Category Archives: History

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.


Anderson, J. L. Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2019.

Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Blanchette, Alex. Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020.

Fabre-Vassas, Claudine. The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig. European Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Gibson, Abraham. Feral Animals in the American South: An Evolutionary History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Hicks, Lucy. “Pig Fat Can Be Used to Grow Jawbones for Humans.” Science, October 15, 2020,

Malcolmson, Robert, and Stephanos Mastoris. The English Pig: A History. New York: Hambledon Press, 1998.

Pennisi, Elizabeth. “The Taming of the Pig Took Some Wild Turns.” Science, August 31, 2015,

Porter, Valerie. Pigs: A Handbook to the Breeds of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Saraiva, Tiago. Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism. Boston: MIT Press, 2016.

Watson, Lyall. The Whole Hog: Exploring the Extraordinary Potential of Pigs. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2004.

White, Sam. “From Globalized Pig Breeds to Capitalist Pigs: A Study in Animal Cultures and Evolutionary History.” Environmental History 16 (January 2011): 94–120.

UW Press at the Western History Association Virtual Conference

Meet UW Press’s History Editors

Three of the press’s acquisitions editors acquire in the field of the history of the US West, and each one has a particular specialty.

Mike Baccam (he/him) acquires in western history, critical ethnic studies, and Asian American studies. He is interested in projects that engage with race, gender, migration, imperialism, and labor and particularly welcomes interdisciplinary work. He accepts queries for the Emil and Kathleen Sick Series in Western History. He can be reached by email at or on Twitter at @mikebaccam.

Andrew Berzanskis (he/him) acquires environmental history, geography, and books for general readers about the Pacific Northwest. Pitch him via email at and find him on Twitter at @ABerzanskis. He also accepts proposals for our Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series.

Larin McLaughlin (she/her) acquires in Native and Indigenous studies, women’s history, gender, and sexuality studies, and visual culture. She welcomes queries for the Indigenous Confluences series.

We encourage you to reach out to the editor whose emphasis best reflects the focus of your work. And please visit the WHA virtual conference and stop by our virtual booth to learn more about new releases in western history, view series flyers, and access other information.

2020 WHA Award Winners

We are excited to share the news that two of our recent books have received awards from the Western History Association this year:

Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract by Philip J. Deloria has been selected for the 2020 Donald L. Fixico Award for best book on American Indian and Canadian First Nations history that centers on Indigenous epistemologies and perspectives.

Reclaiming the Reservation: Histories of Indian Sovereignty Suppressed and Renewed by Alexandra Harmon has been selected for the 2020 Robert G. Athearn Award for best book on the twentieth-century American West.

The awards will be formally announced during the Virtual Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 16, at 2:00 p.m. (CDT).

Grays Harbor Workers: Aaron Goings on “The Port of Missing Men”

History has not been kind to the Washington coast’s working class. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thousands of the region’s workers toiled long hours in logging camps and lumber mills and in maritime trades—some of the country’s most dangerous industries. Those who acted collectively to improve their working and living conditions were targets of persecution, physically attacked by employers and their allies in the local, state, and federal governments. Vigilante businessmen beat, shot, and kidnapped activists, and deported them from towns, while police jailed them and raided their halls. Indeed, many of the most famous financially successful men in the history of the Olympic Peninsula and southwest Washington defended their wealth through a combination of violent anti-labor activism and support for anti-union legislation. Stories of vigilantes and cops brutalizing working-class women, men, and children fill early twentieth-century newspaper columns—providing potent reminders that the scenes playing out across the United States in 2020 are part of a long history of violent reactions against workers’ movements.

In the past forty years, many of the region’s workers have faced a fresh round of horrors: layoffs and mill closures, as parts of southwest Washington and the Olympic Peninsula began to resemble a Pacific Northwest “Rust Belt.” A recent gut punch came in June 2018 when the Aberdeen Museum of History burned. The fire destroyed priceless labor history collections—virtually the entire archive of Grays Harbor’s rich working-class history is now lost to posterity.

