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From canoes, and pines, and rock-bound gardens to a house on fire: Reflections on the NHS Series:

Posted: Tuesday, April 06, 2021


Written by Graeme Wynn

Two decades ago – can it really be that long? – I began to wonder whether it made any sense to encourage the development of a book series to showcase Canadian work in environmental history. From slow beginnings, compared with developments in the United States, there were encouraging signs of burgeoning interest in the study of human-environment interactions north of the border. There were American (and international) publishers interested in the field and some had started book series. But they let slip that even the very best scholarship focused on this country suffered from “the Canada problem” – it would arouse little interest in the markets that mattered to them. Old enough to remember the 1960s, with its fervent debates about the distressing absence of Canadian content in humanities and social science curricula, and convinced of the importance of “knowing ourselves,” I figured I knew what was needed, but lacked the time to make it happen. Conversations occurred. Scholarly momentum grew. My resolve weakened. Enthusiasm for an environmental history series on the part of UBC Press finally tipped the balance – and led to more discussions. What would the series be called? What role would I play? And so on. Meanwhile the first stirrings of the NiCHE (Network in Canadian History and Environment) initiative heightened the sense that there was good work being done and that a series might encourage more.

Shaped by the West Wind Cover

In the end, we decided on Nature | History | Society as the series title, hoping to encourage submissions from beyond the discipline of history. In 2004, we came up with a logo and an ambition statement. The series was avowedly interdisciplinary, and intended to publish lively, innovative, and well-written scholarship of high quality. Its broad compass was signaled thus: “nature because it takes the natural world seriously; history because it aims to foster work that has temporal breadth; and society because its essential concern is with the interface between nature and society broadly conceived.” Fifteen and more years on, I would probably frame objectives slightly differently – but that is the nature of the enterprise and a product of the series’ satisfying longevity.

Following UBC Press protocols for book series, I would be designated “General Editor” – though some authors (in the series and not) would probably choose to style the editor in other terms, from “intrusive” and “exacting” to the unprintable. For good or ill, I have often been interventionist. My role in the series has ranged from early conversations with potential authors through to detailed comments on entire manuscripts, sometimes more than once, and has extended, as well, to offering broader advice to, or mentoring, junior scholars. Also, for good or ill, we agreed that this series would be differentiated from most others by substantial Forewords written by the General Editor. Generally, I have tried, in these 5,000 words or so, to contextualize the book, identify its important themes, and highlight its contribution to the ongoing environmental conversation in Canada and beyond. The first of these forewords, for Claire Campbell’s compelling evocation of Georgian Bay, I titled “Of Canoes, and Pines, and Rock-bound Gardens”; Angela Carter’s powerful analysis of the prioritization of oil extraction over environmental protection in Canada’s petro-provinces led me to “Talking About a House on Fire.” Some potential contributors have chosen to take their work elsewhere rather than have it subject to my musings. Most of the thirty or so authors in the series seem to have been reasonably content with the front-end loading – or at least, as Canadians, too polite and considerate to say otherwise. For my part, I have found the challenge of writing forewords … challenging, but also interesting and rewarding.

Looking back across the thirty-five volumes and hundreds of thousands of words between Campbell’s Shaped by the West Wind and Carter’s Fossilized, I am grateful and amazed: grateful that such fine scholarship is being done in and on Canada, grateful that UBC Press and the Awards to Scholarly Publishing Program (ASPP) have supported this work, and grateful to our authors for their commitment; amazed that the series is now heading towards forty volumes, and that I am still fully engaged with it. I am also struck by the wide range of topics, approaches, and insights in these handsome, carefully produced books. Although most of the authors would call themselves historians, they bring a wide range of sensibilities to understanding the past and stand in the big tent of this series alongside geographers, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians of science, and others. It is possible to identify some broad recurring interests or foci among books in the NHS series. Among these we might note – without claim to exclusiveness or completeness of classification:

More strikingly, however, almost every one of these thirty-five volumes raises the question posed explicitly by the Foreword to Peyton’s volume: “How Shall We Live?” – and that is surely a conundrum worthy of continuing attention and our best efforts to answer.

Has my engagement with this series been worthwhile? Again, the balance sheet shows good and ill. At one point on this journey, I was told by my department head that I was wasting time editing and that I needed (for the good of myself, the department, and the university) to place more articles in the journal literature. I have no regrets at ignoring this advice. Time-consuming though it is, I find editing satisfying and intellectually challenging, and I hope and believe that my efforts in this regard have benefited both writers and readers. Taking stock: books in this series published before 2020 have received, or been short-listed for, thirty-four regional, national, and international awards. That may not be everything. But it is something.

*On April 23, 2021, celebrate the new books in the Nature | History | Society series at a virtual event.


Graeme Wynn photo

Graeme Wynn is professor Emeritus of UBC Geography, Principal UBC Emeritus College, and the General Editor of the UBC Press Nature | History | Society series.

Posted by Megan M.
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