Tag Archives: Environmental History

Inside the Publishing Process: An Interview with Series Editor Paul Sutter

This year marks the 25th anniversary of our series Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books. It also marks Paul S. Sutter’s fifth year as series editor.

Here, Sutter talks with our Senior Acquisitions Editor Andrew Berzanskis about his goals for the series, how he sees environmental history changing, and offers some practical tips for authors.

Sutter is professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder. His five books include Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (University of Washington Press) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (University of Georgia Press).

For those interested in the origins of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series, here is an account by founding series editor William Cronon.


In 2002, you published your first book, Driven Wild, in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books (WEB) series. William Cronon, the founding editor of the series, was editor then. How did Cronon help shape your book?  

Bill was a huge influence on my decision to choose the series. His famous wilderness essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” had just come out, and it was a piece that refined my argument in important ways. I sent an initial email inquiry to Bill—we had met once or twice, but I’m not sure he knew who I was—and he wrote a lengthy response that quickly convinced me that working with him would be the right thing to do. The series was quite new at that point, and Bill put a lot of energy into reading and commenting on my manuscript. Driven Wild mediated the wilderness debate in a ways that I think Bill appreciated, but he also pushed me in ways that made my argument better.

2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the series. As a discipline, environmental history has blossomed. More scholars, more students, and many more publishers. What keeps Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books—a series launched in 1994—unique in 2019?

During the early years of Bill’s editorship, environmental history was a much smaller field, and one that seemed overwhelmingly U.S.-focused. In that context, the series sat at the center of a series of nature/culture debates that largely defined the second generation of environmental historiography. In the last decade or so, the field has changed in dramatic ways. Environmental history is much more international, the number of programs training graduate students has grown geometrically, and the subfields within and around the edges of environmental history have multiplied. Environmental history is a large and crowded room with many conversations going on. The series has changed with the field.

We still publish books that critically assess the historical and cultural dimensions of our current environmental crises and commitments. But the qualities that keep the series unique have more to do with how we work with authors: our commitment to careful developmental editing, our desire for books that are clearly and accessibly written and intended for a crossover audience, our commitment to producing beautiful and well-illustrated books, the work we do with authors to help them to market their books, and our author community. Perhaps nothing better symbolizes that approach than the time we spend with authors and prospective authors at the annual American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) meeting.

Why is publishing with a series different than publishing as part of a press’s regular publishing program?

In the simplest sense, publishing a book in a series helps to define the book by the company it keeps. It also helps to get the book in front of the eyes of those who pay attention to that particular book series and the field it helps to define. But perhaps the biggest advantage to a book series is the chance to work with an academic series editor who can help to shepherd the book manuscript through the publication process. Not all editors put in the effort that Bill and I have at WEB, and so even among other series I think we are unique in the editorial energy we put into the books in our series. Having an engaged series editor can also be helpful in navigating peer review.

As a series editor, how do you like to work with authors?  

Because of the energy we put into developmental editing, we usually like to work with advance contracts, which confirm our partnership with the author. I then like to work with authors on matters of big argument and framing. It is a truism that most dissertations are written to a narrow audience of specialists, and so I push authors to figure out how their book can speak to thousands of interested readers rather than dozens. That often means working with authors on their introductions first, and then the overall organization and narrative arc of their manuscripts. When the author has a fully revised manuscript ready for peer review, I will read it along with the peer reviewers and provide a thorough report that both synthesizes the external reviews and offers comments of my own. We spend a lot of time with authors, on the phone and in person.

What do you get out of serving as a series editor? What makes it personally and/or professionally rewarding?

Being the series editor at WEB is a lot of work. But I love helping authors do what Bill did for me with my first book—transforming promising manuscripts into the books that their authors want them to be. I have seen quite a few authors transform their manuscripts through careful and thoughtful revision, and I take great pride in the role that I play in those transformations. (Mine is a small role. The authors do most of the work!) I take great pride when a beautiful series book arrives in my mailbox—and even more pride when the authors feel like the results are better as a result of working with us.

You write a foreword for each book. Why is that important?

Bill described the foreword as an extended blurb, and I have tried to follow that model. The foreword is a pitch to readers and reviewers to buy or review or assign the book.

You are entering your fifth year as editor and putting your own distinctive imprint on the series. What series books are you particularly proud of and why?

