David Blackbourn: On writing environmental history

David Blackbourn has an affection for fens and marshes, lush, low-lying polders and high moors of heath and bog. When he leaves his home in Lexington, Massachusetts, to visit the coast, he and his wife walk the creeks and saltmarshes of Essex and Gloucester, north of Boston. The sights and smells of such places, she says, induce in him a kind of reverie. Blackbourn’s sense of personal connection to well-watered lowlands perhaps owes something to his early years, growing up in England, in Lincolnshire, on the edge of the wolds where the land drops down to the coast in a very Dutch-looking picture of tulips and swing bridges. This region, once indeed known as “Holland,” is not a product of natural forces, but is instead the result of a long history of human intervention. Of the fenlands, locals say, “Man took on nature, and won.”

Human dominion over the natural world is ubiquitous in this age, so that now one practically takes it for granted. But as Blackbourn, Coolidge professor of history since 1997, demonstrates time and again in The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany, the power to effect change is not the same thing as mastery. With rich language, economy of expression, and masterly rendered descriptions of technical subjects, the new book “tells the story of how Germans transformed their landscape over the last 250 years by reclaiming marsh and fen, draining moors, straightening rivers, and building dams in the high valleys,” writes Blackbourn. Such interventions were not new, but their scale and impact after 1750 “changed the face of the land as much as familiar and obvious symbols of the modern age like the factory chimney, the railway, and the burgeoning city.” His account of attempts to control water—where and when it flows, how fast and how deep, and to whose benefit—provides a striking portrait of the German state. And yet, while cleaving to its German subject matter in exquisite, carefully researched detail, the book is much more than the sum of its parts. From the meticulous descriptions of environmental consequences good and bad, from the confident pronouncements of one generation of engineers after another, emerge a complex portrait of humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature. From this history of how the German state sought to instrumentalize the environment—plants, animals, and even people—emerges a universal story, rich in ironies. This is that rare transcendent work that finds application again and again.

Blackbourn, whose scholarship focuses on nineteenth-century Germany, first had the idea for the book while teaching for a year on the Pacific Coast. The physical environment of California, particularly the mountain ranges, astonished him, and he began reading the New Western historians Richard White and William Cronon, who argue that wilderness thinking—the idea that conservation should focus on pristine wildlands untouched by the hand of man—can be dangerous. “White and Cronon would say that it is much more important that we manage our relationship with the natural world better in those areas where humans work and are active,” says Blackbourn. “It is a working relationship.” That makes their views especially relevant to Europe, where by the eighteenth century, he says, “there was very little land left where no foot had ever trod.”

In such a context, handling the history of German conservationists who wished to preserve the status quo, or nature as they knew it, becomes problematic: the nature that one generation of conservationists wished to preserve was often a manmade landscape that had “acquired a patina of naturalness with age.” Blackbourn, like White, therefore tells history in the ironic mode: the conquest of nature is no conquest at all, for natural forces always reassert themselves. In writing this way, Blackbourn is not making claims of objectivity. Keen and careful in his choice of words, even in conversation, he prefers to say simply, “I have tried to be honest.”...

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