Landmarks: Places that Called Us to Environmental Humanities


In this series, we share short reflections on those special places that drew us into environmental humanities. Please join the conversation by leaving a question or comment below.

Hell’s Gate, 14 July 2010 — by Claire Campbell, Associate Professor of History

Looking toward Hell's Gate

The Georgian Bay is sometimes called the sixth Great Lake, because it’s as big as Lake Ontario and only partly separated from Lake Huron by the Bruce Peninsula. Like all the Lakes, it was shaped by the advance and retreat of glaciers tens of thousands of years ago. The ice shaped the lake beds and scraped the surface down to billion-year-old granite bedrock, now exposed in the form of thousands upon thousands of islands and jumbled interior in Ontario’s near north.

What grows here, especially along the shore, is tough, scrubby vegetation like juniper, oak and cedar, and most famously, the white pine. The colour (sorry: Canadian spelling) comes in the sheltered bays, in pink gneiss, cardinal flowers and Indian paintbrush and sumac, water lilies and Queen Anne’s Lace, pickerel weed and Joe Pye weed. The sounds are of water lapping, boat motors, and wind in the pine branches. The scent is of fresh water and pine needles baked in the sun and creosote from old crib docks. The poet Douglas LePan captured it perfectly:

Abrupt granite rising from the clearest
water in all the world.  Crowned with a tangled diadem
of blue green foliage…
And always beneath birdsong the sound of water.[i]

I have visited the Bay since I was a few months old, and I grew up surrounded by people who loved it as a heaven on earth. This photograph was taken on a day’s canoeing with my dad. We had just come through a narrow passage known as “Hell’s Gate” (it’s really not that bad), and stopped for lunch at the tip of Moose-Deer Point. To me it captures everything I love about the Bay: hints of the crevices and secret waterways through rock, but with a view to the open; pine and lichen and pink granite; water always in movement.

The Bay has a fascinating history. European explorers like Samuel de Champlain learned of longstanding patterns of travel, fishing, and berrying by Algonquin and Huron nations. Champlain called it la mer douce (the freshwater sea), and hoped it led west; the British military hoped it could be kept from American incursions. By the nineteenth century it was one of the great lumbering regions of North America. But as the pine and fish were thinned, others saw in the Bay another desirable frontier: a rough and romantic “wilderness” for camping and cottaging. Now the Bay confronts several environmental concerns common to the Great Lakes: invasive species, dropping water levels, balancing public access.

Now the Bay confronts several environmental concerns common to the Great Lakes: invasive species, dropping water levels, balancing public access.

Why study a place like the Bay? Because it tells us a great deal about our historical relationships with nature. Scientists read biological proxies to understand environmental change; humanists read many other kinds of records. French and British cartographers tried to map the uneven coastline as part of their strategic contest for the interior. Canada’s best-known artists, the Group of Seven, painted the Georgian Bay as the quintessential northern and national landscape. Travel accounts and poetry, shipwreck ballads and oral histories, all reveal in bits and pieces what different people thought about nature and how they used it. Government records from all three levels of government in Canada – departments of Indian Affairs, National Parks, Fisheries, Lands and Forests – show how we have tried to manage nature and the effects this has had. Material artifacts tell us about land use as well, from sunken logs next to old mill sites to generations of cottage architecture.

These are very different kinds of sources: impressionist and documentary, textual and visual, expressed in high and popular culture. But we experience – evaluate, make sense of, rearrange, appropriate – nature in so many ways simultaneously. And if we are to really address environmental degradation or sustainability, we have to incorporate the study ofpeople.

The land itself is an artifact of human agendas and human actions. But our history is also profoundly affected by where we are: “No cultural activity occurs exclusive of the environment required to sustain it.”[ii]

Our history, our society, and our environment are all products of that moment of meeting between what we bring to a place and what we find there.

