“Race and nature are at the heart of the story:” Part I of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege

Today’s post is the first of a two-part interview with Mark Fiege (pronounced FEE-gee, rhymes with BeeGee), who has just published The Republic of Nature:  An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2012).  Mark is a colleague of mine at Baa Ram U., and his book delivers what its sweeping subtitle suggests–a striking reinterpretation of American history as environmental history, with chapters that span the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. 

Because we have had conversations on this blog about many of the issues Mark addresses in his book, I believe that many of you will want to learn more about The Republic of Nature.  Those of you who are training graduate students in history and who are looking for ways to bring environmental history into your survey and upper-division lectures and readings will find this book indispensible.  American historians will learn something new, and non-U.S. historians will behold a model for using environmental history in telling a national story.  Furthermore, all readers who enjoys brisk prose and surprising insights into stories you thought you already knew will be rewarded with discoveries on nearly every page. 

The Republic of Nature is not a textbook, but rather an attempt to interpret key episodes or turning points in American history as environmental history, reconsidering them from the different angles employed by environmental historians and their extra-disciplinary colleagues.  Its nine chapters explore New England witchcraft, the Declaration of Independence, “King Cotton,” Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address, the Transcontinental Railroad, the atomic bomb, Brown v. Board of Education, and the energy crisis of the 1970s.  (Click here to learn more about the book at its own website.)

In today’s conversation, we talk about nature, race, and their central roles in American history:

Historiann:  Abraham Lincoln and race are emotionally and actually at the center of your book:  Lincoln’s profile at Mt. Rushmore greets us on the dust jacket of your book.  Your introduction opens with a fascinating meditation on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Chapters 3 through 5 focus respectively on slavery and cotton production, the mythic and actual biographies of Abraham Lincoln, and the Battle and Address of Gettysburg.  And finally, your interest in race and the color line in American history are evident again in your choice to focus on Brown v. Board of Education in chapter 8.  What is it about Abraham Lincoln and America’s record on race that attracted your interest as an environmental historian?  I can’t help but perceive a rebuke to environmental historians who perhaps have not attended to this aspect of the American historical landscape–or is that an unwarranted assumption?

Mark Fiege:  Researching and writing this book has convinced me that race and the black freedom struggle are central to American history, perhaps even its defining elements. But I’m an environmental historian, and another part of me recognizes that all social struggles unfold in the material medium generally known as nature. So I felt that I had to explain how race and nature are at the heart of the story.

While working on the book, I came across “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the national anthem composed in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. I had never heard it performed, so the ethnomusicologist Deborah Wong gave me a version of it on a CD. It is profoundly moving, as great as any of the other national anthems. In it, people wander across an awesome providential landscape until they come to a place where they can live in God’s sheltering grace. It presents a kind of alternative Manifest Destiny that is about redemption, not conquest. It captures perfectly the sense that the struggle is centered in a landscape and involves a people’s special relationship to nature. 

So I think my focus on race is less a rebuke to anyone than an embrace of what I take to be the truth of the matter–that this is what American history, at its core, is really about.       

This is fascinating—although in many respects it’s not a surprise, is it, that people who were overwhelmingly or are descended from agricultural laborers would use nature as a powerful expressive concept?  Your work in the chapter “King Cotton” on the harnessing of the”bio-power” of “natural increase” and the new staple crop to spread slavery into the southwest, speaks to this intimate relationship between African Americans and nature.

MF:     You’re right, it’s not a surprise that agricultural laborers would use their experience of nature as the source of ideas about themselves. What is surprising is how important this was but how little scholarly attention it has received. Somehow, many Americans have segregated–and I use that word deliberately–race and nature not only in scholarly discourse, but in much of our popular and political discourse, too. Nature is John Muir and Henry David Thoreau; race is Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. Du Bois. In fact, Douglass and Du Bois had plenty to say about nature, it’s just that to them, nature was wrapped up in the problem of race, and race was wrapped up in the problem of nature. I can no longer read their works without imagining them to be nature writers.

One of Du Bois’s most stunning books is Darkwater (1920), which is shot through with discussions of nature–and race. At one point in the book, Du Bois describes his visits to the Grand Canyon and what is now Acadia National Park in Maine. Is it possible that nature writing somewhere along the line underwent a kind of whitening that has enabled its otherwise well-intentioned enthusiasts seemingly to avoid the problem of race? Is it possible that 21st century academicians have inherited intellectual categories constructed in the Jim Crow era and the origins of which we have forgotten?