This feels like asking me which of my children is my favorite. I am proud of all of the books we have published for different reasons. But I will provide an example of why I am proud of one book. A year or so ago I received an email from a legal scholar who had just reviewed Jakobina Arch’s Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan. This particular scholar is an expert on contemporary legal frameworks for managing international whaling, and he found Arch’s history of whaling in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) as critical to contextualizing Japan’s contemporary claims that its whaling practices are traditional. Bina had worked hard to transform a masterful but somewhat narrow study into one that mattered to today’s whaling policy, and this reviewer made it clear that she succeeded.

What are the most common mistakes you see when people put together a book proposal?

I think there are several. One is the proposal that suggests that the book in question is the most important and innovative thing to come along in ages. A good proposal is humble and realistic about what it will accomplish, and respectful of the field in which it will sit. I also often read proposals that are too topical and not sufficiently thesis-driven. More than that, though, I increasingly urge authors to define not just the argument but the research problem that their book will address. A well-defined and expansive research problem will get my attention. Defining the research problem is a way of explaining why we need your book, which is a different issue than what it is about or what it will argue. Finally, I often find prospective authors to be overly optimistic about the popular appeal of their books. To reach a crossover audience, I think authors need to think deeply about which specific non-academic audiences they might realistically reach.

You see many manuscripts go through peer review. What are the most common problems identified in peer review, and how can authors avoid those same mistakes?

The most common problem, particularly for first-time authors, is that they don’t have a clear enough sense of what their book is about. That might be a strange thing to say, but often authors want their books to be about too many things. What’s the big idea/argument? How do the chapters contribute to and build towards that big idea/argument? The big idea is what disciplines a manuscript and helps to create a hierarchy of arguments, and it is not something that emerges organically. Rather, it is usually a matter of authors making tough choices.

What advice do you have for scholars trying to reach a broader audience?

First, figure out specifically who that broader audience is. Know who else might be interested in the book and speak to them. Second, get comfortable imagining your reader as an intelligent non-expert and explaining why scholars argue over the things that they do. An accessible book elegantly explains significance, constantly circling back to it. Third, develop characters if you can, and tell good stories.

I constantly urge authors to tell me the biography of their project. This forces them to go back to the moment when they decided to pursue the topic, to explain what made them passionate about it, and what it was like to know little about the book they were embarking upon. It requires them to imagine the reader opening their book for the first time and deciding whether to buy or devote their time to reading it. If you can go back to that point of initial ignorance and then explain how you proceeded to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of a topic, you can better convince your reader to want to follow along. A book that can explain the process of coming to understand a topic—rather than merely presenting the results of a deep understanding—is a book that will be more accessible.

Tell me about the first time you went to an American Society for Environmental History conference. How was it different then?

I first attended ASEH in 1993 in Pittsburgh. That was only the sixth ASEH conference ever held, and back then the conferences were biennial and much smaller. I was still a graduate student at the University of Kansas and did not have enough travel funding to afford both the flight and the hotel room. So four of us pooled our funds, rented a white Cadillac Seville, and made the 13-hour drive in style. I think the conference was at a Days Inn, and I’m not even sure if there was a book exhibit. It was tiny. I have been to every ASEH meeting since.

Where do you see the field of environmental history developing in the next 20 years? 

I will answer this in two ways. The first is that our field must directly address the big environmental problems of our moment, and many scholars are busy doing that. Where the second generation of environmental history was largely engaged with a critical assessment of nature as our field’s category of analysis, I think the current generation of scholarship will be defined by its critical engagement with the Anthropocene concept and the material environmental challenges that it encompasses.

The second is that I wouldn’t be surprised if a singular field of environmental history no longer really exists in 2040. Rather, we may see a proliferation of subfields and sub-conversations in fields such as animal history, energy history, climate history, evolutionary history, environmental justice, etc. The field of environmental history that I matured with was fundamentally shaped by the national environmental movement of the 1960s-1980s; the current generation is being shaped by global concerns about climate change and the great acceleration of human impact on the natural world.


Andrew and Paul will both be attending the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting April 10-13 in Columbus, OH. Stop by the University of Washington Press booth (#21) to meet them and to learn more about this series!

American Society for Environmental History 2018 Conference Preview

We are delighted to attend the annual American Society for Environmental History conference (#ASEH2018) from March 14-18, 2018 in Riverside, California, and to celebrate this year’s theme, “Environment, Power & Justice.”

Senior acquisitions editor Catherine Cocks and exhibits, advertising, and direct mail manager Katherine Tacke are representing the Press. Join us at our booth to recognize new titles across environmental history and studies, including in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books and Culture, Place, and Nature series.

