Archive for the ‘biopolitics’ Category

This is a story about aborted academic work. Years ago, I proposed and workshopped a paper. The original call came from fellow environmental history academics, building a curated book on the concept Landscape, Nature and Memory: Tourism History in Canada. We wrote the papers and sent them around for everyone to read before we got together. The workshop was held in Vancouver, and I remember my first introduction to Granville Island and Macleod’s Books. It was an invigorating workshop, with discussants and good conversation. I received good feedback (Ian MacKay liked my paper!) and thought that it would, in time, lead to publication. At the time, I was still occasionally aiming hopefully for an academic position.


But it was not to be. When the collection of papers from the workshop went around for external review, mine was deemed not a good fit for the overarching theme. It was too different. In some ways, I think the paper’s exclusion mimicked my own ‘differentness’ and ultimate exclusion from academia. But no matter. I worked on it a little more, and sent it out to Prairie Forum, a scholarly journal based out of Regina. I’d published with them before, and thought the little paper would have a chance to at least be read.

I didn’t hear back. At all. Strange, I thought. I forgot about it for a bit, then (remembering), dusted it off, and sent it to them again. It’s the internet, I decided. It does eat things, on occasion. It gets hungry. No worries. I’ll hear back this time.

Still nothing. No reply, no acknowledgement. So, I may be slow but eventually I get there. This poor little paper doesn’t have a home.

I could go back to it, work on it again, try to figure out where and how to make it academically publishable. Send it out again. And again. But that is no longer my life. Writing for an unpaid academic publication just isn’t an appropriate use of my time. So I won’t.

But it remains there, with many hours of research, and a lot of thought, hiding in a corner of my computer files. There is an old adage that says ‘unread books do no work.’ The same is true for articles. I didn’t manage to get it published (which would have meant external reviews, more work, and no doubt a much better article) but I can share it here, with you.

The article is about building the South Saskatchewan River Project, now known as the Gardiner Dam which created Diefenbaker Lake. It’s about the policy stories we tell, and how Saskatchewan desperately needed to create a story of water and beauty through tourism to counteract the post-Great Depression story of dust, aridity, and flatness.


Gardiner Dam, South Saskatchewan River

Who might want to read it? Anyone who has visited the dam and wants to know a bit more of its history. Academics working on tourism, dam, or general prairie history might find it useful. But if you are not an academic, I warn you: this is filled with references, theory, and a bit of jargon. And a few stories. It might be worth your time.

Still, I’m ready for it to be in the world, with all of its flaws and problems. You can deal with it. I have confidence in you. Click on the PDF below and enjoy your read.

Damming Saskatchewan

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I’ve been asked by the digital content editor at Environmental History, Finn Arne Jorgensen, to be one of the commentators for a new online forum. I will be commenting over the next few weeks on the essays, along with several others, and encourage you to do so as well.

The forum is based on three papers by Emily Wakild, Libby Robin, and Donald Worster. Each consider the role and purpose of the Wilderness Act (which is 50 years old this year) and comment more broadly on the state of ‘wilderness’ and the act of setting aside protected spaces. Wakild’s essay focuses on Latin America, Robin on Australia, and Worster on America.

The forum can be found here. There is an introduction by Lisa Brady, and a visual essay on the signing of the Wilderness Act by Sara Dant.

I recommend that you take a few minutes to read through the three forum essays, all from noted environmental historians, and add your thoughts to the comments section.

My opening comment is as follows:

My thanks to the writers of all of these essays — there is much on which to ponder.
Let me first state my prejudices: I believe people are a part of nature, that no area on earth is without the imprint, interpretation, and use of humans, and that there is no way to establish a ‘baseline’ wilderness. I nonetheless support setting aside tracts of land.
But that leads to my problem: setting aside tracts of land for what purposes? What will we, as humans, be allowed to do there? Nothing? Something? Anything? What?
It seems to me that the debates over the Wilderness Act, within the larger context of park-making (which pulls in debates over class, ethnicity, land rights and usage) is essentially about purpose. Is the act of setting aside wilderness areas, as Donald Worster suggests, a higher altruism worthy in its own right, but something to be defined and defended through an international court? (In an earlier essay, ‘The Wilderness of History’ in Wild Earth fall 1997, Worster suggests that we should set aside wilderness land as a tithe, a certain amount of the total land holdings of a nation state, returned to nature.) Both Libby Robin and Emily Wakild see that same nation-state as the key stewards of conservation and best situated to define and manage wilderness.
Whether at the international or national level, whether you believe in wilderness for its own sake or as part of a land-management scheme, my question remains: what is wilderness for? And conversely, what activities are NOT conducive to wilderness areas? As Wakild and Robin note, this answer might very well be quite different in different countries and contexts. Can we then, following Worster, have any kind of international tribunal judging wilderness?
Drawing those lines between what is acceptable use, and what is not, is the slippery slope on which we slide and struggle. And it is where the most intense debate is found.