It’s interesting that you describe consulting a musicologist.  I’m sure that in writing such a sweeping retinterpretation of American history that you had to rely on the guidance and support of experts outside your original field of expertise in history, as well as people like Wong outside of history entirely.  That’s one of the things I really enjoy about environmental historians—their methodological catholicity, or promiscuity, if you prefer.  Are there particular chapters that have received strong pushback from “traditional” experts in their fields?  Do you anticipate that one or two chapters in particular might be controversial?

Mostly people have received my work with great interest, which I appreciate, but there has been some pushback from friends and colleagues both inside and outside of environmental history. Some are uncomfortable with my interpretation of the atomic bomb, for example. This is an emotionally disturbing and morally unsettling topic, and it filled me with intense anguish when I researched it and wrote about it. In the story, childhood nature study and the emotion that Rachel Carson called “the sense of wonder” inspired the atomic scientists to produce the knowledge necessary to build the bomb. I now believe that an honest appraisal of the bomb requires us to understand that it embodies the purest of tragedies, that the emotions we associate with children and the impulse to align innocent human life with a fundamental order in the universe enabled the atomic scienstists–consciously, and with the best of intentions–to produce a weapon of overwhelming malignity. I did not enjoy writing this story, and I hope that angry readers will forgive me for telling the truth as I saw it.

Some friends and colleagues also have been skeptical that the Brown v. Board of Education case as experienced in Topeka really is environmental history:  too much pavement, buildings, schoolrooms, ideas of race, and so forth. Their objections raise basic questions about what is, and is not, environmental history. Obviously, I would like to extend environmental history analysis into other realms of American history, beyond the histories of agriculture, forests, rivers, national parks, animals, and the like, my own work included, that have defined the field. The color line, it seems to me, was more than just a legal abstraction; it was a material practice grounded in the social experience of landscape and its physical properties. The color line ran through fields, forests, wildlife, water, and fish, to be sure; and its architects drew it into the urban landscape, where it ran up and down hills, through freezing weather, along muddy streets and into flood-prone neighborhoods, through houses and schoolrooms, and into the organic bodies of people.

Here and in your Brown v. Board chapter; you’re making a forceful argument for understanding the embodied consequences of segregation, in effect asking your readers to consider the long-term material effects of the color line.  You are working in the grain of environmental historians who see the human body as a subject for environmental history.  Is that at the root of the controversy you allude to here–your inclusion of humans along with non-human animals, whereas your critics are resistant to including humans and their bodies as part of nature?  You and I have talked about this before, and you know that I (along with many other historians of women, gender, and sexuality) agree with you that human bodies must be considered as part of environmental history. 

Do you see this controversy mostly among environmental historians who (as you wrote above) want to restrict environmental history to “agriculture, forests, rivers, national parks, [and] animals,” or do you see this pressure as coming from non-environmental historians who see you (and others) as “invading” their turf?  Or is it a little of both? 

It may be that some environmental historians are uncomfortable with collapsing the boundary between people and nature. One strain of thought in the environmental movement has separated people out as either a special (and deeply problematic) part of the creation or as inherently unnatural. Much early environmental history, my own work included, assumed a “people and nature” dichotomy even as it broke down that dichotomy. That dichotomy is now virtually untenable as historians such as Linda Nash, Conevery Bolton Valencius, and Nancy Langston point out that the body (setting aside the fact that it is an evolved organism) is permeable to the substances in the environments through which it moves. I think this is one of the most exciting trends in environmental history, because it enables us to talk to colleagues outside the field who study the body in cultural and social terms.

I think we now have a historiography that enables us to locate people at the center of history but also in relationship to the material substances of which they are made and which surround them, a historiography that takes into consideration the ways that bodies are culturally constructed, socially conditioned, material things. Probably there is an inherent tension in this because environmental history has prided itself on making non-human things relevant to human history. Ultimately I don’t see this as an irresolvable problem because the focus on the body’s materiality can help us see how human life and history are inextricably bound up in the lives and histories of plants and animals and in the properties of the matter, energy, and forces that make up our world.

If there is or will be resistance to this approach from outside the field of environmental history, it might derive from our inescapable but nonetheless problematic use of the term “nature.” As Raymond Williams pointed out years ago, nature is one of the most complex, difficult, but extraordinarily useful words in the English language. The problem for many historians is that some people often made claims on nature to suppress other people and to legitimate hierarchies of power and domination. According to the logic of the powerful, because some people are “naturally” inferior or their behavior “unnatural,” those people must be suppressed, marginalized, excluded, removed, enslaved, or exterminated. I don’t think that environmental historians will ever resolve this problem, but I don’t think that the answer is to assume that there is nothing in the world that is nature or natural. It seems to me that the utility of “nature” is that it allows us to describe the holism of human history in a way that incorporates but is not limited to economics, geography, technology, ecology, and other material relationships, processes, and things. 