Meet our authors at scheduled book signings and learn about other featured titles below!

Book signings with Andrew N. Case and Joanna L. Dyl

Thursday, March 15 at 10:00 a.m.

Seismic City: An Environmental History of San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake
By Joanna L. Dyl
Foreword by Paul S. Sutter

Combining urban environmental history and disaster studies, this close study of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake demonstrates how the crisis and subsequent rebuilding reflect the dynamic interplay of natural and human influences that have shaped San Francisco.

The Organic Profit: Rodale and the Making of Marketplace Environmentalism
By Andrew N. Case
Foreword by Paul S. Sutter

Where did the curious idea of buying one’s way to sustainability come from? In no small part, the answer lies in the story of entrepreneur and reformer J. I. Rodale, his son Robert Rodale, and their company, the Rodale Press. For anyone trying to make sense of the complex tensions between business profits and the desire for environmental reform, The Organic Profit is essential reading.

Book signings with Brett L. Walker and Melanie A. Kiechle

Thursday, March 15 at 1:00 p.m.

A Family History of Illness: Memory as Medicine
By Brett L. Walker

In this deeply personal narrative, professional historian Walker constructs a history of his body to understand his diagnosis with a serious immunological disorder, weaving together his dying grandfather’s sneaking a cigarette in a shed on the family’s Montana farm, blood fractionation experiments in Europe during World War II, and nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks that ravaged small American towns as his ancestors were making their way west.

Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth-Century Urban America
By Melanie A. Kiechle
Foreword by Paul S. Sutter

What did nineteenth-century cities smell like? And how did odors matter in the formation of a modern environmental consciousness? Smell Detectives recovers how city residents used their sense of smell and their health concerns about foul odors to understand, adjust to, and fight against urban environmental changes.

Book signings with Sarah R. Hamilton and Jakobina K. Arch

Thursday, March 15 at 3:00 p.m.

Cultivating Nature: The Conservation of a Valencian Working Landscape
By Sarah R. Hamilton
Foreword by Paul S. Sutter

Shifting between local struggles and global debates, this fascinating environmental history of the Albufera Natural Park reveals how Franco’s dictatorship, Spain’s integration with Europe, and the crisis in European agriculture have shaped the working landscape, its users, and its inhabitants.

Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan
By Jakobina K. Arch
Foreword by Paul S. Sutter

In this vivid and nuanced study of how the Japanese people brought whales ashore during the Tokugawa period, Arch makes important contributions to both environmental and Japanese history by connecting Japanese whaling to marine environmental history in the Pacific, including the devastating impact of American whaling in the nineteenth century.

New and Forthcoming in Environmental Studies

Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam
By David Biggs
November 2018

Centering on the landscape of Central Vietnam, Footprints of War reveals centuries of military activities embedded in the landscape and explains how events such as the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Hamburger Hill shaped patterns of land use as well as local memories of place.


Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader
Edited by Christopher W. Wells
Foreword by Paul S. Sutter
Weyerhaueser Environmental Classics

This reader collects a wide range of primary source documents on the rise and evolution of the environmental justice movement. The documents show how activism by people of color and low-income American spurred the environmental justice movement of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Featured in Environmental Studies

Culture, Place, and Nature

Organic Sovereignties: Struggles over Farming in an Age of Free Trade
By Guntra A. Aistara
April 2018

This first sustained ethnographic study of organic agriculture outside the United States traces its meanings, practices, and politics in two nations typically considered worlds apart: Latvia and Costa Rica. Situated on the frontiers of the European Union and the United States, these geopolitically and economically in-between places illustrate ways that international treaties have created contradictory pressures for organic farmers.

Earth Day 2017: Climate Change Is Real

A lot has changed ahead of this year’s Earth Day, so in addition to featuring new titles in our distinguished environmental science and history lists, including books in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books, Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classics, and Culture, Place, and Nature series, this year we are offering a short reading list on climate change history and politics.

The University of Washington is also celebrating Earth Day 2017 across the Seattle, Tacoma, Bothell campuses, and beyond. Check out the UW Earth Day events page for more information. Follow #EarthDay and #EarthDay2017 for other events and activities near you!


Making Climate Change History: Documents from Global Warming’s Past
Edited by Joshua P. Howe
Foreword by Paul S. Sutter
Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classics

This collection pulls together key documents from the scientific and political history of climate change, including congressional testimony, scientific papers, newspaper editorials, court cases, and international declarations. Far more than just a compendium of source materials, the book uses these documents as a way to think about history, while at the same time using history as a way to approach the politics of climate change from a new perspective.

