Mark Fiege’s new book The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States looks fascinating. According to Historiann (who is Fiege’s colleague at Colorado State), the book examines key episodes in American history from the perspective of environmental history. These episodes include Salem witchcraft, the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Gettysburg, and Brown v. Board of Education. I am not an environmental historian, but I like reading environmental history and trying to incorporate it into my courses. I am thus eager to read to this book. Here is a taste of Historiann’s interview with Fiege:
Historiann: Abraham Lincoln and race are emotionally and actually at the center of your book: Lincoln’s profile at Mt. Rushmore greets us on the dust jacket of your book. Your introduction opens with a fascinating meditation on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Chapters 3 through 5 focus respectively on slavery and cotton production, the mythic and actual biographies of Abraham Lincoln, and the Battle and Address of Gettysburg. And finally, your interest in race and the color line in American history are evident again in your choice to focus on Brown v. Board of Education in chapter 8. What is it about Abraham Lincoln and America’s record on race that attracted your interest as an environmental historian? I can’t help but perceive a rebuke to environmental historians who perhaps have not attended to this aspect of the American historical landscape–or is that an unwarranted assumption?
Mark Fiege: Researching and writing this book has convinced me that race and the black freedom struggle are central to American history, perhaps even its defining elements. But I’m an environmental historian, and another part of me recognizes that all social struggles unfold in the material medium generally known as nature. So I felt that I had to explain how race and nature are at the heart of the story.
While working on the book, I came across ”Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the national anthem composed in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. I had never heard it performed, so the ethnomusicologist Deborah Wong gave me a version of it on a CD. It is profoundly moving, as great as any of the other national anthems. In it, people wander across an awesome providential landscape until they come to a place where they can live in God’s sheltering grace. It presents a kind of alternative Manifest Destiny that is about redemption, not conquest. It captures perfectly the sense that the struggle is centered in a landscape and involves a people’s special relationship to nature.
So I think my focus on race is less a rebuke to anyone than an embrace of what I take to be the truth of the matter–that this is what American history, at its core, is really about.