I’ve saved up a few articles that I found absolutely fascinating over the last month or two. They’re a wide range of topics from scientific ethics , environmental history methodology, the community created at a WWII ordinance depot, to relabeling monumental Modern architecture…
This article from Kim TallBear on Buzzfeed is one of their longer, serious journalistic postings. I came across it because I was looking into the reburial of the remains of Taoyateduta (Little Crow) at a church in Flandreau S.D. after decades of dishonor. [A Mpls Star Tribune article was my introduction to that story, link here]. The author of this piece is a relative of Taoyateduta and mentioned that case in her piece about the long history of academics treating native peoples like natural history specimens, and the ethics of contemporary genetic study. Link to her article “Who Owns The Ancient One? The fight for an ancient skeleton shows how science undermines and exploits Native-American identity. It’s just one reason we need more of us in the lab” here.
I’ve started reading Process, a blog from the Organization of American Historians (OAH), after reading an article by Joshua Specht reflecting on the study of Environmental History (link here) and this podcast on Nature’s Past from the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE) called “Has Environmental History Lost Its Way?” (link here). Apparently, at a recent annual meeting there was some debate over the definition of environmental history. Early practitioners asked questions about what nature was doing in the past and what human impacts on nature have been. Those using that approach have been termed “materialists.” After the “cultural turn,” more studies looked into what people have thought about nature, the history of scientific research, how nature has been treated in popular culture, how people’s relationships with nature have been characterized by other people, etc. They have been termed “culturalists.” It seems that culturalists have been rolling on their topics, while materialists are waving their arms, “Wait! There’s still actual physical nature stuff that needs to be taken into account!” This has been compounded by the growth of the field–more people who call what they do environmental history, more people who are doing environmental history but don’t call it that, more people who weren’t trained as a historians doing history, more historians trying to track into science, geography, landscape architecture, etc.
I like the cultural turn. I find those questions more interesting (usually) and easier to research–well, maybe not easier, but more approachable, for me at least. I also like that environmental history includes a lot of different disciplines. Cross-pollination is a buzzword that ideally provides a well-rounded study that is relevant to more people. But I also get why it becomes boggy very quickly. It takes time and dedication to become skilled in one’s one field. Most people can’t learn enough about other fields to develop a good multidisciplinary study unilaterally, and collaboration is tough to nurture and maintain. It’s the same reason I’m vastly impressed by transnational and global history… you just have to be so well-informed about SO MUCH STUFF to do it well. It takes additional time to the learn the “language” of other disciplines, as it would to learn a different spoken language for global history research. In public history too, there’s crossover into law, structural engineering, construction, board development, volunteer management, event planning… In school, I dipped my toe from history into anthropology/archaeology and the difference in language, methodology, and theory was more vast than I would have expected. And some of the folks in that department made me feel like a trespasser–not all, but some. I still get condescension from archaeologists because I call myself a historian. Like I can’t know what soil stratification and post-processual theory are–Granted, my knowledge stops not much further than knowing what they are, but STILL.
… I apologize for the diatribe. I’d think that the ability to successfully incorporate information from/about the physical sciences has to be just as difficult as crossing into social science fields, if not more so. Bogginess has to be expected in an expanding field, but I still think cross-pollination, like world peace, is a goal worth the pursuit.
Back to the original point about materialist v. culturalist: It was an interesting debate to hear about and think about, but I would think good environmental history can come out of both approaches. Some of those who contributed to the podcast linked above talked about some people who are combining them too. So, hopefully people keep producing good work in either or both approaches. And that’s my two cents.
Starting with a great title, the article on South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s website “Igloo, South Dakota: The Utopia that War Built” by Michael Zimny (link here) is a fascinating look at the rich history of a modern-era ghost town. Fort Igloo was a 21,000-acre ordinance depot built in 1942 in far southwestern South Dakota. As the Department of Defense moved thousands of workers out there, they provided housing and community facilities for employees and their families. After a hard 1920s and 30s in Dakota, this employment windfall had a major impact, and the diverse workforce set about forming a community. There were female WOWs (women ordinance workers–though it says many were let go after the war ended), tribal members, African-Americans, Italian POWs, and more, and the article claims that former residents don’t remember any trouble between the groups. [I will say, however, that nostalgia being what it is, this point might deserve additional research.] The depot was closed in 1967 and that closure very nearly killed the nearby towns of Provo and Edgemont. A lot of buildings on the depot proper were surplussed for materials or moved off-site to alleviate housing shortages (particularly on the Pine Ridge Reservation to the east) but the “igloo” ordinance bunkers and several abandoned buildings still seem to be there. I found another website (link here) with all kinds of photos of life at Igloo.
Here is the Google Maps view of the main complex – pan to the west and you’ll see all the bunkers… crazy.
“Brutalism” has been a popularly hated style of architecture but awareness of its historic impact is gaining traction. So, now architectural historians are trying to put it in context–to sort out what it is, why it’s called that, who made it, and what were they thinking. They’re finding that a lot of architects at the time didn’t like the term even though they liked the aesthetic. My understanding was that Brutalism refers to the French term “beton brut” or raw/unfinished concrete, which was a signifying characteristic of building materials in that style. There are some BEAUTIFUL examples–I’ve seen two in person that come to mind immediately: the St. John’s Abbey Church in Minnesota (see my post here) and the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York (their website here). Many others have made beautiful photographs… A new effort is being made to use the term Heroic architecture instead, to more closely align with the intent of the architects.
“Originally seen to reflect the democratic attributes of a powerful civic expression—authenticity, honesty, directness, strength—Brutalism eventually came to signify hostility, coldness, and inhumanity. Ambitions which had been viewed as positively monumental were condemned as bureaucratic and overbearing. As a banner for a movement, “Brutalism” was a rhetorical catastrophe….
Heroic refers at once to the formal attributes of the buildings themselves—powerful, singular, aspiring to the iconic—and to the attitudes of the architects and institutions that created them.”
This article on DOCOMOMO-US’s website by Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley, as “excerpted and adapted” from Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (The Monacelli Press, 2015), makes the case for relabeling. They hope that dispensing with the linguistic baggage of Brutalism will open up “a more balanced discussion about their legacy and value for us today.” The link to the full article and the gorgeous photos is here.
Well, there is my run-down of recent interesting reading. Please feel free to share what you’re reading in the comments!