Paper Abstracts

2012 Place and Placelessness

Online Graduate Student Workshop Abstracts

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Local Environmental Change through Road Building: Colonization Roads and Community Development in Canada West, 1852-1859 Derek Murray, PhD Candidate (History), University of Victoria, BC, Canada

In the 1850s, the Province of Canada undertook a project to colonize the vast forested wilderness of the Canadian Shield. A network of roads, canals, and railways were imagined as the circulatory system of a thriving society, connecting hinterland agricultural communities with heartland industrial and commercial centres. Roads were especially important because they facilitated the majority of the day-to-day travel of bureaucrats, setters, merchants, and migrant labourers. Yet, while railways, and to an extent canals, have received substantial scholarly attention, treatment of the impact of roads on the economic and social landscapes of nineteenth-century Canada has been less focused. Further, the local environmental changes wrought by road building are given short thrift in studies of state formation, settlement, and forestry, even though they were essential to all three processes.

In this paper, I examine a number of sources related to the building of “colonization roads” in Canada West, including survey diaries and official correspondence. These sources tell a story of environmental change through the manipulation of the landscape to encourage a particular mid-Victorian cultural vision; a vision of social, political, and economic order. Roads were of course vital to the movement of people and goods; but they were also symbolic manifestations of political and economic power. They represented the authority of the state to govern its population and to control its territory. This authority was contested, both by settlers and by the landscape itself. The resulting “climate” of contention, uncertainty, and dramatic environmental change, shaped the processes through which communities developed and landscapes were reformed. By studying the political and physical process of road building in greater depth, this project sheds new light on the environmental history of settlement and land use in nineteenth-century Canada.


Spatial Patterns of Coal: Interrelations Between Technology, Culture, and Environment in Times of Industrialisation Nora Thade, Ruhr Universität Bochum, Germany

This paper focuses on the constitution of a small mining district in times of industrial change by outlining the development of new spatial patterns in consequence of the changing significance of coal in the nineteenth-century.

My case study deals with the progress of industrialization of the coal mining district Waldenburg-Neurode in Lower Silesia (Prussia, now Poland). In my PhD work I will make a comparative analysis of this district with the district Lugau-Oelsnitz-Zwickau in Saxony (Kingdom of Saxony, now Germany) and the district Inde-Wurm in nearby Aachen (Prussia, now Germany). In these small districts coal mining became a leading sector of industry during the 19th century. Even though those districts never belonged to important industrial districts, they were embedded in broader industrial clusters or networks. At places were the mine shafts carry coal up to the surface, coal dominated an interrelation between technology, culture and environment.

In times of industrialization, coal as a material has varied in its importance. As new possible uses of and dependencies on coal developed, the significance of the coal field and the basis for its material flow increased, and thereby new spaces of economy and culture were constituted. In my study on mining districts, I assume that coal is a main factor in constituting spatial patterns.

Using the concept of relational spatiality, I show how coal affects the interrelation between technology, people and environment in coal mining districts. The benefit of this approach is the potential for analyzing specific parts of heterogeneous spaces in time of structural change. I highlight two important aspects: 1) Coal was an important raw material leading to technological change in industrial production processes, even if the existence of coal deposits did not inevitably imply economic success. 2) Industrial coal mining changed the space, the landscape as well as the spatial order in local economies and perceptions of space.

By analyzing spatial patterns of coal in three small mining districts, I will show how the development of local mining sectors could constitute specific spaces and the importance of the existing natural and cultural frameworks. I assume that coal had no attractive effects on other industries and did not establish a positive framework for industrialization beyond the 1870s from a broader perspective. The process of industrialization has stagnated. But from a relatively narrow perspective the impact of coal is important for the constitution of these mining districts. Studying how coal miming creates new perceptions of space suggests that the coal had major impacts on environmental and cultural framework than on progress of higher industrial development in the respective locations.


