Attending to the Small Places: An Interview with Thomas G. Andrews

Erstwhile editors Alessandra Link and Caroline Grego sat down with Dr. Thomas G. Andrews, a professor of history at CU Boulder. He specializes in the social and environmental history of the American West. His first book, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War, won six awards, including the Bancroft Prize. His most recent book, Coyote Valley: Deep History in the High Rockies, is an environmental history of the Colorado headwaters region of Rocky Mountain National Park. He is now working on a book on human-animal relations in U.S. history.

Alessandra Link: Welcome to Erstwhile’s inaugural podcast! I’m Alessandra Link, an Erstwhile editor, and another fellow Erstwhile-ian, Caroline Grego, is here with me to interview our guest for today, esteemed scholar of environmental and western history, Thomas G. Andrews. Welcome Thomas!

Thomas Andrews: Thanks, good to be here.

AL: His latest work, Coyote Valley: Deep History in the High Rockies, is now out with Harvard University Press. So Thomas, let’s start with place. Since this is decidedly a place-based book, could you give the listeners a sense of where Coyote Valley is?

TA: Yeah, so the Coyote Valley is more commonly known as the Kawuneeche Valley, and it occupies the headwaters of the Colorado River, or at least it has since 1921 when Colorado Congressman Edward Taylor managed to convince Congress to rename a branch of the Colorado River system that had previously been the Grande River the Colorado River. Since 1915, part of the valley has also lain within Rocky Mountain National Park—today, most of the valley is within Rocky Mountain National Park.

AL: Now let’s talk briefly about the origins of the book. Your first book, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War, is also a Colorado history of sorts. It focuses on the Colorado Coalfield War and the Ludlow Massacre. We’re curious—did Coyote Valley grow out of this project, or did it emerge from a separate set of interests or questions?

TA: Well, Coyote Valley is a project that fell into my lap. So it’s not one that I really chose myself. The genesis of the project came when Mark Fiege, my good friend and colleague up at Colorado State University, approached me about writing a contract report for the National Park Service on the environmental history of the Kawuneeche Valley. You know, it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do at the time. The Park Service was fairly specific about what I needed to cover in the course of the report and they also provided fairly generous funding, particularly for research assistants.

This in some ways began as an accidental project. I put enough time and energy into the report that I wanted to get something more out of it. The report, from the outset, was supposed to be some kind of document that the park could use essentially to orient their research management decisions, so it didn’t actually come from the history folks at Rocky Mountain National Park—it came from the land management people, in particular from Ben Babowski. They really wanted this to be a useful history. So the report for the park service covered what they needed me to cover, but then the process became—what’s the book hidden in this really long report?—long stretches of which were ungainly and undeveloped. The book Coyote Valley is a pretty significantly reworked and expanded and contracted version of that report.

Caroline Grego: So did you not necessarily anticipate this being your second book project?

TA: No, I didn’t anticipate it at all. What I thought I was going to work on next was this project that I’ve been calling for a long time: “an animals’ history of the United States.” This project really developed as a side project. But it had some good benefits. It was nice to have people telling me what to do. The Park Service was also quite firm in its deadlines, and so they made sure that I got the report done in the timetable that they specified. And probably best of all, in addition to all of the other support they offered, they also allowed me to do a couple writing retreats up at a former dude ranch property on the east side of the park, just outside Estes Park. And that was really nice and just very productive. I basically got to hole up in the mountains and write all day for several days in a row, which was a real treat.

CG: We’d like to turn then to methodology, which dovetails nicely with you talking about writing up in the mountains. We both noted this quote from the book’s first pages: “Attending to small places remains not just worthwhile, but more important than ever.” We were wondering if you could elaborate on this, especially given recent trends in transnational and global history. You seem to be seeking sort of an about-face. How would you say Coyote Valley is a good venue for making a case for this smaller-scale, place-based history?

TA: The thing that kept sticking out to me in the course of my research and then trying to work that research into larger interpretations was just how many instances I was finding in which the default story, the grand narrative, in environmental history would lead me to think that I would find one set of things in the Kawuneeche Valley’s deep environmental history. Again and again I kept finding something rather different. And so that was the beginnings of that argument. I felt like in many stretches of the book, this was a place that didn’t match what scholars generally believed to be the truth. I think that got me thinking about the ways in which understandings based on broad brushstrokes and interpolation from other places often, I think, at least threatens to lead us astray. So when it gets right down to it, I’m kind of an old-fashioned empiricist in a lot of ways. In some ways, what this book challenges is: “Let’s try to validate our big picture understandings and see how they work in one stretch of the American West.” Again and again, the big picture understandings turn out to be wrong or insufficient or incomplete.

That got me thinking about the ongoing importance of particularity. I think that this is maybe a generational difference. I was really trained in the old-fashioned social history of the 1960s and 1970s, and I also think in the early days of environmental history, it was a field that was really attentive to place, or at least to region. I guess I’ve grown concerned in recent years that environmental history has become so big and established that there has been unintended consequences—which is of course, since this is one of the major themes in environmental history is unintended consequences, it shouldn’t surprise us as environmental historians that the solidification of the field has itself brought on unintended consequences.

And I think that some of those unintended consequences, for me, involve what I perceive as the growing self-reflexiveness of environmental history as a field. I think it’s now highly possible to be an environmental historian who really only reads environmental history. In the early years of the field, environmental history had to read more broadly, both within history and ecology-related disciplines. I guess the trends—and you know, I’m in my 40s, this may just be the kind of reactionary impulse that sets in as one grows older—but I feel I see more and more work in environmental history that isn’t rooted in any kind of environmental science. I also feel the particularities have sometimes been dropping out of the picture because of the broader power of transnational history, global history.

To be very clear, I’m not calling for only particularity—what really concerns me is that I think we need both. We need the big picture, we need the small picture, and probably most importantly, we need ways of connecting the two. I think that when all we have is big history and deep history and these large-scale disciplines, we lose the important checks and qualifications and validation that looking closely at smaller places can provide.

CG: Could you give an example from Coyote Valley of where you see one of these big picture assumptions being challenged?

TA: I think there’s several important ones. The first one really swirls around pre-Columbian native peoples and their relationship with mountain environments. In the book, I use both Richard White’s famous and strident argument from the interview that he and Bill Cronon did in the 1980s about how we need to take native impacts on nature seriously. I also used Charles Mann’s 1491. What I think those collectively miss is that in places like the Colorado high country, native relationships with non-human nature were quite different than in many other parts of the continent. So there’s no agriculture; native peoples had very little ability to control mountain environments.

The best example of where this default interpretation runs into trouble swirls around wildfire. One of the grand narratives that environmental historians and scholars in related fields have managed to articulate very effectively among the broader public is the idea that western forests have been managed by human beings for millennia. That’s true of lower elevation forested ecosystems in Colorado and certainly in places like California, but once you get into the subalpine zone, which is mostly where the Kawuneeche Valley lay, you’re dealing with forests that human beings to this day mostly can’t ignite of their own volition. You’re dealing with a fire regime that is almost entirely driven not by ignition but by fuel, and in particular by the dryness of that fuel, which in turn is driven largely by large-scale global climatic oscillations. For instance, visitors to the Kawuneeche Valley are often struck by the valley’s lodgepole forests (what people in Colorado tend to call doghair pine). Many people in Colorado perceive these forests as deeply unnatural, and they invoke a set of stories about wildfire suppression and intensive management as the cause of these forests. There’s actually very little reason to believe that that story holds true in the Kawuneeche Valley.

But there’s several others. The Utes, or the Nuche, the major native inhabitants of the valley over the centuries and possibly the millennia before American settlement do not seem to have suffered from virgin soil epidemics prior to the 1800s. They may have, but there’s no evidence that they did. I think that relationships between later local peoples—American settlers—and the Park Service were far more complementary than the conflictual story that one tends to get from the work of Karl Jacoby and Louis Warren and many other fine scholars. There’s a whole array of stories throughout the book that don’t turn out quite the way that I expected them to.

CG: You state that your project—and we’ve been talking about this some—is “explicitly ecological, materialist, and interdisciplinary.” How did you choose this focus? You seem to foreground ecology without diminishing the significance of culture. How did you strike this balance between your exploration of ecology and stories—for example, this really important thematic thread of the trickster coyote figure?

