Making Nature’s History Visible: Rethinking Winners and Losers in Examinations of Wind, Rivers, and Sharks

AHA Session 87
Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
Cindy Ott, Saint Louis University
Cindy Ott, Saint Louis University

Session Abstract

The strain in Western discourse about nature that was optimistic and triumphalist viewed the environment and its resources in terms of expansion and economic growth. Concern over the other prominent side of the debate—nature’s scarcity and degradation—inspired leagues of activists, historians and other public participants to record the environmental costs associated with human progress. Amidst these two prevalent positions, environmental historians have long delegated winners and losers in their narratives. Our panel takes what might initially be perceived as oppositional forces and turns upside down the assumption of which view, position, or form of knowledge would, in that situation, become dominant. In doing so, we reconsider the gap between local knowledge and the methods of science as they pertain to wind; account for the life and death of rivers in terms of cultural processes as much as historical ones; and finally, reframe our understanding of predator and prey by examining the position of sharks in our oceans as well as in our representations.

Linking environmental, cultural and intellectual history, the three panelists explore the theme of invisibility and visibility in their work. Risha Druckman reads between the lines of a key primary text to uncover the hidden voices, experiences, and expertise of artisans and peasants as they informed an emergent elite discourse about the nature and substance of the wind. In doing so, she challenges us to see the history that lies at the intersection between human experience and an otherwise invisible force in nature. Sigma Colón takes into account the complex matrix of human impact and popular culture as it has intersected with both the presence and absence of North-American rivers over the course of the 20th century. She invites us to consider times when the Colorado and the Los Angeles rivers, and others like them, have disappeared from view; and alternately, those moments when these rivers have sprung into focus. Her work suggests possibilities for re-envisioning these storied elements in our natural world. Jennifer Martin continues the conversation with a discussion of the complex and, at times, conflicting ways in which the American public has imagined and reimagined their relationships with sharks. As a group of marine fishes, sharks have long fascinated observers for their power and their hidden behaviors under the water’s surface. Martin narrates the historic circumstances that reversed the respective roles assigned to sharks and humans in their relationship with one another. She unpacks the iconography of recreational shark fishing in the United States and traces its changing role in marine conservation over the twentieth century in order to make sense of Americans’ cultural and ecological relationships to the world’s oceans.

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