“Dislocations at the Boundary”: Defining Climatic Zones on the Great Plains in the 1930s James Bergman, Harvard University, Cambridge MA, USA

My paper will examine efforts by climatologists in the U.S. government to define climatic risk on the Great Plains in the 1930s, with particular focus on what C.W. Thornthwaite called “recurrent dislocations” of the boundaries climatic zones. The years 1934 and 1936 were marked by the two worst droughts on record in the United States, droughts that prompted new calls for more scientific use of land. But how best to identify the best use of land in regions that were marked by violent fluctuations in rainfall? Could one define climate by mere averages in such a case? The problems regarding climate were closely related to other problems facing planners in that period. Considerable instability in employment prompted massive migrations of workers, migrations that policymakers wanted to manage to ensure an appropriate match between flows of people and flows of capital. This paper will focus on the work of Thornthwaite, director of the Climatic and Physiographic Division at the Soil Conservation Service. Originally an urban geographer, Thornthwaite began break new ground in the classification of climates in the early 1930s while also working on the Social Science Research Council’s work, “Migration and Economic Opportunity.” I will trace, through Thornthwaite’s work in the 1930s, the interrelationship between ideas about human settlement and land exploitation, resource use, and the effort to find regular patterns in a volatile atmosphere. By exploring climate, we can begin to understand what it meant to ensure stability and security for citizens during the depression.


Making a Case for a Colony: Health, Climate and Racial Anxiety in Nineteenth Century British India and Western Australia Ruth Morgan, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

Accompanying the British exploration of the western coastline of Australia around the Swan River in March 1827 was Royal Navy Surgeon Frederick R. Clause. In his report to the Admiralty, Clause reported, ‘I am decided in my opinion that it is the most healthy part of the globe I have visited, having proof positive from the state of my sick list from our arrival off King George’s Sound to our return, a lapse of a month, during which time I had only slight cases of colds etc’[1]. Assessments of the potential colony’s ‘salubrious’ conditions for British colonisation rarely wavered from this position. The surgeon’s description complemented glowing and exaggerated assessments of the Swan River, which provided fodder for an enthusiastic British press. These writers created a vision of a ‘biblical “land of plenty”’, what has been described ‘an Antipodean paradise’ that seduced unsuspecting emigrants to the Swan River Colony from 1829. Boosters of the Colony would repeatedly deploy its reputation as a salubrious place to attract permanent settlers as well as visitors and patients from British India. In doing so, the Colony vied with other reputedly ‘healthy’ locales in the Empire. In this paper, I examine the significance of medicine as a ‘science of exploration’ in the early nineteenth century and its role in the British colonisation of the Swan River. Hippocratic assessments of the potential healthfulness of a region’s climate, such as that proffered by Surgeon Clause, offered the assurance that Britons could adapt and prosper in other parts of the Empire, such as the temperate Swan River outpost[2]. Although such assessments of the Swan River’s salubrity were inflated, they went some way to allay environmental anxieties about the suitability of the Colony for permanent settlement.

This exploration of ideas about place, health and race in India and Western Australia illustrates the medicalization of space in the nineteenth century, with a particular focus on climate. In contrast to more recent pathological climate concerns regarding anthropogenic climate change, this paper examines earlier understandings of the pathological effects of climate and how British subjects navigated the threatening climes of Empire.

This paper forms part of a broader project to historically explore Western Australia in its Indian Ocean context. A significant part of that project involves examining the Western Australian environment and how it has been perceived since the colonial era. I am especially keen to explore the environmental connections and exchanges of ideas about climate and water around the Indian Ocean rim, with a focus on Australia, South Africa and India.

[1] F. R. Clause, 1827, cited in P. Statham-Drew, James Stirling: admiral and founding governor of Western Australia, Crawley, WA, UWA Press, 2003, p. 103.

[2] Anderson, Cultivation of Whiteness, p. 14.


The State of Place in the Urban Canadian Garden Amanda Hooykaas, University of Waterloo ON, Canada

Public gardens can play an important role in fostering a sense of place in communities, in both historical and contemporary contexts. This paper considers sense of place in Canadian gardens and how that sense influences the urban climate within which such landscapes are embedded. It also considers the importance of gardens to an individual’s internal (psychological) and external (social) home, particularly for those currently involved as volunteers at public gardens. The animating question here concerns the role that cultivated gardens might play in an individual’s connection to landscape.

The findings of the research reveal differing perspectives of volunteers with respect to “sense-making” and the ways in which they engage with each other and with the urban public gardens where they work. In addition, the findings revealed the crucial role played by the volunteer as stewards of the garden. The volunteers see these gardens as sanctuaries and view their own role as serving the greater good of their communities for reasons that go beyond political and economic considerations and are based on intrinsic sets of values. The research revealed that volunteers frequently possessed strong connections to childhood experiences spent in natural settings with their families. These experiences helped to stimulate a shared belief amongst gardeners that the very act of gardening is itself a valued and valuable “way of life”. Furthermore, volunteers are often retired and older; as such, they volunteer in the gardens as a way to contribute to the world to make it more beautiful and meaningful for others and to pass those gardens down to future generations. Gardens are seen as ways to re-create home from one’s childhood past; volunteers often link their present experience in the garden with a sense of connection and belonging in similar terms used to describe their home (as a country, a house, or a valued place).

