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.

Thomas D. Isern

Professor of History & University Distinguished Professor, North Dakota State University

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