Niagara Falls, by F. Church, Oil on Canvas, American 19th century.

American Environmental History

Course | Syllabus | Focus | Course Goals | Outcomes | Hudson RIver School | Calendar \ schedule

The American experience is a varied quilt, if not a perfected tapestry of designs, because the quilt pattern was born of the need to settle a physiographically diverse continent, by settlers of an explicity different ethnic ancestry, who inhabited often distant outposts, and connected new trading posts to the commercial networks of Europe, Asia and Africa.

As the landscape was settled, the terrain was transformed. Water, air and land were all converted to commercial advantage by extractive, industrial, transportation or residential uses. Wildlife, fisheries and and non-game species were affected by grazing, timber, and plantation agriculture, in addition to settlements. From this transformation a new set of perceptions, ideologies and values arose that led to preservation, conservation and protection of the health and ecology of the nation.

This course is about that story of conquest, dispossession, scenic monumentalism, commercial use, and regeneration of our cultural geography.

Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole, 1827, The White Mountains, New Hampshire.


Environmental History is the study of how settlements alter ecological conditions and how those changes influence each era’s ideas about nature with respect to responsible resource use from one period to the next.



American Environmental history on-line

Joseph Vincent Siry, Ph.D., U.C. Santa Barbara. Emory University; high honors in history.

Office: Beale Bldg. –Park Ave. side– room 105.

Phone: Do see printed syllabus for essay details & the office number.

Office Hours:    T–1:30-2:30, W–1:00-3:00, Th–2:30-5:00.

Web site: 

The terms of the syllabus are subject to changes announced in class.

  Search this website here.

Goals | active learning | texts | calendar | requirements | competencies | what | grades | extended discussion of the class

Goals of this Course

Environment in the past–meaning the ecology, geography, and hydrology of our nation and its settlement–involves a most challenging of all historical policy subjects. For learners seeking lively challenges, studying America’s biota and land use may be a fulfilling inquiry because you will learn about our common natural and cultural heritage that informs today’s arguments over protection and use. Working together in this course we examine the subject's several layers by focusing specifically on questions that environmental history raises about the character of biomes, the relationship among nature, ethnic minorities on the land, and the moral imagination required to understand our place in the alterations of America’s landscapes, wildlife, watersheds, and economic geography.


Connectict River

The Connecticut River.

We will also analyze the arguments presented by some of the nation’s most thought provoking authors, including Mary Austin, Rachel Carson, Donald Worster, and Henry David Thoreau.


calendar | requirements | competencies | design | texts | focus | grades

The course is designed for students to practice writing, so you need to arrive in class with four to six questions having read the assignments before our meeting so able to discuss our texts that you pose arguments the assigned readings raised. More practically, participants will have opportunities to hone their skills in reading analytically, in expressing your ideas verbally in a supportive setting, and in articulating your ideas in writing as we all learn throughout the term. Especially in our class, I would wish, now and again, you will experience the delight and enjoyment of being so stirred by the power of ideas and well-stated prose as to stimulate your spirits, to amend your behavior, or nourish your more curious sensibilities, and even move you to responsibly act as a means to improve our world.



Texts, other authors (Carson, Galbraith, Leopold, Reisner) e-mail & website as assigned:

            Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

            Mary Austin,                 Land of Little Rain

            Joseph Siry,                 Marshes of the Ocean Shore (outline to use also )

            Timothy Egan,             The Worst Hard Times

            Adam Rome,               Bulldozer in the Countryside

Emerson, Nature, Emerson II, Olmsted, Siry III, Worster, Merchant, Leopold II, Egan, Rome



Course Requirements (see details on page 4):

  1. Improvement in your regular, punctual attendance with alert & active participation in class.
  2. Improving preparation for and participation in the class by bringing the texts and /or assigned questions answered to the group for analysis on our meeting days; or by sharing the free writing we do in classes with others. Meeting with me in a conference about your writing.  20%
  3. Three, –three to four page– exploratory narrative essays – on an assigned topic a week before they are due based on the assigned readings. (see page 4 for precise percentages) 50%
  4. One, – eight to eleven pages– Final paper with footnotes, bibliography, tables and pertinent photographical or artistic representations with the appropriate citation of its source and a phrase explaining their purpose. What is worth preserving of America's natural heritage? 30%


