Facts and Fish

I teach world history and over Christmas break I found myself working on a lecture about history–what is history, how do we do it, and how has the writing of history changed over time. I found myself going back to a classic work, What is History,  Edward Hallett Carr, published in 1961. I found this wonderful quotation:

“History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available…in documents, inscriptions, and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.”

Among the new books where historians are serving fish is Clearing the Coastline: The Nineteenth-Century Ecological & Cultural Transformation of Cape Cod, by Matthew McKenzie of the University of ConnecticutMatt, Avery Point. This is sitting at the top of a precarious stack of books on my desk. Matt takes a look at how Cape Cod was transformed from a barren agricultural wasteland into a bountiful fishery. At the same time, he examines the tensions between fishing and other land uses, and the evolving understanding of the marine ecosystem.

“Cape Cod’s nineteenth-century transformation reveals to us all that labor, environment, science, culture, and ecology are intimately intertwined. Fishermen were part of a larger ecological, social, and cultural context that also affected how and how intensely they took fish, (178).”

Matt’s book is available from the University Press of New England.


Also in that precarious stack is a book I read last year and have been intending to post about, American’s Ocean Wilderness: A Cultural History of Twentieth-Century Exploration, by Gary Kroll.

I’m so focused on fish that I sometimes forget there are can be other questions about the oceans. Gary has taken an interesting look at how the high seas have engaged us as an adventure frontier. This is a cultural history of the exploration of the oceans and critically analyzes the legacies of seven marine explorers—Jacques Cousteau, Thor Heyerdahl, Roy Chapman Andrews, Robert Cushman Murphy, Eugenie Clark, Rachel Carson, and William Beebe.

As Gary points out, we’ve always considered the ocean the last frontier. We have tended to think that is resources and inexhaustible. But we’ve also thought it was a place in need of stewardship, as well as a place of recreation..

Of particular interest is the chapter on Rachel Carson. She is better known for writing the classis Silent Spring (1962), but she wrote about the oceans as well. Her first book, published in 1941, was Under the Sea-Wind. Carson was a senior editor for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. She spent much time at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The Sea Around Us was published in 1951.

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