UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Knowledge, nature, and representation : clearings for conservation in the Maine Woods Demeritt, David


This thesis concerns the cultural and scientific practices involved with turn-of-the-century struggles to conserve the Maine Woods. Conservation was underwritten by the powerful and productive fiction that an essential nature exists as something completely apart from the elaborately organized exhibitions by which it has been staged for our benefit. The absolute distinction between nature and culture is profoundly problematic but tremendously productive as well. Drawing on a variety of historical and theoretical sources, this thesis describes the various ways in which the essential nature of the Maine Woods was set up and represented as something demanding protection and conservation. The thesis is divided into three parts. Part I sets the stage for the historical discussions that follow by assessing debates in geography and environmental history about the social construction of knowledge and nature. Recent scholarship has been caught on the horns of a theoretical dilemma: while understanding of the present environmental crisis and its historical roots seems to demand recognition of the independent agency of nature, social theory suggests the impossibility of stepping outside the bounds of culture to represent an independent nature as it really is. Different responses to this dilemma are discussed. It is argued that environmental critique demands a more humble approach to truth, one sensitive to the meanings of its metaphors and the politics of its practices. Part II assesses the forest conservation movement. The objects of scientific forestry depended fundamentally upon the ways in which the forest was framed as an object of knowledge. Very different programs of action flowed from competing metaphorical definitions of the Maine Woods as a crop, a mine, or a kind of capital. The ascendency of technical and quantitative knowledge of the forest and its displacement of local understandings are described as are public policy disputes in Maine about the regulation of private property, the institution of publicly owned forest reserves, and the role of the state in forestry. Part in deals with the conservation of wildlife for sport. Flocking to the forest to hunt, wealthy sportsmen articulated a variety of sexual, class, and racial anxieties about the debilitating embrace of modern life. The transfomation of the Maine Woods into a vacationland for their manly recreation demanded the institution of game laws and the criminalization of traditional lifeways to save the game for sport. In these struggles, conservationists had to contend not only with local residents, who resisted this construction of the Maine Woods, but also with a variety of non-human actors, such as deer, predators, and pathogens, whose presence, though difficult to deny outright, was culturally framed and mediated in materially significant ways.

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