Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge / Edition 1

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Among the most far-reaching effects of the modern environmental movement was the widespread acknowledgment that human beings were inescapably part of a larger ecosystem. With this book, Linda Nash gives us a wholly original and much longer history of “ecological” ideas of the body as that history unfolded in California’s Central Valley. Taking us from nineteenth-century fears of miasmas and faith in wilderness cures to the recent era of chemical pollution and cancer clusters, Nash charts how Americans have connected their diseases to race and place as well as dirt and germs. In this account, the rise of germ theory and the pushing aside of an earlier environmental approach to illness constituted not a clear triumph of modern biomedicine but rather a brief period of modern amnesia. As Nash shows us, place-based accounts of illness re-emerged in the postwar decades, galvanizing environmental protest against smog and toxic chemicals. Carefully researched and richly conceptual, Inescapable Ecologies brings critically important insights to the histories of environment, culture, and public health, while offering a provocative commentary on the human relationship to the larger world.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520248878
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/5/2007
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 346
  • Sales rank: 1,238,191
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Linda Nash is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Washington.
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Read an Excerpt

Inescapable Ecologies

A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge
By Linda Nash

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 Linda Nash
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520248915

Chapter One

Body and Environment in an Era of Colonization

A knowledge of the etiology of diseases can best be attained by studying the affections of different localities in connection with every condition and circumstance calculated to operate prejudicially or otherwise upon the health of the inhabitants. Such philosophical investigation is particularly useful in tracing the modifications diseases may undergo from the agency of causes of a local or special character; and being also calculated to elucidate the relationship of diseases to climate, to the prevailing geological formations-the fauna, the vegetables, the minerals, the waters, which vary with the earth's crust, wherever man can make his abode, commends itself to the pioneer physician of our extended territory. Dr. Thomas Logan in Transactions of the American Medical Association, 1859

It is typical to think of the colonization of western North America as a process in which Europeans and Americans remade the land by reworking natural environments into forms that were both aesthetically pleasing and materially useful. This is surely true, but itis also true that in earlier eras Americans understood colonization as involving bodily transformation as well. The process could work both ways. Places could alter bodies as much as bodies could alter places. Despite the political and cultural rhetoric of conquest, those engaged in colonizing western North America recognized that the effort often brought substantial physical risks. Western immigration was a gamble in physical, as well as economic, terms.

Historians of American expansion have not neglected concerns about health; however, they have overwhelmingly emphasized the disease experience of Native Americans. The story of "virgin soil epidemics"-the transmission of European diseases to Indian populations with no previous exposure and thus no acquired or inherited resistance-is now quite well known. That the consequences of European disease were horrific for most Indian peoples is certain. But Indians were not the only people who suffered extensively from illness in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The processes and exchanges brought about by the colonial endeavor of that period created what one scholar has labeled a "global epidemiological crisis." Everyone was more vulnerable to illness, even those who stayed put. Diseases that were already familiar to white colonists were not necessarily less debilitating or frightening on that account. Accordingly, concerns about disease and disability permeated much of nineteenth-century European and American culture.

The focus on the disease experience of Native Americans is justified by the unprecedented scope of Indian depopulation and the role that illnesses played in that catastrophe. But to ignore the disease experience of white immigrants is problematic. Such a selective focus can in some cases serve to retrospectively naturalize Euro-American colonization. What was historically contingent-European dominance in North America-can come to seem biologically predestined, and the centuries-long struggle between native peoples and Euro-Americans, which was marked by incredible violence, can too easily be rewritten as a passive and unavoidable conquest. The historical "forgetting" of disease, other than the diseases of Indians, may itself be part of a centuries-long process of normalizing white colonization in the western United States. Moreover, by failing to acknowledge the perceived vulnerability of white as well as nonwhite bodies in earlier periods, we run the risk of reading those periods through the lens of later demographic transitions. By contrast, those engaged in colonization were often far less certain of its ultimate outcome, particularly as they waged their own struggles with Native Americans, unfamiliar landscapes, and a host of lethal diseases: cholera, malaria, dysentery, typhus, yellow fever, tuberculosis.

Understanding the health concerns of nineteenth-century settlers in western North America requires that we put aside more recent understandings of both the human body and the environment. The one-sided focus on the disease history of Indian peoples can have the effect of rewriting white bodies in contrasting and somewhat ahistorical terms-as clearly bounded, always resilient, and unproblematically cosmopolitan. But this modern understanding of the body cannot be found in early- or even mid-nineteenth-century sources. In fact, the very idea of a distinct and bounded body, clearly separate from its environment, and able to move unproblematically from one location to another, is a relatively recent historical development. Nineteenth-century bodies, white and nonwhite, were malleable and porous entities that were in constant interaction with the surrounding environment, an environment that retained a complex agency of its own. Disease in the nineteenth century, even when acknowledged to be contagious, was not reducible to specific pathogenic agents or person-to-person contact. Contemporaries understood the causes of disease as spread widely across both bodies and landscapes. Consequently, prospective settlers approached new environments with caution, recognizing that the land itself could be either a font of health or a source of illness.

For those who moved west, human bodies were the most sensitive and reliable indicators of place. The presence or absence of certain illnesses, rates of birth and death, and the course of epidemics-all these were important clues to the qualities of an unfamiliar landscape. Settlers and travelers alike were typically attuned to the reactions of their bodies and to the appearances of those they met. Their physical reactions-the onset of fever, a new sense of vigor, a persistent cough, the timing of menstrual cycles-became important means to understand new places. As settlers set about to alter the landscape, they recognized that the landscape, in turn, might also alter them. Settlers' bodies were thus instruments of colonialism in a double sense-in that they both facilitated the colonial project and registered that project's physical effects. Nineteenth-century American medicine eagerly addressed itself to this project, assessing both bodies and landscapes with an eye toward preserving health and whiteness in new locations.


Today California is commonly, even prosaically, associated with health. In our own health-obsessed time, California stands out as an especially health-obsessed place. But the rhetorical association of California and health was largely a creation of mid-nineteenth-century western boosters. Firsthand accounts of the period offer a much more equivocal and sometimes negative picture. Until the late nineteenth century, California, in European and American minds, was a distant frontier about which little was known, a "terra incognita" as more than one source referred to it. Although California may not have raised the same level of fears among Euro-Americans that southern Africa or the Caribbean did, we should not then assume that early migrants to the Far West understood their relocation in trivial terms.

In the Spanish and Mexican colonial periods, Alta California's colonizers and explorers did not consider it a particularly healthful place. There is no obvious reason why they should have. The existence of disease among Indians in California is indicated in part by their extensive knowledge of therapies, which early European observers simultaneously derided and recorded. Among those native remedies that Americans adopted were Eriodictyon californicum (yerba santa), a treatment for bronchitis; Rhamnus purshiana (cascara sagrada), a well-known cathartic; and Grindelia robusta, used for both lung and skin diseases. By the eighteenth century, Indian peoples were also dealing with an onslaught of new diseases. Scholars have typically assumed that European diseases emerged in California only after the establishment of the first Spanish mission in 1769, but some diseases may have preceded colonization. There is no question, however, that disease arrived anew with the Spanish. Contemporary scholars concur that venereal diseases (both syphilis and gonorrhea) were rampant among the Spanish and the mission Indians and had spread to the tribes of central California by 1814.

Venereal diseases were the most prevalent but hardly the only old-world illnesses in colonial California. In the early nineteenth century Franciscan missionaries reported the presence of consumption, dysentery, and various fevers. A devastating measles epidemic swept the missions in 1806 and may also have spread beyond. Smallpox probably arrived in 1828. In 1837 a smallpox epidemic broke out at Fort Ross on the northern California coast and moved south, killing more than 2,000 individuals mainly among the Pomo, Wappo, and Wintun. Another epidemic began in 1844 among settlers in the Central Valley town of Stockton; it subsequently spread through the valley and foothill regions, affecting mostly the Miwok. In addition to smallpox and measles, pneumonia, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis were recorded in California prior to the 1840s. Disease undoubtedly played a critical role in the decline of the California Indians. The demographer Sherburne Cook estimated that Indian numbers dropped by 21 percent between 1770 and 1830, from more than 300,000 individuals to approximately 65,000. Declines were far higher in the missions than elsewhere, a reflection of both a more concentrated population and the oppressive and often violent nature of mission life.

The few medical men who attempted to assess the health of California in the Spanish and Mexican periods were circumspect. In 1786 the physician Henry Rollin accompanied a French expedition to California and published an account of the voyage in Paris eleven years later. Rollin cataloged the various diseases suffered by California Indians, which he attributed largely to the "great changes in temperature" during the year. He listed several diseases as prevalent in the region, including "ephemeral and intermittent fevers," "digestive disturbances," "putrid fever," "petechial fever," "bilious fevers," and dysentery, neuritis, rheumatic "affections," scabies, opthalmias, pox, and epilepsy. Rollin laid special emphasis on the "high fevers" and "bilious fevers," which he noted were widely feared and frequently fatal.

Among the Spanish, the only professional physician in Alta California was the surgeon general stationed at the provincial capital of Monterey, a position that was evidently difficult to fill. Of the eight men who occupied this position between 1769 and 1824, few left significant records. However, in 1804, at the behest of his superiors, who were concerned by the exceedingly high mortality among mission Indians, Dr. Jose Benites wrote a lengthy report summarizing the medical condition of the province. He reported that syphilis, scrofula, and tuberculosis were common illnesses. He also made reference to the region's unfavorable climate: the humidity, heavy fogs, and great cold, all of which he believed were contributing to the prevalence of disease. Authorities in Mexico City had little interest in supporting Benites's principal request-that they establish a hospital at Monterey. Instead the Royal Medical Board noted somewhat fatalistically that disease in Alta California was unavoidable because of "the extreme cold, the lack of shelter, the bad water, lack of vegetables, and badly prepared meats," as well as the "voluntary indiscretions" of the inhabitants. Impressions recorded at about the same time by George Heinrich von Langsdorff, a surgeon accompanying a Russian expedition to California, were more favorable. While Langsdorff found the west coast of Mexico unhealthy in the extreme, he reported that the climate of Alta California was "better and more salubrious." But he was hardly enthusiastic on that point, noting that the local Indians were often afflicted with fevers, measles, venereal diseases, and a mysterious palpitation of the heart.

