Note from Andrea: As promised, today we have a special guest post from Claire Campbell! As many of you already know, Claire Campbell is an environmental historian who has been featured several times on the Roundup for her fantastic articles on NiCHE and Borealia. So I’m super excited to be able to present a new blog post from her — a meditation on beginning a new research project. Enjoy!


Claire Campbell headshot

Bucknell University’s Claire Campbell – Faculty Profile Shoot
Michael Kubel

Claire Campbell is an associate professor of history at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.  She is interested in the environmental history of North America and the North Atlantic world. She has taught at universities across Canada and in Denmark, in the areas of history, Canadian Studies, and Environment and Sustainability. Publications include Shaped by the West Wind: Nature & History in Georgian Bay (2004), A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011 (2011), and Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada (2013) with Robert Summerby-Murray. Her most recent work, Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada (forthcoming 2017), uses environmental history to expand public history and discussions of sustainability at national historic sites.


Note: All images are provided by Claire Campbell. To see larger versions, simply click on each image.

A few weeks ago, my three-year-old son came home from daycare upset because he hadn’t been able to do a puzzle. So we’ve been practicing at home.

incomplete puzzle

It can be kind of daunting.

Meanwhile, I’m starting a new research project, a puzzle of another sort.

His puzzle has twenty-four pieces and is a picture of dinosaurs. Mine is about the environmental history of Canada’s Atlantic coastlines. It probably has more pieces. But I think I learned something from him this morning about how to confront one of the exciting/terrifying/difficult aspects of academic life: starting a new project.

Disclaimer: I admire posts that lay out instructions for academic life (how to keep writing, how to teach better, how to be make friends and influence people) but I’ve been doing this for nearly twenty years and still don’t feel that I research “correctly” or teach particularly well. This is simply a glimpse at my mental kitchen table with the puzzle pieces spilling out of the bag. Your mileage may vary.

My first two monographs were almost too autobiographical in origin; quite literally taken from childhood. This project is autobiographical too, in that I miss Nova Scotia dearly, and living on the water (I’m sorry, but the Susquehanna River – while it may have the largest watershed east of the Mississippi – is not the same thing as living on water). Plus, I’ve always loved the concept (real and metaphorical) of the archipelago and the littoral; “Angels alone would see it as whole and one,” as Douglas LePan wrote of the Georgian Bay.

Hellsgate view

Looking toward Hell’s Gate, Moose Deer Point, Georgian Bay (2010)

While at Dalhousie, I was perennially irked that all the discussion of oceans research so relentlessly skirted history and the humanities. (This summer, for example, the university touted that its marine biologists are crossing the northwest passage, which – argh.) But maritime history seemed to be about navies, and environmental maritime history seemed to be about fish, and I wasn’t that interested in either. I also felt completely intimidated by the stature of the other historians in the area, like Jerry Bannister and John Reid.

At the same time, I’d been reading wonderful, lyrical work about the Atlantic region (Graeme Wynn, Stephen Hornsby, John Gillis, Christopher Pastore – wow, that’s a masculine list), while wondering why more people weren’t writing environmental history about this part of North America.

But I didn’t have an entrée. I hadn’t discovered a bundle of papers in an old closet, or stumbled across a reference to a mysterious figure who has never been written about. I don’t have a fonds patiently awaiting me in an archive. I don’t have an unanswered question from an earlier project waiting to be spun out. Where, in hundreds of years, thousands of kilometres of coastlines, any number of environmental issues, do I start? How do you take big curiosities (when has Canada presented itself as a coastal nation? What can we learn from the past about living best by water?) and shape them into doable projects?

As Andrea pointed out, my puzzle doesn’t come in a box with a picture on the front, so I’m not sure what I’m piecing together, or how many pieces there are. I don’t suppose historians ever are; we don’t just piece the past together, we determine the shape of the puzzle.

The completed puzzle

It won’t look like this.


And this is where my son helps. Here’s what we figured out:

Find a flat surface.

Turn all the pieces over. Give each some space.

Stay calm. You can do this.

Look for colours that match. Group them together.

Then look for the shapes that match.

Sometimes it looks like it’ll fit, but if it doesn’t, keep turning it.

Look for the straight edges, too. That way you know where the ends are. (Ed. Note: Andrea starts with the corners and the frame. That seems really sensible.)