“Howe has done a huge service in bringing together, in one concise volume, many of the key documents related to the growing understanding of climate change from the nineteenth-century to the present. A must-have for anyone teaching or researching this crucial topic.”
—Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt and author of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

Read a commentary by the author about the March for Science on Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians.

Other books for your climate change history reading list:

Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming
By Joshua P. Howe

Nuclear Reactions: Documenting American Encounters with Nuclear Energy
Edited by James W. Feldman

The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964
By James Morton Turner

The Carbon Efficient City
By A-P Hurd and Al Hurd

Continue reading

American Society for Environmental History Conference Preview

2017 marks the 40th anniversary meeting of the American Society for Environmental History (#ASEH2017), and we look forward to commemorating the special anniversary conference from March 29 through April 2 in downtown Chicago.

Editor in chief Larin McLaughlin and senior acquisitions editor Catherine Cocks are representing the press. Join us and UBC Press at our booth as we celebrate 40 years of environmental history and debut new titles across environmental studies, and in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books and Culture, Place, and Nature series.

Author Darren Speece will sign copies of Defending Giants at the booth on Thursday, March 30th at 3 p.m.

New and Featured in Environmental Studies

New from Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classics

Culture, Place, and Nature

Understanding the Redwood Wars: An Environmental History Lesson

Very few conservation battles have endured longer—from the 1970s until the first decade of the twenty-first century—or with more violence than the fight over logging on the North Coast of California, behind the Redwood Curtain. In his new book, Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics, Darren F. Speece fills an important gap in American environmental politics with a long history of the Redwood Wars that focuses on the ways small groups of Americans struggled for control over both North Coast society and its forests.

The Redwood Wars pitted workers and environmental activists against the rising tide of globalization and industrial logging in a complex conflict over endangered species, sustainable forestry, and environmental politics. Activists used both direct and legal action, while the timber industry, led by Pacific Lumber, fought the lawsuits and lobbied to halt reform efforts. Ultimately, the Clinton Administration sidestepped Congress and the courts to negotiate an innovative compromise with activists and industry. In the process, the Redwood Wars transformed American environmental politics by shifting the balance of power away from Congress and into the hands of the Executive Branch.

The text excerpted below provides a brief introduction to the Redwood Wars:

The Redwood Wars were conflicts over massive, magnificent trees. That was their primary importance. Indeed, the trees initially drew me to the North Coast and interested me in the fights over logging, as they had compelled people in the past to try to protect them. Americans have tended to most value the oldest and largest redwoods, and stands of those trees garnered the most attention and sparked the critical conflicts during the Redwood Wars. But the actors in this drama had invested the trees with conflicting meanings. Timber companies prized the oldest trees because they were worth the most in the timber market. Earlier scientists revered them as specimens of evolutionary magnificence. Hikers, picnickers, and sojourners sought out the stands of the oldest trees as refuges and sanctuaries where they could escape industrial society and breathe the forest air. Modern environmentalists and ecologists valued the larger ecosystems inhabited, and in some senses constituted, by the oldest redwoods because they were rich with biodiversity and housed rare species. The various values placed on the redwoods and differing conceptions of how to best utilize the forest were central to the conflicts among North Coast residents during the twentieth century. Continue reading

Earth Day 2016: Events, Excerpts, and Books for Your TBR Pile

This Earth Day, we’re featuring a number of events, excerpts, and recent and forthcoming titles that span the University of Washington Press’s leading lists in environmental science and history, including books in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books and Culture, Place, and Nature series.

Through mid-May we are partnering on a few big book launch events and hope you will join us! Looking for more in the meantime? The University of Washington is celebrating Earth Day 2016 across Seattle, Tacoma, Bothell, and beyond. Check out the UW Earth Day events page for more information. Follow #EarthDay and #EarthDay2016 for other events and activities near you!


reese-jacketOnce and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish
Photographs by Tom Reese
Essay by Eric Wagner
Afterword by James Rasmussen
Northwest Writers Fund

Join us for the launch event presented by Town Hall and University Book Store, as part of the Science series and Town Green:

Tuesday, May 3, 7:30 p.m. // Great Hall, 1119 Eighth Avenue (enter on Eighth Avenue), Seattle, WA 98101 // Panelists include James Rasmussen, Duwamish Tribal member and director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, and moderator Lynda Mapes, Seattle Times environmental reporter. // BUY TICKETS