The archive told the important history of collective action in the heart of lumber country. Highlights included huge collections from the International Woodworkers of America and locals of the Cooks and Waiters’ Union—the latter an important source of women’s working-class activism before women won the right to vote. The fire also turned to ashes a collection of records from maritime unions—groups of workers that persistently fought for the types of work-life improvements Americans celebrate on Labor Day.

One of the most important (and certainly the most famous) labor activists from Washington’s coast was William “Billy” Gohl, subject of my new book from the University of Washington Press, The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest. Gohl served as agent for the Aberdeen branch of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific between 1903 and 1910, when Grays Harbor ranked as both the world’s most prolific lumber port and Washington State’s most densely unionized area.

Gohl was the best-known and most effective union activist in Grays Harbor. His fellow unionists twice elected him president of the local labor council, and he led efforts to force ship captains to follow union contracts and workplace safety laws. Gohl’s activism extended well beyond the shop floor: he was also a community activist committed to improving the lives of maritime workers and making the local waterfront safer.

Not surprisingly for anyone who has done much reading in US labor history, Gohl’s lasting fame has nothing to do with his community activism. Instead, Gohl’s life has long interested journalists and true-crime junkies, because “Billy” is widely known as the “Ghoul of Grays Harbor.” Dozens of true-crime tales—and popular memory—blame Gohl for the deaths of dozens of working men whose corpses were found floating in the Chehalis and Wishkah Rivers. Journalist and popular historian Murray Morgan wrote, “These anonymous dead men, culled from the hordes of migrant laborers who had flocked to Grays Harbor to cut trees, came to be known as the Floater Fleet. Billy Gohl was credited with launching most of them. If he was responsible for even half of the floaters found in the harbor during his day, Gohl was America’s most prolific murderer. Over a ten-year period the fleet numbered 124.”

Arrested and charged with murder in early 1910, Gohl became the subject of a massive campaign by local employers and their allies in the mainstream press to pin the region’s entire history of violent crimes on him and “his gang.” On the day of his arrest the Aberdeen Daily World blamed Gohl “for many of the members of the ‘floater fleet,’ comprising more than 40 bodies.” Three months after his arrest, Gohl was convicted of one murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Gohl was not the only convicted murderer in early Grays Harbor history, and the jury had difficulty coming to a decision about his guilt. Yet by the time the jury convicted him of a single murder Gohl already had been convicted in the public mind of being a cold-blooded killer who spent seven years ravaging Grays Harbor. The case against him appeared to be “the dream of some dime store novel writer,” said Gohl, as employers and the state conspired to remove Gohl from his place in the labor movement. Media accounts of Gohl’s “crimes”—like subsequent stories about Gohl—omit the important historical context that shows employers acting collectively and often brutally to eliminate labor activists in Grays Harbor and throughout the United States.

The Port of Missing Men bears little resemblance to earlier writings about Gohl. I strove to avoid portraying him as a caricature, instead placing Gohl in his historical context. Unfortunately, like Billy the Kid, Gohl has reached the status of a legend. He is now a part of Wild West mythology that often casts imagined “monsters” like him—rather than larger forms of structural oppression—as responsible for violence.

The myth of Billy Gohl the mass murderer has proved remarkably resilient, and rare indeed is the person who, when asked about their knowledge of Billy Gohl, fails to mention the term “serial killer.” But Gohl was a militant labor leader and local bosses saw him as a dangerously effective enemy who needed to be silenced. My new book returns Gohl—the labor and community activist—to the center of a region’s working-class history, a history that, like the materials lost in the Aberdeen museum fire, often ends up in the dustbin.


Aaron Goings is associate professor of history and chair of the History and Political Science Department at Saint Martin’s University. He is coauthor of The Red Coast: Radicalism and Anti-radicalism in Southwest Washington and Community in Conflict: A Working-Class History of the 1913–14 Michigan Copper Strike and the Italian Hall Tragedy. His latest book, The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest, is available now.