Do the dinosaurs of each colour to make one at a time. Celebrate each small accomplishment.

See what colours are at the edges to know which one to do next.

Then put them together.


So I guess you just start by putting the pieces on the table. Here are some things I can’t get out of my head, things I think might be important.

  • Andrew Lipman begins his wonderful history Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast with a present-day prologue: an account of living on Manhattan Island during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. As he writes, “Flooding on Manhattan exposed the island’s long-lost face, as the high waterline traced the contours of the seventeenth-century coastline.” Climate change brought the historical topography to the surface. I’m haunted by this story.
  • Memories of my students in the College of Sustainability at Dalhousie tracing with chalk the lines of future sea levels along Upper Water Street. In a city that still talks about Hurricane Juan (2003) and Snowstorm White Juan (2004).
View of Halifax in Nova Scotia

J.S. Clow (attributed), View of Halifax in Nova Scotia (ca. 1840), LAC.

  • Wondering what Halifax will look like. Wondering how much of what will be flooded is artificial shoreline (infill, railyards, shipping docks) compared to the waterline of two centuries ago.
  • References in sixteenth-century charters and travel accounts to “the islands of Canada” – which is what Atlantic Canada may look like again with rising sea levels. P.E.I. divided into three, Nova Scotia cut off from the mainland over the Chignecto isthmus.
  • “There is no point in the Province thirty miles from navigable water.” Thomas Haliburton, A General Description of Nova Scotia (1825).

Map of Halifax

  • Surprise at the massive amount of protected land around the Halifax peninsula; unlike any other major Canadian city as far as I can tell.
  • My sadness at seeing the Nova Centre in construction in downtown Halifax. In clear and absolute violation of the city’s “sightline” bylaw, that was supposed to keep any buildings from blocking the view from the Citadel to the harbour and thus preserve a reminder of the city’s raison d’être. And yet, cynically designed to exploit coastal iconography by professing to resemble a ship under sail.
  • A handful of other examples of where coastal history has been used in similar fashion: to market something in the present.
  • Some really great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century maps that I want to use next year in a new team-taught class on, well, maps.
Fire Insurance Map Toronto

Detail, Charles E. Goad, Fire Insurance Plan Sheet 42 (1889)

  • A longstanding curiosity about Freshwater Creek – a stream that runs under most of the peninsula, that has echoes in depressions and ponds throughout the city, and floods occasionally. There used to be a park where it empties into the harbour. Doesn’t that seem a more sensible adaptation than paving over it and having it flood anyway?

View of Aarhus, Denmark

  • I lived in Aarhus, Denmark – another coastal city with similar topographies and, yes, a buried river recently daylighted. The orientation of port cities. Why Scandinavia is doing some of this better than we are.
  • The desire to write about how to live well in a postindustrial world. Atlantic Canada … still thinks fossil fuels are the way to go.
  • Thinking Atlantic Canada is still remarkably underrated in Canadian environmental history. It’d be a lot more convenient for me to study something in southern Ontario, but there you are.
  • Some larger discussions among environmental history, geography, and sustainability about the importance of scale. What do smaller coastal communities do differently? How do I relate the material evidence of microenvironments to ideological frameworks of national boundaries or environmental practice?
  • A desire to back up in time, to the start of the Anthropocene. I think we need to know more about how we used to consider proximity to the water, before the twentieth century let us forget about it; and how we lived and worked in slightly less disastrous industrial environments. Which means getting over my anxieties about moving around in an earlier period. Except academia expects continuity; refinement of expertise; mastery. (We all know people who write one subject … for decades.) But shouldn’t we follow our curiosities as they grow … as our circumstances change … as the world around us changes? The fraud complex never goes away; but neither does the opportunity to learn something new. That’s the glorious aspect of this. In the immortal words of Jed Bartlett, “What’s next?”


Postscript: Apparently Jed Bartlett kept on his desk the same “Breton fishermen’s prayer” as JFK: “Oh God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.” Go figure.


Special thanks to Claire Campbell for writing such a fantastic post, especially one that I think beautifully captures the joy and frustration of beginning a new research project. I hope you enjoyed this blog post as much as I did! If you did, please consider sharing this post on the social media platform of your choice! And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for a brand new Canadian history roundup! See you then!

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