Moderator Blog Post by: Michael Del Vecchio
What do you get when you combine nature writing, biography, oral history, literary non-fiction, and environmental history? This is exactly the question our panel hoped to answer. In short, you get Glen Sandiford’s, “Deepe in the Adirondacks”, a skillfully-written (his)story that narrates the life of Adirondack guiding legend, Tony Deepe. In a larger sense, the combination of oral history and literary license used by Sandiford places emphasis on the role of narrative in both conducting and disseminating environmental scholarship. It provides an alternative (in both its final product and its methodology) to the heavily footnoted and detailed books most students of history are used to reading, and he does so without sacrificing research quality.
The role of narrative in telling environmental (his)stories was a central topic for discussion by our panel. Having recorded a vast amount of oral history by Tony Deepe, Sandiford explained that he was unsure how to incorporate Deepe’s own words into his writing. Sandiford decided to use a literary style that left large sections of transcribed interviews with Deepe intact by italicizing the portions of text that came verbatim from Deepe’s mouth. Sandiford then used some literary license – informed and supported by more “traditional” historical research such as the use of newspapers – to construct Deepe’s personal history of guiding and living in the Adirondacks into a larger narrative structured around the changes of the four seasons.
Sandiford’s paper also highlighted some traditional themes of environmental history, mainly, the divisions between elite, urbanites who used rural areas for recreation, and the people, like Tony Deepe, who lived in and relied on these areas for their livelihood. Sandiford elaborates about an incident where Tony had become annoyed with some rowdy young skiers from the city. In order to teach them a lesson, Tony and some friends hauled a stuffed bear up the mountain and left in on the downhill side of a blind corner. When the city kids made the turn and found a bear was in the middle of their line, they panicked and skied off the trail. Two skiers even hit trees and were slightly injured. This humorous story demonstrates the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) acts of resistance that guides and other rural people have for exerting their agency. I was reminded of my own experience as a fishing guide in northern Ontario where, if a group was giving me a hard time, I left the anal glands on the fish that I cleaned for them to take home – something I referred to as the ‘a-holes for a-holes’ tactic.
The panel discussion flowed freely for an hour and a half. Glen Sandiford was pleasantly surprised to hear that most members of the panel really enjoyed his literary style; I think he expected us to criticize the lack of distinction between his and his subject’s voice. However, perhaps because of the prominent role narrative has played in the research and writing of environmental history (I think of William Cronon’s article “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,”) the panelists had only positive things to say about Sandiford’s prose.