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Marco Armiero: Elsewhere. Italians in frontiers,  Agrarian Studies Colloquium,Yale University, published online in the Program in Agrarian Studies Website.

Please feel free to quote it.



Marco Armiero 

The world in a tin.

Stories of migrants, nature, and the making of ethnic landscape

Paper presented at the American Society for Environmental History, Boise, Idaho March 13th,  2008


Please feel free to quote it.


Before dying, an aunt of mine, Maria, showed me a collection of pictures taken while she was in Brazil in the 1950s. She might have thought that her strange nephew, with his bizarre job, might be interested in those old pictures. The pictures were interesting indeed, because they showed women and men in what Aunt Maria used to define as a very wild environment. Maria spoke about herself in Brazil as a pioneer and her stories always included the climate, animals, plants and other natural elements. Anyway her stay in Mato Grosso was very short. Unfortunately for her, she didn’t find the fortune that she was looking for and soon she came back to Italy, bringing with her not more than those pictures and some improbable stories. Put away in an old cookie box, those pictures seem to tell a concluded story, as some lost dots on an individual timeline. Pictures, by definition, look quite static; moreover, put away in an old cookie box, they look even more fixed in time as if they do not have any bond with the present anymore. Of course, that box testifies that the Brazilian Mato Grosso has left its traces in Maria’s life, but I wonder whether the contrary has also been true. The pictures are static indeed, but the stories of colonization they tell are not. In that cookie box there are not only some pieces of Maria’s life but also some pieces of Mato Grosso’s environment. Moreover, both of them are packed together: the meeting of a young Italian woman with a new exotic landscape is preserved in that box, waiting to be discovered. All my interest in migrants, nature, and the blending of both started from that tin.

The stories of migrants are full of tins like that. As in Maria’s case, their memories and the world have been canned together in the same tin; thus, even if you think you are looking at one of them, actually what you see is a hybrid made by the very meeting between those who have moved and the places where they settled. In other words, generally we think of memory as something that humans preserve from their experiences. The places we visit or settle for a while leave their traces in our memory, sometime even in our bodies. We remember them, better we remember us moving through them. But it is also true that the places keep the memories of us, for sure they keep the memories of generations of migrants who have tried to adjust themselves to the new environment. Migrants’ and places’ memories are entangled altogether: this is what the world looks like canned in a tin of cookies. At least, this is what an environmental historian can see looking through it.

However, I am not saying that it is easy to open the box and look inside. Rather, working on this project in the last few years, I have realized how difficult it is to find the box and manage its contents. Today, I would like to talk for a little while about these difficulties.   


1) The preliminary question: does migration really matter?

If we look at the historical work already done, the answer would be quite simple. No, it does not. Trying to move my first steps in this field, I started looking for works on the same subject. Electronic resources can often help. Journals can be a good starting point. It was not the case. Environmental History journal and its European cousin Environment and History do not have any articles expressly devoted to this subject. I did not have more success using other resources such the precious database of the forestry history society. I might add that in the last three conferences of the ASEH there were no papers on this topic. Therefore, to sustain my impression I can quote here John McNeill’s world environmental history survey, published just few years ago in History and Theory: in his opinion the “environmental effects of human migrations also deserve more scrutiny”.[1] When I have been in a situation like this – unfortunately this has happened not so often to me - I have always felt that the possibilities are two: or I have found an amazing, original and path breaking new research topic or I have picked an insignificant subject, with no interest to anyone but me. This might be the risk to go after the cookie box. Hence, again: does migration really matter in environmental terms? Clearly, I think so, otherwise why put together a roundtable on this subject?

