Returning to Texts for New Insights

One of the observations I've found interesting is the idea that different people find different things in texts. This may seem obvious and trivial, but I think it's important. Many students, early in their academic careers, are taught techniques of close reading and are encouraged to squeeze everything they can out of a text. Along with this, students are usually taught to interrogate the text and try to really understand the author's point, and also their point of view and potential biases.

This is all good advice and these are valuable skills for readers to develop. I learned these techniques reading literature and then applied them to studying the core texts of each of the "teaching fields" I chose as a historian. But even then, my highlighting and note-taking was influenced to a greater extent than I might like to imagine, by the interests and questions I brought to the texts.

I have never *really* harbored a strong belief that I was an entirely impartial reader, able to objectively assess a text and get out of it everything that the author put into it. But the degree to which my questions determined the answers I found became clearer to me this week when I returned to a text I had read as a grad student.

The book is called Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation, by Karl Jacoby. I first read it either as a required text in a graduate Environmental History course at UMass or as part of my field reading with the Amherst College historian, Ted Melillo. I was fascinated with Jacoby's descriptions of the people (natives but also poor rural whites) who were deemed not only non-essential to the land they lived on but actually a blight that needed to be removed so the "Wilderness" could be "preserved". One of the main examples Jacoby describes, and the first in US history, was the Adirondack region of upstate New York, where I was born.

I did a bit of additional research, and describe the Adirondacks in my chapter on "Wilderness and Country Life" in my own textbook. This semester, I'm teaching an elective where we're reading excerpts from many of the core Environmental History texts that influenced my course and textbook (others include Crosby's The Columbian Exchange, Cronon's Nature's Metropolis and Steinberg's Nature Incorporated). I'm having my students read the Jacoby chapter on Yellowstone, since I've already told them the story of the Adirondacks.

While I was preparing to tell them this story, I picked up Jacoby's book and leafed through the Adirondack chapters (1-3). I had highlighted a lot of points and had made notes in the margins, prior to writing a review when I read the book in grad school. Many of the highlights are still the main points I remember, covering both Jacoby's argument, his evidence, and the story he tells. It was fun revisiting them.

The surprise, however, was the information I didn't remember, which I had not highlighted the first time or hadn't transferred to my notes and review, because it hadn't served a purpose at the time. An example of this was a passage on page fifteen, where Jacoby is talking about forestry in the Adirondacks. He mentions that hardwoods such as maples, oaks, and beech were not cut because they did not float. I had highlighted this. I hadn't highlighted black spruce and white pine, which he does mention. And as I reread the page I thought, yeah, I know that. This is central to my current research on the American lumber industry.

What I had highlighted but didn't remember, because it had not been useful to me at the time, was the next sentence, where Jacoby quotes an 1891 Forest Commission report saying lumbermen "did not take more than eight trees to the acre, on an average." This was an exciting surprise to me! Apparently the Adirondack forest was quite mixed, and there were only about eight white pines and black spruces large enough to be valuable. The passage goes on to say that in the opinion of the 1891 reporter, it would not be apparent to the "inexperienced eye" that most of the region had ever been cut.

This is a huge discovery for my present research project, which will tell the story of the white pine lumber industry from its beginnings in New England and to its conclusion two centuries later at the other end of the Great Northern forest, where I now live. It's very lucky that the Adirondacks were not 100% pine, because then they might have been clear cut as other regions were. That would probably have led to the erosion of the thin soils and exposure of the granite dome the whole region sits on, creating a wasteland.

This was not something I was looking for when I first read the book. I'm interested in it now, and I know enough to understand its significance. It's also not central to Jacoby's point, which might have made me pay more attention and dig into it more when I first read the book. But it's super valuable to me now -- and so is the 1891 Forest Commission report, which I can now go find and which will probably have valuable info in it that didn't even make it into Jacoby's narrative.

I've gone back through the chapters again, this time highlighting in a different color. I'll add these new highlights to my Reading Notes and think about them. Inevitably, this will involve thinking about how my interests have changed over time and how I'm basically a different person, returning to this text after 12 years. So, not only do different people find different things in texts (which really sells the idea of discussion and social annotation), but the same person can find different things at different times (which really sells the idea of keeping notes and reviewing them). I'll probably have more to say about other texts I return to, as I continue reading and writing. Maybe I should add some time into my work plan for explicitly revisiting some of these main texts, to see how my perspective has changed since grad school.