Category Archives: History

New and Forthcoming Books

From the frontier of health and homelessness in Seattle to nineteenth-century maritime Southeast Asia, our new and upcoming books span the globe to illuminate histories and provide new studies and perspectives on pressing issues. Learn more about these recently released and forthcoming books below.

Don’t forget that our Holiday Sale is ongoing through January 31. Get 40% off all books and free domestic shipping when you order through our website with code WINTER22 at checkout.

Wide-Open Desert: A Queer History of New Mexico

In the first comprehensive study of queer lives in twentieth-century New Mexico, Jordan Biro Walters explores how land communes, art circles, and university classrooms helped create communities that supported queer cultural expression and launched gay civil rights activism in the American Southwest. Wide-Open Desert also frames the significance of and relationship between queer mobility and queer creative production as paths to political, cultural, and sexual freedom for LGBTQ+ people across the nation. In doing so, the book reassesses the power of urbanism on the social construction of contemporary notions of queer identities and politics.


Skid Road: On the Frontier of Health and Homelessness in Seattle

Newly released in paperback, this Washington State Book Award Finalist explores the tensions between caregiving and oppression, as well as charity and solidarity, that polarize perspectives on homelessness throughout the country. Author and University of Washington professor of nursing Josephine Ensign uses extensive historical research to piece together the lives and deaths of those not included in official histories of Seattle, a city with one of the highest numbers of unhoused people in the United States. Drawing on interviews, she also shares a diversity of voices within contemporary health and social care and public policy debates.


The Camphor Tree and the Elephant: Religion and Ecological Change in Maritime Southeast Asia

What is the role of religion in shaping interactions and relations between the human and nonhuman in nature? Why are Muslim and Christian organizations generally not a potent force in Southeast Asian environmental movements? Historian Faizah Zakaria explores these questions and the history of ecological change in the region by centering the roles of religion and colonialism in shaping the Anthropocene. Using a wide array of sources such as family histories, prayer manuscripts, and folktales in tandem with colonial and ethnographic archives, Zakaria brings everyday religion and its far-flung implications into our understanding of the environmental history of the modern world.


Material Contradictions in Mao’s China

This first volume devoted to the material history of the Mao period explores the paradox of material culture under Chinese Communist Party rule and illustrates how central materiality was to individual and collective desire, social and economic construction of the country, and projections of an imminent socialist utopia within reach of every man and woman, if only they worked hard enough. Editors Jennifer Altehenger and Denise Y. Ho bring together scholars of Chinese art, cinema, culture, performance, and more to share groundbreaking research on the objects and practices of everyday life in Mao’s China, from bamboo and bricks to dance and film.


Chinese Autobiographical Writing: An Anthology of Personal Accounts

Personal accounts help us understand notions of self, interpersonal relations, and historical events. Chinese Autobiographical Writing contains full translations of works by fifty individuals that illuminate the history and conventions of writing about oneself in the Chinese tradition. Edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Cong Ellen Zhang, and Ping Yao, the volume includes an array of engaging and readable works that draw us into the past and provide vivid details of life as it was lived from the pre-imperial period to the nineteenth century.

An open access publication of this book was made possible by a grant from the James P. Geiss and Margaret Y. Hsu Foundation.

University Press Week | #NextUP: Q&A with Editors of the Abolition: Emancipation from the Carceral Series

Continuing our celebration of University Press Week, today we’re highlighting our new series, Abolition: Emancipation from the Carceral. We are thrilled to be publishing this timely series that reflects the activist orientation of abolition and highlights abolitionist creative practices that explore radical worlds beyond policing and prisons. Read our Q&A with the series editors, Michael Roy Hames García and Micol Seigel, to learn more.

What is your vision for the series?

In the wake of the movement for Black lives, and especially since 2020, academic and popular interest in abolition has flourished. As the first university press series on the subject, Abolition: Emancipation from the Carceral will respond to and, we hope, shape that interest. This series will highlight academic texts across the humanities and social sciences, bringing them together so as to make more visible the larger conversation of which they are a part. Rather than understanding abolitionism as a recipe to be followed dogmatically, we see abolition as a set of open-ended questions to be asked generously in response to the conditions of a radically unjust and unfree world.

Abolitionist visions advocate for decarceration, defunding of police and prisons, and removal of the criminal legal system from people’s lives. Abolitionism is also a creative practice that entails discovering, developing, and promoting alternatives to policing and prisons such as mutual aid associations, restorative justice processes, and nonviolent approaches to personal and community safety. What might a more free and more just world look like? How might it develop? What stands in the way of its emergence? What possible relationships might this future have to present-day criminal justice reform? Abolition: Emancipation from the Carceral will offer a forum to scholars and activists continuing to pose these generative questions and more.

Who is the series for?

This series will offer a platform for the groundswell of recent work that has explored abolition in its myriad implications, centered in interdisciplinary fields such as American studies, geography, and critical ethnic studies. Perhaps books under its auspices might take up some of the keywords in this emerging field: abolition, abolition democracy, carcerality, care, collateral consequences, communal luxury, emancipation, freedom, justice, racial capitalism, social harm, and the human.

Books will speak to audiences of scholars, students, general readers, and activists with accessible prose and urgent topics, including but not limited to local policing, campus policing, family policing (child welfare systems), e-carceration and electronic monitoring, sur- and sousveillance, crimmigration and border enforcement, race and racialization, antiblackness, settler colonialism, anticarceral feminisms, involuntary medical confinement, and organizing for abolitionist reforms.

In what ways does the series engage with past and present traditions of abolitionism?

The words abolition, abolitionism, and abolitionist are most widely associated with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century movements in Europe and the Americas to end the systems of racialized enslavement—specifically, although not exclusively, of people of African descent—that evolved in tandem with the European conquest and colonization of Africa and the Americas. Contemporary uses of abolition either translate the term from slavery to a superficially unrelated context (as in the abolition of nuclear weapons) or argue that a context is structurally related to, or even an extension of, slavery (as in prison abolition). This series emerges from the latter tradition, extending the intellectual and political vision of abolitionism in order to continue the unfinished work of emancipation in the twenty-first century.

Abolition: Emancipation from the Carceral thus understands this strain of contemporary abolitionism to be constitutively both antiracist and antiprison. Its intellectual genealogy includes the groundbreaking 1971 anthology If They Come in the Morning, edited by Angela Y. Davis with the collaboration of Bettina Aptheker (reissued by Verso Books in 2016) as well as more recent volumes on prisons by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Joy James, Dylan Rodriguez, and the Critical Resistance Publications Collective. Such authors follow skeins of antiblackness through sequential, overlapping systems of racialized labor from African chattel slavery to black codes, convict leasing, chain gangs, Jim Crow and mass incarceration, now acquiring digital forms.

