The notion of space in environmental history

I have just been reading the introduction to ‘Alaska’s Place in the West: From the Last Frontier To the Last Great Wilderness’ (Lawrence, 2010) by American environmental historian Roxanne Willis. One particular aspect of this short essay grabbed my attention: the notion of geographical space when it comes to constructing frameworks and, particularly in this context, writing histories. Willis speaks of Alaska in the context of the American West and questions whether we can really categorise the space of the state as a state? Indeed, can we categorise space at all? She goes on to explain that spaces are ‘socially and culturally, politically and materially, produced’.

Spaces are given borders by scholars, explorers, politicians, businessmen, farmers, tourists but these borders are artificially created. This is one of the most important things we should remember when reading and writing about environmental histories. Time is another artificial construct which makes the writing of environmental history all the more difficult. This awareness must be apparent at all times.

Richard White has admitted that ‘historians have been notoriously inattentive to spatial issues’. Usually space is regarded as a definite reality by historians, something to be taken for granted, in which political, social or cultural activities take place. Geographers tend to be better at regarding spaces in a social as well as a political context. Nonetheless, all academic disciplines struggle to write work in which imposition of artificiality can be avoided. Histories of the biosphere or world histories disregarding political and anthropocentric constructions take a step back and are able to look at the bigger picture. However, if history is about making conclusions for the present then some form of artificiality must be imposed. Borders are required for a focused argument. A space must be constructed in which argument can be allowed to flow and develop.

Space is a construction of the imagination. However, it is a necessary construction for a historical, or a geographical or scientific treatise for that matter, to be successful.

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