Author: Adam M. Sowards

Passenger Pigeons, Democracy, and a Future to Seize

Passenger Pigeon Memorial, Wyalusing State Park | Blog post:… | Flickr

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Forty-three years later, in 1947, a monument memorialized the extinct pigeons in Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin at the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers, just south of Prairie du Chien. The state’s most famous conservationist, Aldo Leopold, reflected on the bird and the occasion with “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” an essay he revised and included in his classic book A Sand County Almanac.

I’ve been re-reading A Sand County Almanac for the first time, cover to cover, since college. Today, coincidentally, I finished his chapter on Wisconsin, which contained the pigeon essay, in the second part of the book—what he called “Sketches Here and There.”

“On a Monument to the Pigeon” finds Leopold philosophical, as was typical. And he mused about expansive human sensibilities. Darwin taught Leopold that humans are “fellow voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution.” No more, no less. Accordingly, Leopold thought people ought to develop a “sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live.” He recognized that too few people had generated such sympathy.

But some had, as the memorial to the passenger pigeon attested. “For one species to mourn the death of another,” Leopold said, “is a new thing under the sun.”

Witnessing what has happened in—or, rather, to—Wisconsin in the last day has me mourning, too. Not for the extinction of a species but for the death of democracy, and of decency. For more than a century Wisconsin has been a beacon of political reform and experimentation. A century ago, those efforts increased democratic representation and promotion of the public interest. For the last decade, Wisconsin Republicans have hollowed out anything remotely small-d democratic, and yesterday they received a big assist from the US Supreme Court. “One person, one vote” no longer is something to aspire to and ensure but something, if you are a Republican, to thwart by whatever means necessary.

It was a dark day.

Leopold ends his short essay poignantly: “The love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons. To see America as history, to conceive of destiny as a becoming, to smell a hickory tree through the still lapse of ages—all these things are possible for us, and to achieve them takes only the free sky, and the will to ply our wings.”

I think Leopold is commenting on our species’ ability to transcend this moment, to long for the past where passenger pigeons still fill the skies. But also to see the future as unfinished so that we shape it toward the possibilities we can imagine, if only we will ply our wings to soar in that free sky.

Giving Up the Ghosts


Sometimes I think of the ghosts, the spectral traces of students whose lives changed along these same paths and in these very buildings. Thinking of my own college years, I remember walking with roommates and thinking about the future we were forging. We didn’t know what that might be but were sure it was in-the-making right then. This included the relationships we made, the majors we selected, and the careers we could faintly see before us.

A real power of university education is its ability to surprise and upend. People and ideas encountered can challenge old and open new worldviews and opportunities. To take advantage of such possibilities, all parties must accept them. That means seeking discomfort.


Confirmation bias works pervasively. Students enroll in courses that confirm their values. Capitalists study economics. Social justice advocates find sociology. Dreamers study literature.

A different sort of “confirmation” also plays out when students–and their professors–seek familiarity and comfort in the work itself. They comprehend (and grade) easily quizzes and multiple choices. They know how to listen to (and deliver) lectures, the great conveyor belt of information that speeds forward without ever pausing to wonder if this product is wanted or needed or serves the general good. They know how to compose (and teach) a formulaic five-paragraph essay form as a handy way to package and contain familiar ideas.

My fear and frustration: too few students (or professors) seek surprise or hope to overturn practices they’ve mastered, resulting in a staleness in ideas and a stalling in capabilities. Little reward accrues to anyone in this system, a production line of basic competence. And so we roll on toward a familiar and dull future.

I think too infrequently do students learn how to cultivate their own interests or to trust themselves. Addressing a student of writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote:

You were almost never asked to notice or observe, witness or testify.

You were being taught to manage the evidence gathered from other authorities

Instead of cultivating your own–

To simulate logic

But not to write so clearly that

What you were saying seemed self-evident.

He continued a few pages further in his provocative book, Several Short Sentences about Writing:

Being a writer is an act of perpetual self-authorization.

No matter who you are.

Only you can authorize yourself.

You do that by writing well, by constant discovery.

No one else can authorize you.

No one.

This doesn’t happen overnight.

It’s as gradual as the improvement in your writing.

This shows the way, I think.

But collectively today, for students and professors, risks are to be avoided; ranges of acceptability narrow. To do otherwise is hard. And even harder, doing otherwise invites vulnerability and perhaps failure. Such qualities are to be shunned in the existing system. Vulnerability and failure, however, are stops on the route to learning and meaningful lives. I am dubious that blue book exams and term papers often entice surprise or overturn worldviews or forge new trails. What truths are found there?

