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Scholar Lions in London

When one returns from a conference, especially one where you “presented,” colleagues often ask about it while dashing elsewhere and may even hurriedly ask to see photographs. Honestly, they don’t really want to be bothered with either. Too many of us have been subjected to endless monologues from our past “how was it?” queries. Responses are frequently chocked full of drivel and name dropping, supplemented with dreadful snapshots.  BUT, I am moved to share one moment–  well, maybe two–  and a name drop that occurred recently while attending the University of London’s Anglo-American Conference 2010 on Environments (AAC2010) in the UK.

Every field has a pantheon of scholar lions to admire, debunk, imitate, invoke or ignore. If your chosen discipline is young enough, the lions may still be alive! Environmental History, founded in the United States, is a relative newcomer to Academia. Two of the top scholar lions from America, Drs. Donald Worster and Alfred Crosby, crossed the pond to appear at separate Plenary Sessions for AAC2010. They were properly showcased in the massive, neo-classical Senate House where the chief sponsor of this gathering, IHR (Institute of Historical Research), resides. (The building has appeared in several films.  In the movie Nineteen Eighty-Four it was disguised as The Ministry of Truth, but I digress).

How many times do we really ever encounter a truly seminal thinker in person? Never. Why? Because in most cases, recognition for such visionaries occurs posthumously, either soon after his or her obituary appears in the New York Times or centuries later. But there was Dr. Alfred Crosby sitting right behind me–a white-maned, unfussy, blue-eyed lion in summer, lying in wait for his move to center stage.  I turned around and began a conversation with Dr. Crosby and his wife, a noted linguist.

Where did the nerve to do this arise? It’s the old “I was the student of one of his students” line. Dr. Hal Rothman was a professor of mine in the History Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in the early nineties. When I knew him, he was a young man in a hurry helping to launch a new PhD. program. In time he would serve as the Editor of the flagship journal Environmental History for a decade, write several books and become the Chair of the Department. It was in Dr. Rothman’s graduate seminars that I learned of Crosby’s groundbreaking work and that he had been Hal’s mentor at the University of Texas, Austin.

Dr. Rothman was diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Two years later he died at the age of 48 in 2007.   Gehrig, nicknamed “Iron Man” for his strength and stamina, was a famous baseball star.  In Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, he delivered a farewell speech to adoring fans that included an unforgettable summation of his brief life: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” There is a clip of him uttering those words on YouTube. You will cry.  According to Dr. Char Miller, who wrote a moving tribute about his friend, Hal said something very similar about his own journey. It turns out that Hal was a remarkable athlete. He, too, bravely faced this still medically mysterious degenerative disease just a little more than a half a century later. So, this connection gave me the courage to approach “Alfred the Great.”

Dr. Alfred W. Crosby is principally known for authoring two works: The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, published in 1972, and Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 in 1986. The first one powerfully proclaimed that when Columbus arrived in the New World, he not only imported European civilization and Christianity as every grade schooler learns, but also its crops, livestock and diseases. The latter three biological intruders profoundly affected  indigenous inhabitants along with the flora and fauna of the Western Hemisphere. It was conceivable that these biological encounters caused most of the destruction.  As a result, his thesis threatened the long held interpretation of a predominantly Anglo-American community of historians, i.e., that the mental and cultural superiority of white Europeans, wielding metal weapons astride fearsome stallions, explained the relatively swift subjugation of new world natives. Thirteen publishers turned down Crosby’s manuscript for his first book, dismissing it as “nonsense.” His ideas have now been comfortably incorporated into the present day meta-narrative of our hemispheric history, but there was much rancor along the way. What a lesson in tenacity.

While the above meeting was the highest of the highlights, there were others, for example, co-presenting with my spouse, Dr. John H. Brown, Associate Professor in the School of Economic Development in COBA. Collaborating with your husband on a project where Economics meets Environmental History with a minimum of squabbling is a triumph of sorts. The literal highest of the highlights was attending a conference reception held in the walkway of Tower Bridge rising over the River Thames.  Spectacular views of London at twilight guaranteed in that eyrie. (After all we are Georgia Southern Eagles!) I’ll stop now. At least no ho-hum photographs were foisted upon you.

JoEllen Broome

Information Services Librarian

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