The centrality of antiracism to this tradition distinguishes it from other critiques of the prison such as Michel Foucault’s 1975 book Discipline and Punish, although such critiques have been profoundly important for many abolitionists. Observing the failures of postwar civil rights movements to advance anti-racism through state policy, abolitionist thought is skeptical of the state, even in its welfare mode, understanding the ways belonging and citizenship are made available to some at the expense of others. It therefore embraces a relational analysis, an understanding of how vectors of disadvantage intersect, and the confidence that global currents and transnational networks shape all local phenomena. Abolitionist scholarship is necessarily interdisciplinary because its object of study literally refuses to remain disciplined. It is thus among the swiftest-moving, most daring and sophisticated fields of study in the academy today.

Carceral studies stretch the abolitionist project beyond the prison to consider all forms of carceral space. How might future books in the series approach carcerality in this context?

Carcerality helps point to confinement and surveillance as mechanisms for the production and maintenance of racialized inequality in U.S. society. The United States maintains the largest prison population in the world, both as a percentage of its population and in terms of absolute numbers. The social impact of prisons, however, is augmented by law enforcement, courts, and reentry policies; supplemented by video surveillance and other forms of electronic monitoring; and supported overall by ideological investments, systems of knowledge, and institutions far outside of prison walls.

As of 2019, 6.3 million adults in the United States were on probation, on parole, in state or federal prison, or in a local jail—approximately the population of Los Angeles and Chicago, combined. This number does not include children, people in federal immigration detention centers, those confined by electronic monitors to the prisons of their homes, or those in any number of other conditions that remove personal liberty at the direction of the state.

Well beyond the prison itself, recent scholarship in critical prison studies has identified roots and branches of the carceral in a range of repressive state apparatuses. Courts, hospitals, immigration systems, the military, police agencies, private police, schools and universities, and social welfare agencies devoted to matters such as child protection, public health, housing, and unemployment are all mutually reinforcing with—if not mutually constitutive of—prisons and jails. From an abolitionist perspective, the future of such systems and structures must be put into question to the extent that they support a profoundly unequal society by depriving oppressed and exploited people of their freedom.

What should authors do if they are interested in submitting to the series?

We welcome proposals for books across disciplines, from scholarly monographs, edited collections, and compelling nonfiction works written for a more general readership. Authors may be grounded in fields such as American studies, geography, history, and critical ethnic studies. Interested authors can contact either one of us or send questions/queries to UW Press acquisitions editor, Mike Baccam, at mbaccam@uw.edu.


About the Series Editors

Michael Roy Hames-García is a professor of Mexican American and Latina/o studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Fugitive Thought: Prison Movements, Race, and the Meaning of Justice. He previously taught at the University of Oregon and served on the City of Eugene’s Civilian Review Board, overseeing investigations into allegations of misconduct and uses of force by the Eugene Police Department.

Micol Seigel is a professor of American studies and history at Indiana University and author of Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police. In addition to research and teaching, Micol is involved in the Critical Prison Studies caucus of the American Studies Association and the Tepoztlán Institute for the Transnational History of the Americas.


This post is part of the 2022 University Press Week blog tour hosted by the Association of University Presses. This year’s theme is #NextUP, reflecting the spirit of constant learning, adaptation, and evolution within scholarly publishing. Read more about UP Week and all of the featured books and blog posts here.

The Hauntings of Local History: Peter Boag on “Pioneering Death”

Admittedly, I see the world in terms of darkness rather than light, and in history as in life, I am drawn more to stories of human pathos than to tales of human triumph. I am bemused by “rosy retrospection”—the penchant of many to reflect on the positives of the past rather than on the negatives and to also, therefore, see the past as somehow better than the present.

Darkness, pathos, and the folly of rosy retrospection comprise the foundation of Pioneering Death. It tells the story of Loyd Montgomery, an impoverished eighteen-year-old who shot and killed his parents and a visiting neighbor on his family’s farm near the western Oregon town of Brownsville late on the fair autumn day of November 19, 1895. Little more than two months later, on a cool morning and just as the rising sun gilded the eastern sky above the Cascade Range, Loyd met his own end on gallows erected adjacent to the Linn County jail in the county seat of Albany.

I first became aware of the Montgomery murders when, back in the early 1980s, I began researching my own family’s history as connected to Brownsville, a community whose origins are rooted in the arrival there in the 1840s of its first white American settlers who came by way of wagons on the overland trails. When I began my work, local historians, the librarian, and museum docents who befriended me mentioned the murders. Given that the Montgomerys were among the most esteemed early American settlers of the area, when these local authorities spoke of that past tragedy, they did so more in hushed tones and as an aside to the official, celebratory “pioneer” history of that community. Clearly, Loyd’s grim tale haunted Brownsville long after it had happened. It took me close to four decades of intermittent research and unremitting reflection to figure out why.

My own digging, so-called, into the Montgomery murders began by accident on January 10, 1987. It was a dreary and rainy Saturday morning when I appeared at the Linn County Historical Museum in Brownsville to conduct research in its collections for my doctoral dissertation. That project later became my first book, and it focused on the environmental history of the southern Willamette Valley. (The reader will detect a clear pattern by now: my preoccupation with history—my need to make sense of its shadows—has taken me back time and again to Brownsville.) The gloominess of that January day and the relative darkness of the room in which I labored provided an atmosphere fitting for what I chanced upon—a photocopy of the special edition of the Brownsville Times for November 20, 1895. Its sole article is entitled “A TRIPPLE MURDER.” It was the first account of that crime to appear anywhere. It was also the one written closest to the event and by someone whose very eyes beheld the aftermath of the tragedy within hours of its commission. Sadly, only random issues from the 1890s of that newspaper are preserved. No issue among those, other than this fragment, comes from the period when the Montgomery murders otherwise lit up the headlines of papers in communities up and down the West Coast.

Albert Cavender, its writer, was the editor of the Brownsville paper. It took some time for word of the violent killings to make its way to his offices. By then, night had already fallen. But the resourceful newsman reached out to local boys—similar in age to the murderer—who, on horseback and with lanterns they must have grasped as tightly as anxiety gripped them, illuminated the way for the journalist as he headed up the country lane into this local heart of darkness. Cavender’s description of the landscape of death that he found there beguiled me—the bodies and the blood; desiccated hop vines in surrounding fields yet clinging to their poles long since the late summer harvest had ended; the Montgomery family’s forlorn and weathered house sitting beneath the sprawling limbs of an immense maple tree; and the canine companion of the neighbor-victim that took up vigil at his slaughtered master’s side, refusing to be lured from it. Those forbidding images and so many others in that two-page document bespoke the poverty, tragedy, darkness, and pathos not just of the victims and the boy murderer but of their community, the larger region, and even the nation.

