Book Review: Neil S. Forkey on Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen, and Irené Novaczek, eds., Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island.

Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen, and Irené Novaczek, eds. Time and a Place:  An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island. (Montréal and Kingston:  McGill-Queen’s University Press and Charlottetown: Island Studies Press, 2016)

By Neil S. Forkey

I am not an historian of Prince Edward Island.  However, I am an environmental historian of Canada.  The latter fact allows me to recommend this fine collection of essays on one of Canada’s more interesting bioregions to others in the field.  The assembled authors have produced a welcome addition to the ever-growing body of literature on the nation’s environmental history.  These scholars highlight the Island’s uniqueness by exploring topics ranging from the period before European colonization to the present-day concerns of resource scarcity.

Time and a Place

Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island

The volume is divided into six parts.  Framing the work is an introduction by Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen, and Irené Novaczek, along with an epilogue by Claire Campbell. (An appendix on environmental laws, compiled by Colin MacIntyre, is also included). Between these poles are three parts.  In Part I, there are introductions by John R. Gillis (writing broadly about islands in human history) and Graeme Wynn (who situates PEI’s historiography in an environmental context).  The analyses narrow in Part II. David Keenlyside and Helen Kristmanson probe Aboriginal history.  The forests, c. 1720-1900, are taken up by David Sobey.  Rosemary Curley deals with the province’s fauna from prehistory to the present.  Finally, Novaczek brings to light the subsistence and commercial uses of sea-plants (particularly Irish moss).

It is in Part III that the essays become more precise and illuminating. This is so mainly because the authors isolate a specific topic, provide depth and breath, and work from traditional historical methods as opposed to approaching their subjects from what might be termed an environmental studies (or natural history) perspective.  Four contributions are noteworthy: those by MacFadyen, MacDonald and Boyde Beck, Alan MacEachern, and Kathleen Stuart.  These cogently argued essays include clear descriptions of the historical problem, lively narration, and unencumbered transitions between subtopics.

MacFadyen’s chapter takes up an important topic, perhaps the one best-known to pre-Confederation Canadian historians, namely the Land Question.  More to the point, he pays attention to early leaseholding and absentee landholding and asks what affect these practices had on the land itself.  During the 1860s and 1870s, agriculture took on a new importance and farmers began to diversify their methods (raising livestock and in winter months digging mussel mud for use as fertilizer).  However, with limited arable land, pressures on farm output and sustainability became apparent by the early twentieth century. This fact necessitated the adoption of new strategies, and today large-scale family farms have given way to more specialized ones.  (The story is continued from this point in an essay by Jean-Paul Arsenault, covering agriculture from 1969 to 2014).

Fishing is addressed by MacDonald and Beck.  The importance of this subsistence activity and commercial enterprise is obvious, but the authors provide a sophisticated analysis of how fishing waxed and waned between the sixteenth and twenty-first century.  Their chapter is an excellent overview of the subject, with emphasis upon the geopolitics of the region, the motivations of the fishers and fleets that plied these waters, as well as the finer-grained stories of those who ventured into the sea for their livelihoods (including those that defined themselves as farmers for one part of the year, and fishers for the other).  In this regard, occupational pluralism was an important aspect of the Island’s economy and the authors underscore this fact. The lobster fishery and its contemporary challenges is also well integrated into a much larger story.

Alan MacEachern and the study of his home province’s environmental history go well together.  It is a pleasure to read his deconstruction of promotional tourist literature as a modern compendium to agriculture and fishing.  Largely a twentieth-century endeavour, tourism meshed well with technology (the railway, automobiles, and photography) to entice and transport tourists.  Following the Second World War, tourism promotion was imbued with a wave of nostalgia, with more and more references to an idyllic by-gone era.  Presented in this way, visitors could enjoy a simpler time by venturing to the Island to not only bask on immaculate beaches but also move through a portal to see such time-honoured activities as haying, harvesting, and the setting of lobster traps, all against the backdrop of manifold industrial activities which were so prevalent in 1950s North America.

Lastly, one of the most thoughtful presentations is that of Kathleen Stuart, who focuses upon a subject that is often taken for granted: energy, in all its historical senses.  Earliest human inhabitation required muscle to survive and make a living from nature.  Forests then became the object of clearance efforts during the shipbuilding era; then wood was harvested for rail travel. Electricity (especially for home heating) has become the paramount energy need in the province to the present day.

In sum, this collection is a perfect addition to graduate-level reading lists specifically, and to Atlantic regional history and environmental history generally.  Time and a Place compliments a similar volume, Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada, edited by Claire Campbell and Robert Summerby-Murray (Acadiensis Press, 2013).  Both volumes provide a richer and more robust perspective on the regional environment’s past.


Neil S. Forkey is a member of the Canadian Studies Department at St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York. He is the author of two books: Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century (University of Toronto Press, 2012) and Shaping the Upper Canadian Frontier:  Environment, Society, and Culture in the Trent Valley (University of Calgary Press, 2003).

 

 

 

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About cslumkos

Corey Slumkoski is an associate professor of history at Mount Saint Vincent University.
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