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Environmental Historian Sara Dant: "History Is As Relevant Today As Ever."

Sara Dant is Professor and Chair of History at Weber State University. Her work focuses on environmental politics in the United States with a particular emphasis on the creation and development of consensus and bipartisanism. Dr. Dant’s newest book is Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West (Wiley, 2017), a "thought-provoking, well-written work" about the interaction between people and nature over time.  She is also the author of several prize-winning articles on western environmental politics, a precedent-setting Expert Witness Report and Testimony on Stream Navigability upheld by the Utah Supreme Court (2017), co-author of the two-volume Encyclopedia of American National Parks (2004) with Hal Rothman, and she has written chapters for three books on Utah: “Selling and Saving Utah, 1945-Present” in Utah History (forthcoming), “The ‘Lion of the Lord’ and the Land: Brigham Young's Environmental Ethic,” in The Earth Will Appear as the Garden of Eden: Essays in Mormon Environmental History, ed. by Jedidiah Rogers and Matthew C. Godfrey (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2019), 29-46, and “Going with the Flow: Navigating to Stream Access Consensus,” in Desert Water: The Future of Utah’s Water Resources (2014). Dr. Dant serves on PhD dissertation committees, regularly presents at scholarly conferences, works on cutting-edge conservation programs, and gives numerous public presentations around the West.  She teaches lower-division courses in American history and upper-division courses on the American West and US environmental history, as well as historical methods and the senior seminar.

What books are you reading now?

I just finished E.C. Pielou’s A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic in preparation for a 12-day river trip on the Hulahula River through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  I feel a real urgency to see this remarkable landscape and its plants and animals before it vanishes or becomes something entirely different as a consequence of global warming and climate change.

Currently, I’m reading Doug Brinkley’s epic biography of Theodore Roosevelt, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, in part to bring some historical context to my involvement with the conservation efforts of American Prairie Reserve, which is attempting to restore some of the ecosystems lost in the late 19th century on the Great Plains of Montana. It’s a book I wish I could assign in my classes because of the sparkling writing and complex historical context Brinkley provides, but it’s 1,000 pages long and I fear my students would likely stampede for the door if they saw it on the syllabus.

One other really different book that I read recently is Rob Dunn’s Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live.  It goes into remarkable detail about the largely invisible-to-us habitat that our homes and even bodies provide and how being dirty can actually be healthy.  It makes you want to change your showerhead immediately, though.

What is your favorite history book?

I’m not sure I could really pick a “favorite,” but I can tell you about the book that motivated me to pursue environmental history: William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.  I read this as part of an early America field course in graduate school and, at the time, environmental history (the interaction of people and nature over time) was a relatively new line of inquiry.  Cronon’s elegant discussions of how the introduction of capitalism and the market so transformed nature that “by 1800, Indians could no longer live the same seasons of want and plenty that their ancestors had, for the simple reason that crucial aspects of those seasons had changed beyond recognition” (169) resonate right up to the present.  I have found this book to be incredibly useful and inspirational in my own work but also in the classroom. Cronon has a real gift for explaining complex ideas in a way that makes them accessible to all readers.  I find myself returning to it again and again and each time, taking away something new.

Why did you choose history as your career?

I did so with great reluctance, actually.  I come from a long line of teachers, so naturally, I wanted to be anything but a teacher.  My undergraduate degree is in Journalism and Public Relations, which was a terrific initiation into writing directly and concisely, although I had minor in history simply because I loved it.  I did a master’s degree in American Studies with the idea that I could learn broadly about the American past by combining my intrinsic love of history with literature, culture, and economics.  But I had no idea what to do next, so I took a job at a two-year college where I was the entire history department.  That really did it for me.  I loved interacting with students, I found a way to teach environmental history that combined classroom learning with outdoor field experience, and I finally discovered that I was and always had been a historian.  With that resolved, I returned to graduate school, earned my PhD in history, and have been doing what I love - writing, researching, and teaching - ever since.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

I think the best historians are inherently curious and tenacious.  We not only ask “why” but also “how did this happen”?  Often, though, the answers to those questions aren’t easy to find, so a good historian has to be a bit of a detective.  In environmental history, we have the advantage of drawing upon other disciplines to help answer tough questions.  If you want to know if log and tie drives occurred on a particular river in the late 19th century, for example, you need to look at journals and newspapers, naturally, but stream-flow and tree-ring data are invaluable as are coniferous tree re-growth rates and forest composition studies.  The best historians are the ones who think unconventionally about their sources. 

Who was your favorite history teacher?

This is not the typical response: the high school football coach.  Like so many students, I went to a high school where the football coach was also the history teacher.  Unlike most students, I got a brilliant history teacher - Jesse Parker, who taught me to love history and football.  He made my brain hurt.  Then when I went to graduate school, I was fortunate to have LeRoy Ashby at Washington State as my mentor.  His genuine love of history and his brilliance in the classroom inspired and inspires me.

What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?

I’m not sure I can pick a specific event.  The best part of my job as a professor is watching the lights go on in a student who “gets it.”  I think the best student evaluation comments that I receive are ones where the student “never liked history” before and now is completely fired up.  I had onestudent, for example, who used the research skills he learned from a class project to completely restructure the recycling practices of the company he works for.  But it’s also equally rewarding when a non-traditional student brags about the previous evening’s dinner conversation where she got to tell her kids what really caused near-extinction for bison “and they thought I was SO smart!”  

What are your hopes for history as a discipline?

History is as relevant today as ever.  We have many challenges - environment, politics, social, cultural - that are the end-product of our historical arc.  Understanding how we got here, what has worked and what hasn’t in the past, gives us the best chance of moving forward successfully.  My work places particular emphasis on the creation and development of consensus and bipartisanism, and I firmly believe that people care about what they know, so understanding more about one another facilitates the kind of dialogue and communication that fosters community and sustainability.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

History has become ever more inclusive, which makes it more challenging to tell complete stories about the past.  The best history is complicated and messy, just like the present, but figuring out how to convey that complexity can be tricky.  When I wrote Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West, for example, I wanted to make it accessible and compelling - I wanted to re-arrange the furniture in people’s heads - so that they could look at the world around them, the American West in particular, with renewed appreciation and clarity.  But it also meant I wasn’t going to write about wars or race relations or politics (much).  The best understanding of the past must ultimately come from reading broadly and deeply across many fields and interpretations and I think the discipline has gotten better about giving voice to the many rather than the few. 

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

My students know that my favorite question is: at what cost?  Who or what pays the price for the decisions we’ve made and how does that play out over time?  To me, it’s a terrific shorthand for getting at the essence of history - the study of change over time - and for ensuring a comprehensive and complicated understanding of both the past and the present.  It’s the driving question in Losing Eden and I think it’s invaluable to making history about more than just names and dates.

What are you doing next?

Next up are a couple of projects - a journal article and a report on the historical uses of rivers in Utah as a window into the larger role of river commerce in the interior West in the late 19th century.  The other is a long-standing project to examine the development and implementation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund - the economic engine behind many significant conservation efforts of the 20th century and a remarkable model of political bipartisanism that endures in the 21st century.