Cavender’s story had nothing to do with my dissertation’s subject. But it so haunted me that I took a copy of it, promising myself that one day I would do something with it. For the next three decades and more, Loyd Montgomery became an unwelcome companion to me as I struggled to piece together who he was, what he did, how he and his violent actions fit into history, and how to craft a coherent story from it all. As it turned out, I needed those years—time spent at four universities, countless hours in the classroom, and intervals for producing three other books on quite different topics—to collect the research and, more, come to comprehend why Loyd haunted me as much as he did the community that he was more a part of than he was apart from.

Apart from rather than a part of community history is how local memory preferred it. The vast literature that exists on matricide and patricide, moreover, fortifies that construction. That is, psychology, criminology, and other social sciences that dominate parricide studies are by nature disciplines that, with rare exception, are disinterested in the larger, historical forces that I have come to understand contribute mightily to why children have more than occasionally killed their parents. Local tradition and the traditional approaches to explaining parricide had worked together—intentionally, defensively, or both—to bury the truth so deeply about Loyd that I simply needed the time and the education that time affords to unearth it.

As I excavated Loyd’s life, slowly peeling back the accumulated layers of historical and disciplinary sediments and sentiments, a much darker tale revealed itself than simply that of an isolated, though horribly gruesome anecdote. His story is really the underbelly of so many a local Oregon history (and local histories elsewhere in North America) that celebrate the “pioneer” foundations of community, state, and nation. Constructing these histories involved willfully burying the truth about the brutal, murderous, and even genocidal nature of them. But more, the violent expressions within Oregon “pioneer” families were in reality and are in the very wanton act of trying to forget them, an integral part of the story of American-settler violence against Indigenous people. The messy, unresolved, and troubling tension between the darkness of reality and the human need for rosy reflection in all this is just one of the many stories that Pioneering Death exhumes from our haunting past.


Peter Boag is professor and Columbia Chair in the History of the American West at Washington State University. He is author of Re-Dressing America’s Frontier PastSame-Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest, and Environment and Experience: Settlement Culture in Nineteenth-Century Oregon. His latest book, Pioneering Death: The Violence of Boyhood in Turn-of-the-Century Oregon is available now.

A Gift of Peace and Quiet: Judy Bentley on the West Seattle Greenbelt and “Hiking Washington’s History”

Armed with more than two hundred white plastic bags, neon-clad neighbors gather at the West Seattle Greenbelt trailhead on a cold, sunny morning in late February 2021. Their mission is to make a trail visible from more than five hundred feet above. At precisely 8:45 a.m., a helicopter will circle the greenbelt with Jean Sherrard’s camera peering out, photographing the bright white squares revealing the trail through the overhanging branches. Sherrard and Clay Eals are preparing a Now & Then column for the Seattle Times.

Photo by Christine Clark.

The bags are the brainchild of Paul West, a member of the West Duwamish Greenbelt Trails group, who brings an ample supply from Puget Ridge Cohousing. (With only a few splotches of mud, the bags will be carefully collected and folded for reuse.) The volunteers start down the trail in small groups to drop their “bread crumbs” ten feet apart. As the temperature climbs above the mid-thirties, the white helicopter circles three times against a clear blue sky, above the waving Hansels and Gretels.

Looking south over part of the West Duwamish Greenbelt. Photo by Jean Sherrard.

In the resulting aerials, the people are mostly invisible and the bag trail is faint, but the views of the ridge on the highlands between the Duwamish Waterway and Puget Sound are stunning. The green fields of South Seattle College and the Riverview playfields frame the greenbelt. Industrial companies hug the river, colorful containers park at port terminals, the First Avenue South Bridge spans the river, and a belt of late-winter brown separates commerce from neighborhoods.

Looking west to the West Duwamish Greenbelt. Photo by Jean Sherrard.

Glacier action that left rocks resistant to erosion created the greenbelt ridge more than sixty thousand years ago. A conifer forest of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce grew on its slopes.

The Duwamish people lived below the greenbelt along the Duwamish River and its tributaries for centuries; the earliest archaeological record places a village on the river as early as AD 500. As settlers and land developers moved in, the Duwamish were dispossessed, but the spirits (and bodies) of their ancestors live on in the soil and the trees.

A 1920 aerial photo shows the same ridge but with fewer trees. Puget Mill Company extracted what they wanted from the ridge before donating twenty acres to the City of Seattle in 1912 for a park at the north end. The same photo shows Boeing Plant 1 sitting at the foot of Highland Park Way. The newly straightened and dredged river is visible below the tip of an airplane wing. A streetcar line, which ran from the tip of the Duwamish Peninsula south to new communities, shows faintly on the ridge. The green line indicates trails in the 2021 greenbelt.

An aerial photo taken in 1920. Courtesy the Boeing Company.

In the decades after 1920, a brickyard dumped kiln dust on the hillside, neighbors dumped trash, a gravel company mined sand and gravel, and the Seattle Department of Engineering acquired property to build Soundway, a proposed freeway from the First Avenue South Bridge to suburban areas of Burien and southwest Seattle. The state located one of three Seattle community colleges at the top of the ridge in the late 1960s.

“There is no place in the city of Seattle where a buffer between industry and residences is more badly needed,” wrote the unnamed author of a 1970s report advocating the ridge’s preservation under the city’s Urban Greenbelt plan. “It should be left to the following generations as a gift of peace and quiet in our busy, noisy, polluted city.”

Through gradual property acquisitions and the activism of citizens, the greenbelt became that gift—at five hundred acres, it is the largest contiguous forest in the city. The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department and countless volunteers have replanted and restored the forest and created a few good trails and more than a few social trails pounded by hiking boots and running shoes.

Trailhead at Fourteenth Avenue SW and SW Holly Street. Photo by Judy Bentley.

One of those trails is featured in the expanded second edition of Hiking Washington’s History by Judy Bentley and Craig Romano. Although this trail was not in use as an indigenous trail for thousands of years, it crosses an ancient landscape in the industrial heart of the state’s largest city. That makes it historic.


Judy Bentley taught Pacific Northwest history at South Seattle College for more than twenty years and is an avid hiker and author of fifteen young adult books. Her latest book, co-authored with Craig Romano, is Hiking Washington’s History, Second Edition.