Critiquing isn’t the same as proposing alternatives. I’m hopeful enough to believe we might, together, ensure more enriching and empowering learning. I’m not naive enough to believe I have the answers or that we might transform things entirely now. And I’m confident some practices, relics though they may seem, serve certain functions well. A total revolution is not due tomorrow.

But some acknowledgment is in order. Students (and professors) doing many of the same activities they have already, always done seem less likely to learn since they will be traveling down well-worn trails, seeing much the same scenery. Students (and professors) will require encouragement to step off those trails. And they will need to be willing to hear they have failed, haven’t reached their intended goal. But that failure is not an identity. It doesn’t constitute anything final, but simply a moment on a new pathway that can take us someplace else, which seems better than arriving in exactly the same spot after traveling along the same route doing the same thing as so many others.


The ghosts who share my campus left indentations on marble stairs, their tracks weigh heavily. To get to the second floor, we need to walk in their footsteps. But to get to the future, our traces must go elsewhere. “Give up the ghost” means to die. But for inanimate things, those not able to die, the metaphor might mean surrendering something lifeless. It may be time.

Calling Things Truly

I’m not sure any writer stimulates me like Rebecca Solnit. Her dead-aim truth telling and her exquisite control of language serves up so many reminders and inspirations.

In “Silence Is Broken,” an early essay in The Mother of All Questions, Solnit writes:

The task of calling things by their true names, of telling the truth to the best of our abilities, of knowing how we got here, of listening particularly to those who have been silenced in the past, of seeing how the myriad stories fit together and break apart, of using any privilege we may have been handed to undo privilege or expand its scope is each of our tasks. It’s how we make the world.

She concluded the weighty essay about silence and women with this passage, an exquisite sentence containing a plea and plan. In the main, the essay catalogs the ways silencing works to oppress, how it protects patriarchy. Silence is a verb, not a quality of quiet. The essay–and the book flowing out of it–is worth reading and learning from. But I want to consider specifically the ways Solnit’s charge here might guide historians’ work.

  1. Calling things by their true name. Using “patriarchy” rather than “human nature” or some other formulation makes impacts. As I’m teaching Native American history now, I’m reminded often of choosing true names. Calling out colonialism as cause rather than fingering (mostly) blameless pathogens, for instance, recalibrates truth. As does characterizing processes as settler colonialism rather than settlement, invasions not migrations. Part of calling things truly means grappling with agency. In reading about Californian genocide (truth telling in names again) in Benjamin Madley’s excellent An American Genocide, I’m struck by the ways Californians deflected moral choice by assuming the inevitable disappearance of California Indians. Of course, the deflection made it (nearly) inevitable.
  2. Tell the truth to the best of our abilities. We must hone our honesty and model integrity. We adjust when we learn more; we correct when we are wrong. Our polestar draws facts, not ideology or even flawless narrative. Our telling rests on truth, but we face hostile recipients. So we practice our words, making them truer and clearer. And more urgent.
  3. Knowing how we got here. Everything holds its history within its very structure. Another way of saying this is that choices produce the world where we live. And so we must examine those choices, see their results and consequences intended and otherwise. Accepting the world as it appears today as some inevitable outcome misunderstands the heartbeat of history. (A recent novel that plays with inevitability–and its reversals–is the magnificent The Power by Naomi Alderman.) When we understand historical forces as accumulating human agency, we can pry and leverage change. What seemed like historical bedrock yesterday can be eroded tomorrow.
  4. Listen to those silenced in the past. Finding voices previously silenced and listening to them, privileging them, seems the right work for historians. Some will object, no doubt, claiming distortion. We’ve heard the unsilenced for so long, so loudly. Their case has been made. Their records enshrined in State of the Union addresses, military orders, Pulitzers, Oscar-winning films. When we see in the shadows, we will see lives lived truly.
  5. How stories fit together or break apart. When we have all the puzzle pieces rather than half or a third, the picture is not only clearer, it is different. Gathering all the stories is not a means for increasing quantity, not more of the same. Instead, we will have stories that change The Story, rendering the old order confused. The story of our nation won’t include women who be also became doctors, African Americans who also became presidents. It becomes more complicated, nuanced; more facets appear bending the past’s light. The story of expanding democracy, a favorite fable, does not work because it has always excluded those for whom the story is a lie. And when you exclude people in a democratic story, you fail to call things by their true name. The outer edge and the inner core can no longer orient because the world has always been multi-centered, dynamic. Old truths die hard in the full face stories.
  6. Use our privilege to undo privilege. My privilege compounds. White. Male. Heterosexual (and married and a parent). Educated. Jobbed. Able-bodied. Citizen. Etc. Virtually every privilege my society grants, I have. I earned none (although I did homework when education was available). To be privileged, one needs to acknowledge it. Then use it to undo it. This seems to some to undermine self-interest. But self-interest seems always to weaken the greater good, which cycles back on itself to tear the self and its interests apart. Awareness of privilege, and calling it such, is a prelude to the real work of weakening the pillars that hold up the facade of Meritocracy.

It’s how we make the world, says Solnit. The world is constituted by stories, with stories. Our stories are our truth. Truths require information, as much as we can hear and sometimes more than we want to bear, especially those who benefit from privilege. How we make the world begins with our choices, so how we choose should be high in our awareness. Take conscious steps. Take heed. Tell true stories fiercely.

On Historical Thinking; Thinking about Technology


Three facts:

  1. I am teaching Native American history as a standalone course for the first time.
  2. According to many, history (or the humanities more broadly) is not especially relevant today or for the future.
  3. Technologies are rearranging our daily lives in fundamental ways

I want to connect these points.

Start at the end. I’ve bitten into Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies: The Design of

Adam Greenfield (By Javier Candeira from Madrid, Spain – CC BY-SA 2.0,

Everyday Life to learn more about various technologies (e.g., smartphone, augmented technology, machine learning) and how they are influencing daily life. One minor point he stresses is how certain design choices by engineers or certain consumer choices by individuals set us down specific paths. Along that trail, other choices no longer become possible or require significant investment to extract from the new circumstances. (This does not even address questions about how corporations or governments require access to services via networked technologies.)

It seems futuristic. It would appear that history offers few clues to a world barely imaginable two decades ago, much less centuries. With a future that will differ so much from the past, few clues can help us think through the implications of such technological decisions and consequences. Or so some might have us think.

But I’ve been reading and teaching about Indigenous people on the Great Plains in the seventeenth through early nineteenth centuries, particularly when they chose to enter the gun and horse trade. First lesson is: engaging in this trade was not inevitable; it constituted a choice. And like any momentous choice, those making it thought benefits would accrue to them. And the benefits came. Horses and guns furnished advantages economically and militarily. They generated new sources of wealth. Cultural flourishing followed. For a century and more, positive signs may have reigned.

Alfred Jacob Miller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vulnerabilities came, too. Choosing guns meant maintaining trade networks for ammunition. Choosing horses meant finding sufficient grasses for herds. For those tribes who adopted more bison hunting–a strategy that promised greater wealth–they gave up or reduced horticultural practices, a consequence that weakened women’s power and made entire groups more vulnerable with their subsistence practices. Finally, of course, the networks that brought guns and horses to the Great Plains brought diseases and traders and settlers who planned to stay. Death and violence trod down the pathways.

The transformations today with artificial intelligence and smartphones and those on the Plains with horses and rifles are not identical conditions. But the past is not meant to be predictive or to provide exact analogs . . . despite naive hopes. However, I can’t help but wonder if thinking about networks and technologies and rapid changes in history might insert humanity into considerations about technology. Perhaps inevitabilities lessen when choice and agency and unintended consequences sit squarely in the center of public discussions of technological design. Those issues are precisely what are at the center of historical investigation. We lose sight of them at our peril.

Dispossession in a Minute: On Shifting Perspectives


The visualization unfolds briskly, envelops the continent with a relentlessness that shocks. Almost an entire continent consumed in a century; from Native land to a nation’s land, sped up to a minute. The continent is eaten away as if by acid, the edges crumbling like old letters long stored in an archive unable to maintain its integrity. Then, like an ember blown beyond the fire line to ignite a new blaze, splotches grow in the middle. The loss, the costs, unimaginable and incalculable, accumulate.

As effective as this visualization is, “The Invasion of America” understates the territorial losses. Within those burnt yellow patches, the lands retained, the homelands still home, include gaps. A finer-grained map would show more pockets of property carved out. So much loss in the simplest stark terms of real estate. But land loss masks something deeper. Indigenous cultures are placed-based and this map shows how much “place” was taken. The ample resilience seen among Native people today is all the more impressive with this history’s weight.

There is no good reason to be stunned by the map. It depicts the nation’s foundation that we know, even if we do not acknowledge it. Most often, nineteenth-century North America is shown as a march of the nation, a growing republic that fills in maps so to resemble today. Simply reversing the colors and shifting perspectives, this visualization forces us to exchange blank spots. Here, ceded land becomes blank, not states. It is loss depicted, not gain.

The Invasion of America is a project of Claudio Saunt. Explore the fuller map project–The Invasion of America: How the United States Took Over an Eighth of the World–that includes links to documents.


On Creativity and History, or Imagining an Unimaginable Future

In 1978, in a fit of optimism that civil rights had arrived and would never retreat, the southern writer Walker Percy, told a Georgia audience,

Like most great historical changes, the change happens before our inkling of it and before its consequences begin to dawn on us.

His shortsightedness on race in America notwithstanding, Percy offers a mostly wise assessment. We don’t realize when our historical trajectory jumps the track and starts us down new pathways. When our consciousness catches up, we are halfway to Topeka when we aimed for Tacoma.

Climate change-induced flood damage at Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park (NPS Photo by M. Rockman)

Considering climate change confirms Percy’s point. Long ago, industrial economies committed to fossil fuels, a decision that promised (and delivered) much to energize society in novel ways. Pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere launched a global and devastating experiment, the results of which we now reckon with in newly powerful storms and changing weather patterns across the globe. Scientists explain that if we stopped burning coal and driving our cars today, the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would not stabilize for perhaps four decades. This seems the very definition of Percy’s observation: change proceeds without us knowing, until we are long down the trail.

Make no mistake, we must end fossil fuel-based economies, but this shift requires more than an occasional carpool, curbside recycling, farmers’ markets, and other “green lifestyle” shibboleths. Upsetting these economies will necessarily be revolutionary; this is why, as activist and writer Naomi Klein points out in This Changes Everything, some conservatives go to such extreme measures to disbelieve evidence. Climate change is an existential threat to the world–and the wealth–built on fossil fuels. The right knows this instinctively and resists

By Photographer/original uploader: David Marshall/w:User:brtom1 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Wendell Berry speaking in Frankfort, Indiana.
Farmer-poet-prophet Wendell Berry knows it, too. Long an advocate for slowing down our economies and pegging them to ecological scales and not quarterly profit shares, Berry is familiar with calls for radical change. In a 2013 speech to Kentucky Unitarians, he implored that we must end fossil fuel economies.

But we must do this fully realizing that our success, if it happens, will change our world and our lives more radically than we can now imagine.

For decades, walking his fields and tending to home ground, Berry breathes faith in nature’s power to guide action and decision making. He knows there are no ways to transcend the earth’s capacity to support life. So, climate change is a call to arms.

But perhaps it is Berry’s final comment that merits the most attention. This new civilization–the one not based on extracting non-renewable energy sources–is beyond our imagining. It would be unrecognizable to us today, Berry thinks. We need the frank, slap-in-the-face honesty Berry issues.

I don’t think it is quite as unimaginable as Berry would have us believe. I believe creative people might be our best guides into this unimaginable future. And this, I think, demands we attend to a different set of “workers” to guide us.

Octavia Butler

Writers have long created unimaginable worlds. Consider classic science fiction like The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), where Ursula LeGuin imagines a society without gender. Or, revisit uptopian/dystopian worlds wrecked by environmental disasters, like much in Octavia Butler’s or Margaret Atwood’s oeuvres. Countless more examples might be added.

Conjuring fictional worlds guided by distinct values–a civilization that might meet the demands of the radical future Berry points toward–will require openness and imagination. Yet imagination may be in short supply. The novelist Michael Chabon worries that we are not watering the seeds of the future. We raise our children with insufficient independence and imagination. In a remarkable 2009 essay, “The Wilderness of Childhood,” Chabon concludes,

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted–not taught–to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

Although Chabon’s concern centers mainly on the artistic, his point translates easily to the business of creating a culture that fits a post-fossil fuel economy. One risks much with an indoor childhood where parents drive their kids everywhere, where kids play videos with pre-programmed narratives, where the young do not explore or create their own wildernesses–out in the world or even in their unique imaginations. If imaginations atrophy, Chabon recognizes we will lose stories. If we lose stories, the world loses its vital compass, including the cartography of previously unimagined directions.

Besides imagining too little, we’ve forgotten too much. We must hope for and create a better future, to forge a radical different civilization springing from our imaginations. History can guide. In her collection, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit reminds us,

What lies ahead seems unlikely; when it becomes the past, it seems inevitable.

Like Percy, Solnit points to our unconsciousness as we swim in the stream of time. Where Percy said we 

Berlin Wall, 1989

cannot see it as it carries us forward, Solnit tells us possibilities are impossibilities until they became inevitabilities. She then shares all sorts of examples of “hope in the dark,” past examples of surprising reversals and resistances: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Zapatista revolution, peace movements, ordinary people doing extraordinary things in unimaginable circumstances. History is not straightforward as the textbook chapters’ decadal march of progress pretend. “Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward,” Solnit cautions,

but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension.

