dye, medicine

Kennecott would not have existed without the natural mineral that called it into being, but its history was hardly determined by nature: copper could not be exploited without the discovery of electricity, growth of urban markets, rise of mining technologies

never before could such a place have been created: complex spatial, historical, cultural linkages made it possible

it is now perceived as a remote “wilderness,” much sought after by backpackers & climbers, and that too is part of its story: conceiving of this land as “wilderness” is as much a product of this history as are the abandoned mines

environmental history looks at places and ideas, people and natural systems, and asks: what are their stories?