Grades: all assignments are graded with careful attention to each of these criteria:  {CLIFS}

            1. C      clarity, conceptual coherence, spelling, grammar & logical consistency

            2. L      length & development of your arguments, evidence, examples, or presentations

            3. I       informative value from the class discussions, texts, library research, or interviews

            4. F      frequency of illustrations from the web site, lectures, journals, notes & readings

            5. S      subjects advanced as argued in a thesis, introduction, summaries, & conclusion.

Grading scale | Essay grading criteria 

Course focus––"What natural and cultural resources are worth protecting in America for the future?"

The names and phone numbers of two other students in the class:


1. _______________________________  2. _______________________________


My policies:

I am here to excite, entice, and encourage you to excel in learning new concepts, practicing your writing and speaking abilities, and to create meaningful discourse. My purpose is to feed your inquiring intellect with significant ideas in a coherently challenging manner. I anticipate you will ask questions and actively work together to overcome the challenges the course material may pose for you in achieving an excellent performance level based on an improved grasp of reading. I urge you to discuss ideas, passages, and assignments during class and more importantly in a conference during my office hours.


Active learning

Your participation in this course involves not only alertness and contributing key ideas to the class, but also listening respectfully without interrupting other speakers who are presenting their views on the assigned readings. Only one person can be heard at a time, so paying close attention to others and to me is a sign of respect that I reward in my classes. The use of electronic media for other than class purposes is so rude that I treat this as an absence if you are texting, surfing, e-mailing or digitally inattentive to our discussions during class meetings. My outcome: you consistently contribute your analyses verbally in class to enrich our discussion time together so that you develop thorough thinking.


Late papers

One purpose of your papers is to rewrite so you can hone your skills & correct errors, so submit all work on the class day the assigned work is due. Late papers cannot earn equal value as those received on time in fairness to the punctual students. I do so because we discuss the importance of what you have discovered and expressed on that class day when essays are due. Always start at least a week early, continually back-up your writing, and keep printed copies of your notes on anything you submit.


Paper format

Practicing your writing is the focus of this class. All essay papers are really professional documents with an accurate date of when the work was completed and page numbers. I ask you to place a cover page with your name, phone number, essay title and an abstract of three to five sentences covering the substance of your essay for purposes of privacy because I make extensive comments on your work. Spelling and grammar errors are unacceptable. All papers are to be typed double spaced in either Arial or times new roman font and should have one inch margins and 22-23 lines to the page as a minimum.


Academic honesty and plagiarism

Cheating or copying without proper citation amounts to plagiarism and is the most serious academic offense of novices and professionals alike. By the use of words or ideas that are not your own and are either insufficiently acknowledged or not acknowledged at all you commit the offense. The consequences are that you can fail the assignment, or even the class, since every offense is a violation of the College’s honor code. As such, I am obliged to report violations to the Deans office.


Formal papers.


calendar | requirements | competencies | design | texts | focus


American Environmental History


January | February | March | April | May


Month and days


18        Grounding our nation's past–walkabout– delineating spaces to create a sense of places.

20        map of your home ground introduce yourselves / values of places Marshes, pp. 3-17.

23        Siry,     Frontier-borderlands and boundaries mean what? Marshes, pp. 18-33.

25        Siry,     Settlements the county versus the township systems. Marshes, pp. 34-61.

27        Maps–surveys of the dividing line, read William Byrd on line pp. iv-40.

30        Land-use Game, Who owns what in America? We draw lots for property: writing descriptions.

See Game of the Estates and Grover's Corner's township map.

  January | February | March | April | May



1          Siry, Early National Era and manifest destiny, Read on line: America's natural heritage. Beyond, Beneath and Behind the Wild Frontier

3                      Hamiltonians versus Jeffersonian schisms: what we value & How we value land

6          Transcendentalism in Emerson's "Nature" & others– draft of interview essay due.   √

See First summary page on Emerson's importance on the web site

8          Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, read on line: The Thoreau Reader.

