Politics of Nature: Representing Rurality in Environmental History


This post is part of a series on Politics of Nature, edited by Emily Webster, in which contributors explore the diverse and complex relationships of humans and their nonhuman environments, as they are framed by politics, broadly construed. The series showcases the ways in which thinking about, writing about, and acting within nature has affected these relationships.

This summer, instead of being in the archives as planned, I’m on my parents’ back porch at my childhood home in coastal Maine. As always when I return, I’m struck by the quiet and the dark, the cacophony of wind and birds and waves, so different from my apartment in Washington, D.C. In the enduringly tight-knit town, I’ll see my kindergarten teacher, my high school ex-boyfriend, and the farmers down the road who make soap, all while running a quick errand. I can’t escape the scent of salty air, the drum of birds’ wings in the hayfield, and the sweet tang of fir and spruce needles. I’ve found myself in a different kind of archive: not a climate-controlled reading room, but the living record of a landscape and community that have shaped me as an individual and an environmental historian. 

All landscapes are inscribed with stories, but those in rural places are most legible to me. The stories on which I grew up are peopled with ancient icesheets and water, forests and granite; vibrant Wabanaki cultures; farmers and sea captains; artists and writers. The landscape of my childhood is a landscape of work: of producing food from the soil and the sea, of harnessing the energy of trees and wind. Its history is told in the songs people have sung from mountains and fields and ship decks and the shores of rivers teeming with logs being driven to the coast. Its archives endure in falling stone walls and humus scorched by controlled burning and straight stands of pine. In the venison hunted by my family or blueberries cultivated by generations of migrant workers, I can taste both past and present.  

Logging site
Logging site, central Maine. Photo by author.
[Image description: Green log skidder in snowy woods.]

It is small wonder that I am trying to tell these stories now, as an environmental historian of agriculture and climate change. There are not enough stories about rural spaces and the people who live in them. This is a fact that reflects today’s politics; ways of being with the natural world; and understandings of work, landscape, and the origins of our food, raw materials, and energy. Environmental historians often write rural spaces as spaces of encounter, telling stories of the ecological or ideological clashes that ensue when folks from elsewhere enter a rural landscape. Often, rural lives and livelihoods receive historical attention when they are disrupted or encountered by (often urban and/or elite) outsiders, or else characterized as a foil to urban spaces. But rural spaces are places in which to be, rather than locations to encounter and transform. I am eager to write the stories of being in rural spaces, rather than encountering and transforming them from elsewhere. 

Rural lives, landscapes, and livelihoods have become increasingly central to my research because I don’t just care about their past; I am invested in their present and future. I also care about how rural people and spaces are represented in already-written and yet-to-be-written histories, and the politics of today and tomorrow. My former high school classmates are the rising generation of lobstermen who will contend with a rapidly-warming Gulf of Maine, hunters who believe firmly in their right to own guns to feed their families, and small-business owners, tradespeople, and professionals who want to remain in their generational communities even as Maine’s population ages and jobs are harder to find.[1] Social and environmental transformations, inevitably, do occur, notwithstanding the tendencies of rural communities to modulate those changes through tradition, generational and community ties, and reliance on natural resource economies.

Lobsterboat at work
Lobsterboat at work, Frenchboro, Maine. Photo by author.
[Image description: Men working on a fishing boat with a sailboat in the distance.]

Today, rural communities like those in Maine are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, to epidemic diseases such as opioid addiction or COVID-19, and to economic precarity amongst policies that favor the urban wealthy.[2] The long histories of disruption and loss in rural communities and landscapes, particularly in New England, with its 400 years of European settlement and 10,000 years of indigenous communities, provide cautionary tales for the present.[3] At the same time, rural pasts and presents can offer valuable models of creativity, resilience, and adaptation: the very responses we need to today’s unprecedented ecological and social challenges. Voters in rural areas hold local and national decision-making power that will help determine the outcomes of November’s presidential and congressional elections, and those decisions cannot be reduced to facile generalizations of “rural” conservatives or liberals.[4] Environmental historians and policymakers can learn from the expertise of rural people in energy, agriculture and food production, rural adaptations to environmental change, and the values of connection and reciprocity which many rural communities continue to hold. 

The collective forgetting of rurality in government, in history, in the everyday lives of many folks who live in urban and suburban spaces, is not just an electoral miscalculation or a historiographical gap. It is a substantial loss in our understanding of who we are, who we have been, and who we might be in the future. A fuller investigation of rural lives and landscapes in and of themselves is wildly political, not just because representing these stories helps us to more fully understand and address the political and environmental realities of today, but because these people and places matter. They have an inherent value to the field of environmental history; their ecologies and epistemologies are significant for their own sake. Telling rural stories—writing rural environmental histories—is an affirmation of the dignity of rural landscapes and people. It advocates for their support and recognizes the lessons they can offer. 

Wild blueberries
Wild blueberries, Beech Hill, Maine. Photo by author.
[Image description: Blueberries surrounded by vegetation.]

I cannot claim centuries or millennia of indigeneity to this rural place, or historical expertise in its stories. My heritage and my research lie across the Atlantic, in a different landscape of mountains and farms. But I can claim a childhood here, parents who have spent the majority of their lives working in and for rural communities, and a way of life that has been shaped by this landscape and its people. My privilege in this rural space, and many others, as a white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class woman, has shaped my understanding of it. I can’t speak for others whose histories and identities are entangled in that of rural Maine, but I can recognize what this place has given me and how it has shaped me into a historian. 

For the past few months, I’ve been living in one rural landscape while writing about another. Immersed in these spaces and their stories, the political nature of my own research has become clearer to me. As I study the history of rural spaces, I represent myself and the people and ecologies I love, documenting the complicated relationships between humans and the more-than-human world in the best way I know how. Ensuring a just and sustainable future for all people, and all ecologies, necessitates a thorough and compassionate consideration of rural pasts and presents. We urgently need such complex stories today.

[1] Fred Bever, “Maine Fishermen Prepare For Losses And Gains In A Climate-Changed Ocean,” Maine Public (September 23, 2019); Bill Trotter, “Milder Winters Shaving Weeks off Ice Fishing Seasons in Maine,” Bangor Daily News (April 16, 2018).

[2] “Rural Communities: COVID-19,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (accessed on August 4, 2020); Khary K. Rigg, Shannon M. Monnat, and Melody N. Chavez, “Opioid-Related Mortality in Rural America: Geographic Heterogeneity and Intervention Strategies,” International Journal of Drug Policy 57 (July 2018): 119-129.

[3] See, among many others, William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1983); Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015); Howard S. Russell and Mark B. Lapping, A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1982); Strother E. Roberts, Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England, Early American Studies (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

[4] Jessica Piper, Michael Shepherd, and Caitlin Andrews, “What’s at Stake for Maine in One of the Most Uncertain Electoral Environments Ever,” Bangor Daily News (July 27, 2020).

*Cover image credit: Photo by author.

[Cover image description: clouds over a hayfield.]

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