The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship, and Farming since the Dust Bowl
By Sarah D. Wald

Join for the book release celebration in Portland, Oregon hosted by Bark:

Sunday, May 15, 5:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. // Bark, 351 NE 18th Ave., Portland, OR 97232 // Light refreshments provided

Pre-order books at 30% off using discount code WSH2275

Read an excerpt from the book about the history of the United Farm Workers and the modern environmental movement Continue reading

American Studies Association Conference Preview

The American Studies Association annual meeting takes place in Toronto, Canada this week and we’re looking forward to another exciting conference. We hope you can join us for a book signing with author Deborah Elizabeth Whaley for Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime. Editor in Chief Larin McLaughlin and Senior Acquisitions Editor Ranjit Arab will be representing the Press—be sure to stop by booth #404 to say hello and to check out our latest American studies offerings.

Here is a sampling of new and recent titles we will be featuring at the conference as well as the book signing details.

Book Signing with Deborah Elizabeth Whaley

Saturday, October 10 at 3:00 p.m.

Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime
By Deborah Elizabeth Whaley

This groundbreaking study of Black women’s participation in comic art includes interviews with artists and writers and suggests that the treatment of the Black female subject in sequential art says much about the place of people of African descent in national ideology in the United States and abroad.

For more information visit the author’s website: http://www.deborahelizabethwhaley.com/#!black-women-in-sequence/c65q

Enduring Conviction: Fred Korematsu and His Quest for Justice
By Lorraine K. Bannai

Bannai brings an insider’s knowledge to the famous legal case of Fred Korematsu, a man interned by the government under Executive Order 9066, whose conviction was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court.

 

 

Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left: A Northwest Writer Reworks American Fiction
New in Paperback
By T. V. Reed

The first full critical study of Northwest-born novelist and critic Robert Cantwell, best known for his novel The Land of Plenty, who found himself at the center of the radical literary and cultural politics of 1930s New York. 

 

The Rising Tide of Color: Race, State Violence, and Radical Movements across the Pacific
New in Paperback
Edited by Moon-Ho Jung

Featuring a wide range of scholars specializing in American history and ethnic studies, this powerful collection of essays highlights historical moments and movements on the Pacific Coast and across the Pacific to reveal a different story of race and politics.

 

Fall 2015 Events Preview

This fall the University of Washington Press is thrilled to celebrate the publication of the first two books made possible by the Northwest Writers Fund: Reclaimers by Ana Maria Spagna and Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography by David B. Williams

The Northwest Writers Fund promotes the work of some of the region’s most talented nonfiction writers. We extend a special thanks to all of the fund’s establishing donors including Linda and Peter Capell, Janet and John Creighton, Michael J. Repass, Robert Wack, and others. To contribute to the fund or for more information, please contact Beth Fuget at (206) 616-818 or bfuget@uw.edu.

Below please find a preview of some of the exciting local book talks and signings we have planned for Too High and Too Steep and Reclaimers. We hope you will join us.

Check out our full events calendar for more opportunities to meet our authors in Seattle and beyond!

Too High and Too Steep by David Williams

TooHigh-WilliamsResidents and visitors in today’s Seattle would barely recognize the landscape that its founding settlers first encountered. As the city grew, its leaders and inhabitants dramatically altered its topography to accommodate their changing visions. In Too High and Too Steep, David B. Williams uses his deep knowledge of Seattle, scientific background, and extensive research and interviews to illuminate the physical challenges and sometimes startling hubris of these large-scale transformations, from the filling in of the Duwamish tideflats to the massive regrading project that pared down Denny Hill.

In the course of telling this fascinating story, Williams helps readers find visible traces of the city’s former landscape and better understand Seattle as a place that has been radically reshaped.

Watch the trailer:

More information here.

Wednesday, September 9, 7:00 p.m. // University Book Store – Seattle

Wednesday, September 16, 7:00 p.m. // Village Books (Bellingham)

Saturday, September 26, 1:00-3:00 p.m. // A Book for All Seasons (Leavenworth)

Saturday, October 10, 2:00 p.m. // Seattle Public Library with Elliott Bay Book Company

Thursday, November 12, 7:00 p.m. // Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park

Reclaimers by Ana Maria Spagna

Reclaimers-SpagnaAcclaimed literary writer Ana Maria Spagna drives an aging Buick up and down the long strip of West Coast mountain ranges–the Panamints, the Sierras, the Cascades–and alongside rivers to explore the ways and places in which people (mostly women) have worked to reclaim land that has been co-opted by outside, usually industrial, forces. In uncovering the heroic stories of those who persevered for decades, Spagna seeks a way for herself, and for all of us, to take back and to make right in a time of unsettling ecological change. Her wonderful first-person narrative opens readers up to the urgency of recognizing the place of the natural world and nudges us all to remember that it’s not too late to make a difference.