10        A field experience 12-3 PM (if you are available -- or art museum make-up).

12        Darwin’s & Lincoln's Birthdays, 1809.

13        Olmsted, Journey–the Seaboard Slave States, See For Background and also--

See also this week what nationalism is and is not.

15        Photography as some means of seeing into the past. Use -- Art and meaning link.

bookDo see this description by Susan Sontag and her criticism of images.

17        Mumford vs. DuBois dual versions of the nation's broken promise The Souls of Black Folks, 4-7.

See Second summary page on Lewis Mumford and interpreting the American landscape

20        Painting Frederick Church and photos Alfred Steiglitz, writing to uncover artistic meaning. Essay due revised and printed out √.

22        Siry: Commerce & the Public Trust, Marshes pp. 62-82.(outline to use also )

24                    The Public Trust doctrine, writing to recover community -- class activity.

27        CFAM Protecting the past on Canvass and the Ground–Siry: Marsh, Shaler, and Shelford, Marshes pp. 83-111.

29               The Organic revolt against laissez-faire: John Wesley Powell, Reisner pp. 1-51.

  Plume bird visit.

January | February | March | April | May



2          day off in lieu of work day-Chelonian Institute, Apopka, or Soldier Creek, (2-10).

            3-11 Spring Break (no class meetings)

12        Mary Austin, Land of Little Rain. pp. 1-45.

14                    Los Angeles & San Francisco: rivals in crime, Reisner, pp. 52-115.

16        The Owens Valley–select passages from Austin to recite & write about. Austin, pp. 47-107.

19        American Frontier, Reisner's The Red Queen–to be determined. Public trust short essay due

                               (Marshes book outline to use also )

21        The land-use debate Bull-Moose Progressives & 1912: A. Leopold, pp. pp- 57-64, 145-165.

23      Ecological ethic: writing to protect what is vital. Marshes, pp. 112-133. (outline to use also ) See also conflict on the frontier.

26        The great depression and collapse of industrial production, Galbraith, Affluent Society, pp. 18-78, see e-mails.

28        Texas high plains as an agrarian dream: Egan; The Worst Hard Times, pp. 1-72.

30        A lure of wartime profits:  Egan; The Worst Hard Times, pp. 73-127. Conflict essay due! (Marshes book outline to use also )

  January | February | March | April | May



2          Ecological needs of the land, Egan; The Worst Hard Times, pp. 128-221.

4          Egan, Hugh Hammond Bennet & a vision of bio-realities, Worst Hard Times, pp. 222-272.

6          Egan    Franklin Delano Roosevelt's legacy The Worst Hard Times, pp. 273-312. Summary due

9          Egan and Rome contrasts: what is the source of discontent? Bulldozer, pp. xi-13.

11        Rome, Bulldozer in the CountrysideLevitt's automated vision of affordability, pp. 15-43.

13        Rome,  Post-war boom, Bulldozer, pp. 45-86.

16        Rome, consequences of growth & mass suburbia, Bulldozer, pp. 87-118. Last draft revised due
                      (Marshes book outline to use also )

18        The Open space movement Bulldozer, 119-152 & Gospel of Ecology. Marshes pp. 134-156. See all six Adam Rome pages

20        Carson, Rumblings of an Avalanche. (Marshes book outline to use also )

23        Siry, Legislative history: NEPA & NESTPA, Marshes pp. 157-187.

25        Toward an Ecological Society –Siry; Marshes pp. 188-191. Rome; Bulldozer, pp.153-219.

27        What is worth preserving given the 14 views from class? Bulldozer. pp. 221-270.

30        revised final essay due {the revision of the 3-16 essay that I commented on and returned to you.

May 3: 8 AM to 10 AM, Thursday is the Final Exam which you must attend or fail the course.

verbally present "What natural and cultural resources are worth protecting in America for the future?"
(Marshes book outline to use also )

Changes in the Schedule

If alterations of this published schedule must occur I will announce them in class; a revised syllabus will be distributed to explain extensive changes should that become necessary. If you are absent, telephone one of your classmates to ascertain that day’s announced changes, if any.


calendar | requirements | competencies | design | texts | focus


What areas of competency–based on the body of knowledge in this course–do I expect you to develop based on the documentary evidence we examine?

