Nature and History at the Nation’s Edge

scenter roof

This is my first post from the Field Institute for Environmental and Borderlands History, sponsored by the NEH as one of its summer institutes for university and college teachers. It’s being held at the University of Arizona, Tucson–the picture above is a view of the roof of the student union. Looks like a starship waiting to take off to these geeky eyes. Three cheers for nerd adventure!

The institute is quite the thing, bringing together teachers from fields as disparate as geography, anthropology, and literary studies–not to mention our kind overlords hosts, the historians of UAZ, Tucson. My own goals for this month-long project are fairly modest–to learn Desert Ecology 101, to understand the basics of Southwest history, and to bring back a photographic archive for use in teaching my students about environmental history and politics, especially the history and politics of the local “water wars.” (My family in Phoenix claims that the Colorado River belongs to them, but there’s the rub.) However, there are clearly many grand plans afoot among my distinguished colleagues, so we’ll see what sort of mischief arises as we head farther into the summer heat and deeper into Special Collections at the library.

Today, as an ice-breaker–if such a thing is possible in Tucson–we sat in small groups and discussed what we meant by the terms “environment” and “borderlands.” My own group wondered exactly what kind of borders create borderlands–the term as used by historians tends to refer to national or regional borderlands, but we are also interested in cultural, ethnic, and geographical borders within cities and neighborhoods. “The wrong side of the tracks” seems to us a kind of borderland, too. What we noticed about our use of “environment” is that it carries a strongly scientific and political valence at the same time, and that it tends to slide into “environmentalist” and “environmentalism”: the term for our immediate surroundings now implies a kind of person that guards or protects. I think this might be more true for my discipline, ecocriticism, than it is for environmental history or physical geography, but I’m not sure, and I intend to find out.

In any case, it became clear to me from the introductory lectures today that the notion of a transfrontier, an area that is better defined by geography and shared cultural and economic activity, rather than international borders, applies perfectly to Tucson and the Sonoran region to its west and south, especially when the history of the Tohono O’odham nation, which straddles the US/Mexico border, is taken into account. I will have more to say about this when we’ve actually gone into the field.

On a more archival note, we were allowed to see local natural history texts from mid-19th century Anglo-American explorers, and I was struck by their rigorously scientific tone. Just as in Victorian British natural history texts, animals are presented in written descriptions accompanied by illustrations, but unlike the more popular Victorian texts–I’m thinking of the Animate Creation series in particular–there is no attempt to make the animals perform allegorical functions. Foxes are foxes, rather than symbols of craftiness. As our art historian pointed out, however, it is interesting that only the birds are presented in color, as if the artists feel they must compete with Audubon, whose famous bird book was already circulating.

Personally, I feel lucky just to have found the bookstore, but tomorrow will bring our first trip into the field, and an experiment in cooking Saguaro cactus fruit the old-fashioned way, so I’m sure the feeling will fade. Until then, have a look at this xeriscaped garden, and then imagine acres of cactus stretching out to distant mountains…

old main garden

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2 thoughts on “Nature and History at the Nation’s Edge”

  1. Dear Anthony,

    Thanks for this post from the institute. It sounds like it’s getting off to a great start–how refreshing to know that the key terms of environment and borderlands are being questioned and explored from the start. I’m intrigued by the notion that environment and environmentalist imply a kind of guardianship. Considering my concern with the conjunction of Chicana/o literature and environmental writing and values, I wonder how the sense of “guardianship” shifts in the context of civil rights and activism? It seems to me that civil rights activists might be considered more troublemakers than guardians–a less noble moniker. One of the comparisons I make between the civil rights movement and the environmental movement in the 1960s/70s is that both groups (speaking very generally here) are working on behalf of the disempowered and/or voiceless. Yet, it seems that environmentalism perhaps preserves a sense of nobility/guardianship that civil rights activism has not (been allowed to?) preserved. Of course, there’s also class differences to take into account here, and lots of interesting possibilities to consider now that these two constituencies are converging in the environmental justice movement. But I’ll stop here, as I’ve gone on at length already. Thanks again for your post; I’ll enjoy the institute vicariously through your posts!

  2. Dear Priscilla,

    Thanks for replying!

    I should note that the group as a whole had an easier time with “borderlands” than “environment,” in part because borderlands seem more concrete and identifiable. I think every discipline present had its own sense of how to use “environment” as an analytic category, with further divisions existing within each discipline. There are, for instance, a lot of scholars here who teach and write about Gloria Anzaldua, and her sense of the the borderlands of spirit is simply not something that, say, post-Marxist geography is interested in. Is a nepantla an environment? I would say yes; the more physically-oriented disciplines might say no. (Not that I’m badmouthing geographers. It’s just a methodological thing.)

    My own sense of civil rights activists is that they are defenders–I’m not wedded to the “guardianship” language. There are a lot of environmental justice folks here, including Joni Adamson, and I think we would agree that activism and environment do go together in the texts we study.

    More later–now off to bed to prepare for our trip to Mexico and an examination of the mission system.

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