The conservation of a Turkish wetland, the decimation of the Ethiopian cattle herd by rinderpest, the mining of phosphorus for fertilizer in southern Florida, and urban farming in Chicago: although separated in time and space, these moments are not worlds apart—they are parts of a world together. Over the past five years, members of the DPDF Ecological History research field have been working across disciplinary boundaries to understand how socio-ecological systems form and change over space and time through dynamic interactions of biophysical relations, knowledge, and power. What began as a group of predissertation graduate students today comprises a growing community of postdoctoral scholars and junior faculty. Here, we recount some of our activities since the completion of the Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship and highlight some of the themes that run through our work.

In spring 2012, under the auspices of the SSRC’s DPDF Program, Professors Stevan Harrell (Anthropology and Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington) and Peter C. Perdue (History, Yale University) brought together 12 early-stage graduate students in Chaska, Minnesota, to forge an interdisciplinary cohort in the field of ecological history. Aiming at “a systematic understanding of the relationships between humans and natural processes over extended periods of time,” the directors selected students from programs as diverse as history, anthropology, natural resources, and architecture, with research projects spanning historical periods from the nineteenth century to the present and field sites ranging from the Mesopotamian borderlands to Borneo.

The spring workshop in Chaska was followed by summer fieldwork supported by the SSRC and a fall workshop in Philadelphia. The 2012 program provided extensive support for group members to define their dissertation proposals, framed by the development of a common set of concepts for researching ecological history, focused especially on questions of historical and geographical scale and the dynamics of socio-ecological systems.

ecological history chaska
Ecological History directors and group members in Chaska, MN, in spring 2012, from left to right: Zachary Caple, Laura Martin, David Fedman, Nathan Ela, Samual Dolbee, Jenny Goldstein, Stevan Harrell, Maria Taylor, Paolo Bocci, Caterina Scaramelli, Angelo Caglioti, Timothy Johnson, Gregory Thaler, Peter C. Perdue.

The friendships and conversations that began in 2012 have continued and deepened over the ensuing five years through informal meetings and periodic formal group events, which have provided foci for renewing contact among group members and forging new directions in our collective understanding of ecological history.

We hoped to hold our first reunion in Taiwan, but were stymied by lack of travel funding. Instead, we gathered in April 2016 in Seattle, where several group members were already scheduled to attend conferences. Research field codirector Stevan Harrell organized a one-day symposium, at which eight of the twelve original group members presented their work—dissertation projects that were nearing completion almost four years after our first meeting. The day concluded with a Taiwanese dinner, the closest we could get to our original destination. The following day, Seattle historical geographer Amir Sheikh led an all-day walking and driving tour of the ecological history of Seattle, illustrating the many ways in which the city’s ecology has been intentionally modified and engineered over the past century and a half.  We capped the day with a salmon dinner at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, one of the major engineering projects that have shaped Seattle’s current form, followed by a rousing discussion of fish, water, pollution, and social activism in the galley of local anthropologist Peter Reinhardt Knutson’s gillnet boat.

Ecological history group Seattle
Participants during the ecological history tour of Seattle in April 2016.

In October 2017, the Ecological History group met at Yale University for a second reunion—a two-day workshop, “Ecological History in Asia and the World”—organized by research field codirector Peter C. Perdue and 2012 DPDF fellow Laura Martin and sponsored by the Yale Council on East Asian Studies. The event brought together DPDF alumni and scholars working at the intersection of environmental history, political ecology, and East Asian studies, including Fabian Drixler (Yale University), Aaron Jakes (The New School), Judd Kinzley (University of Wisconsin–Madison), Brian Lander (Brown University), John Lee (Yale), Ian M. Miller (St. John’s University), Harriet Ritvo (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Amy Zhang (New York University), and Ling Zhang (Boston College). The workshop included intensive discussion of precirculated papers and public presentations to the Yale community. Topics of discussion ranged from state forestry in preindustrial Korea to utopian colonies on the Galápagos Islands. Highlights included a tour of artist James Prosek’s paintings of Yellowstone wildlife migration at the Peabody Museum and dinner at the (in)famous Yale establishment Mory’s.

Ecological history group at Yale
Participants in “Ecological History in Asia and the World” in front of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University in October 2017, from left to right: Zachary Caple, Aaron Jakes, Judd Kinzley, Holly Stephens, Stevan Harrell, Laura Martin, Brian Lander, Peter C. Perdue, Ian M. Miller, Gregory Thaler, Angelo Caglioti, Paolo Bocci.

In addition to these reunion events, recent ad hoc collaborations among group members include a 2016 workshop at Lund University in Sweden on “Political Ecologies of Degradation and Sustainability,” organized by Gregory Thaler with Jenny Goldstein as an invited guest, and a coauthored paper by Zachary Caple and Timothy Johnson on fertilizer commodity chains being presented at the Agricultural History Society Annual Meeting in May 2018. We hope to organize a third reunion event in the coming year. Meanwhile, we maintain active email conversations among the directors and fellows as we continue to work together to advance ecological history as an interdisciplinary field.

Currently, Paolo Bocci is a lecturing fellow with the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University. Angelo Caglioti is a Max Weber Post-Doctoral Fellow at the European University Institute. Zachary Caple is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. Samuel Dolbee is a Junior Research Fellow with the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. Nathan Ela is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. David Fedman is assistant professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. Jenny Goldstein is assistant professor of development sociology at Cornell University. Timothy Johnson is visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Georgia State University. Laura Martin is assistant professor of environmental studies at Williams College. Caterina Scaramelli is visiting assistant professor of anthropology and Keiter Postdoctoral Fellow at Amherst College. Maria Taylor is a Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. Gregory Thaler is assistant professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia.