The forgiveness of fireflies

The ideal for this test is 2-3 colonies. This sample is on the other end of the scale: "Too numerous to count."

Finally, the mold remediation that’s kept me away from the things I want to do is mostly over, and I can get back to writing instead of scrubbing every damned thing I own and using my now-balky knees to haul it up and down the stairs. (Our problem, mostly, came from the carpet. No matter how hard you try to keep it clean, we were told, vacuuming the carpet is rather like vacuuming the lawn. Don’t take my word for it, though. Get a petri dish test kit and see for yourself — chances are it’ll look like this).

How peaceful, then, to sit on the porch without that care hanging over me any longer and watch the glittering in the trees that always fires up in late May around here. When I first moved to north Georgia, my city-trained eyes saw the glittering as an airplane making its distant way to a place I could only guess. But I saw another and another, and then scores more, slow to realize that fireflies, hundreds of them, were floating through the night air.

I had not seen very much of fireflies for long, long years. When I was younger, visiting my grandparents’ home in North Carolina, fireflies were plentiful. Like children everywhere,  we would chase these flying jewels and capture them in jars, marveling up close at their mysterious call-and-response.

And, like boys everywhere, I had to be more destructive. I would take a ping-pong paddle and stalk the yard, waiting for the floating beacons to fire up so I could take a swing at them.

Even when I was doing it, the deed felt wrong to me somehow. Here was a uncommonly beautiful thing that flew near me, as near as breath, almost trusting. A boy’s appreciation of such things is more limited than a man’s, and all I could think of back then was to smash them out of the air.

Immature. Selfish. Certainly thoughtless, a mistake made for the false pleasure of instant gratification. And, I always believed, the fireflies somehow knew it. For years after this, I would rarely see any, only a glimpse here and there, though surely they must still fly somewhere in their thousands.

There must have been some logical explanation, I thought. Perhaps in later years I lived where fireflies seldom ranged, anyway. Maybe there was some cruel imperative of biology or climate that thinned their numbers. Maybe my concentration was elsewhere, so caught up in my own struggle for survival that I simply ignored them.
Truth is, though, that I have always believed the fireflies were taken from me. It would be easy to claim that I was only a lad, not even 10 years old, without the brains God gave an ice cube. That explains the behavior, maybe, but doesn’t excuse it.

Things that should be treasured are hurt because we sometimes behave in ways that serve only the narrowest of self-interests. Immaturity and foolish behavior are things we all can understand in ourselves, and I have learned to take it easy on myself — even though narrow self-interest, immaturity and foolishness took me longer than other people to get shed of it seems.

However strong the desire to go back and do things over, there’s no way that can happen. The best we can do is to learn from mistakes, wait for the second chance and  hope that the mistakes we did make don’t wind up damaging us or the things we treasure beyond hope.

I can sit on my porch now and think differently about everything. And the fireflies, almost as if they simply were waiting for that, have returned their amazing gift to me. If anything, they are more spectacular than I remember.

If we’re patient and lucky, what was lost can be restored, more dazzling and beautiful than before, a second chance that — however much we might congratulate ourselves for it — owes everything to the forgiveness of fireflies.

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4 ways to advance digital history

For historians, a lot of the debate about digital humanities hinges on the tension between our work as scholarship and our work as content in an age when we have new ways of thinking and representing the past. We are hitched to a model of linear publishing that funnels scholarship through shaping by lineage, vetting by guild, and blessing by imprint. Naked under these holy gerunds, though, scholarship is a message, a condensed block of meaning sent forth into the wide world looking for eyeballs. For digital history to “pay” – for most of us, that means having it count for promotion and tenure – we not only have to be comfortable ourselves with thinking of our work as content, but we also have to persuade the guild that scholarship isn’t cheapened, degraded, or invalidated by transmuting it from printed page into iPhone app.

We’re late to the party. The conversations and debates we’re having about digital scholarship are the same ones heard through years past in the entertainment industry, book and magazine publishing, and journalism. We won’t do any better than they did in holding back this tide, and a lot of us are too interested to ignore it. Among the ways we can bring digital humanities into our professional practice:

Think like a producer:In the workaday world of journal or monograph scholarship, our job is to research and write. Continue reading

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Climate of fear in 18th Century Cuba

Sherry Johnson, Climate and Catastrophe in Cuba in the Atlantic World in the Age of Revolution. University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Despite a title packed to the brim with enough history search terms to attract even the most finicky search engine, this book sits in my local library on a shelf of hard science. Look left and you’ll see works on historical and current climate data for the United States and Canada. Look right and you’ll see historical perspectives on climate change in the West Indies, Mexico, and South America. Classified among the “Q” shelves, these works marshal climate and meteorological data to support a positivist interpretation of events, and Johnson’s thesis jumps into the fray immediately. During the Age of Revolution, which she marks off as 1748-1804, a persistent El Niño/La Niña cycle triggered a devastating pattern of drought one year and deluge the next in an incremental “timeline of disaster [that] placed alongside a chronology of political, economic, and social events demonstrates causal relationships between scientific facts and historical processes” [2].

Hard to avoid being flogged for a determinist when you write like that.  Johnson tries to clear the trap by emphasizing the sequence. She incorporates “the fundamental events of Caribbean history” only after establishing – to what she asserts as a certainty – the existence of an environmental crisis [19]. The key is not the weather cycle itself but how long it lasted. She grounds her study in Cuba to show, with applications of disaster theory, the effects of nearly a half-century of extreme environmental stress on a society. From there, it’s an easy pivot for her to show how that stress disrupted the currents moving through the Atlantic world, which in turn sculpted one of the signature curves of the revolutionary age.

Those who like their history wrapped in koozies of discourse will find little here to their taste and will likely bristle at Continue reading

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Gathering the digital history diaspora

Most of us environmental historians who follow the digital humanities conversation probably received the message sent around a day ago by Marcus Hall summarizing the “beyond the book” panel at ASEH Madison. Two things struck me about his postmortem. First, since I was in another session at the time, I missed Giacomo Parrinello’s discussion about the need for us as historians to improve our training in alternative storytelling methods. Second, even some people who think about digital history tools were unaware of the Twitter conversation going on throughout the conference.

Both of those points provide opportunities to think about how we can make digital history practice accepted, eventually routine, and finally the default. The trick seems to be raising our profile – not to the discipline as a whole, but to each other.

I teach journalism at Georgia State University, and this conversation resembles the same one journalists had a few years ago when the whole world knew print newspapers had breathed their last. They hadn’t, of course, but
Hall’s summary of Parrinello’s remarks illustrates a key lesson – digital technology reshaped not only how Continue reading

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Since you asked about digital history…

Over at Stillwater Historians, Rob Gee ponders the different banners we could wave when we ask ourselves whether we’re digital historians. Our choice, he suggests, depends on variable definitions of digital history. Fair enough, but the post describes a range of practices that don’t seem to exclude each other, which leads me to propose an answer any of us may confidently use when we ask, “Am I a digital historian?”


We can bog down pondering whether scholarship produced in some digital format outranks another use of digital technology, thus claiming the title of “digital history.” The more databases that come online and the more repositories that digitally archive their material, the more we adapt our questing. A routine JSTOR search now involves a conversation, through search strings, with a database. (If you missed Ursula Heise at ASEH Madison and her provocative piece on databases as cultural artifacts,  you can read it here ). Once we find what we’re looking for, we have far more flexible and granular tools to mine the source. We can juxtapose fragments from the sources in ways that suggest new questions or different answers to old ones. Some historians will then write books and articles. Others will adapt tools for digital storytelling, for community, for analysis to present their scholarship in alternative forms. It seems to me one doesn’t preclude the other. All of them can say “I am a digital historian.”

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The unifyin’ mangrove

Figure 1: From John Reader Jackson, The Mangrove and its Allies


I’ve named this web space for a genus of mangrove, rhizophora, partly as a way to orient my work spatially and partly to satisfy the impulse for metaphor. Much of what I like to think about as a historian centers on the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, familiar waters for Atlantic studies but less integrated by environmental history.  The sheer diversity of environmental conditions  – and thus histories – accounts for part of the reason, but that diversity frequently eludes my search for unity.

Thinking about a “North American mangrove arc” helps me see where I want to go. At their greatest extent, mangroves grew throughout the Caribbean, around the rim of the Gulf of Mexico and down both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Mexico and Central America. Very nearly a mangrove circle and a convenient way to frame environmental histories across one of the largest bodies of water in the world when the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico are considered together.

And because mangroves grow around the world in the same latitudes, these stories connect to larger currents of environmental history that played out around the world with different cultural actors but with similar conditions and many of the same constraints. That’s the path for connecting my interests in mangrove arc fisheries as a marine environmental history practice to larger global patterns of migration, an emerging global mesh, and the politics of scarce resources.

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