Having spent hours and hours pondering this, I have to say that “nature” is a problem for any historian, environmental or otherwise. But I don’t think the answer is to run from it; quite the contrary, I think the answer is to embrace it and wrestle with it. To do otherwise is to ignore a huge part of the human experience, and it is to ignore the ways that past people who resisted oppression, people such as W.E.B. Du Bois, themselves made legitimate, justifiable, compelling claims on nature.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on “The bloody, rich mulch of life.”  (Aren’t you curious?)

Mark’s national book tour begins today in Madison, Wisconsin, and continues in the East through the end of April.  The list price for The Republic of Nature is $34.95, an amazing deal, considering that this is a handsomely produced hardback with three lengthy and lavish photo essays interspersed in its pages.  (You can find it for as low as $22.83 at major internet book sellers, too.)  Here’s Mark’s book tour schedule–specific dates and locations for his Pacific Coast tour will be announced later.

Madison, Wisconsin:

March 27, Tuesday, 4:00-5:30pm, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center for Culture, History, and the Environment


March 31, Saturday, 1:00pm, Abraham Lincoln Book Shop. Watch the event online at:  www.virtualbooksigning.net

April 2, Monday, 4:00-5:30pm University of Chicago, Program on the Global Environment and the Workshop on American Social History

Washington, D.C.:

April 3, Tuesday, 4:00pm, Georgetown University Department of History


April 9 and 10, Monday and Tuesday, public talk Tuesday, 4:30-6:00pm, Bryn Mawr College

New York City:

April 11-12, Wednesday evening TBA, Thursday morning TBA, New School for Social Research

Marlton, New Jersey:

April 14, Saturday, 2:00pm, Marlton Barnes & Noble


April 16, Monday, 4:00-6:00pm, Educator Event, and 6:00pm, book talk, Barnes & Noble downtown


April 17, Tuesday, 6:00pm, Warwick Barnes & Noble


April 18, Wednesday, 7:00pm, Harvard Co-Op Bookstore


April 20, Friday, 1:30pm, Organization of American Historians conference

Fort Collins, Colorado:

April 29, Sunday, 2:00pm, Old Firehouse Books, Old Town Fort Collins

Boulder, Colorado:

May 24, Thursday, 7:30pm, Boulder Book Store


May 26, Saturday, 2:30pm, Tattered Cover Books, Lo Do location

16 thoughts on ““Race and nature are at the heart of the story:” Part I of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege

  1. I like that double-shot through Philly, although I doubt whether I can make either day. One does not very much hear of university presses willing or able to sustain any kind of a tour, much less coast-to-coast. My own “tour” was mostly self-propelled and profoundly local. Just ordered it for our library, and a colleague will perhaps use it for a course next year.


  2. Thank you Historiann & Dr. Fiege. I’m passing this interview and the book link onto my environmental history colleague who works on Canadian perspectives.

    I’m intrigued personally even though this is far from my expertise – I expect reading this would give me insight that would help with the growing number of grad students and seniors who’re studying in this vein.

    Hooray for putting together something that sounds as if it’s both widely synthetic (in the best sense of the term) and thought-provoking! I expect we’ll be seeing a copy on our library shelves as soon as the next budget year kicks in.


  3. Wow, thank you for this interview.

    collapsing the boundary between people and nature

    I’ve commented before about the interdisciplinary science+humanities class I’ve been teaching for first-year students. I have been struggling all year to reconcile my students’ simultaneous desire to see hunter/gatherer lifestyles as virtuous because they are “close to nature” and refusal to accept that people might be like any other organism in an ecosystem, with our own particular ecosystem functions. I think we do want to collapse that boundary, but only in certain ways and for certain purposes. Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory has been helpful to me in thinking about this.

    I look forward to reading Fiege’s perspective on the development of the atomic bomb. As expressed here, it makes me think of Felix Hoenikker (Cat’s Cradle). I pondered assigning Vonnegut to my first year students just for these complications but I worried that I could not help them out of the darkness. We read Tennyson instead.


  4. Janice and Indyanna–thanks for spreading the word and ordering copies! I’m sure a Canadian environmental history would be completely doable, because it seems to me like your history is much more about the natural resources than U.S. history is typically described. (That is, U.S. history is as much about conquest and exploitation as Canadian history, with even more violence and conflict, but it’s still the political legacy rather than the legacy of conquest, as Patricia Limerick would have it, that dominates mainstream U.S. textbooks & survey courses.)

    I think it would be terrific to put the fur trade, for example, into a narrative about Canadian resources that runs through 19th C prairies, 20th C petroleum and tourist landscapes, to 21st century water and arctic politics. (We will all soon bow to our Canadian overlords, who will likely dominate fresh water supplies later in this century.)

    truffula: I’m glad you are intrigued by Mark’s book. I was thinking about you as someone who might be especially interested. I know you’ll be interested in his chapter on the Bomb, because he makes an argument that is pretty provocative both from an environmental history and a history of technology & science perspective.

