The best histories of nature in unexpected places

Who am I?

Catherine McNeur is an award-winning historian, interested in the ways that issues of power impact how humans understand and transform their environments. She has long found the books, art, and other creative expressions that mischievously push at the edges of what we consider “nature” compelling, whether it’s a celebration of the beauty of weeds in an abandoned lot or nature writing on the flora in our guts. After having written about social and environmental battles in New York City, she is now researching the lives, work, and erasure of two forgotten female scientists from nineteenth-century Philadelphia. She lives in Oregon where she is a professor at Portland State University.

I wrote...

Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City

By Catherine McNeur,

Book cover of Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City

What is my book about?

Nineteenth-century New Yorkers had a lot to deal with—dodging surly, free-roaming hogs on the streets, surviving pandemics like cholera, managing the rank-smelling garbage and manure found around every turn, and much more.

Taming Manhattan is about the ways New Yorkers sought to clean things up, design parks, and make the city a healthier place. In other words, they were trying to take control of their environment and define what a city ought to be. But these changes were not easy, especially as a growing number of New Yorkers, particularly the poor and working-class, relied on urban agriculture and scavenging to survive. This book shows that issues surrounding gentrification and environmental justice are not as new as we might think they are, but instead have deep roots in the nineteenth century.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Animal City: The Domestication of America

By Andrew A. Robichaud,

Book cover of Animal City: The Domestication of America

Why this book?

I love the way Andrew Robichaud brings to life the animal ghosts that haunt our modern cities. In ways that we often forget today, animals were integral to the development of urban spaces in ways that were much more visible in the nineteenth century, whether they were horses pulling carriages or pigs and cows herded down the street toward slaughterhouses. The laws governing how cities were organized typically began with debates over where animals were welcome. Robichaud does a great job of recreating the ecologically diverse nineteenth-century American cities in ways that make it easier to understand urban spaces and our relationships with animals today.

Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats

By Dawn Day Biehler,

Book cover of Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats

Why this book?

If you close your eyes and imagine nature in a city, most likely the first thing you imagine is a city park rather than the rats skittering between walls or the flies swarming the piles of garbage awaiting pick up. Dawn Biehler does a fantastic job of bringing the vermin in urban spaces to life, not only by looking at the ways these creatures are tied up in issues of environmental justice, but also by considering the perspectives and behaviors of the animals themselves.

Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition

By Aaron Sachs,

Book cover of Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition

Why this book?

While some of us like to imagine humans as separate from nature, one moment where that boundary dissolves is with death. Inescapably, we will all eventually decompose and become a part of our environment. In Aaron Sach’s book, nineteenth-century Americans reckon with death through the creation of carefully landscaped cemeteries. What I particularly love about Arcadian America is how Sachs weaves his own memoir about his encounters with mortality in with the history he’s telling, making it a gripping page-turner.

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash

By Susan Strasser, Alice Austen (photographer),

Book cover of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash

Why this book?

So much can be said about a society based on how it defines and handles its trash. Where the line is between trash and treasure can vary, even within a community, based on a person’s need and creativity. Susan Strasser’s beautifully written history of garbage shows how our relationships with both consumption and waste have changed over time. Especially as we reconsider our current wastefulness, it is eye-opening to learn about how folks handled garbage at other points in history.

Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape

By Francesca Russello Ammon,

Book cover of Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape

Why this book?

I’ll admit that bulldozers seem like the very antithesis of nature and that’s why I love this book. Francesca Ammon looks at how the cultural embrace of bulldozers following World War II, whether through planning, urban renewal, or even children’s books, reshaped the way Americans dealt with their environment in the second half of the twentieth century. Bulldozers gave Americans immense power to level hills, neighborhoods, and orange groves to create blank slates so they could build highways and redesign cities. This book changed the way I understood the cultural and technological rise (and fall) of this destructive tool.

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