Looking Back at History
The first weeks of American environmental history introduce students to the Columbian exchange, and to the changes in the land caused by the environmental practices (agricultural and cultural) of the European settlers, as they displaced Indians in the habitats of North America. This assignment lets students examine those changes in some detail, using a single species and/or commodity as a focus.
Context for Use
Description and Teaching Materials
Looking Back at History: An Environmental Perspective
In your groups, choose a non-human organism in American environmental history, and write a first-person narrative from that character's perspective in 1800. Looking back at history, what changes and/or continuities have they seen or experienced? Although you should write first person papers, you can use Jim O'Brien's essay on beaver as an example of the kinds of issues you might address: culture and nature, ecological communities and ecological niches, habitat and boundaries, commercialization and commodification, environmental impacts and carrying capacity.
Here are some possibilities (among many):
- a deer
- a smallpox germ
- a white pine tree
This project will probably require some research, but you should also be imaginative and speculative. Essays should probably be about 5 pages double-spaced.
Teaching Notes and Tips
References and Resources
Citation: Jim O'Brien, "A Beaver's Perspective on North American History," Free Spirits (1982), reprinted in Major Problems in American Environmental History, ed. Carolyn Merchant (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005)