More information here.

Friday, September 25, 7:00 p.m. // Elliott Bay Book Company

Wednesday, October 7, 7:00 p.m. // Lopez Bookshop (Lopez Island)

Thursday, October 8, 7:00 p.m. // Village Books (Bellingham)

Friday, October 9, 3:00 p.m. // A Book for All Seasons (Leavenworth)

Friday, October 9, 6:30 p.m. // Leavenworth Library (Leavenworth)

Thursday, October 15, 7:00 p.m. // Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park

Thursday, October 29, 7:30 p.m. // Powell’s Books on Hawthorne (Portland, OR)

Q&A with ‘Proving Grounds’ author Neil Oatsvall

Proving Grounds coverThe essays in Proving Grounds: Militarized Landscapes, Weapons Testing, and the Environmental Impact of U.S. Bases give us the most comprehensive examination to date of the environmental footprint of U.S. military bases both at home and abroad. Though critical of the military’s presence across the globe, the book does point to a few examples where the armed forces were actually ahead of the curve—at least compared to the private sector—in terms of self-regulation. Still, the majority of cases in Proving Grounds look at the damaging consequences—both intended and unintended—of building bases and testing weapons, from wiping out indigenous plant and wildlife to the contamination resulting from the disposal of Agent Orange after the Vietnam War.

In Chapter 2, historian Neil Oatsvall looks at how deeply policymakers engaged with environmental science at the dawn of the nuclear testing era. Contrary to popular belief, he finds, U.S. leaders actually did take scientific considerations seriously as they tried to take a lead in the burgeoning nuclear arms race. However, though their intentions may have been well-meant, given the limits of their environmental knowledge at the time, they were clearly in over their heads. We asked Neil to elaborate on this contradiction.

–Ranjit Arab, Senior Acquisitions Editor

Q: What led you to pursue your research? Who or what were some of your inspirations?

Neil Oatsvall: Two books made me want to be an environmental historian: Don Worster’s Dust Bowl and Ed Russell’s War and Nature. It’s a funny coincidence that I went to the University of Kansas to study with Don, and when he retired Ed replaced him. Russell’s work in particular sparked many questions in me. Nature and culture are frequently intertwined, as are technology and culture—but how has human culture mediated the interaction between the natural world and technology? And how has warfare served as an historical flashpoint where these relationships can be more easily examined?

These questions and others led me to research defoliation during the Vietnam War and then nuclear technologies and the environment.  You could say I’ve been drawn to the more charismatic technologies, if technology could ever be so described. And warfare to me was always one of those spectacles so horrifying that I couldn’t look away, like the Titanic sinking.

In addition, I grew up too late in the Cold War to be scared of nuclear weapons destroying the world and in Raleigh, North Carolina near the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant. This meant that nuclear technologies never seemed like the specter of death to me—they were just captivating pieces of technology. Thus this lifelong fascination with nuclear technologies combined with my coming of age as an historian right around the time Ed Russell and Richard Tucker started the historical subfield of war and environment. It was a logical topic in that way.

 

Historian and author Neil Oatsvall

Historian and author Neil Oatsvall

Q: What was one of the more surprising finds you came across along the way?

Neil Oatsvall: My most surprising find revolved around early plans to test nuclear weapons on Amchitka Island, further detailed in my chapter in Proving Grounds. I was shocked to find military planners talking seriously with administrators from the Department of the Interior about sea otters and how Amchitka being a successful breeding ground might derail testing plans. Ultimately it was geology, and not otters, that scuttled early testing plans on the island. But the mere fact that the 1950s U.S. military wrestled with how nuclear tests might affect vulnerable sea otter populations was truly unexpected.

Q: How did the military and the federal government conceive of environmental science, broadly, during the early Cold War?

Neil Oatsvall: Different historians might answer this in different ways, but I would say environmental science was just another tool in trying to improve the U.S. geopolitical position as much as possible. Understanding ocean currents and the ocean floor’s topography helped with submarine warfare. Knowledge of the atmosphere and air currents helped detect and interpret foreign nuclear tests. And Jake Hamblin has even shown in his recent book Arming Mother Nature how environmental science was factored into plans for potentially using catastrophic environmental disasters for military purposes. Learning about the environment was not necessarily a goal in and of itself, but it was a means to an end.

