The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History

By Carolyn Merchant | Go to book overview

Introduction

The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History introduces the many dimensions of human interaction with nature over time. As people have lived and spread out over the planet, they have modified its forests, plains, and deserts. Those changes in turn have affected the ways in which people organize their social and religious systems. The Guide offers the reader a brief history of that interaction as it took place in North America; a mini-encyclopedia of concepts, laws, agencies, and people pertinent to the field; a timeline of important events; and a set of print, visual, and electronic resources for further reading and research.

Environmental history is both one of the oldest and newest fields within human history. All cultures have oral and written traditions that explain human origins and encounters with the natural world through stories about local landscapes and ways to perpetuate life from the land. Many cultures developed these early ideas into elaborate oral and written traditions, and finally into modern scientific approaches to explaining and managing the vicissitudes of nature. Religion, science, art, and literature provided ideas as they evolved over time, while records such as calendars, diaries, account books, treatises, and museum collections give access to human practices that modified the landscape.

Environmental history comprises a set of approaches to doing history that brings nature into the story. Natural conditions such as climate, rainfall, terrain, vegetation, and animal life create possibilities for the quality of human life. Human systems of producing and reproducing life over time entail technologies, economies, governance, and social structures. Such systems in

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