NEH: Application for “Mapping Nature Across the Americas”

This is the first of what might wind up being 20 posts summarizing an awesome summer at the Newberry Library for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) seminar “Mapping Nature Across the Americas.”

For curious parties, or future applicants, I’ve included part of my application letter of interest here to give you an idea of some of the research questions that guided my archival work over the course of the program:

Excerpt from Amanda Murphyao’s Mapping Nature Across the Americas National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Application

William Faden

Cartouche by William Faden,
“A map of the Inhabited Part of Canada…,” 1777.

William Faden detail

Detail from cartouche by William Faden,
“A map of the Inhabited Part of Canada…,” 1777.

The beaver features prominently in Harold A. Innis’s seminal text on Canadian political economy, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. In fact, the book opens with a discussion of the mating habits of the beaver, which segues into a discussion of the animal’s suitability as a source of fur for hats. The beaver appears on the cartouches of many historical maps, alongside figures of waterfalls, rocks, trees, and other “natural,” exploitable features of the Canadian environment. Innis argues that the beaver trade dictated European expansion into the North American continent, and the waterways dictated the route that they would follow. Former fur trading posts have become cities on the water with names like Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Chicago.

As a young Chicagoan, I first became aware of the impact that the Indigenous and European fur trade networks had on my home city while on a field trip that involved singing French Canadian voyageur songs with intrepid IMSA history teacher Claiborne Skinner and falling out of a canoe at Starved Rock State Park. Since then, I have learned from Peter Williams—over a delicious meal of seal meat curry—that Alaska Natives may harvest marine mammals for subsistence, and that sea otter fur makes incredibly soft (and expensive) hats.

I offer this brief foray into the history of haberdashery and my nautical misadventures to illustrate questions that are central to my research and teaching: what can practices of adornment—from hats on heads to cartouches on maps—tell us about the commodification of land and resources? How can an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to history and geography transform our understandings of the environmental imperatives underlying North America? What are the implications of ongoing resource exploitation for the future of our society? How can educators support students as they go from learning that “Joliet, Illinois” is an anglo-cized name of a French Canadian and a french-ified name of an Indigenous term, respectively, to studying the federal legislation around marine mammal protection in the contemporary global fur trade? In short, where have we been and where are we going?

Interrogating the construction of nature through maps of environmental history is a fruitful avenue for understanding the world and how people find a place in it. It was delightful to discuss these topics in further depth during the seminar. Some answers, but mostly lots more questions that came up over the course of the summer, will be covered in subsequent posts!

ADDENDUM

neh app

This post was re-tweeted by the NEH account, so I thought I just wanted to add a small tip to future applicants out there (if paper applications are still required next year!). If you can afford the $6 or so for covers and binding at a copy shop, your finished application will look really polished and professional (and will garner notice from the selection committee! At least in my anecdatal experience.). :-)

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