The Most Noble Estuary: David Williams on the Making of “Homewaters”

Homewaters began with a simple idea: Write a book about the human and natural history of Puget Sound. I didn’t know exactly what this would encompass but knew that I wanted to focus on the landscape where I have lived for most of my life. I had a few vague ideas: the three forts (Casey, Flagler, and Worden) at the Sound’s northern entrance; something about Albert Bierstadt’s ferocious painting of Puget Sound at the Seattle Art Museum; the ferry system and the mosquito fleet; and, of course, geoducks.

I knew that more stories were out there, so I began to reach out to friends and colleagues. Over the next six months I interviewed scientists, tribal members, and historians. My standard opening was that I was working on a book about the cultural and ecological history in Puget Sound, and I wanted to know what stories they thought were important.

What stood out for me in these interviews was the passion everyone expressed for this lovely body of water: It is a “beautifully complex ecosystem.” The Sound is a “unique waterbody whose beauty is hardly rivaled.” It is a “microcosm of ecological issues everywhere.” The abundance of the Sound made “us some of the most complex and wealthy people; we didn’t need to migrate.” I also learned that six-gill sharks will eat anything on the bottom, that as herring go so goes Puget Sound, that salmon are narcissistic, and that no one has a handle on kelp slime.

Based on these interviews and my interests, I put together a proposal to address people, plants, and animals and how history could help modern residents understand the present and think about how to pursue a future Puget Sound that is healthier for its human and more-than-human inhabitants. My interviews also impressed upon me the idea that I should focus on overlooked species, such as herring and kelp, which are critical to the ecosystem.

The press accepted my proposal, though they were less than enthusiastic about my title “The Most Noble Estuary.” Two and a half years later, in June 2019, I turned in my manuscript. It totaled 76,184 words with 14,054 words in endnotes. And it had a new title, “Breaking the Surface,” which once again was met with a less than enthusiastic response. Not until another round of editing did we come up with Homewaters.

The main highlight of working on Homewaters was the field time I spent with researchers, which resulted in me filling seven five-by-eight-inch notebooks, by far the most for any book I have written. During my writing journey, I was treated to five types of fresh oysters, some harvested just hours earlier, and given a geoduck pulled up from water sixty feet deep in Agate Passage. (The other geoducks harvested that day traveled more extensively, being overnighted to China.) I crisscrossed Admiralty Inlet, luckily on a calm-water day, in a fourteen-foot Zodiac searching for herring; tagged along as researchers pulled up invertebrates from the Sound’s deepest location (930 feet off of Point Jefferson); and rode all of the Sound’s ferry routes, including several I hadn’t known existed. I also dropped a notebook in the water, was brutally pinched by a mean old Dungeness crab, was confronted by machine-gun-toting nuclear-submarine-protecting Coast Guardsmen, and got stuck on a sandbar with three biologists for several hours when we failed to notice how rapidly the tide was ebbing. I enjoyed every moment.

The other exciting aspect of the book was my dive into history. The Sound has a relatively short written story; not until 1792 did Europeans reach the waterway. But the x̌ʷəlč, as it is known in Lushootseed (pronounced as whulge in English), has a very deep record of human habitation, which stretches back at least 12,500 years, only a couple thousand years after a great ice sheet had rewritten the landscape and then retreated to the north. One of my goals was to weave together these story lines and to explore how the different people who called this place home have responded to the landscape and the more-than-human inhabitants, as well as to each other. 

Of all the books I have written, I am most proud of Homewaters, in part because of its themes of connection and caring. My primary goal is always to write in ways that allow people to develop better connections and relationships to the place they call home. In Homewaters I added a call to act by writing in a manner that I hope encourages people to think more carefully about their actions and their impacts on the health of Puget Sound. I wouldn’t call the book an activist manifesto, but it sends a message that it is up to the residents of the Sound to continue working to improve the waterway for everyone. And based on the people I met and the stories I learned, I truly believe that we are ready to work toward this goal.


David B. Williams is a naturalist, author, and educator. His many books include the award-winning Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography and Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City. Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound is available now.

What counts as a wetland? It’s complicated: Emily O’Gorman on “Wetlands in a Dry Land”

The reeds were tall, almost reaching the top of our heads. We were on a cattle property that adjoined part of the Macquarie Marshes, a Ramsar-listed wetland in north-central New South Wales, Australia. A small group of cattle wandered along the edge of the reedbed and occasionally disappeared into it and then reappeared farther along. Some had ventured away from the herd, toward a small farm dam. Two brolgas—wetland birds renowned for their spectacular dances on the surface of shallow water—glided past. Here, our group, which was made up of mostly Australian and South African environmental scientists, prepared to go into the reedbeds, into the wetland. But as we stood on this threshold, it was difficult to say exactly where this wetland began and ended. Although we might be tempted see the wetland as natural and the farm as cultural, the farm cattle and wetland brolgas moved easily along and across this threshold. These reedbeds have in fact been deeply shaped by Wailwan Aboriginal people over tens of thousands of years through burning and harvesting the reeds for weaving. The farm dam may have been intended to water cattle, but for the brolgas it presented some additional watery habitat. Within these far-reaching and deeply historical sets of socio-ecological relationships, the category of wetlands sits somewhat uneasily. Indeed, while we might at first think of this category itself as natural, it, too, has a history.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat. While I am more used to writing about archives grounded in particular watery places, researching this agreement for a chapter in my book Wetlands in a Dry Land: More-Than-Human Histories of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin (out in July) made me more fully appreciate that some of the critical sites in a history of wetlands are boardrooms and government buildings. In many ways my research helped me pay greater attention to the category of wetlands itself and in turn revealed that the decisions and disagreements of bureaucrats and scientists in Australia and elsewhere, about what has counted as a wetland and why, have had long-lasting and mixed consequences. I will focus on just some of these.

The Ramsar Convention—initially signed by representatives of eighteen countries in 1971—aimed to coordinate international efforts in wetlands conservation. It reflected and reinforced the goal of many governments and scientists in this period around the world to reframe these as precious places that needed to be set aside for conservation and to shed the negative associations of terms like swamp (long associated with disease). Indeed, it was in this period that wetlands became an international category and an object of conservation shaped by two key factors: multiscalar politics and bird-centrism. Each of these have had particular stakes, creating lasting tensions within wetlands conservation and management.