Q: Did you detect any sustained, strong pushback, even during the era of nuclear testing, against the idea that such testing was making America safer?

Neil Oatsvall: There certainly was resistance to the notion that testing was making the nation safer, and from a variety of sources. Linus Pauling was a particularly important scientist-activist, awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-nuclear activism. But the archives are littered with both formal and informal pushback. For example, a 1958 anti-nuclear weapons letter, signed by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Christian ethicists Albert Schweitzer and Martin Niemöller (among others), implored President Eisenhower, “We want you to feel that your job is to help make this planet safe and fit for human habitation.” As an informal example, journalists made sure to question Eisenhower frequently about nuclear weapons tests, their safety, and what the nation gained from such tests. And privately there are numerous examples of decision makers questioning each other about nuclear weapons policy and whether testing actually accomplished the goals laid out for it.

Now, can all that be considered “sustained” or “strong”? I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder. I would say that it was, even such criticism was frequently diffused. But it’s hard to discount people like Pauling, and his Nobel Peace Prize shows that it’s not just historians playing a trick on the past—his contemporaries found him influential too.

Q: What are two or three of the most enduring legacies of the 1945-58 period, in terms of both later and current federal and military environmental policy?

Neil Oatsvall: Am I taking comps again? Is this real life? In all seriousness, this is a difficult but worthwhile question.

I could say something specific: for example, Karl Brooks has argued for the modern-day implications of the 1946 amendment of the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, which required consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service when development on a body of water might cause damage to wildlife resources. Instead I want to briefly talk about two broad trends: the U.S. military’s increasing dependence on environmental science and the understanding that the Earth may not be unbreakable.

Earlier I talked about how the military came to see environmental science as a tool for better protecting the nation and improving its military capabilities—environmental science became more important to achieving national security goals. Some of my previous research has also shown how nuclear technologies, agriculture, and the Green Revolution melded to influence what the U.S. government perceived as its role in the world. In that sense, scientific knowledge of the environment combined with technology to influence U.S. geopolitical policy. In general, the early postwar years saw the U.S. military (and by extension the federal government as a whole) increasingly integrate environmental science and environmental understandings into policymaking. (This is largely the subject of my book manuscript, under advanced contract with the University of Alabama Press.) That’s had a lasting legacy on governmental and military policy.

In addition, the country started to learn that the planet is not some gutter into which we can dump whatever we want without consequence. There are many examples, but one that has stuck out to me occurred in 1957 when testing showed that wheat samples from Minnesota contained much higher concentrations of radioactive strontium 90 fallout than expected or permitted. That raised questions about what nuclear tests were doing to the natural world and, by extension, human bodies. It hit home because policymakers realized that nuclear tests “over there” in the Pacific could affect people and environments “over here” in the United States. I won’t go so far as to say that a true environmentalist consciousness existed, but I think during this time period we see the beginnings of the shift away from the idea that the planet is some unbreakable, indefatigable sewer toward the idea that the planet is much more delicate and something in need of protection. Without that idea the Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Environmental Protection Agency—the bedrock of any modern governmental environmentalism that might exist—likely never would have come into being.

Q: What’s next for you, and with your research?

Neil Oatsvall: I’ve just taken a job as a history instructor at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts, a residential high school for gifted 11th and 12th graders. The school is part of the University of Arkansas system and stresses an innovative curriculum based on interdisciplinary team teaching and concurrent university credit. The heavy teaching load means that researching in the near future will be more difficult, but I remain optimistic!

When I’m able, the next project will be an Envirotech examination of U.S. beer brewing. The Envirotech subfield of environmental history contends that environment and technology cannot be understood separately, and I think beer brewing is a great example of that. While brewing depends on natural entities and processes like grains, hops, and yeast-driven fermentation, humans attempt to dominate those beings and processes. To me, this ambivalent relationship between humans, technology, and the natural world says a lot about what it means to be a modern industrial human. It may seem like there’s a vast chasm between studying nuclear technologies and beer, but to me the projects have most of the same intellectual underpinnings.

Gas Works Park: A Brief History of a Seattle Landmark

Seattle-based landscape architect Richard Haag has reshaped his city and his profession as a designer, teacher, and activist. In the new book, The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design, Thaisa Way deftly guides readers through Haag’s major influences, design philosophy, and his numerous works, both public and private. The photos and text excerpted below provide a brief history of one of Haag’s best know public works, the rehabilitation of Gas Works Park in Seattle.

