Editor’s note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.
Good historians complicate the past. The best then go on to clarify the past that they have complicated.
One of those, Donald Worster, will be at Boise State University the evening of Thursday, Mar 17, to talk about John Muir as part of Samantha Harvey’s Idea of Nature series. And, the morning of Friday, Mar 18, at the new JUMP facility downtown, Idaho Conservation League is sponsoring a 90-minute discussion with Dr. Worster and three Idaho conservation leaders.
Worster’s first book made plain his ambitions for the history he would write: Nature’s Economy traces the ideas of ecology from the 1750s to the present day. His second, The Dust Bowl, won the Bancroft Prize in American history for its humane but clear-eyed account of how the settlers of the southern plains, and the government that gave them generous assistance, failed to meet the ecological challenge the Dust Bowl put to them. He found two main reasons: the vast scale of the destruction, and social and economic preconceptions non-native Americans have applied to our lands, then and now, even when the lands tell us something different.
He has written a history of how the hydraulic West-dams, canal works and dependent agriculture-came to be and in its turn shaped our region; biographies of John Wesley Powell and John Muir that place them and their pioneering alive in their times; and four books of essays on conjunctions of water, lands and people, mostly but not only in the West. His newest book, Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance, is a series of transects into that rise and decline as a physical and social phenomenon.
I doubt anyone knows better the patterns nature and people have wrought together in the American West. He knows the West deeply, knows the origins in other places and times of the West’s dominant culture and driving ideas, and also the long traffic, now accelerating, of other cultures with ours.
Over 150-plus years, what has the American conservation tradition, and we who are among its inheritors and present-day makers, made of the natural world? This is a personal as well as historical question to which Dr. Worster has given one of the best answers: we have used the natural world "as a standard of coherence against which to measure our culture." Yes, I nodded when I read this-I have loved the White Clouds, Bear Valley, wild salmon, and their compeers, but I have also used them for decades now as measures of my culture and time, and self.
Worster is a fine speaker and teacher. He will talk Thursday night of the real John Muir, and signals from Muir’s achievements for us. Friday, he will talk with Marie Kellner of the Idaho Conservation League, Dayna Gross of The Nature Conservancy, and Brad Brooks of The Wilderness Society, about water, agriculture, public lands and people in Idaho conservation today. Here in his words is what you can expect if you come to either event: "Environmental history ought to have a few ideas to offer the public, and those ideas ought to have a little conviction in them as well as reason and evidence."