(From upper left) MXC dome courtesy of Chad Freidrichs; Houlgate Guide to Bicycle Paths courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society; a 1920's cartoon from the Minneapolis Daily Star; a postcard from the personal collection of Karen Wellner.

Minnesota has a rich environmental history. From the headwaters of the Mississippi River and thousands of lakes to the birthplace of the American Indian Movement and forward thinking on bicycle infrastructure, there are many stories to tell. But when Professor Chris Wells, an environmental historian, arrived in Minnesota in 2005, he discovered that many of the state’s vast number of environmental stories had yet to be written down in forms that he could use in the classroom. His colleague at Carleton College, Dr. George Vrtis, who arrived in Minnesota the next year, agreed. So the two held a conference at the Minnesota Historical Society for historians from across the state and country to share their research. The result is a first-of-its-kind volume co-edited by Wells and Vrtis called Nature’s Crossroads: The Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota that was published this month. Dr. Wells explains why the environmental history of a place is important and shares some of the fascinating things they learned.     

What do we miss when we’re inclined to view cities as entirely human worlds?

We miss a lot. We miss the trees and the water and the animals. Sometimes we miss whole forests and rivers and ecosystems. You can live in Saint Paul or Minneapolis and never make it to the river. It’s really easy to lose track of nature in cities. And this is doubly true because much of nature, even though it is everywhere in cities, often doesn’t register to people as nature. This collection is reminding us that those are important parts of our everyday lives and are also an important part of our shared history. 

This book is trying to bring these vital forces back into our common story and the way that we understand human life, as well as what it means to live in cities. Cities are these vast socio-economic and socio-ecological systems, and historians have done a great job with the socio part of things and a not so good job at the ecological side. This collection really tries to pull that ecological side back into the conversation about city life. 

What kinds of things surprised you about Minnesota’s environmental history while shepherding this project? 

We learned all sorts of stuff that’s just fascinating. We learned, for example, that the enthusiastic bicycling culture and celebrated bicycle infrastructure in the Twin Cities has a really deep history. Even before automobiles were a thing, the Twin Cities were investing serious money in improved rights of way that they called bicycle side paths, which most of us today have never heard of.

We also learned a lot about Minnesota’s indigenous peoples in a lot of different contexts. For example, we didn’t realize that the American Indian Movement, which originated in the Twin Cities, had such an interesting and important environmental dimension in its formation and subsequent activism. Likewise, Dr. Vrtis and I had heard about the Prairie Island Power Plant and Casino, but neither of us knew the history of how a Native American reservation ended up sitting side-by-side with a nuclear power plant right in the middle of the Mississippi River. Both of these stories gave us powerful lessons in environmental justice. 

My favorite “who knew?” story, though, is the Minnesota Experimental City, which was a crazy plan concocted in the 1970s – which was taken very seriously and got substantial funding – to create a sort of futuristic “Jetson-esque” city in the middle of northern Minnesota called the Minnesota Experimental City. Ironically, it was conceived as a testing ground for advanced technologies to try to solve urban environmental problems, but it ultimately failed because people objected to it on environmental grounds.

And that’s really just scratching the surface. I could go on and on! 

What are the benefits of a collection like this where you bring together so many different voices?

The big benefit of a book like this is that it allows for lots of different voices, and it approaches the topic as a conversation and an exploration. The call that we made was the equivalent of “What are our most interesting environmental stories? What should we be talking about?” And people jumped in with their particular answers. 

Some of these were surprising, like bicycle side paths and Prairie Island and the Minnesota Experimental City, but people also tackled what we might think of as the classic topics of Minnesota’s environmental past. We got the origins of the reflexive, almost knee-jerk need to head to the cabin up north, as well as a history of Loring Park. We got people writing about the state’s logging industry, the flour mills in Minneapolis, the expansion of James Hill’s railroad empire, and mining in the Iron Range, all with an eye on their relationships with the Twin Cities. And we got important stories about indigenous people, starting before there were cities all the way into the present. When you put out a big call for new work, you turn up all sorts of really interesting topics. 

But you also miss some things, and that’s another benefit of a collection like this, which is that it’s really conceived to seed a conversation, to invite more research and more attention. I hope that some people will look at this collection and say “You know, I don’t see something that really needs to be part of the conversation. Maybe I should write about it.” That’s one of the big benefits of something like this. Dr. Vrtis and I were aiming to start a conversation rather than trying to have the final word. 

What are some of the larger takeaways you want people to absorb? 

One of the big takeaways is really about complexity. When we started, one of the areas of scholarship that we wanted to build on was the dynamics between the cities and what geographers call their “hinterlands.” That is to say, the places beyond the city that are in active communication and trade with the city. The big urban markets effectively said “Give us timber, give us wheat,” and so people began cutting down the North Woods and plowing up the Great Plains to meet those needs. In the process they completely remade those hinterland environments on a pretty grand scale. 

John Borchert at the University of Minnesota, the namesake for the Borchert Map Library, was one of the early geographers developing this idea. William Cronon at the University of Wisconsin wrote a book called Nature’s Metropolis, which is about Chicago and its relationship with the Great West. He used the framework of city-hinterland dynamics to think about the environmental history of cities, and we wanted to build on that conversation to see what we could learn. 

What did you learn? 

We learned that those relationships between cities and hinterlands are incredibly powerful and reveal an extraordinary degree of environmental and cultural complexity. This extends to things like wheat and timber, which were cornerstones of the early Minnesota economy, but also helps explain less obvious things, like the urge to head up north to the cabin on the weekend and the complicated politics of the Iron Range. These are all about relationships between city folks and the rest of the state, and they all have interesting and complicated environmental dimensions. So that’s one big takeaway. 

Another big takeaway is that there are so many untold stories out there just waiting for people to tell. We really do hope that this book can prompt even more new voices and new stories, and new angles on old stories, and that this book will give other authors a starting point and help them see the contributions they want to make. 

A final big takeaway is that the environment is in everything, even in cities, even in places where all you see is concrete and human ingenuity. The physical environment is also shot through with values. You can find environmental considerations and relationships in our refrigerators, for example, both in how they’re designed and in the food they’re preserving. You can find it in our affection for parks and how we want to interact with them and why we feel so passionate about protecting them. 

We really need to be thinking about all these things as we craft public policies, but we should also be thinking about them as part of our shared history. As a discipline, environmental history highlights the ways that we’re bound together, both in ways that we can see and also in ways that are largely invisible unless you know where to look. We’re all living inside the same ecosystems, but all too often we’re not aware of the ways that we depend on them or the ways we remake them as we go about our everyday lives.

January 10 2023

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