*Scroll to the bottom of this post to learn about upcoming opportunities to meet Richard Haag and author Thaisa Way.

[A] significant  event in Haag’s career was the 1956 closing of the gasification plant that lay on the northern shore of Lake Union. Sitting on a small promontory once known as Browns Point, the plant had manufactured the gas that supplied the city for fifty years. It had also been the source of immense pollution in the soil, water, and, most visibly, air. When it closed due to new sources of gas and energy, it was a toxic wasteland, and yet, because of its central position in the city, many considered it potential park space. Money was available for such a transformation, but the question was how to address such a disturbed and toxic site. From these conditions, Gas Works Park evolved as one of the first postindustrial landscapes to be transformed into public place. …

Ever since his arrival in Seattle, Haag had been dreaming of what to do with the abandoned site. It would take until 1975 to open the park to the public. Today it includes 20.5 acres of land projecting 400 feet into Lake Union with 1,900 feet of shoreline. It features the 45-foot-high Kite Hill, preserved gasification towers called “cracking” towers, a boiler house converted to a picnic shelter complete with tables and grills,and a former exhauster-compressor building transformed into the open-air Play Barn housing a maze of brightly painted machinery for children. It inspired projects across the nation and around the globe, from the work of Julie Bargman in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, to the work of Peter and Annelise Latz at Duisburg Nord, Germany.

Haag saw the dramatic site for the first time by rowboat on an autumn night and was immediately drawn to the somber black towers of the gas plant, set on the promontory surrounded by water on three sides and the Olympic Mountains visible in the far distance. He continued to explore the place and over time developed an attitude toward the remains of the gas plant. As he described it:

“When I get a new site, I always want to know, figure out, what is the most sacred thing about this site? Well, this site, without the buildings, there was nothing sacred about it. It did have a shoreline, but it would have a shoreline with or without the buildings. So I decided that this big tower, the one right behind me, was the most sacred, the most iconic thing on this site, and that I would go down to the wire to save that structure. Then as I got into it more, I thought, that’s kind of silly. Why wouldn’t you save the one behind it? You know, husband and wife? And then you start thinking, wait a minute, there’s four more: those are the kids. So it would break up a family. So I began to think bigger and bigger about saving more of these structures.”

As Haag explored the site, he would become increasingly enamored of its character and its potential as a new type of public park, specifically, a new kind of historic preservation effort, this one focused on an industrial past. As he later recalled:

“I haunted the buildings and let the spirit of the place enjoin me. I began seeing what I liked, then I liked what I saw—new eyes for old. Permanent oil slicks became plain without croppings of concrete, industrial middens were drumlins, the towers were ferro-forests and the brooding presence became the most sacred of symbols. I accepted these gifts, and decided to absolve the community’s vindictive feel towards the gas plant.”

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Gas plant, Seattle, c. 1950. Aerial photo by Floyd Naramore. CBE Visual Resources Collection.

Gas Works Park master plan, 1971.

Gas Works Park master plan, 1971. Richard Haag Associates records.

Gas Works Park as a concept, 1971. Rendering by Dale Jorgensen.

Gas Works Park as a concept, 1971. Rendering by Dale Jorgensen. Collections of Richard Haag.

Maylor Uhlman surveying the site while Haag explains his plans, Seattle, 1974.

Maylor Uhlman surveying the site while Haag explains his plans, Seattle, 1974. Collection of Richard Haag.

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Oil slick as art, gasworks site, Seattle 1970. Collection of Richard Haag.

Aerial view of Gas Works Park soon after it opened, c. 1975.

Aerial view of Gas Works Park soon after it opened, c. 1975. CBE Visual Resources Collection.

Barn and machinery with dancers and filmmaker, Gas Works Park, Seattle, c. 1975,

Barn and machinery with dancers and filmmaker, Gas Works Park, Seattle, c. 1975. Collection of Richard Haag.

GWP

Gas Works Park, Seattle, 2014. Tighe Photography.

Gas Works Park, Seattle, 2014.

Gas Works Park, Seattle, 2014. Tighe Photography.

Thaisa Way is associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington. She is the author of Unbounded Practices: Women, Landscape Architecture, and Early Twentieth Century Design.

See more images and learn about Haag and the making of this iconic Seattle landmark in The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design. Watch a trailer for the book here.

Meet Richard and Thaisa and pick up a signed copy of the book at these upcoming events: