2009 Envirotech Article Prize Winner

Envirotech is happy to announce that the Envirotech article prize for 2010 has been awarded to Robert Gardner for his article “Constructing a Technological Forest: Nature, Culture, and Tree-Planting in the Nebraska Sand Hills,” Environmental History 14 (April 2009): 275-297.

In the piece, Gardner examines the first federal tree nursery in the Nebraska Sand Hills as an example of how high modernist motivations and ecological realities combine. Instead of managing a forest, the foresters of the Sand Hills tried to build one, and in the process, came to embrace biological diversity rather than standardization. While the managers could rationalize and control individual seedlings in the nursery, ecological complexity in the landscape proved harder to control.

The prize committee believes that “Constructing a Technological Forest” shows how far envirotech has become as an established subdiscipline. Gardner explicitly situates the piece within the envirotech mandate to consider both the environment and technology as symmetrical: “Realizing that the influences of environment and technology are always reciprocal, the concept of envirotechnical analysis suggests that the integration of the natural and human artifice is frequently so complete as to eliminate any logically meaningful boundary between the two” (278). He draws on earlier cutting-edge envirotechnical work and pushes it in new directions. Referring to the articles in on Schrepfer and Scranton’s Industrializing Organisms, he uses the methods offered to think about a wholly different “organism”: an engineered forest.  Likewise, Gardner’s work draws on other founding books and articles in the area, including those by Richard White, Thomas Hughes, and Edmund Russell.

Gardner makes several innovative suggestions in the course of his paper. One of his most intriguing is the counterintuitive assertion that scientists learned more about forest ecology through creating a new forest than by managing an existing one. This is an important contribution to the history of forests and forestry in that it offers a very different story than the typically declensionist one told by Langston, Opie, and others, in which forest managers sought to simplify complex systems with destructive results. Likewise, it counters the oft-used high-modernist arguments of James Scott, as Gardner’s work suggests at least some forest engineers were trying to create greater complexity rather than pursuing reductionist simplification. From a history of technology perspective, Gardner’s work is also innovative in the way it reveals assembly line and mass production methodologies and mindsets at work in creating this technological forest, from the “manufacture” of the seedlings to the regimentation of labor in their planting.

Gardner’s use of entirely new archival material offers a fine-grained perspective on the Sand Hills forest – from the earliest scientific booster efforts of the 1880s to the importation of thousands of seeds and seedlings in the early 1900s to the hot and sweaty days planting seedlings in the sandy slopes to the enjoyment of the new forest by regular campers – effectively eliminating the boundary between nature and technology.