This week’s Public History readings examine the relationship between history and the environment. Both Rebecca Conard’s and David Glassberg’s articles mention a key idea that environmental historians take for granted: that there is nothing natural about “nature”, nothing inevitable about the way that physical landscapes have evolved over time. The presupposed dichotomy between the urban and the “wild”, between human beings, on the one hand, and the “natural” environment, on the other, is not so clear cut at all. Rather, as Glassberg and Conard show, individuals, communities, organizations, and governments have played an important (if at times unnoticed or unemphasized) role in shaping the physical landscape. [1]

Both authors point out how the environment has often reflected the heavy hand of human agency in order to make it conform to certain ideas about desirable landscapes. Their discussions of national parks, in particular, suggest that what a landscape does not show is just as important – or even more so – than what it does show. Speaking of national parks in the western United States, Glassberg writes that “the landscapes tourists encountered in these parts, seemingly inhabited only by elk and buffalo, would not have existed if the native peoples had not first been defeated and removed to reservations, and the wildlife populations carefully managed to encourage picturesque megafauna and discourage pesky wolves.” [2] Similarly, Conard mentions how the desire of the US National Park Service to present parks as “pristine” and “uninhabited” spaces were influenced by ideas about the “romantic wilderness”; such an approach to national parks meant that visitors would not see that “these landscapes were ‘uninhabited’ only because U.S. Indian removal policies either had killed the former inhabitants or had relocated them to reservations” [3].

What’s missing from the physical landscape, then, is as instructive as what is apparent to the naked eye. How to convey a landscape’s significance and complexity to a general (and often uninformed) audience, in terms of its cultivated image as well as the absence or removal of elements of its historical development, remains an important task for the public historian. It’s a task that, as Conard strongly suggests, would benefit from discussion and collaboration among those who are intimately involved in preserving and presenting the history of the environment: historic preservationists, environmentalists, and land managers. [4]

In essence, Glassberg’s and Conard’s articles remind me that the landscape is also a source of historical information. It can be “read” as a historical text for insights into the changing values of a community, region, or nation over time. “Landscapes,” as Glassberg writes, “are not simply an arrangement of natural features, they are a language through which humans communicate with one another.” [5] Of course, as the author shows, this language is a complex one, reflecting conflicting interpretations and understandings of the environment. These conflicts also raise important questions about how one conception of the landscape comes to dominate others (and thus to shape its preservation and development in specific ways), requiring us to ask, as Glassberg does, “whose side won out and why?” [6]

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[1] Rebecca Conard, “Spading Common Ground” in Public History and the Environment, edited by Ed. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino, (Florida: Krieger, 2004) 3-22. David Glassberg, “Interpreting Landscapes,” in ibid., 23-36.

[2] Glassberg, 25.

[3] Conard, 6.

[4] Ibid., 4-5, 8.

[5] Glassberg, 29.

[6] Ibid.

Constructing Green Gables

Several weeks ago, my friend Ellen emailed me to say that she was re-reading Anne of Green Gables in light of the 100th anniversary of its publication this year, and to suggest – because, I’ll confess, we are both ardent fAnnes of Montgomery’s creation – that we ought to watch the movie together again when I returned to Vancouver.

A little history is perhaps in order here. I discovered Montgomery’s Anne series at the age of 11 and fell in love with these stories from the outset, not only with the humorous adventures of the spirited redhead but also with the beauty, hope, and longing that Montgomery’s writings evoked. They were the formative books of my childhood and youth. I grew up wanting to taste raspberry cordial and plum pudding, uttering phrases whose meanings I only vaguely discerned, like “castle in the air” and “depths of despair,” and mourning change while keeping one eye yet open to its tragic romance.

These books also immersed me in late 19th/early 20th century Canada; they provided one of my earliest glimpses into Maritime history and, before I understood yet what it meant to be a Canadian, they connected me to other young (and not so young) Canadians across the country. We were, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s formulation, [1] an imagined community of Anne-appreciators; whatever our ethnic backgrounds, we shared a culture centred on a romantic version of rural life in PEI at the turn of the century.

Receiving Ellen’s email that day made me smile wryly. Its timing was rather ironic: I had just started reading Alan MacEachern’s chapter, “The Greening of Green Gables: Establishing Prince Edward Island National Park, ca. 1936” for my Public History course. The chapter itself begins by noting a humorous irony – that of how Green Gables didn’t actually have green-coloured gables – as a starting point to consider deeper and more troubling ironies that characterized the development of PEI’s National Park in the 1930s.