Progress happens, sometimes quickly, sometimes in an agonizing creep.

So, while Berry warns us that our future is beyond what we can imagine and Percy notes that we remain unaware when history changes, I think students of the past might see guideposts and lighthouses. They might serve as well as novelists and artists to build a new world.

Sometimes, we hear that a climate change-induced world has no historical antecedents; our past can be no guide in the Anthropocene, for something new under the sun is here. That too easily dismisses the accumulated wisdom of human history. The historical record is scattered with paths not taken, reforms not chosen. In an example surely close to Berry’s heart, American agricultural reformers worried about unsustainable farming practices and sought local solutions two centuries ago. What might we learn from revisiting them? What might Buddhism offer, since its 2500-year history focuses on suffering (dukkha) and how to become liberated from it? Close observers of The Leap Manifesto, a Canadian-based movement that Klein favors as a guide toward an equitable society based on caring, will realize it is inspired by historical examples and obligations. In other words, historical cognates shine lights forward, as well as back.

To the extent that leaders in education recognize the fundamental centrality of adapting to a world where humans changed the climate, they are likely to invest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs. This dangerously narrows possibilities for reimagining life on earth. Investing in history, in art, in daily acts of imagination–these are the ways forward. Then, the radical new future will become familiar, even inevitable, and we will recognize the momentous change we are bound to create.

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On Creativity and History, or Imagining an Unimaginable Future by Adam M. Sowards is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

David Brooks and the Myth of Pre-Political Land

Friday, at the New York Times, David Brooks waded into environmental history. I haven’t seen environmental historians reacting to his column, “This American Land,” which is a curiosity, since our field rarely appears on the Times Op-Ed page. We should weigh in.

Brooks observes two things worth noting. First, most presidents, he claims, experienced deep connections with nature, but the current temporary resident in the Oval Office seems satisfied driving a cart around manicured golf courses. Although I question Brooks’ characterization of most American presidents having a close connection to the natural environment (especially Ronald Reagan whom he specifically named), it’s obvious Donald Trump couldn’t care less for the land unless it could yield oil or could grow gilded hotels.

Second, and more importantly, Brooks believes that part of the solution to the nation’s deep divisions might come through the land. His final two paragraphs explain this:

These days I often ask people what percentage of our nation’s problems can be solved through policy and politics. Most people say that most of America’s problems are pre-political. What’s needed is a revival of values, fraternity and a binding American story.

I don’t know all the ways that revival of spirit can come about, but even in the age of the driverless car and Reddit, I suspect some of the answers are to be found in reconnecting with our ancient ideals and reconnecting with the land.

Like many environmental historians I suspect, I find succor in the final phrase and hope–that we might heal the nation by starting with healing the land. That’s a place where my expertise points me, a site where my professional and political instincts intersect.

But we shouldn’t be be fooled by Brooks calling us back to the land. He sees such an endeavor as pre-political. In this, his ignorance of American environmental history could hardly be greater. Questions of land have always been political; to think otherwise is simply fantasy.

In the column Brooks quotes venerable writers in the environmental tradition, such as Thoreau, Muir, and Wendell Berry, and some who appear less often in environmental history pages, like Samuel Adams, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, or Walt Whitman. This is Brooks’ style–a breezy nod toward authorities followed by a quick summation that makes him appear the insightful expert. In this column, Brooks idealizes three American types who identified with the land–The Steward, The Pioneer, The Elevated Spirit. “These types wove together to form the American mythos,” asserts Brooks.

By Messina, John, 1940-, Photographer (NARA record: 8464458) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The problem with Brooks’ reading of the environmental past is that he genuinely sees our nation’s connection to land as pre-political. This is a ludicrous proposition.

The foundational story of the nation–the dispossession of the continent from its indigenous occupants–is missing. The ways yeomanry facilitated Native dispossession and the ways it intersected with the expansion of slavery and the environmental ills of plantation agriculture occurred not for a second to Brooks. The continued environmental racism faced by farm laborers and inner city residents and Cancer Alley victims is not pre-political to be solved by “clearing brush,” just as did presidents Bush and Reagan.

Getting the president out of his electric cart and into one of those (shrinking) national monuments might be a nice gesture, but it would be an empty one and won’t heal our divisions. Brooks might begin by recognizing that “our” connection to the land is not an all-inclusive, unproblematic, ancient ideal that he suggests. Our nation’s environmental story is shot through with power and privilege, inequalities and divisions, racism and hardship. In short, it is like everything else in the American past. Anything else is another whitewashing of the past. Brooks and the Times should know better and do better.