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Commentaries, otherwise unpublished

The gift outright

July 1, 2017

Tags: ASEH, 40th anniversary, presidential slam.

I have to prove - contrary to written evidence - that I can be a man of few words. So let me turn to poetry.

Specifically, to Robert Frost's "The Gift Outright." "The land was ours before we were the land's...." It's one of the grand themes of American environmental history, and it's one of the great charges to the field, that it should help us reconcile ourselves with our land, and ultimately with the Earth we all share.

But, for some of us, it's also true that the field was ours before we were the field's. I didn't write about ice, canyons, and fire because I wanted to create something called environmental history or because those books could answer questions of interest to prevailing historiography generally. I did it because I wanted to, because I thought it mattered, because I regarded myself - still do - a member of the fire community and wanted to bring the kind of scholarship I had been trained in to a subject that found itself among the academic homeless. The other ancient elements have disciplines, even whole departments devoted to their study. The only fire department on a university campus is the one that sends emergency vehicles when an alarm sounds.

But if the subject was homeless, I was not. Environmental history was emerging; it had a journal; it had a society to grant it institutional heft. I was not alone. The ASEH gave the field a name, a theme, and a place to gather. Together that created another path through the woods, and to quote Frost again, that has made all the difference.

So let me end with a final fragment, from another poet. (Hey, you knew I wouldn't turn down a chance to mix metaphors.) This one comes from Edna St Vincent Millay. Because I've been a member of two communities, I've been able to burn my candle at both its ends. The resulting flame flared brighter than I could have imagined, and while I don't know how much longer it can continue, I do think it has made a lovely light. I hope for all of us.