In the course of the chapter, Dr. MacEachern traces the constructed and contested nature of the park, from the public debates over its physical coordinates and touristic appeal, to the subsequent disenfranchisement of long-time residents whose farms were unfortunate enough to fall in the strip of land unilaterally acquired by the federal Park Branch to constitute the National Park. No one who lived in the designated area had the right to remain; their homes were not spared. “The Parks Branch,” writes MacEachern, “tore down the houses and barns of families who had worked and lived there for generations.” The one building that was spared – and not only spared, but restored beyond the ordinary upkeep of PEI farms – was Green Gables. [2]

I was surprised, and a little dismayed, to learn about this other history connected to the house that had inspired Montgomery. It is, as MacEachern has shown, a revealing history of expropriation, of how tourism interests trumped individual rights. It is also a history that emphasizes the social construction of parks, highlighting its unnatural characteristics, its superimposed boundaries that cut across homes and lives with little regard. It’s a history, I imagine, that is not and has not been told by tour guides to the many visitors that travel, and have travelled, to Cavendish each year to see Green Gables. MacEachern’s chapter reveals well the irony of this story, how a house connected to a work of fiction – “never Lucy Maud Montgomery’s home, and never more than a real home to a fictional character” [3] – has endured in what became Prince Edward Island National Park when those of its very real inhabitants did not.

And, I would add, there is another sad irony that emerges in this history: the way in which Green Gables and its surrounding area have been preserved and developed is hardly in keeping with the spirit of Montgomery’s writings. The site’s tendency to become a tourist destination avec “the obnoxious amusements” [4] – from the golf course that the Parks Branch developed back in the 30s, which encircled the house and “overwhelmed all pre-existing landscape, including Green Gables itself,” [5] to the present day “circus” feel of the place, to use the description of one of my disapproving friends in the Maritimes – surely does not give visitors an authentic sense of the heart and soul of Montgomery’s books, even though these works have been the basis, to some extent, of much of this preservation and development.

It’s probably not too much of a conjecture to say that Lucy Maud Montgomery, before her death in 1942, was likely very dismayed to find out about the touristic transformation of Green Gables under the National Parks Branch. I imagine particular horror on her side over the discovery that the holes of the newly established golf course were named after her book, with titles, according to MacEachern, like “Haunted Wood” and “Ann Shirley” (Ann without an e!). [6]

The intrusion of commerce into what ought to have remained beautiful and sacred in Montgomery’s eyes would have, I’m certain, brought the author grief. After all, her most famous character goes through a similar situation. Anne is horror-stricken when one of her stories wins a contest sponsored by a baking powder company. This story, initially rejected by a national magazine, had been secretly entered in the contest by her well-meaning but misguided best friend, who had simply inserted the requisite line to advertise baking powder in the story. Despite winning substantial prize money, Anne feels that all that was beautiful and innocent has been desecrated, tainted by commercial interests:

I feel as if I were disgraced forever. What do you think a mother would feel like if she found her child tattooed over with a baking powder advertisement? I feel just the same. I loved my poor little story, and I wrote it out of the best that was in me. And it is sacrilege to have it degraded to the level of a baking powder advertisement. [7]

It is sad that the interests of tourism have outweighed the importance of authenticity in the presentation of key aspects of Cavendish’s past. The stories of those inhabitants affected by the development of Prince Edward Island National Park – both their lives and experiences before expropriation as well as their struggles against it – are an important part of the historical record. Yet, it is unlikely that visitors to Cavendish will ever hear about this other history. What they will learn about is characterized by a sad irony: in making a pilgrimage to see the actual place and town that inspired a very real author, what they’re mostly seeing is the influence of tourism on the physical landscape, rather than the authentic presentation of the spirit and beliefs of the author who was moved by it.

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[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London and New York: Verso, 2006), 6.

[2] Alan MacEachern, Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 73-97. The quote is from page 73.

[3] Ibid., 87.

[4] F.H.H. Williamson, deputy commissioner of parks, quoted in ibid., 82. Williamson’s idea was to develop PEI’s National Park as “a typical seaside resort, sans the obnoxious amusements.”

[5] Ibid., 94.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of the Island (1915), Google Book Search, October 2004, http://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&id=CPVSKM6X5oYC&dq=anne+of+the+island&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=YZ_qEee__a&sig=xB0pm9_jtX27AVPKv1JabuKjN-M&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result#PPA153,M1