We at TTUP have a lot of backlist favorites on natural history and even newer environmental literary works. In this spirit, we are excited to announce a new series focused on… Environmental Histories of Texas, edited by Char Miller, author of Natural Consequences: Intimate Essays for a Planet in Peril, West Side Rising: How San Antonio’s 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement, and many others. You can submit proposals to [email protected]. Our Editor in Chief spoke with Char about the new series.
Hey, Char! Man, am I excited to be working with you on this. Do you mind introducing yourself and talking a bit about where you live? I take on a lot of projects about the American West, and you’ve lived at different ends of it.
My wife, Judi, and I currently live in Claremont, California, where I teach classes in environmental history at Pomona College, the founding member of the Claremont Colleges Consortium. We met in this town fifty years ago while we were students at Pitzer College and after graduation in 1975 we moved east: first to Baltimore, where I studied history at The Johns Hopkins University; then to Ithaca, where Judi did graduate work at Cornell; and then to South Florida in 1980 for my first teaching job at the University of Miami. One year later, we headed west to San Antonio, where we resided until 2007 when we moved back to Claremont; it has been our home for the past fifteen years. One takeaway from this migratory pattern is that we have followed the western arc of the sun for the past four decades. Another is that the rootedness of our lives in South Texas and Southern California have had an unexpected professional outcome: it has deepened my appreciation of the extraordinarily rich and complex environmental histories in these two regions anchoring opposite ends of what we call the US Southwest. Over the years, much of my writing—academic and public—has been trying to sort out why and how their pasts and presents converge and diverge.
We both used to teach at Trinity University in San Antonio, which I think I can say was a great experience for both of us. Great school, great students. You were in San Antonio a good bit longer than I was. I wonder if you can talk a bit about how that city shaped your life and your work? I’m really fond of it.
That San Antonio has had a profound impact of my understanding of that burgeoning city and my place in it is due in part to the fact that I lived there longer than anywhere else (to date, at least!). But I must confess that I didn’t really understand the city when we moved there in 1981. Its streets seemed to wander across the land with minds of their own (more confusing still: different parts of town contained roads with similar names). Then there was something called “low-water crossings,” which turned out to be quite perilous when boiling with stormwater. Seemingly more comprehensible was the way the community describes itself as having four sides (east, west, etc.). Yet San Antonio’s city limits don’t resemble a square by any means. Instead, these demarcations reveal cultural, political, racial, and economic distinctions, no less real—and fraught—for being invisible on a map. To make sense of San Antonio’s confounding characteristics, I started to write, its own irony—we are supposed to write about what we know; in my case, I put pen to paper and (and later) fingers to keyboard because I was clueless.
Environmental history as a field sometimes gets talked about like it’s a shiny new thing. Some of the theory is newish, I suppose, but the methodology has been around forever—as has the focus. I’m thinking of the “natural history” folks who were more at the intersection of biology and history. I wonder if you might talk about the state of the field and what excites you about it.
History is the study of change over time. Environmental history, by extension, is an exploration of the interplay between the natural world and the human, set within time, space and place. As a discipline, which formally emerged in response to the environmental crises and activism of the 1960s, it has been refined ever since. That’s why it’s wonderfully overwhelming to attend the annual meetings of the American Society for Environmental History. The number of participants and panels, and the extraordinary diversity of approaches, engagements, and insights that mark the varied presentations, is akin to trying to drink from a fire hose. I feel the same way every time I read the latest issue of Environmental History, Western Historical Quarterly, and many global and regional journals: There is such good, compelling research conducted by emerging and established scholars. Two self-referential examples. I was recently guest editor of three issues of AsiaNetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts that were focused on the integration of Asian and Environmental Studies. A similar level of interdisciplinary scholarship will frame a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Arizona History that will be devoted to the environmental challenges that long have confronted the Grand Canyon State. Environmental history’s evolution and expansion, its ever-widening ambition and reach, are compelling signs of its enduring relevance.
Finally, are there particular kinds of books or topics you’d be especially eager to see for Environmental Histories of Texas going forward?
Texas is a very big place, and it is my hope that the new series at TTU Press will cover all that ground. Literally, from High Plains to Gulf Coast, from the Piney Woods to the Chihuahuan Desert. And everything in between. Rivers: yes. Mountains: of course. Borderlands: naturally. Indigeneity, past and present, like urbanization or environmental injustices, are a must. But so too are economic activities that depend on the state’s natural resources: trees, soil, grass, and fish; fossil fuels, minerals, and water. Put another way, there is no limit to the kinds of projects and perspectives that might be deployed to help enrich readers’ appreciation for and critical assessment of the Environmental Histories of Texas. This multiplicity of foci is why we made the second word of the book series title plural.