TA: One of the things that I always try to do is to make a virtue of the necessities that I encounter. One of the great challenges in this entire book, then, is that this is a place that, in a lot ways, doesn’t matter. Nothing really important ever happened there, no one of larger historical significance has ever dwelled in the valley for any length of time. So the documentary record for this valley is really sparse. The Park Service even barely paid attention to this side of the park for many decades. The documentary record is so poor that anything in the way of a traditional history where humans were the main actors or the only actors, was bound to fail or at least fail to produce a book. In some ways, I had to look at these other disciplines, because it was the only way I could learn anything about this place’s past. So I had to read in archaeology, ethnography, various environmental sciences just to even get a sense of the people within the valley, let alone the non-human actors and actants and so forth. There was a second part of your question?

CG: The trickster figure!

TA: The trickster figure, yeah. So another challenge I face, then, is narratively and to some extent argumentatively, how do you take a little tiny place and tell its story over a long stretch of time when the people change so much over time and when there’s not an event to build up to? (Which I had in Killing for Coal—that made the narrative structure of that book much simpler!) So with this book, I really struggled to try to figure out a way to connect these various pieces. In some ways, the use of coyote and the invocation of coyote as a trickster is my attempt to find a through-line across a really long stretch of time and across thematic territory that really varies a great deal. Portions of the book, I’m talking about the emergence of this valley from the last Ice Age, and in other parts of the book, I’m talking about the 2007 Elk and Vegetation Management Plan. Trying to figure out a way to tie all of these together was difficult. I happened upon the trickster theme as a way of thinking about this bigger question of: what can this place tell us? The trickster idea is a way of trying to find some broader and at least sort of cohesive meaning in a story that points in a lot of different directions.

AL:  Great. I’d like to build on this conversation about structure and talk about your organization of Coyote Valley. You’ve organized it into three parts: native peoples, settlers, and feds. We’re curious to hear your thinking behind this framing. Would you say, for example, this is a story about increasing federal intervention in the area? Or is this meant to highlight the various cycles of inhabitants?

TA: The structure probably hearkens back to my pursuit, or my desire to retreat to something that feels like a bit of a platonic ideal. It’s a structure of three parts of the book, three chapters per part, and something about that just felt elegant both narratively but also elegant in the sense of simplicity. In terms of what I think the structure does, or why it makes sense—I really do think that those are the three, they translate into the three major phases of the valley’s human history in my eyes.

But beyond that those are three major phases in the valley’s environmental history. For instance, grouping native peoples together even though I’m talking about Clovis Peoples and Nuche in the 1870s in a single section—to me, that’s a way of emphasizing the really important continuities across this big swath of time. This is another way in which this book is swimming upstream of broader scholarly trends. This is a place where I really see a lot of enduring continuities in native lifeways across the millennia—mostly because those lifeways really work in this place! They really worked. With settlers, this is a way of trying to point out the commonalities between ranchers and miners and water developers and even conservationists, who are the major American figures that come into this area from the 1860s into the 1910s. With “feds,” in some ways I regret the label there maybe, because the term can be more pejorative than the others but I wanted to go simple and visceral. In that section, I do think that the Park Service emerges as the dominant player in the valley’s environmental history. But within each of the sections, particularly in the beginning and ending chapters, there are these transition points as well. I think the structure allows me to do that—I don’t think it’s too choppy or too episodic.

AL: Let’s end the interview with a question regarding where you leave the reader in Coyote Valley. I was struck by the last subsection of the book, which is titled “Doom, Resilience, and the Road Ahead.” In this section, readers are left with competing visions for the future of the region. One I perceived as sort of regional in scale and quite apocalyptic. The second vision is more local in scale and admittedly more optimistic. Where does the future of Coyote Valley fall within this dichotomy, in your opinion? Or does it challenge it outright?