The new international category of wetlands touched down in and was reshaped by local places. National and global environment movements, Pacific diplomacy, and scientists’ mounting concerns over species and habitat loss converged to shape the Australian government’s involvement in the Ramsar Convention and simultaneously a Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement in the early 1970s. For some Australian government scientists, however, these two international agreements highlighted a paucity of knowledge about what now might be classified as wetlands on a national scale. Individual studies showed that there had been a loss of important waterbird habitat in specific places, such as a 1970 study that indicated 60 percent of wetlands along coastal NSW had been destroyed or degraded largely due to drainage for flood mitigation. Yet any effort to quantify losses more widely was difficult, perhaps amplified by the fact that the wetlands category was relatively new in scientific studies. So in 1972 members of the Australian Committee on Waterbirds—made up of state and federal government researchers and managers—proposed a national wetlands survey focused on waterbird habitat in order to support Australia’s obligations to both the Ramsar Convention and the Japan agreement.

The proposal, “A Survey of Wetland Habitats of Australian Waterbirds,” was approved by the Australian government, but then the Council of Nature Conservation Ministers significantly widened the brief to “go beyond an examination of waterbird habitat” and “encompass all wetland areas so as to be beneficial to a wider section of government agencies.” Ultimately three research divisions—wildlife, land use, and fisheries and oceanography—of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) conducted separate investigations as to whether such a survey was feasible. Notably, the Australian government researchers did not use the Ramsar definition of wetlands—which encompassed a very wide range of watery places including coral reefs—as they sought to reflect Australian ecologies and concerns within the international frameworks. The three divisions ultimately, but uneasily, decided on a definition that also suited their expertise and the goals of the survey: “wetlands include swamps, marshes, wet meadows, billabongs, lakes, estuaries and coastal lagoons, mangrove flats. These may be temporary or permanent. The mainstreams or main channels of rivers are excluded except for the survey of fishes.”

Each feasibility study soon ran into problems. The Division of Wildlife Research aimed to test methodologies for classifying wetlands according to the needs and populations of waterbirds. Focusing on just six sites in New South Wales, this study  threw into question the practicality of undertaking a continent-wide survey. The diversity of bird species and their different and changing habitat needs made implementing a single methodology too difficult, and constraints of budget and people power meant that comprehensive data simply could not be gathered. The division’s report concluded that a continent-wide survey “might not be the most important step to take next in waterbirds conservation.” What was needed was rather “detailed ecological research.”

The chief of the division admitted that while ephemeral wetlands in Australia were important for their opportunistic use by waterbirds, “no one has yet been able to properly assess them. . . . At present we have no idea how we will overcome that problem when the survey begins.” Dynamic wetlands in a dry continent proved a challenge for any simple process of quantification. The other divisions ran into similar problems. Further, the wetlands survey was being pulled in different directions by the CSIRO divisions and toward three different models: wetlands for birds, wetlands as hydrological entities, and wetlands as fisheries and estuaries.

The three divisions, each seeing major issues with conducting a national wetlands survey, requested more funds and time for pilot studies, which would inform a wetlands survey proper with an estimated cost of AUD$3.3 million over eight years. No additional funding was granted, and the wetlands survey was labeled not essential by the now conservative Liberal government.

In 1979 the acting minister of environment and science stated: “The . . . [wetlands survey was] not implemented because of cost, lack of agreement on a national approach and differences of opinion on the extent to which a national survey should concentrate on the aquatic fauna or the total wetlands ecosystem.” The survey had ultimately become unworkable.

That the survey did not, or could not, go ahead has had a range of implications. Perhaps most significantly, wetlands ecologists have limited ability to give robust estimates of losses, hindering the development of policies for their protection. Instead, a case-by-case and typology approach to wetlands conservation has unfolded, focusing on important or iconic sites that have reasonable historical research behind them. Treated as indictors of the general condition of wetlands, birds have remained central to wetlands conservation, management, and sciences. Yet this view of wetlands is one of birds and not those of other biota. The role of birds in wetlands conservation in Australia presents somewhat of a paradox as they will likely continue to be important, partly for historical reasons, as there has simply been so much research on them in the past that comparisons across time are better founded than for most other animals and plants.

 Wetlands entered history in this period as an international category of conservation, and its history has had significant, and mixed, consequences for the way wetlands are understood and managed within conservation science and governments today. This is a category that we need to keep revisiting and refining, asking what counts as a wetland for whom and with what consequences?


Emily O’Gorman is senior lecturer at Macquarie University. Wetlands in a Dry Land: More-Than-Human Histories of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin is forthcoming in July 2021.

OAH Annual Meeting Round-Up of History Titles

We are eager to connect with the history community during the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting. Please visit our virtual booth here.

Here is a collection that highlights some of our recent history titles:

Nisei Radicals: The Feminist Poetics and Transformative Ministry of Mitsuye Yamada and Michael Yasutake

By Diane Fujino

“A delightful blend of biography, social history and poetics that shifts our reading of Japanese American history. Readers will certainly be inspired if not emboldened.”—Karen Umemoto, University of California, Los Angeles

Love for Liberation: African Independence, Black Power, and a Diaspora Underground

By Robin Hayes

“A conceptually rich book. Its theoretical intervention around a ‘Diaspora underground’ is a brilliant framework that speaks to the nature of a radicalized Black Diaspora formed in response to state repression.”—Quito Swan, University of Massachusetts Boston

The Great Quake Debate: The Crusader, the Skeptic, and the Rise of Modern Seismology

By Susan Hough

“Seismologist Susan Hough’s account offers a revealing glimpse of the personalities and issues within America’s geologic community in the early twentieth century. But it also can be read as a cautionary tale about science and society.”—Natural History Magazine

The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest

By Aaron Goings

“[P]art whodunit mystery, part biography, and part case study of Grays Harbor’s itinerant workers and their labor movement…The Port of Missing Men makes major contributions to both local history and the larger story of industrial capitalism.”—Oregon Historical Quarterly

Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract

By Phil Deloria

“In his evaluation of Sully and her work, Deloria leaves no stone unturned. What results is a compelling model—grounded in comprehensive historical and cultural analyses—for evaluating the works of women artists disconnected from larger art movements. In the case of Mary Sully, our understanding of her art and life reveals a unique approach by a bicultural woman that rejects limited views on American Indian art in favor of one grounded in an imagined American Indian futurity that should most certainly lead us to question our understanding of American modern art as a whole.”—Woman’s Art Journal

UW Press Author Roundtable: David Fedman, Ian Miller, and Meng Zhang

Authors David Fedman, Seeds of Control, and Ian Miller, Fir and Empire, joined forthcoming author Meng Zhang, Timber and Forestry in Qing China, for a virtual roundtable about their books on Asian environmental history. Below is their conversation.

