History as Parable

"Farm Security Administration-Resettlement Administration: Vernon Evans family leaving South Dakota drought area for west." c.1935. Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (NLFDR), 4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, NY, 12538-1999. NARA, ARC ID #196413.

“Farm Security Administration-Resettlement Administration: Vernon Evans family leaving South Dakota drought area for west.” c.1935. Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (NLFDR), 4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, NY, 12538-1999. NARA, ARC ID #196413.

In The Public Historian’s August 2014 issue, David Glassberg’s article “Place, Memory, and Climate Change,” spoke to the need for public historians to engage with communities coping with changing climates that will disorient and be psychologically difficult for residents seeing coastlines fall below oceans, drought, frequent intense storms, and more.  He uses the term “parable” for those histories with the power to affect society as a whole in terms of attitude and action.  While public historians are well poised to create environmental histories with public reach and narrative intent, would the scope of a “parable” mean something new?

Glassberg proposes that environmental histories have followed three parables of collapse, sustainability, or resilience.  As public histories, “each kind of story has its value” [26].  The first to stress urgency, the second to give hope, and the third, with “the most value for public historians,” to show the possibilities for positive action within a given circumstance [26].  The resilience parables are the stories that show how people have met the challenges of natural disasters or financial collapse.

These reminded me of the narrative tropes of Hayden White that I learned about back in my historiography classes, but the concept of parable is interesting.  A parable would be a trope used strategically to teach a lesson, to elicit a response after the story is told.  There is a lot out there on the use of narrative in public history projects.  From my memory, the bulk of it talks about the power of narrative story arcs to increase engagement – to bring a viewer into the story, to lead them to the next part of the story, and to make them feel connected to the past.  There are those projects that go that step further towards a call to action to try to make people care about the future of a historic place, or better understand a story of marginalized peoples that could improve relations between groups of people, promote integration, and support civil rights.  But the slight slant of public history narrative as parable struck me.  The psychological comfort of a climatically disoriented society is a broad and pervasive goal.  It would take a large number of historians writing with that goal to bring about the intended impact…

What South Dakota histories of resilience would contribute…?  There are histories of agricultural adaptation to semi-arid climates, and histories of the irrigation and agricultural adaptations used to cope with relatively short intense droughts.  South Dakotans have also tried many “geo-engineering” fixes, like dams, that Glassberg warns against for their unintended consequences [29].  Fewer are the stories of how those major environmental changes affected people’s daily choices in how they lived their lives.

A sampling from my envio-hist reading list:

  • Boettcher, Susan E. and W. Carter Johnson. “Restoring the Pre-Settlement Landscape in Stanley County, South Dakota.” Great Plains Research: A Journal of Natural and Social Sciences 7 (Spring 1997), 27-40. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1310&context=greatplainsresearch
  • Carlson, Paul H. “Forest Conservation on the South Dakota Prairies.” South Dakota History (1971), 23-45.
  • Cleworth, Marc M. “Artesian-Well Irrigation: Its History in Brown County, South Dakota, 1889-1900.” Agricultural History 15(4) (October 1941), 195-201.
  • Fite, Gilbert C. “Great Plains Farming: A Century of Change and Adjustment.” Agricultural History 51(1) (January 1977), 244-256.
  • Helms, Douglas. “Conserving the Plains: The Soil Conservation Service in the Great Plains.” Agricultural History 64(2) (Spring 1990), 58-73.
  • Schell, Herbert S. “Drought and Agriculture in Eastern South Dakota during the Eighteen Nineties.” Agricultural History 5(4) (October 1931), 162-180.

One history that looked at people’s lives as they were introduced to a more technological way of dealing with water shortages is an interesting read, but I don’t know that it could serve as a parable of resilience…

  • Cannon, Brian Q. “’Quite a Wrestling Match’: The Adaptation of Dryland Farmers to Irrigation.” Agricultural History 66(2) (Spring 1992), 120-136.  It’s not about South Dakota, but we have our share of dryland v. irrigation agriculture.



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