These findings demonstrate that there is a strong sense of place that is both acquired and fostered through engagement with urban public gardens. The findings also outline the possibility that public gardens play a role in fostering sense of place in visitors which inturn could contribute to a sense of home or belonging, and stewardship of communities and natural surroundings. This research contributes to an understanding of the role public gardens play as valuable places that make important contributions to social and ecological well-being within Canada.


The Temporalities of Nature: Ecological Imperialism, Environmental Harm, and the Non-time of Nature Jamie Denike, Queen’s University ON, Canada

This presentation will turn to J. M. Coetzee’s prize-winning novel Waiting for the Barbarians which chronicles the late stages of a colonial outpost in a frontier town under the aegis of a paranoid colonial army of the Civil Guard, which has declared a state of emergency in the face of a putative, impending indigenous resource rebellion. Because of the slow and unsustainable violence of the colonial outpost on the ecological habitat, which has worked assiduously to make the land uninhabitable for the nomadic indigenes, the human and nonhuman inhabitants are at risk. The catastrophe which is brought home to the citizens and soldiers of the colonial settlement is that they are subject to conditions of precariousness, subsistence, and interdependence which are rapidly being imperilled by the destructive and consumptive violence of ecological imperialism. In the novel, the catastrophic telos of the historical time of empire is grounded in the unsustainable, and slow, destructive violence of ecological colonialism. In the face of this accelerating and increasingly visible violence, and seeking a way to imagine new and more sustainable modes of ecological inhabitation, the novel’s central character (the magistrate) proffers another temporal order: the cyclic time of nature and the vision of non-violent ecological embeddedness that it readily conjures up. It is a vision which seeks to supplant the environmental destruction of the colonial occupation with a fantasy of organic, ecological circularity; to supplant the subjection of colonizing and colonized subjects to “’the history that Empire imposes on its subjects’” (169) to their harmonious integration into the cycles of the seasons, the arrivals and departures of migratory beings—in short, a de-historicized, and perhaps even paradisiacal temporality and mode of being that is, for the magistrate, implicitly nonhuman. Decoupled from history, Nature is perceived to be a fecund imaginative resource of empire, so long as the reality of the local populations (both human and nonhuman) who depend upon it for survival, is physically and rhetorically disguised. This presentation will ask, how is this vision of harmonious integration (and naturalized occupation) contaminated throughout by the historical reality of the destruction of the ecological habitat and its nonhuman inhabitants? How, in other words, is the de-historicized temporal order of Nature (in which the casualties of ecological violence are always deferred; empire is eternally renewable, essentially fecund; and the attritional lethality of environmental destruction is occluded) situated, in Coetzee’s rendering, in the history of environmental devastation wrought by the colony’s militant campaigns, unsustainable agricultural practices, and resource appropriations?


The Ontology of Natural Capital: Resource Extraction and Political Resistance in Northern British Columbia, Canada Sinead Earley, PhD Candidate (Geography) Queen’s University, Kingston ON, Canada

This multi-media presentation brings an audio-visual liveliness to the geographical context of natural resource extraction in northern British Columbia and Alberta, and to the historical context of resource management as it has developed in Western Canada over the course of the last 60 years. I will begin with a short description of environmental change in relation to postwar technologies, but will also shed light on the current political tensions that exist in the province over pipeline construction and the long-distance transportation of natural gas and bitumen. I aim to question how natural resources have come to be valued (and utilized) within negotiations of energy, environment and anthropogenic climate change, combining some of the most contentious topics in Canadian geopolitics.

I have designed a WordPress site where a selection of short films, digital photographs and audio clips are embedded. All participants will use this to navigate the various medias I have organized, and my theoretical and descriptive commentary will act as a guide. I see the digital component as reflective of the rising interest within the disciplines of environmental history and historical geography, from scholars who are asking if digital technologies are effective teaching and public outreach tools. At the conclusion of the presentation, I will ask a variety of questions in this regard. Can digital medias be used to disseminate scholarly research to broader audiences? Do ethical obligations exist for those working within academic institutions, to make research more accessible to the general public? Are digital medias useful tools for historians who are focused on applied or activist research?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: