I tell students that the joy of researching and studying with others on campus is that you get to put your story into that fabric. There’s always more learning to do.

Claire Campbell

Professor Claire Campbell learned at a young age that she could engage with history on a personal level. As a girl growing up in Canada, Campbell would travel with her family each summer to historical sites throughout North America. Those trips shaped her interest in how people interact with nature and served as her point of entry to environmental history.

“I’ve always thought of history as something outside,” she says. “You understand history differently when you are in a 3D space. In your mind’s eye, you’re erasing what you see and reimagining what would have been there. I find it a really important and inspirational way of thinking about the past.”

Understanding how human history and human choices have affected our collective environmental history has been a prevailing theme of Campbell’s work. Her North American environmental history course, for example, looks at transnational history and how decisions made in one country often have effects that reach far beyond its borders.

“This is a way for me to engage with a crucial issue of the 21st century,” says Campbell, noting that our continent’s predominant views on economic and political success are very much rooted in the 19th century. “We need to examine the historical record so we can do things differently.”

Taking a different approach to historic places was the basis of Campbell’s most recent book, Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada, in which she blends the public and environmental histories of five well-known national historic sites.

“These sites have been used to tell national stories. But what if we rewrite the narrative and tell the story of their environmental change?” she asks. “For each of these places, I looked at them sideways in a sense — through the lens of environmental history, instead of focusing on their nation-building story.”

The stories we learn and choose to embrace help to paint a larger, many-sided picture of society, she points out.

“I tell students that the joy of researching and studying with others on campus is that you get to put your story into that fabric,” Campbell says. “There’s always more learning to do. The best part of this job is I just keep getting to learn new things every day, and that’s a really wonderful feeling.”

Posted September 2018