TA: I think that the challenge for me in wrapping up the book was—since the premise of the book is, let’s take a small place and look at human-environment interactions there over a long stretch of time, and this particular place happens to be one that has a history that’s largely uneventful in this literal sense. So there’s no narrative endpoint that worked for me. I could’ve artificially come up with one, but nothing, to me, provided true closure in any meaningful sense. I thought the ending had to be open-ended. In terms of the bigger question of, what’s the future of human-environment interactions in this place? I don’t know what it’s going to be, and I don’t think anyone really knows.

I was struck with, then, with the disconnect between two of the main sets of stories people tell. One of those sets of stories, as you started to say, mostly centers around forest ecology. The Kawuneeche Valley, starting in the very late 1990s, and early 2000s, was devastated by the mountain pine beetle epidemic. As I said earlier, this is mostly a lodgepole pine forest. If you go up to the valley today, you’ll see fairly large swaths of beetle-killed lodgepole and areas where it’s gotten into the limber pine as well. People in Colorado, the general public, looks at beetle-killed forests as a sign of environmental destruction and a sign that things aren’t right between people and nature. But the forest ecologists who have actually gone over the ground in the Kawuneeche Valley and tried to figure out, well how many trees are surviving, what’s the recruitment of—how many seedlings are growing up, those kinds of questions. Their vision of the valley’s future is actually quite optimistic. They mostly argue that the forests that are likely to succeed what’s there now will be more diverse. They’ll be better places for more species to live in. And depending on what we value as human beings, that seems like a fairly rosy scenario. What I was struck by then is the paradox of this place that people think is a disaster that’s actually probably doing better than it would’ve been if the beetles hadn’t come through. That’s the kind of optimistic, smaller-scale scenario.

The really pessimistic scenario though mostly comes from climate modelers—from people who are modeling climate-vegetation interactions. In these scenarios, people running these large-scale computer models argue that as the climate in the American West continues to change: as it gets warmer and in many areas drier, and as all of these cascading changes flow out from that, that mountain ecosystems quite quickly will get squeezed off the mountaintops. Many of them predict that tundra biomes will essentially disappear; that subalpine forests will move up the mountains and in turn will likely disappear. The rates of change that they’re predicting outpace the ability of most of these plant species to move, to colonize new ground. This is really scary, really grim stuff. Part of what I wanted to leave open at the end, then, was the reality that the future is up for grabs. Some degree of climate change is already occurring, and some degree will continue to occur because of the greenhouse gas accumulations that have already built up. But at the same time, there are possibilities to reign in that story—to reign in that outcome, and there are also potentially problems with those kinds of models.

AL: Have the authors of these two interpretations, have they been in conversation with each other? As part of this acknowledgement of two different sets of interpretations for a place—perhaps these forest ecologists aren’t really in conversation with these climatologists or folks focused more on sort of a regional scale analysis. Is it in some ways beneficial for these people to be having conversations with each other?

TA: That’s a great question. I think that might be a question that reveals one of my limitations in the kind of interdisciplinary work that I do, the implications of these different fields. This tends to be quite new work, so it’s my goal to just find the journal articles. As far as knowing what these disciplinary communities are up to or what kinds of conversations they have, I’m really more ignorant of those than I should be. I would imagine—I think there’s big obstacles, these people do pretty different kinds of work. One is really fieldwork, one is really high quantitative. I would be surprised if there weren’t forums bringing them together. This kind of disconnect really extends way beyond the Kawuneeche Valley. If they’re not in conversation, that would alarm me.

AL: It does strike me as being a set of stories, though, that are reflective of the larger themes at play in your book—in the sense that there’s this larger narrative, or sets of narratives, and then when you hone in on this smaller place things look a little bit different and may or may not challenge that narrative. That seems to be part of what you’re doing historiographically.

TA: Definitely. That’s one reason why that endpoint appealed to me. It was consistent with the larger exploration of scale and the disconnects across scales in our thinking about the past. It’s a way of leaving the reader with the notion that these problems haven’t gone away, and that they’re very much with us. I think it is a closing reminder of why thinking across scale—and thinking about the ways in which things look differently across scale—remains really important.

CG: Thomas, thank you so much for joining us at Erstwhile for our first podcast and talking about Coyote Valley.

TA: Oh, it’s been an honor, thank you!

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