Sometimes at public history conferences we get so caught up in the “how” (the doing of history in public) that there’s a tendency to lose sight of the “what” (history itself!). I’ve enjoyed attending some of the ASEH sessions in Portland and remembering how illuminating it can be just to inquire into some aspect of the past that resonates in an intriguing way. The very well-attended panel “Interpreting Countermodern Landscapes: Toward Broader Public Spaces” did this by presenting four views of 19th century movements and projects that reveal the deep lineage of ecological and social critiques of modernity, as reflected in specific landscapes and places.
Aaron Sachs of Cornell University spoke about the “natural cemetery” movement in antebellum America as a complex response to the “go-aheadism” of the period, which specifically articulated a different version of space and society from the dominant urban grid pattern of the era. Daegan Miller, a PhD candidate also from Cornell, put a new twist on the iconic status of Henry Thoreau by examining Thoreau’s surveying and cartographic work, reading Thoreau’s 1839 map of the Concord River as an expression of multi-dimensional, multivocal place. Michael Smith from Ithaca College talked about his current research into the summer camp movement, presenting the camp as “an ideal space for clarifying values, testing them, and deciding which ones were worth carrying back to the modern world.” And Kathryn Ziewicz, a PhD candidate from Florida State University, compared Ebenezer Howard’s late 19th century “Garden Cities” in England with today’s New Urbanism, seeing similarities in the way that each has compromised with the modern forces that these somewhat utopian spatial forms were created to fix.
Although only Ziewicz made this explicit, all of the papers seemed on some level to be in dialogue with contemporary discourses about sustainability and eco-centric planning. On the one hand, this is a little depressing (why don’t these critiques and proposals seem to stick?). On the other, there’s something heartening about being reminded that today’s eco-visionaries have such a long lineage. And it was good to feel the vigor of these presentations and the obvious interest in the room. (Come of to think of it, this does actually sound a lot like public history!)