    I’m really enjoying his chapter on the Energy Crisis of the 1970s. As one of the schoolchildren who were turned out of their schools a few years in a row in order to save money on heating the buildings, and as someone who remembers the long gas lines and the rationing, I’m finding it fascinating to see a part of my life transformed into history. (I think many readers are about the same age as me, so I’m assuming that you’ll remember this too.)


  5. During the 1973/4 energy eclipse, I was on the lam after (sort of) passing prelims and driving with a friend across country. You were not allowed buy gas on alternate days, depending on some algorithm in your license plate, and nobody could buy gas on Sundays. Fortunately, we were in the freedom-loving, anarchy-embracing “state” of Texas, where you could buy gas as long as you had money, grab some firecrackers in the convenience store attached to the filling station, and toss them out of the car into the night sky, provoking a small cattle stampede (in one event that actually happened). In the brutally cold last few days of the Ford administration, when every school north of Tennessee was closed for a week, I was trying to drive to my first day on an actual history “job” that was in the then-unnamed domain of public history. It was so cold that the gas pumps were frozen and I don’t know how my car kept running until I got to my destination. Was that version of me some kind of a historical actor or something, even though I was not riding on a Blue Ox?


  6. That was a fine interview, and I am really enjoying Republic of Nature.

    I am lucky to host Mark in the first event listed above – March 31 at Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago. As Historiann states this interview will be webcast live, so you can watch wherever you are in nature, provided you have “improved” the nature around you into a reasonably high-speed internet connection:-).

    But the “location” of the event for Internet viewers is is http://www.virtualbooksigning.net/virtualbooksigning.html

    March 31 is a two-part event beginning at Noon, and Mark’s interview begins at about 1:15 Central Time.



  7. For a non-historian, environmental history is far from being a clear concept. It doesn’t seem to be the history of the environment and more the connection between the environment and human history (here American). Apart from the fact, for instance, that fishermen live near large bodies of water and desert dweller will not have a maritime history, I am quite lost with the concept.

    I do know that, for example, fascism is common to very diverse environments. I know that affluence we have experienced before 2008 brings out a lot of corruption, crime, etc. The environment doesn’t seem to matter much the symptoms of affluence are quite similar whether you are in the US, Saudi or China.


  8. Koshembos: stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment, when I try to press Mark on his definition and limits (if any) of environmental history. I am not an environmental historian, but I have learned a great deal from Mark and a number of other of our colleagues who do environmental history.

    I would say that environmental history started originally as a history of nonhuman features of usually remote or un-settled landscapes and non-human animals (i.e. histories of national parks, particular landscapes, and charismatic megafauna like wolves and bears), and these histories were frequently tied to a particular political and advocacy position (i.e. environmentalism, just as women’s history has traditionally been intertwined with feminism). But over the past twenty years its scope has expanded to include human animals and their interactions with non-human features, as well as histories of urban spaces and landscapes, too.

    cgeye: come on down to the LoDo Tattered Cover!

    And thanks, Bjorn, for the comment and the link to the live webcast. Good luck on Saturday! It should be a fun event.


  9. Fantastic, Historiann, and congratulations, Mark. Planning kind of a “do-it-yourself” book tour myself for sometime next school year, so this is inspiring. I was totally unaware of this book, so thanks for posting Historiann; I’m also passing this on to our environmental historian here.


  10. Am leaving for ASEH (Madison stop 1) tomorrow. I hope Mark will come to our panel on teaching environmental history where the high school practitioners (all four of us!) will be out in force.


  11. koshembos, all organisms interact with and modify the environments in which they exist. I understand environmental history to be about the ways people, specifically, do this. The decisions we make and the trajectories we trace are not only about the challenges or the technology but also about who we are, culturally.

    I’m a research scientist (with a BS in engineering) and not a historian but I find environmental history important when–among other things–thinking about climate and sustainable development challenges of the 21st century. Human history is littered with cultural groups who have confronted environmental challenges in different ways with different outcomes. I guess you can be completely fatalist about this and leave it up to God but I’d like to imagine we can use our giant brains for more than parlor tricks.


  12. Ann, thanks for interviewing Mark. Glad that the Public Lands History Center folks posted on facebook the link to your blog. Great stuff.


  13. Pingback: More on “the bloody, rich mulch of life:” Part II of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  14. Pingback: More on “the bloody, rich mulch of life:” Part II of my interview with The Republic of Nature author Mark Fiege | Historiann

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