Indeed I hope to find better, more persuasive answers than those I have given to myself in this roundtable. Now, I would like to put on the table some other elements. First: what about the scales? Magnitude, time, space: migration is a three dimensional phenomenon. It is quite different to consider a few people moving from San Francisco to Berkeley in these days or 30 million Italians leaving for the Americas and Australia between the 1880s and the 1930s. As Alfred Crosby puts it, with the advent of mass migration the earth has been involved in the largest and quickest movement of biomass across the ocean.[2] Probably, speaking of migrants just in terms of biomass did not help to raise the interest of historians in the subject, because biomass does not imply cultures and hopes, works and bodies, techniques and crops. Where in the hell are the ecological stories of their settlements in new environments? Would the countries of departure and arrival be the same if migrations had never occurred?

Maybe the question is: are we speaking only of large numbers, a specific time -- the age of mass migration -- and wide spatial scales? What about Maria? Can we think ecologically of an individual migration experience? What can environmental history say about short or medium range migrations, such as the Alpine mobility or, more generally, the seasonal passages between mountains and plains? Of course, in these cases it seems that people have moved more or less in the same environment, or, at least, they have hardly found an unknown nature to adjust, shape, or fight with. However, just to stay with my little expertise, studying Italian mountains I think that even short and medium range migrations have a significant environmental story that needs to be told. The Braudel’s definition of mountains as factories of workers for the plains was not only about economy but it says something also about the ecologies of both, mountains and plains. Probably this introduces another issue, that is, migration has been an omnipresent phenomenon. It is one of the few historical facts which happen simultaneously in two places.


2) The logical alternative: where can we find the cookie box?

I said that behind the lack of historical work on a subject I have always seen two options: a brand new idea or an uninteresting topic. But maybe I should start to consider the third option: a too difficult project. As a teacher, and as a quite rare species in Italy, I have had the fortune to have a lot of students who have decided to do their thesis with me in this exotic field of environmental history. Many times they have come to me with their ideas, their projects on which they would like to work; and my question has always been the same: the idea is great but where are our sources? In other words, as an educator I have tried to teach that a good idea is not enough to do good historical research. Do I need someone who repeats to me this old, but always good, lesson? In other words, can we find sources to write the environmental stories of migrants? Where is the cookie box? Even ff the subaltern people had left a few written sources, it would be even complicated to analyze their relationships with nature because the migrants would have spoken about job opportunities, accommodation, or travel suggestions, but hardly about landscape and other “natural subjects”. At least not in these terms. I must quote here Patricia Nelson Limerick who, in her Something in the soil, wrote:

A landowning-literati class is indeed the source of much of the Anglo-American literature of discovery of landscape (…). Without a margin of assured subsistence, without the opportunity for contemplation and introspection, without a way to enter one’s memories into a permanent, written source, a group’s response to a new geography can be close to impossible for posterity to hear.[3]

The point is well made. But the author is not renouncing to uncover the hidden history of the ethnicity in the landscape. In the pages which followed these lines, Patricia Nelson Limerick described the Chinese’s agency in shaping the Californian landscape, stressing the ingenuity of Chinese to transform useless things into resources. To cite just few examples: the mustard plants, seen by the Americans as a nuisance, became raw materials for Chinese valued spice; and the willows, which were perceived by the “Whites” as useless, for the Chinese were evidence of fresh water and therefore fertile land.[4]Butte counties in California, which were considered as worthless by the Anglo-Americans, have been transformed in rice cultivations by the Japanese, who cultivated 25,000 acres of rice by 1918.[5]Connecticut valley were the Poles who discovered that the thin soil higher up the river was worth cultivating with certain crops: until their arrival, the agriculture was concentrated only in the rich lands closest to the river.[6] And what was the “otherness” of Italian backyards, full of vegetables, chickens, and rabbits, if not a different appreciation of land and natural resources? The same kind of example could be listed also for other economic activities connected more or less directly to nature, such as fishing where each ethnic group has left a remarkable imprint on both culture and ecology. In the But I could add here other examples like these, related to other ethnic groups. The waste lands covered with a layer of “hardpan” in Sutter, Yuba, Colusa, Glenn, and

Having said this, still it is quite improbable to find the diary of a Polish farmer who describes his idea of the Connecticut valley soil, or the memories of a Japanese rice-grower in California. Besides, I have read some autobiographies of Italians, for instance, and they often prefer to speak about issues other than nature. Thus, in conclusion: if it is true that there is a lack of sources on this topic, does it mean that we are doomed? How can we escape from the captivity of sources? I hope to have some good tips from this roundtable, I really need them. On my side I would like to reflect about two very basic points, in some way related to each other: do we need new sources or new questions? Shouldn’t we rethink our idea about nature and natural objects?