Our history, our society, and our environment are all products of that moment of meeting between what we bring to a place and what we find there. A littoral refers to a shoreline, a transitional zone between water and land. It suits the Georgian Bay, but it also applies more generally to how environmental historians think. For us, both landscapes and human history are littorals: sites where we see human and nature confront one another, and the stories of negotiation, adaptation, and transformation that result. But it is also a way of studying places we love, and want to see thrive.


[i] Douglas LePan, “Islands of Summer,” in Weathering It: Complete Poems 1948-1987 (Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1987) 19.

[ii] John H. Wadland, “Great Rivers, Small Boats:  Landscape and Canadian Historical Culture,” in John Marsh and Bruce W. Hodgins, eds. Changing Parks: The  History, Future and Cultural Context of Parks and Heritage Landscapes (Toronto:  Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., 1998) 20-1.

More Student Scholarship: New Place Papers

Students from “American Environmental History” write “Place Papers,” in the fashion of William Cronon’s assignment. The challenge of the essay is to bring a fresh, historical perspective on a landscape familiar, even dear, to students. Some of the student work has been published in Bucknell’s student journal, Eidos.

  • Alejandro Ramirez de Arellano, “The Sustainable Suburb of the South” (Spring 2015)
  • David Reedel, “The Birth and Death of a Desert Ocean”
  • Jamie Cavrak, “Point State Park: A Catalyst for Environmental Evolution” (Spring 2015)
  • Rebecca Johnson, “Barnegat Light, New Jersey” (Spring 2015)
  • Daniel Beyh, “A River Reborn,” (Spring 2015)
  • Bryan P. Wills, “Silent Docks,” (Spring 2014)
  • Shane Kiefer, “Alvira: A Town Destroyed, A Landscape Forever Altered,” (Fall 2013)
  • Alex Mackay, “Environmental, Social, and Economic Consequences of the Boom-and Bust,” (Fall 2013)
  • Seamus McLaughlin, “The End of the Danbury Fair” (Fall 2013)

Nuclear Energy by Tor Kedaitis

Click here to visit my site.

As fossil fuels become less and less attractive as energy sources due to their fluctuating prices and damaging consequences, nuclear energy is on the rise in attempt to meet the ever-increasing demand for global energy. While it does not produce CO2 emissions and uses very little fuel to produce massive amounts of electricity, the costs of this industry may outweigh the benefits. My website explores the past, present, and future of the nuclear energy industry in hopes of challenging you to decide if nuclear proliferation is the right decision for our planet and the future generations to come.

I chose this issue because I had never learned anything about nuclear energy and its impact, even though it is proliferating faster than I ever thought imaginable. It is important for every individual to know how our planet’s (nonrenewable) resources are being used, especially if it can lead to a devastating outcome for future generations. Click here to read my website and be able to establish an educated opinion about the nuclear energy industry.



The Ethical Dilemma of Hunting by Katie Dwyer

The idea of nature I chose for my website is the ethical dilemma of hunting.

Hunting has changed drastically throughout history in it’s forms, uses, and the culture surrounding it. Hunting is also continuing to change for the future. This website follows these changes from history into the future and challenges all to re-imagine how they view hunting.

Photo Credit:

I chose hunting as my idea because as a vegan animal lover, I have always been full-heartedly against hunting, but honestly did not know much about it.  I decided to research hunting a bit so that I could better understand my opposition.  However, rather than my expectation of finding reasons to bad talk hunting for my entire site, I found many conflicting points and actually saw some good to hunting.  I completely rethought how I view hunting and am still struggling with the ethical dilemma I face between not believing in the killing of animals, and the importance that hunting holds in matters I also care deeply about, such as conservation.  I decided to make my site include information about hunting in several retrospects instead so that others may form their own, informative opinions on hunting.