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Note: A revised version of this blog was published in The Globe and Mail as an op-ed piece 24 October 2012. See: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/the-lobstick-our-next-national-symbol/article4648053/

Note: This blog post was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca by Merle Massie. See http://activehistory.ca/2012/10/lobstick-canadas-next-symbol/#more-9309

When Senator Nicole Eaton called for Canada to declare a new biopolitical symbol in the fall of 2011, she suggested replacing the ‘dentally defective rat’ –– known as beaver, or castor Canadensis –– with the perhaps more ‘stately’ polar bear. In one simple suggestion, she set off a firestorm of controversy across Canada’s social and public media landscape.

My students in the western Canadian history class at the University of Saskatchewan took a straw poll. By show of hands, who wants the beaver as the national animal symbol? Who wants the polar bear?

The orange–toothed rodent won, by an enormous class mouthful. The polar bear? Too much connection between a certain cola beverage and their commercials, let alone the red and white colours. We do not, they declared, require a rebranding campaign. The beaver has served us long and well. It is, as so many of my environmental students declare, the closest to humans in terms of its ability to reconstruct the world to suit its particular wants and needs. I would like a still pond, nice and deep. I can’t find one. I know! I’ll make one! Here is a lovely brook rimmed with tasty trees; I’ll busy the bicuspids.

As I ponder the continued popularity of that pesky rodent –– for I grew up on a farm where we trapped and hunted beavers, or blew up their land–soaking dam–nifications –– I wonder if the time is now ripe to launch a campaign to change, or at least add to, our Canadian biopolitical symbols.

I hereby launch a petition to add the lobstick tree as a symbol of Canadian identity. What is a lobstick? Haven’t you traveled to Jasper, where Lobstick Lodge welcomes visitors? Or perhaps you are a golfer, and attend the Lobstick golf tournament each year, held at Prince Albert National Park? Lobstick symbols are scattered throughout the Canadian cultural and natural landscape.

Culturally modified trees were once common in Nordic countries, among them the lobstick tree of the Canadian boreal forest. Douglas Durkin, a writer of northern romance novels, used the lobstick tree as a symbol of the north in his 1920 book, The Lobstick Trail. Margaret Atwood wrote poetry about them in 1970. Gwen Hayball wrote of the lobstick in the Canadian Geographical Journal in 1973.


Aboriginal inhabitants of the boreal forest would shape a tall and conspicuous white spruce or pine tree by ‘lopping’ most of its branches off. Branches that strategically pointed in the right direction would remain. The top would bush out in a tuft, making it easy to spot. Nearby trees were cut and hauled away, leaving the lobstick in rather lonely splendour. Lobsticks were used in many ways, both practical and symbolic. They were often signposts, chosen and designed to mark trails, portages, and pathways through the boreal forest, berry patches or hunting grounds. Like the signposts in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, the limbs would point: “that way to Albuquerque.”

Lobsticks were also cultural markers, used to designate meeting places, burial grounds, ceremonial sites, and even personal totems, or to honour a guest or visitor. Lovers would make them to mark trysting places.

Explorer Alexander Mackenzie was one of the first Europeans to comment on lobstick trees, and in his assessment they “denoted the immediate abode of the natives and probably served for signals to direct each other to their respective winter quarters.” Warburton Pike, an Englishmen who traveled into the far northern tundra in search of big game, also commented on these markers: “many an appointment has been kept at [lobsticks],” suggesting their role as a convenient meeting point that everyone can find.

Caroline Podruchny, in her book Making the Voyageur World, documents the physical creation and the symbolic meaning of the lobstick tree for voyageurs in Canada’s north. In that version, all the branches would be removed (except the very topmost), leaving a tall tree often called a ‘maypole.’ Sometimes the bark would be removed, leaving a smooth surface to cut names, dates, or symbols, or simply to shoot patterns into the tree with gunshots and powder. A particularly gay version was created for Frances Simpson, wife Hudson Bay Company governor George Simpson, with feathers and streamers for decoration. A lobstick, according to Podruchny, was created to honour a new leader, particularly if it was his first trip into the northland. To repay the voyageurs for the honour of making a maypole/lobstick tree, the leader was expected to offer presents, or at least a generous measure of rum. It seems clear that in the voyageur world, the trees were created for their symbolic meaning – and, of course, to have a party.

There was a lobstick tree north of Prince Albert where I grew up, near what is now the village of Paddockwood, Saskatchewan. Pictures and stories from the earliest Euro–Canadian settlers describe a huge evergreen sitting in lonely splendour in a field of grass, at a height that could be seen for miles in every direction. It offered a scenic picnic spot –– until it either died of old age or succumbed to the will and axe of the homesteader that wanted patent to the ground beneath the giant’s roots.

What I like about the lobstick is how it is both natural (a tree) as well as culturally modified (shaped, changed, and adapted; marred or scarred) –– in many ways, a fitting symbol of Canada itself. It is distinctly northern and boreal, evoking the dreaded wilderness of Atwood or the home of Joseph Boyden.

As climate change opens Arctic waters and change stalks the northern air, we could consider once again creating a few lobsticks. They would be there, at the very least, to guide visitors. With the numbers now moving through our sovereign area, directions might not go amiss.

That way to Ottawa.


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