What topics in Asian environmental history deserve more attention?

Meng Zhang: This is based on my own interest, but I would like to see more works that take both the environmental and the economic seriously. Don’t get me wrong—environmental histories often have something to say about the economic, as the rapacious drive for profit and consumption is the most obvious perpetrator to be blamed. However, as more environmental scholars are beginning to caution us, we also need to be wary of a danger in elevating the morality of environmentalism to a degree that this discourse could play a similar role in justifying domination—domestically and internationally—as the previous discourse of modernization and development has done. Indeed, we already see a version of how this could play out in David’s wonderful account of how the Japanese Empire mobilized the rhetorical contrast between the Japanese “forest-love” thought and the Korean bare mountaintops. In both environmental and economic history, I hope to see more works that recognize the legitimacy of alternative interests and priorities and bridge the discursive gap between the two fields (rather than treating each other as a footnote).

David Fedman: Where to begin? To me, one of the most striking gaps in the field is geographic: namely, Southeast Asia. I’d love to see more work on the environmental histories of Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, and elsewhere. There are, of course, some great books already written about these places but not much work that crosses borders to connect Southeast Asia to the developmental politics of Japan, China, and South Korea. Another topic begging for analysis in my opinion is historical climatology: how different states and actors have tried to understand the variegated climates that define a unit as vast as China or the Japanese Empire.

Ian M. Miller: To me the biggest gaps in the record are the voices of peoples who lived in and used the forest in ways that were not central to the actions of large states and interregional markets. Asia is home to many so-called forest peoples—from Manchus and Ainus in the north to Hmong, Bataks, and many others in Southeast Asia, and the Adivasi or “scheduled tribes” of India. There has been plenty of anthropological work, especially on India and Southeast Asia, but historical work has yet to catch up. In particular, I would like to see more work done to disentangle these groups and their historical identities and livelihoods from the ways they were classified and controlled by colonial empires in the nineteenth century and nation-states in the twentieth.

What misconceptions about East Asian environmental history would you most like to see dispelled?

DF: For me, it’s the notion that Japan has historically lived in harmony with the landscapes, that contemporary reverence for cherry blossoms and forests is evidence of a unique national relationship with nature. Environmental historians of Japan have long taken aim at this discourse, but it dies hard, especially in the public eye.

What needs for timber in late imperial China prompted changes in forestry?

MZ: Construction, shipbuilding, and manufacturing were the main sectors that consumed timber. If we think about the iconic architecture in the urban landscape of early modern China (and East Asia in general)—theaters, guild chambers, temples, ancestral halls, brothels, restaurants, teahouses—all were built with timber logs. The cover design of my book comes from a section of a famous eighteenth-century scroll painting, Prosperous Suzhou, also called Burgeoning Life in a Resplendent Age. As the title suggests, it depicts the lively urban scenes with people from all walks of life in the affluent Lower Yangzi metropole of Suzhou. The section used for my book cover shows two timber rafts floating into the city, supplementing the material bases of this prosperity. In response to such booming demand for timber generated by urbanization, commercialization, and population growth, an interregional trade structure developed over the course of several centuries and expanded to cover thousands of miles, straining natural forests but also motivating regenerative forestry in the remote interior hinterlands. My book has focused on timber production—woods that are big enough to be used for construction and worthwhile enough to be produced and transported across long distances. A big omission is firewood, whose production and consumption remained rather local; even with fuel shortages, high transportation costs meant that firewood had never become worthwhile to transport over very long distances to be used as fuel.

Meng and Ian, your two books examine Chinese forestry in different time periods and with a somewhat different geographical focus, but both suggest that Chinese forest management may have been superior to better-known European approaches. Can you say more about that? To what extent was forestry in late imperial China “sustainable”?

MZ: We often think of the issue of sustainability as either/or, but it really is a gradation of degrees. It also has multiple dimensions: we hope a sustainable pace of resource use is also socially sustainable in that it does not involve the systematic deprivation of a group. From a pragmatic perspective, if the kind of environmental measures that we come up with today can prove to be sustainable, environmentally and socially, for a couple of centuries, I would consider us very able and lucky. The practices of regenerative forestry in late imperial southern China can be called sustainable in this sense: for several centuries, they were able to regenerate timber at a pace that satisfied market and state demands and substituted for natural growths; and the multiple players along the supply chain, from tenant planters and timberland owners to lumberjacks, rafters, brokers, merchants, bankers, consumers, and officials, despite their many conflicts and negotiations, ultimately all had a stake in ensuring the next round of saplings were grown in time.

The way in which private forestry was organized was mundane and ingenious at the same time. It wouldn’t shock any scholar who knows something about late imperial Chinese land tenure that the same contractual formats for rice paddies were used for timberlands. But out of these familiar contractual terms, abstract shares were created and claims on the trees changed hands as liquid financial instruments, liberating the landowners and planters from an excruciating wait for the trees to grow up. This shareholding practice in forestry was in line with (and even anticipated) the proportional liability shareholding structures that were widely used in Chinese business partnerships. If these financial practices sound surprisingly savvy for traditional forestry, one would be even more surprised to learn that they were found in the ethnically diverse, economically less affluent frontier regions of southwestern China. This holds some serious implications for how we think about effective forestry and the history of finance and business in a globally comparative framework. On a personal note, a historian’s happiness really comes from excavating these surprises.

IMM: I would not necessarily say that Chinese forest management was superior to European approaches, because this is ultimately comparing apples to oranges. Compared to European approaches, Chinese management developed in very different environmental conditions and focused on a different type of tree, the China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata). Some characteristics of the fir—including its incredibly rapid and straight growth and its suitability for a variety of purposes, from ships to buildings and chests—meant that management in China was easier. For example, China fir reaches marketable dimensions in twenty-five to fifty years, as opposed to the hundred-plus years needed for oak, which was the principal European shipbuilding tree.

Nonetheless, I would say that the Chinese forest system converged rather quickly to market-based solutions that eventually came to dominate in other places and largely did so without large state interventions that caused some problems in Europe. The Chinese forestry system also has a much longer track record—tree plantations have been cultivated in parts of southern China for close to a thousand years at this point, whereas the history of tree plantations in Europe only really goes back two hundred years. This speaks to a long-term ability to produce enough timber for most uses. Empires in China did tap their frontiers, including the southwest and Manchuria, to supplement the plantations of the interior, but there is also nothing comparable to this huge European quest for timber abroad in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

David, Japan is legendary for its history of forestry, also called “forest-love.” How do your new insights about Japanese forestry in Korea reshape that understanding?