As these sources indicate, disease was a constant presence in the region by the early 1800s, if not before. Several epidemics swept through California in these decades, including at least three severe outbreaks of smallpox. Yet, by all accounts, a different and especially devastating illness appeared in the California interior in the 1830s. Indian tribes throughout central California were catastrophically affected, as were the few white settlers and travelers in the region. John Work, an Irish immigrant who had settled in Canada and the leader of a Hudson's Bay trapping expedition to central California, was one of those who fell ill in the summer of 1833; Work's journal offers a firsthand account of the disease among both local Indians and members of his party.


Several of our people have been for some days unwell and some symptoms of the fever breaking out among them.-Indeed for a length of time back, the weather has been very unfavorable for health. The heat, except for a few days back excessive during the day and a heavy chilly dew in the night, so that our blankets would be completely wet in the morning as we slept in the open air. Besides we often had very bad water.


Some sickness prevails among the Indians on feather river. The villages which were so populous and swarming with inhabitants when we passed that way in Jany or Febry last seem now almost deserted & have a desolate appearance. The few wretched Indians who remain seem wretched they are lying apparently scarcely able to move.... We are unable to learn the malady or its cause.


Our sick people get no better, nine more have fallen ill within these two days, making in all 61 that are ill, a good many of them attacked with trembling fits.... Our condition is really deplorable, so many of the people taken ill and no medicines, fortunately not many of the men are yet ill, but is is to be apprehended they soon will fall and that we will soon become so weak that we will not be able to raise camp, and I am afraid to stop lest we die like the Indians the most of the people completely disheartened, and indeed well they may.-I endeavour to keep up their spirits as well as I can but it is become now of little effect.

Four days later Work reported that seventy-two persons were ill out of a party of one hundred, and over the next two and a half months, several died. "Our whole party is now become exceedingly helpless," Work wrote on September 7. At the same time, the death toll among resident Indians was almost incomprehensibly high. Of the Indians in the northern Sacramento Valley, the Wintun, Work noted that "the villags [sic] seem almost wholly depopulated." Later accounts confirmed the magnitude of the epidemic. An American trapper, J. J. Warner, recalled of the once densely populated region that every native village along the rivers had been abandoned and his party saw "but one living Indian." A member of the Yokuts tribe told the ethnographer Stephen Powers in 1872 that a plague had raged throughout the San Joaquin Valley several years earlier, destroying "thousands of lives." On October 31, 1833, Work finally made it back to Fort Vancouver. As he described his condition some years later, "I was so much exhausted by this debilitating disease that I was reduced to a perfect skeleton and could scarcely walk."

Modern scholars interpret this event as an epidemic outbreak of malaria and typically trace the origins of the disease in central California to Work's own party, though malaria may have appeared in conjunction with influenza, which could explain the dramatically high death rates. While malaria is not generally believed to have been endemic to California before the nineteenth century, at least four species of anopheles mosquitoes were. Once what we now understand as the plasmodium parasite was introduced into California, it could spread through those regions that supported large numbers of anopheles. Moreover, the temperate climate and long, hot summers of California were conducive to an epidemic outbreak, as they fostered multiple cycles of mosquito reproduction. The disease, or diseases, that reached California in 1832 were the southern extension of an epidemic, most likely of vivax malaria, that had begun on the lower Columbia River in 1830, at Fort Vancouver. The epidemic had a devastating impact on the Chinook and Kalapuyan peoples in the Pacific Northwest, prompting one contemporary scholar to label it "the single most important epidemiological event" in the recorded history of the region. By the time Work's party left Vancouver, malaria had apparently infected most of the white population in the Northwest, and, in fact, Work reported that several of his party became sick with "intermittent fever" en route to California. Disease then traveled south from the Columbia in the bodies of the trappers and their families. Its overall effect on the Indians of California was as terrible as it had been on the Indians of the Northwest. In 1955 Cook estimated Native American mortality in California at 20,000; however, he later revised that number upward to 50,000, or what he estimated to be one-half the entire Native American population in central California. Though the numbers cannot be determined with any accuracy, it is clear from contemporary accounts that the epidemic radically disorganized California Indian societies, leaving Indian peoples ill prepared to resist or adapt to the dramatic invasion of their territory that came a decade and a half later with the discovery of gold.


Excerpted from Inescapable Ecologies by Linda Nash Copyright © 2007 by Linda Nash. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Body and Environment in an Era of Colonization
2. Placing Health and Disease
3. Producing a Sanitary Landscape
4. Modern Landscapes and Ecological Bodies
5. Contesting the Space of Disease


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