A Newcomer to the Big Empty: Sam Waterston on Ellen Waterston’s “Walking the High Desert”

We’ve all noticed how sharp our sensations, perceptions and observations are when visiting a place for the first time, from the Grand Canyon to the manmade canyons of New York City. We take in the sounds, smells, and sensations more acutely, more vividly, before familiarity moves in on our guilelessness, bringing its partner, contempt, along with it, the deadening “taking for granted” of the inherent and unique beauty of a place.

My brother Sam has visited me at various locations in the high desert: when I was ranching on the Crooked River; in Bend, at the foot of the Cascades mountains where I run a literary nonprofit; and in the wilds of Oregon’s Outback, during my research for Walking the High Desert. His below comments illustrate his capacity for experiencing this grand space each time as if for the first time. He brings, as he does to all he does, a fresh eye, an open mind and heart, and then extrapolates to a bigger invitation, tuning in to the plea of the place or the circumstance. Covid-19 has upped our appreciation game as everything seems more precious, fleeting. The pandemic has reminded us to appreciate what is right in front of us, what, perhaps, we have heretofore taken for granted; and, as Sam’s generous comments advocate, to take action to protect what is “fierce, fragile, beautiful,” the high desert and the earth itself.

Ellen Waterston

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Ellen Waterston and her brother Sam Waterston in Washington, D.C. in a Fire Drill Friday rally in support of legislation that protects the environment. January 2020

The high desert is like the ocean or the mountains of the moon: by itself, the name calls up space, the vast sky, the nearby stars, the one-hundred-mile gaze, the place where things and people stand out. It’s amazing. Many born and raised in it know this and never lose their awareness. After a lifetime of living in it, some still have the cowboys’ long horizons in their eyes. Some others, working to make it yield and bend to their needs, temporarily or permanently lose their amazement . . . Even an amazing place can become commonplace, merely where you do what you do; even here, a person can forget where they are. And isn’t that the way of it for most of us, wherever we live?

Most visitors do feel the wonder of the high desert at first, like babes in the woods, and that astonishment can last and last. It has with me. I first came out here to see my sister Ellen, who wrote Walking the High Desert. There aren’t so very many places where a hay field is measured by the thousand acres, where your front yard is fifty acres of wild iris, and the view is of the moon.

My sister was a newcomer to the Big Empty once. Because of the life she led and the person she is, her amazement at the wonder of the place she had come to never left her…and she went deep, looked deep. She is a poet and a journalist. She spent a lot of her time out in the desert, recorded what she witnessed, and brought the place to second life in words. This book is one fine example. She has a lot to say about the high desert. The high desert has a lot to tell. Almost inevitably, the long walks Ellen Waterston took out there over all those years landed her on the Oregon High Desert Trail—and she brought out for us the gold, the story of the place, entwined in her own story.

The earth is like the high desert, a fierce, fragile, beautiful, amazing place. We can’t afford to take it for granted anymore. There are as many opinions about what to do with it and for it now as there are interested parties . . . and we are all interested parties where the fate of the earth is involved. At least, we need to be. There is no place left for bystanders now. We all have to put our heads into this. My sister’s book will get you in the right state of mind.

Sam Waterston is an American actor, producer, and director. Waterston is known for his work in theater, television and film as well as his environmental activism.

Ellen Waterston is author of Where the Crooked Desert Rises: A High Desert Home, a memoir, and four poetry collections including a verse novel. She is the founder and president of the Waterston Desert Writing Prize and the founder of the Writing Ranch in Bend, Oregon. Her latest book, Walking the High Desert: Encounters with Rural America along the Oregon Desert Trail, is available now.

Five Tips for Better Science Communication: Susan Hough on “The Great Quake Debate”

How can scientists best talk about the risks of natural hazards with the general public? And how can a lay reader assess debates among scientists? Susan Hough offers useful tips for both, drawing on her new book, The Great Quake Debate: The Crusader, the Skeptic, and the Rise of Modern Seismology.