These issues are at the core of environmental history, since they involve what it should be and how it should be done. I will return to these subjects later. For now let me say that in my opinion the traditional sources about migration hide information on the environment and the mutual constitution of ecological and social communities, which need new questions to be discovered. Moreover, it is also true that the landscape itself can be a source for this story, hiding in it the evidences of various ways of using and living in it. But in any case, whatever the sources might be, I think that preliminarly we should re-consider what we mean by “natural subjects”: if we are looking for wilderness, natural beauty and environmental concerns, probably we have chosen the wrong trail. We are following the traces of immigrants: they spoke the language of work, of money, of settlement, of racial conflicts. If nature is in charge of work, money, settlement and racial conflicts, then immigrants have their own environmental stories that could be told.


3) Becoming migrants, or how to go beyond borders

The relationships between environmental history and boundaries have always been rather complicated. One can say that environmental history is congenitally uncomfortable with boundaries, no matter which kind they might be. The definition of environmental history has been various and, sometimes, even contradictory; but there has been something constantly repeated by everyone: the new discipline should be “trans”. This has been our mantra. Going over the traditional borders seems to be the main mission of the discipline, if we want it to be original. Twenty years ago Donald Worster called for a history without borders. National and disciplinary borders seem to work quite poorly with environmental history. The concrete results of this declaration of intent have been quite contradictory; while on one hand environmental history as a field has been able to put itself on the borders of natural sciences, on the other, national frontiers seem not only surviving but even living a new season of interest, characterized by the recent studies on nature, landscape and national identities. Here, I would like to suggest some good reasons to embrace migration as a subject of environmental history from a methodological point of view.

I think that looking at migrations can help environmental historians to accomplish their mission and be “trans” in various and original ways.

Obvi-ously, migrants extend, by definition, over national borders. Their lives, their experiences of land have always been trans-national. What does it imply for us, for our work as environmental historians? I think that this can change our way of seeing both nature’s and humans’ agency. In many places, surely in the Americas, Australia, and parts of Africa, it might require a different comprehension of the “national” nature and its construction. We already know that Europeans have recreated their environments in the new worlds, the Alfred Crosby’s Neo-Europes. Thus, where is the novelty? I hope that there is a novelty and that this roundtable will be able to show it. I would suggest that the construction of the new environment was a longer process, not just contained within the very beginning of the conquest/colonization when everything seemed clearer and more dramatic. The re-arrangement of the environment lasted longer, and if the making of the Neo Europes was a large scale process, these same Neo Europes have been shaped and reshaped many times on a smaller scale. To understand the landscapes produced by these processes we need to transcend the national borders, just as the migrants did. Because these landscapes are, of course, the feature of the country, but at the same time they are also the by-product of a transnational story.  

An environmental history of migrations might help us also to cross the frontier between human and natural realms. Generally speaking we have thought that the relationships between environment and migrants have followed two main paths: adaptation vs. alteration. Probably, at this point we could ask ourselves if as environmental historians we should be interested only in the alteration, that is, in the heroic, pioneers type of migrants, leaving apart those who were too culturally weak to leave their imprints in the soil. My personal opinion is that the adaptation vs. alteration tales look too turnerian and I am more interested in looking in between. But now, what I would like to stress is that this opposition reinforces a strong dichotomist vision of nature and humans. Here I need to borrow some sentences from Linda Nash’s Inescapable Ecologies, which by the way is one of the few experiments of environmental history of modern migrations. She writes:

The central valley, like all of North America, is now a complicated mixture of human and nonhuman elements, a hybrid landscape: aquifers and aqueducts, soils and chemicals, native plants and commercial crops. But change did not occur in only one direction. As people have shaped the landscape, the landscape has shaped the bodies of its inhabitants.[7]

Migrants are themselves nature on the move. And this was true not only during the early years of the Colombian or Magellan Exchange. People continued to cross the oceans bringing with them their bodies, their resistance or weakness to pathogenic agents, their ability to cope with different climate and food. An environmental history of mass migration needs to break the boundaries between bodies and nature. Migrants knew nature through their bodies for the reason that they knew nature could affect their health, transiting from the external world to their internal bodies. In migrants’ lives the frontier between them and the environment seemed porous indeed. How could we tell the stories of both perception and reality? Linda Nash, Conevery Valencius Bolton, Alan Kraut have given fine examples of this kind of studies. I believe that to better understand the issue of heath and the environment in the migrants’ experiences we need to use the category of environmental justice. What we are looking for is not just a map drawing the distribution of health hazards and migrants’ perceptions of them; in this way it seems to me that both, health risks and their perceptions would have laid only in the land and in the heads of migrants. In other words, a map like this runs the risk of being completely blind to how much power relations and social structures have constructed both hazards and perceptions. Was the environment or rather the capitalistic organization of labor, based on race, the cause of illness among the Mexicans in the lemon plantations in California?[8]Morris Kavitsky, a Polish Jew arriving in New York in 1914, remembering his first impressions of the New World, said: Of course, climate and hydrology were instrumental in the diffusion of malaria in the southern plantations, but can we explain the rate of death among Italian immigrants only “naturally”? Moreover, migrants, health, environment, and environmental justice do not meet each other just on the land. Integrating migration in environmental history might bring some fresh insights also to the studies of urban and industrial areas. Alan Kraut has reminded us that the first worker interviewed by Alice Hamilton for her studies was O.V., an Italian immigrant; and the fact that he was an Italian was absolutely central to his experience of factory hazards, doing the worst job and being incapable of understanding what he was doing due to the language barrier.[9]

Most of the Jews seemed to have lost their health here while working the sweatshops. I had never seen so many people with false teeth and eyeglasses. Was this part of the process of becoming Americanized? How about tuberculosis and appendicitis? I was shocked at the physical condition of my people in this country. It seemed to me that hardly any one of them escaped the surgical knife. The air was damp (..) and people worked harder here.[10]

It seems to me that we are still waiting for an environmental history of the urban cities which recognize in them the stratification of ethnicity and its connections with unequal distribution of service and risks. Doing this, we might be able to overlap in our city map plague, fires, and cancer clusters with ethnic neighbours. But it would not be only a matter of disgraces. Maybe we could have some room for a Garlic Hill or a Shrimp Camp, too.  


In conclusion, in Maria’s cookie box it seems to me that there is no gun or steel, maybe some germs, brought and taken. Nor could we find the explanation of the fate of civilizations. We might find the interrelated memories of peoples and landscapes and the challenge would be to go over the borders between them, trying to see the previous reflected, sedimented in the latter. We should be satisfied with seeing just a world canned in a tin.


[1] John McNeill, “Observations on the nature and culture of environmental history”, History and Theory 42:4 (2003), 41-2.

[2] Alfred Crosby, Past …, 1178.

[3] Patricia Nelson Limerick, Something in the soil (New York: W.W. Norton & C., 2000), p. 195.

[4] Limerick, 196.

[5] Mcwilliams 109-110.

[6] Allen Dimock 41

[7] Nash, Inescapable Ecologies, p. 209.

[8] Alamillo, p. 40-1.

[9] Kraut, 176.

[10] Stave, 49.


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