Invasive Species by Sebastiaan Blickman

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Invasive species can have large impacts on our ecosystems. However, many of the invasive species on my site are seemingly common species or are desirable in the form of food or aesthetic appearance. By visiting my site, we will be able to examine these species and their impact and brainstorm ways of managing their populations. And as we realize the extent of the invasive species problem we can work to think about possible dilemmas in the management practices so that the ecosystems of the United States can return to equilibrium because no matter how beneficial, beautiful, or normal these species are to us, we must work to have them removed.


I chose to study invasive species because prior to my research I too had no idea that every day animals and plants in my life are invaders that can hurt our environment and the natives to our ecosystem.

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Tsunamis by Sharmen Hettipola

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She smiled at me and I started crying. Because even though her lips were curved upwards, her eyes communicated sorrow and helplessness. She wasn’t the only child either, there were several hundred more children with the same look in their eyes. These kids had lost everything to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and I knew that my family’s efforts to help rebuild their lives would only be incremental.

But that’s the thing about tsunamis. They have the potential to take everything away from you.

Human relationships to tsunamis can be complicated because we have the potential to cause tsunamis while simultaneously be affected by them. I hope to examine this relationship between humans and tsunamis by studying three of the biggest tsunamis of the 20th and 21st century: the 1908 Messina, Italy tsunami, the 2004 Sumatra, Indonesia tsunami, and the 2011 Sendai, Japan tsunami.

With each different tsunami I hope to examine the different ways in which humans have influenced or have been influenced by these tsunamis. With the 1908 Messina tsunami, I hope to examine how humans understand tsunamis, with the 2004 Sumatra tsunami, I hope to examine the ways in which humans were affected by the tsunami, and with the 2011 Sendai tsunami, I hope to examine the ways in which anthropogenic climate change has caused tsunamis and the consequential effects. Finally, I will examine how our past relationship with tsunamis will most likely influence our future relationship with these disasters.


I chose to study tsunamis for my Idea of Nature project because I had seen the devastating aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and realized that the natural disaster had the power to take away years of human progress. I wanted to examine the causes and effects of tsunamis (specifically relating to humans) in order to determine ways in which likely damages of the next tsunami can be lessened or even avoided.

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Environmental Injustice by Jessica Minderjahn

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Imagine living your life in a neighborhood that has the most unhealthy and undesirable hazardous waste sites, including landfills, sewage treatment systems, incinerators, and toxic waste dumping sites on every corner. Imagine a child who has never felt the incredible sensation of fresh air circulating through his or her lungs. Imagine what it feels like to see your government polluting the space you call home, instead of protecting it.  For many minority communities, they do not have to “imagine” this, they instead live it.

I invite you, to learn about the devastating reality of environmental injustice and how it is affecting millions of people each and every day. Explore what real life communities have done to fight environmental injustice, to create a world in which every individual, regardless of ethnicity or income, has equal access to clean air and clean water.

I chose to explore this topic because it is such an important issue that deserves more attention. I believe that education is the key to establishing a more equal and just world.



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Pollution by Cat Orientale

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My idea of nature was pollution, which is defined as the discharge of harmful substances that contaminate the air, water or soil. Pollution occurs when substances detrimental to living organisms are introduced into the environment. It can be caused by natural or man-made sources. My website focuses on the environmental contamination that results from human activities. Humans have been degrading the environment for millennia. Increasing industrialization worldwide has contributed to many of the environmental consequences we now face today. My site touches upon the three major categories of pollution, including air, water and soil pollution, each of which pose alarming risks to the global environment.

earth (1)

I chose this idea because I wanted to educate Internet users on one of the most pressing environmental issues today: pollution. I wanted my audience to explore the different types of pollution and develop a deeper understanding of the global consequences of humanity’s actions. I am very passionate about climate change and wildlife conservation and saw this project as a perfect opportunity to promote environmental awareness about pollution. Visit my website to learn what you can do to minimize the negative impacts of your actions which threaten our planet for future generations. We only have one Earth to live on. Now it’s time that we started acting like it.

Click here to visit my site.