DF: I think my book helps to show how much of this mythology about “forest-love” and reverence is an invented tradition, a process bound up with the rise of the nation-state during the Meiji period. Forest-love is not so much a timeless culture of stewardship as a discourse, one used to nurture emperor-worship and nationalism at home and justify woodland expropriation in colonial territories. This ideological project sat at the very foundation of Japan’s claims to greenification in Korea—and, one could argue, continue to animate more recent incursions into the forests of Southeast Asia.

How can your book inform global conversations around conservation as a tool of colonialism—“seeds of control”?

DF: My book underscores the simple but easily overlooked point that the greening of landscapes is not always a singularly good thing. Although we tend to positively associate greenification with notions of investment and renewal, reforestation can also operate as a tool of expropriation and exploitation. At a time when scientists and activists are calling for massive tree planting schemes to combat climate change, we’d be wise to think more critically about what this breakneck regeneration looks like on the ground for local residents, human and animal both.

What does the study of plantation forestry in particular offer to the study of Asia or environmental history writ large? We all seem to be writing about forest regeneration in one way or another, and I wonder if our collective works don’t offer new perspectives on what some are calling the “plantationocene.”

IMM: This is a really interesting question. I had not heard plantationocene before, and it took me down a very interesting rabbit hole. My perspective on it is this relates to the ways that people have been talking about the anthropocene, which I think are flawed but useful conversation points. There is one definition of the anthropocene—massive human modification of the environment—that starts in deep antiquity. It goes something like this: humans have been modifying grasslands in intensive ways for something like five to ten thousand years, starting with the domestication of grains (which are grasses) and ruminant animals (which eat grasses). There is another definition of the anthropocene that starts with modernity. It goes something like this: humans have been causing indelible changes to biogeochemical cycles for one or two centuries—going back either to the layer of fallout from nuclear weapons in the 1940s and ’50s, or the first large-scale use of coal in the 1800s. Both of those are useful markers of large scale anthropogenic environmental change.

But there is another change point that we need to talk about, which is more or less the watershed of the early modern. Jason Moore has called this the capitolocene and thinks it is about the new ways that markets are interlinked coming out of the Middle Ages. Charles Mann has called it the homogenocene and ties it to Alfred Crossby’s work on the Columbian Exchange, in that 1492 was the first moment since deep prehistory when the American and Afro-Eurasian continents were closely linked and transferred species between them. These are both useful. But there is a third transition that ties them together: the historical moment when intensive human cultivation of things that we might call plantations begin to spread from farms (domesticated grasslands) to forests (domesticated woodlands). This plantationocene comes to a fever pitch in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with the spread of things like rubber, palm oil, coffee, and so on, but I think it begins with the types of plantations that the three of us are talking about in our books.


David Fedman is assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and the author of Seeds of Control: Japan’s Empire of Forestry in Colonial Korea.

Ian M. Miller is assistant professor of history at St. John’s University and author of Fir and Empire: The Transformation of Forests in Early Modern China.

Meng Zhang is assistant professor of history at Loyola Marymount University and author of Timber and Forestry in Qing China: Sustaining the Market.

Behind the Book: Robert Chaney on “The Grizzly in the Driveway”

I got to know grizzly bears from the wheelhouse of a fifty-seven-foot tour boat in Glacier National Park. While I had to learn about charismatic megafauna as a floating tour guide, I didn’t anticipate how much conning the ship would affect my writing.

The lesson came clear on July 8, 2020, as I was printing the final copyedited draft of The Grizzly in the Driveway, in which I’d poured thirty years of experience and reporting on North America’s biggest land predator. That morning the to-do list consisted of items like confirming the academic discipline of a biologist, rethinking the proper chapter for a favorite anecdote, and wondering if there was room on the acknowledgments page for a few more shout-outs.

And then the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in. In my day job as a newspaper reporter, the arrival of an appeals court opinion was a front page opportunity. It required a lot of close reading of twenty-five or thirty pages of legalese to glean who won and who lost and how extensive the result might be. Next came a flurry of phone calls to involved sources and knowledgeable observers. Then I’d boil the ingredients down to plain language and good grammar, hit Send, and see the published result online a few minutes later (and in the print version the following morning).

From my perspective as an author, everything in chapter 10—all seven thousand words—was suddenly suspect. The Grizzly in the Driveway explores how humans relate to wild animals both as living creatures (that weigh five hundred pounds, can outrun a horse, and occasionally eat us) and as features of our imaginations and policy. Chapter 10 was all about the latter—the legal world of Endangered Species Act wording, hunting rights, best available science, and standing to sue in court. Real-life grizzly bears were reduced to mortality trends, incident reports, and political action group mascots. And the Ninth Circuit judges had just announced a new version of reality for that abstract domain.

Journalists joke that they write the first draft of history. But when you’ve spent years writing a book chronicling decades or centuries of historical action and something historic happens right now, it’s the authorial version of an out-of-body experience. The world you constructed, with its precisely ordered constellations of logic and occurrence leading to well-fortified conclusions, suddenly wobbles on its axis.

I chose to write about the return of grizzly bears to a crowded American West in 2018 because the topic felt ripe. This keystone predator was reaching self-sustaining population numbers after a century of poisoning, trapping, and persecution. Its journey through the legal machinery of federal Endangered Species Act oversight was nearing a resolution, and the factors that would determine its future—growing recreational and industrial pressure on its habitat, climate change kinking their food supplies, and political and social divisions riling their human neighbors—stirred public conversation.

The risk of taking on a current-events subject is those events might get swept into a current you didn’t account for. The federal government had been trying for years to remove the grizzly bear from the Endangered Species List and celebrate the recovery of a threatened animal. But advocates for continued protection consistently found vulnerabilities in the government’s plans and derailed them in court. The most recent attempt at delisting had failed at the district court level, and I had bet it would stay dead on appeal. In my book I framed my closing arguments around the protection advocates’ strategy, assuming they had the stronger logic and evidence.

Back in 1982, while I was piloting the DeSmet around Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald, a tourist asked me what kind of duck was floating in the water ahead of us. I looked at the black speck and realized it was the nub of a branch attached to a tree trunk floating below the water’s surface. A fifty-seven-foot boat has no brakes and takes a long time to turn; sudden action can send toddlers and their grandparents crashing to the deck, if not over the rail. Ramming a log below waterline at 10 knots doesn’t make a good alternative, and cursing like a sailor has no effect. All you can do is throttle down, adjust course, and warn your shipmates to brace for impact.