Through spring of 2020, the publication process moved forward apace for The Great Quake Debate. In a sense, it might be considered a coming of age story, focusing on the chapter in time when a major metropolitan region, Los Angeles, first came to grips with a seemingly existential peril: earthquake hazard. Could the rapidly growing city—one of the leading oil-producing regions in the world—really be hit by a massive earthquake like the one that had left San Francisco in ashes not too many years earlier? The Great Quake Debate is a story complete with (putative) heroes and villains, drama and intrigue.

It is also a story with lessons for our times, in particular now that the entire world struggles to come to grips with a different mortal peril. In the early 20th century, many people had the luxury of viewing earthquake hazard as somebody else’s problem. Later science would prove them only partly right, but, indeed, earthquakes pose a real and present dangerin some places than in others. Microbes, on the other hand, do not concentrate along narrow fault lines. Potentially they reach us all. The realization dawns, that some of the lessons of The Great Quake Debate are especially relevant for our tumultuous times, including lessons for both scientists and the public regarding the business of science communication. Let me pull out five of them, three for consumers of scientific information, and two for those who disseminate it.

  1. If you want information, go to the source. As directly as possible, go to the source. When parts of The Great Quake Debate have been told before, renowned geologist Robert T. Hill has been painted as the villain, a “tool” used by local city boosters to advance their agenda. A generally well-researched earlier biography focused on the extent to which Hill was manipulated by city boosters, describing him as a victim of their machinations. The personal papers that he and others left behind tell a far more nuanced, complex story.
  2. When you are looking for scientific information, know that science has limitations. There are truths in science, and as the saying goes, science doesn’t care what you believe. But in a rapidly developing field, science can be messy. The answers might not be black-and-white, and even well-respected scientists can be wrong. In his crusade to convince the public to take earthquake hazard seriously, in 1926 protagonist Bailey Willis made public statements that southern California would likely be wrenched by a great earthquake within three to 10 years of 1926. Although many saw the 1933 Long Beach earthquake as vindication of Willis’ prophesy, the magnitude-6.4 earthquake was not the major temblor that he had predicted. Hill’s refutation of the prediction, on the other hand, drew from sound science.
  3. Listen to scientists. Wait, what? Why should anyone listen to scientists, if they might themselves be wrong? The thing is, scientists might not be right, but at any given time, their understanding is as good as it gets. Had people listened carefully to either Willis or Hill, they would have heard a debate on some key questions, but also very similar messages from both, delivered with no small degree of passion, regarding the importance of understanding earthquake hazard and taking steps to reduce earthquake risk.
  4. For those of us who are ourselves scientists, beware the perils of over-stepping what science allows us to say. Willis based his prediction on analysis of early surveying data that he should have known to be highly uncertain. Hill correctly debunked the prediction, but did make statements downplaying the severity of earthquake hazard in Los Angeles. His reassuring statements, while never dismissing hazard entirely, were based on some misperceptions of his day, for example concerning the potential severity of shaking caused by moderately large earthquakes. He, too, should have known that such statements were not well-supported by available data. The media may have amplified the message, but scientists themselves set the tone. Where science collides with public welfare and public fears, missteps in one direction can assuage fears, while missteps in the other direction can fan flames. Neither serves the public good.
  5. Sooner or later, the natural world will have the last word. Scientists can debate the severity of the perils that we face, and the need to take risk mitigation seriously. People and policy-makers can choose to heed warnings, or not. Depending on the nature of the risk, it can be expensive to heed warnings, or personally uncomfortable, or inconvenient. If worst fears are borne out, what will you wish you had done yesterday? Do it today.


Susan Hough is a research seismologist in Pasadena, California. Her popular-science books include Earthshaking Science: What We Know (and Don’t Know) about Earthquakes and Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man. Her latest book The Great Quake Debate: The Crusader, the Skeptic, and the Rise of Modern Seismology is available now.