Dr. Kelley’s Notes

There is much to say about the transactions of the Agricultural History Society today, but it’s late in Stavanger now, and I’m too tired to think and write. So I may catch up tomorrow, or possibly the next day, as we take the train back to Oslo.

Here’s an interesting footnote to the day, however. This morning Dr. K and I were sitting in on the opening plenary of the society and I noticed her taking notes in her journal in a fine longhand. Surreptitiously I shot a short video reel of her note-taking and posted it to Instagram.

When I checked back in at end of day, the reel had racked up more than 100,000 views and more than 4,000 likes. Not sure what’s going on, but it seems Dr. Kelley is an influencer.

Growing Wild and Spraying Down

A long day, a good day, what we’re here for. Up early to get to UiS for opening sessions of the AHS. I presented at an ungodly time of the morning in the opening timeslot. All went well, I think; you can tell when people are engaged, even if it’s a group of mixed nationalities. I’m glad to have been part of what turned out to be a solid session. The other presenters were from Stavanger and Yale, the moderator from Bergen.

Dr. K and I did a full day of sessions. The presidential address, by Drew Swanson of Georgia Southern, was outstanding: “Growing Wild: Visions of Wildlife Management as Agricultural Science in American Forests and Fields.” Swanson has done books on the culture of hunting in America and on the environmental history of whitetail deer. Today he talked about how, with the closing of the frontier and the depletion of wildlife, the country entered into a period (1900 to 1940 or so) when there was a widespread effort to transform key game species–whitetail deer and ringneck pheasant were his main examples–into semi-domestic livestock, supplying both a conservation market for release into the wild and a culinary market for meat. This came on the heels of a “more-game” movement that emphasized multiplication of animals more than the conservation of habitat. The drive for agricultural management of game dissipated from the 1940s with, Swanson argues, the rise of a different sort of ethic in relation to wildlife, one that clearly separated wildlife and commerce.

I think maybe a couple of other things were at work, together and in sequence. First, there was the industrialization of meat production. Chicken, pork, and beef became so cheap and of such consisent quality that venison or pheasant seemed expensive and inconsistent. Second–and this certainly has accentuated in recent years–there came a neoliberal re-commodification of wildlife. The idea is, leave the game animals in the wild, but harvest revenue from them as objects of recreation for people with deep pockets. This is tied, in recent years, to the reduction of access to land for ordinary citizens.

More sessions of papers, supper with friends, then over to the Arkeologisk Museum for the evening lecture, by Bart Elmore: Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future (a book talk from Elmore’s landmark work published by Norton). This was not a feel-good event. More about this subject perhaps another time.

Dr. K has settled in to do NDSU Press business for I don’t know how long tonight. I’m sitting in the lobby of our posh hotel, catching up on communications, and wondering whether I can get away with bringing an aquavit out here from the hotel bar. Wish me luck.

Not Just the Aquavit Talking

After a full and thought-provoking day of museums yesterday, we took today to get our feet under us preparatory to the beginning of the AHS conference at the UiS tomorrow. We scouted the bus route, located the facilities, assured ourselves we could navigate the scene–and then came back downtown to do some shopping in the old town. Some rest was in order. Also, Dr. K insisted I should read through my paper, which I am presenting at an 8am session tomorrow.

Not sure how many scholarly papers I have presented at conferences over the years–surely more than a hundred. So I suspect Dr. K fears I may take the occasion too casually. It is always good to make sure that those words you wrote actually will come out of your mouth without stumbling. I thought I would have some friends planted in the room for this presentation, but the two closest ones from back home on the prairies are both presenting in other sessions scheduled concurrently! I really don’t mind them missing my paper–they surely have heard enough from me–but I regret missing theirs. Anyway, it was good to read through my text and remind myself (and get Dr. K’s assurance) that the thing made sense.

A paper on climate change on the Great Plains, more specifically the effects of the Little Ice Age on human developments–spanning a half-millennium in fifteen minutes–what can I do with that? It is what you might call a think piece. I’m in the foundational stage of writing a new history of the Great Plains, trying to do for the twenty-first century what Walter Prescott Webb did for the twentieth–make sense of the region in the middle of North America. My intention is to be not merely synthetic, pulling together what is known. I hope to establish new habits of thought about the land. To do this, in addition to mastering a library of literature, I need to do a lot of thinking, in ways not so much grounded in that literature as launching from it. To push myself to do that thinking, I will be generating a bunch of half-baked papers for presentation, begging indulgence while I think out loud.

For although if you know me, you will have heard me speak irreverently of the personalities, folkways, and vagaries of academic life; and although much of my writing has pushed into the realm of literary nonfiction, eschewing the fullness of scholarly apparatus; I nevertheless still believe in sholarship, try to live the life of a scholar, and keep the company of scholars. Thus I desire conversation with that company about the line of work on which I am embarking. Maybe the company will teach me things. Maybe I’m just covering my flank. But I’m willing to confess what I’m doing, and it’s not just the aquavit talking. Good night, Stavanger.

Opportunity Cost

Morning in Stavanger was catch-up–Dr. K doing press business, me sorting out university correspondence–and so it was early afternoon before we set out for historic sites on the town. However nerdy this may sound, we both really wanted to call in at the Norsk Hermetik Museum, the Norwegian canning museum, because we read that on Tuesdays they fire up the ovens and process sprats, and you can sample sardines right from the racks. Which I did, but Dr. K declined, so I ate two of them. The exhibits on canning featured interesting technological artifacts, which I studied because the technology was applicable to the transportation of oysters out to the prairies in the nineteenth century, something I have been writing about in Plains Folk.

Dr. K was tickled to find that the Norsk Hermetik Museum is co-located in the old cannery with the Norsk Grafisk Museum, the Norwegian museum of design and printing. (The joint museum operates under the name Iddis.) She got pretty absorbed in all that while I was nosing through the canning stuff, and I suspect she will be posting some photos.

After this we made our way across the harbor and around the point to the Norsk Oljemuseum, the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. The history of the rise of offshore drilling in the North Sea since 1969 is well-known and is pivotal to the emergence of the Norway as we know it in the twenty-first century. By the time we got to the museum my phone was dead, so we’ll have to rely on Dr. K for photos, but in retrospect I’m rather glad I was unable to take pictures and so was focused on comprehending the exhibit material. Which was massive, and comprised an astonishing collection of modern artifacts, along with a reef of models and media. I cannot do justice to it all. I can, however, tell you the effect it had on me emotionally and intellectually.

Beginning at the end–I concluded that this museum could not happen in America. It is so dense, and the discourse so elevated, that consultants and designers would never buy in. The simple volume of information is challenging, but the ideas, the human values wrapped up in the technological issues, are daunting. I think if a museum studies class were to tour the Norst Oljemuseum, the scholars would say, this is too much; it all must be simplified, dumbed down, and perhaps made less disturbing. And yet the museum was full of people actively engaging its content. It is a conviction of mine that those of us who trade in intellectual content for public consumption must challenge and elevate ourselves and our audiences. The Norst Oljemuseum is doing this. Could it be done in America? Would it be tolerated in America?

Because the content is not just serious, it is critical. The Norst Oljemuseum initiates the sort of conversations we never have had in North Dakota: the relationship between resource extraction and the public good; the human gain and cost for persons on the front lines of extraction; the long-term effects of short-term profit. In Norway, the petroleum industry is state enterprise. The industry itself has initiated these deeper conversations. It is all rather breath-taking.

As a citizen of North Dakota, and a scholar of the plains, I came away from the Norst Oljemuseum informed, stimulated, and disturbed. I came away with a deep sense of opportunity squandered. As the Bakken Boom unfolded, we often preached from the text of our prior experience with resource booms–in America. We have paid for our parochiality. We might have done much better. It is possible that the same deficiencies in our society and nation that would make it impossible to have something like the Norst Oljemuseum also made it impossible to deal competently with our situation on the ground.