As it turned out the DeSmet thumped the log without spilling a single tourist’s soda. And my chapter on the grizzly bear’s legal fate got a last-minute update with little rewriting. Most of those edits went something like “the court of appeals ruled” instead of “the district court ruled.”

The double-vision of writing for a daily print newspaper and writing for a library bookshelf remains bewildering. I think back on how many news stories I filed that neglected the context of decades of social momentum and how many books I’ve laughed at for envisioning a future that failed to materialize.

Those summers I spent in the DeSmet’s wheelhouse served me well. It takes a long time to turn a big thing. Obstacles occur in real time. Cussing won’t help. Steer. 


Robert Chaney is a reporter for the Missoulian. A lifelong Montanan, he covers science and the environment. His new book The Grizzly in the Driveway: The Return of Bears to a Crowded American West is available now.

Pigs and People, The Other “Missing Link”: Thomas Fleischman on “Communist Pigs”

In February of 1922 Henry Fairfield Osborn, world-famous paleontologist, conservationist, and director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, received a package in the mail from Nebraska. Inside Osborn found a note and a carefully wrapped molar. A rancher and amateur geologist named Harold Cook had discovered the ancient tooth in a ten-million-year-old layer of rock bed in the Snake River near his home. Believing it to have “human type” features, Cook sent the tooth to Osborn to verify his assessment. Osborn was thrilled. The man who had christened the Tyrannosaurus Rex believed he now had evidence of another epoch-making discovery: a “missing link” fossil, evidence of man’s descent from apes. Studying the shape, size, and wear of the molar, Osborn determined the tooth belonged to a third genus of extinct hominids—and the first found in the Americas. He named this new primate ancestor Hesperopithecus, or “Ape of the Western World.” The press dubbed it simply “Nebraska Man.”

That same year Osborn published his findings in several prominent periodicals. Lest anyone doubt his claims, he also sent casts of the molar to museums and universities in the United States and Europe. It didn’t take long, however, before skeptics began to poke holes in his case. In response, Osborn sent crews back to Nebraska in the summers of 1925 and 1926 to scour the same riverbed deposits for more fossils. In the dry heat of summer they found fossils and bone fragments of numerous mammals, but none belonging to Nebraska Man. The expedition concluded that the molar belonged not to a hominid, but instead to an extinct species of peccary called Prosthennops, a primeval relative of the modern pig, Sus scrofa. Osborn was not the first person, nor would he be the last, to go looking for humans in the past and find a pig instead.

Osborn’s mistake can be forgiven. Pig bodies and human bodies have a great deal in common. Similarities include their teeth (like all omnivores, pigs and humans share a similar array of molars, incisors, and canines), but also much more. Pigs’ internal organs are nearly identical in ability and form to our own. When the first experiments in heart transplants began in the 1950s, researchers looked not to the ape but to the pig, whose heart was strong enough to pump blood through a human body. Today porcine valves and skin grafts are used regularly in surgery on people. Scientists have used stem cells from pig fat to grow human jawbones. Pig eyes have similar ocular power and see the same color spectrum as humans, and relative to other members of the animal kingdom pigs are remarkably nearsighted. People and pigs also share many ailments, including cancer, rheumatism, and arthritis. And most infamously, infectious diseases like H1N1 spread easily between our species and theirs. Osborn was right to intuit that his molar belonged to a genetic cousin of modern humans—he just chose the wrong family.

Even more significantly, people and pigs have lived closely alongside one another and in various degrees of cooperation for millennia. While not the first animal to give up its freedom in exchange for domestic living (dogs beat all animals there some twenty thousand years ago), pigs were never far away, lurking just beyond the reach of campfire lights, rooting through midden heaps for scraps. And when domestication of Sus scrofa began around nine thousand years ago, pigs proved so amenable to human society that they were domesticated over and over again. Paleogeneticists have pinpointed not just one site or moment for pig domestication, but multiple locations and dates, stretching over thousands of years and from what is now modern Turkey to southeast Asia. Pigs, it seems, were just as willing to live within human society as they were to cast off the human hand and live on their own in the wild.

Historians have also have homed in on this special relationship to raise new questions about the past. They have used pigs to explore the cultural and economic lives of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English small-holders, or as a synecdoche for medieval antisemitism among French peasants in Languedoc. They have identified pigs as agents of imperial conquest and dispossession, from the Columbian Exchange in North America to the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe. They have shown how the rise of scientific pig breeding in the nineteenth century inaugurated an ecological succession in the US Midwest, from old-growth forest and prairie grasslands to landscapes defined by corn and dotted with whiskey distilleries, piggeries, and slaughterhouses. And in the age of the factory farm, the lives, labor, and deaths of millions of pigs reveal that people remain ensnared in the same system of exploitation and degradation. In each case, pig bodies, behaviors, and diets provide clues about the human past.

My book Communist Pigs builds on these insights to tell the story of agricultural development in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, during the Cold War. It uses the pig’s propensity for adaptation and change to narrate a history of East Germany’s rise and fall. It analyzes three predominant archetypes of Sus scrofa in the GDR—the industrial pig, the garden pig, and the wild boar—to connect the complex environmental history of European communism with the industrial development of rural spaces around the world. Communist Pigs shows how this animal came to occupy a commanding place at the center of industrial agriculture. It explores how East Germans struggled to overcome the ecological constraints and obstacles of industrial hog farming. And it uncovers the surprising mixture of small-scale pig farming and boar hunting that emerged in response to environmental pollution and the limitations of a planned economy. Together, the GDR’s three pigs reveal how a communist regime was drawn rapidly into capitalist markets for cheap grain, meat, energy, and capital. This shift precipitated an ecological and political crisis that culminated in the collapse of East Germany and the end of the Cold War.

Pigs, like people, make their own histories. These histories are specific to the environments in which they occur and their moments in the past. Pigs can open new ways of considering the rigid frameworks—say, the divide between communism and capitalism—through which we interpret human histories. In the specific case of the twentieth century, pigs show us how industrial agriculture has physically remade the entire earth and all the things that live and die upon it to promote the production of meat. But just like any relationship, the one between pigs and people can be undone and remade anew. The pig may even survive us as the dominant species on the planet, if the resurgence of wild boar populations is any indication. And if in ten million years this porcine descendent species decides to excavate the rock bed formations of the Anthropocene in search of clues to their own prehistory, it may very well mistake the fossilized remains of Homo sapiens for its own “missing” genetic ancestor, which, as we know, is a very human error to make.


Thomas Fleischman is assistant professor of history at the University of Rochester. His book Communist Pigs is available now.

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