The State of American History

By Herbert J. Bass | Go to book overview
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The State of Environmental History


To the rapid traveler the number of elms in a town is the measure of its civility.

-- Henry David Thoreau

Until recently I responded to the student's perennial question -- "Can you recommend something to read over the vacation?" -- by ticking off the usual list of books and articles. I even had a list mimeographed for the eager beavers. About a year ago, however, I altered the pattern. I was walking to my car after delivering the final lecture in the first half of a course in American cultural and intellectual history, when a student came roaring up on a motorbike. "Thanks for the course," he said. "And what could I read to prepare for next quarter?" I started to answer in the accustomed way when I noticed the boy had a sleeping bag and some light camping gear strapped to the bike. I changed my mind. "Forget the books," I said. "Get on that thing, travel as far as you can in the vacation, and 'read' the landscape." He looked startled, so I explained how the environment can be a historical document. The condition of the land, I pointed out, reflects the thought and culture of a people just as clearly as orthodox written evidence. I suggested that he make the environment his text for the next couple of weeks. He did, too, but he returned with a recommendation for a change in the assignment: there was so much to "read" he wished he had left the motorcycle traveled on foot!

On other occasions I have asked an audience to look out the nearest window and consider the face of the land. If there isn't a window, I


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The State of American History


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