The forgiveness of fireflies


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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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 (more…)

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.”


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.