1. The written capacity to distinguish facts from myths, and "legal fictions" from opinions in history.

2. An oral and written ability to distinguish the key events preceding other crucial events in the past.

3. An ability to express, in spoken words, the plain meaning or written information, texts, or graphics.

4. The capacity to accurately explain the point of an author's facts, commentary, logic, or arguments.

5. Express acuity in spoken and written work, to interpret details on historical or recent maps.

6. A verbal capacity to accurately convey defining historical & visual details in art or photographs.

7. Practice correctly conveying descriptions of historical stories, facts, claims or legal concepts based on accurately interpreting passages from opposing authorities.

8. Explain to others the significance of water conservation, forestry preserves, wildlife reserves and pollution control involving pertinent cases where struggles over land-use protection upset an accord.

9. Verbally and graphically convey geographical, demographic, and ecological impacts of settlement.

10. Both verbal and written ability to describe the importance of paradoxes in national attitudes about water, energy, atmosphere and landscape as these pertain to people, health, wildlife & fisheries.

11. The accurate use of vocabulary to convey both obvious and hidden ideas in an argument.

12. Improved written expression when describing ongoing tensions between traditions of use and protection in the economic, spiritual, and scientific aspects of land and water use.


These dozen expectations are assessed in your written essays as a means for you to uncover and defend what is worth protecting in our environment. These assignments and oral presentations to the class develop in steps from descriptive writing at the start, to argument, & analysis at term's end.

  All essays see: writing guide.

      I.     Two, –two to three page–exploratory narrative essays: drawn from all of the readings on an assigned topic a week before the assigned readings are discussed in class. See also narrative meaning a story about a subject.

1.     Maps & land-use policy Essay; describe three - five maps of different scales 1/27.            10%


2.     Photographical Essay; Select 3 or 4 photographs to compare to one I assign you. Describe in detail the depiction and context of the photo, date and source, 2-24.    10%


     II.     A 3-5 page essay on interviews & texts on the natural features people value in America. 2/3.-2/6. By selectively interviewing 3 to 6 people ask them what natural things they think we should protect for our future use, health or well being. Write a summary describing your findings.     20%

   III.     One, – eight to eleven pages– Final paper with footnotes, bibliography, tables and pertinent photographical or artistic representations with the appropriate citation of its source and a phrase explaining their purpose:

1.     two pages are due every other week to rewrite February 13, March 19 & 30, April 6.

2.     Jeffersonian versus Hamiltonian views & actions respecting authority: February 13.

3.     Public trust doctrine vs. watershed–comprehensive riverine management: March 16.

4.     land-use planning versus local laissez faire development: March 30.

5.     summary page connecting your particular interest in protecting land and water tied closely to the course themes / writers. April 6.                                                        10%


   IV.     Revise the above essay including all of the descriptive & analytical steps.  4-16 & resubmit 4-30.  20%


    V.     May 3:

8 AM to 10 AM, Thursday–"What is worth protecting in America for the future" is a verbal description of what you learned revising the essay & presenting a rehearsed, 6 minute oral interpretation, with visuals (maps and photographs) of your argument at the final exam. All final exams are comprehensive & should show your understanding of all the assigned readings10%

Further Explanation of readings

What is environmental history?

Siry, Marshes of the Ocean Shore (terms defined)

William Byrd, A History of the Dividing Line

Siry on the

  1. Frontier,
  2. Hamilton & Jefferson's two headed legacy.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature" (1836)

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1849)

Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. Journey ... Seaboard Slave States

FL0 go here for excerpts see there.

George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature, (1864)

Lewis Mumford , On land and landscape

Reisner, Cadillac Desert

The Public Trust, Land Realism & Geographical Regeneration

Mary Austin, Land of Little Rain

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash

Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Times

Adam Rome, Bulldozer in the Countryside

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Merchant | Worster | Cronin | Reisner | Jackson | Siry | Leopold | |Diamond | Williams | Austin | Mumford | Marx

  calendar | requirements | competencies | design | texts | focus