Featured Faculty: Marsha Weisiger
“History is often the story of unintended consequences. It’s the story of generally well-meaning people—just like ourselves—who were simply trying to make a living or doing their best to manage the environment, but unwittingly inflicted damage. That should be sobering.”
Marsha Weisiger, who came to the University of Oregon in 2010 as the Julie and Rocky Dixon Chair of U.S. Western History, is dedicated to examining these stories. For over a year she has been researching a project on the environmental history of eight “hybrid” rivers (that is, dammed waterways that are “simultaneously natural and artificial”) throughout the American West. She is interested in the multiple meanings of “wild” in American culture, and particularly in the unintended consequences of a word that goes unexamined. Here, history informs our ideas about the present: Weisiger notes that today, as in the past, “even in the most constructed environments, an autonomous ‘wild nature’ asserts itself, while those places we imagine as wild are often less so than they seem.”
Nevertheless, she remains fundamentally optimistic about our ability to reframe our ideas and our interactions with the environment. History, she believes, demonstrates that activist groups can make change when they dedicate themselves to sound communication, and that “we all need to learn to write clearly, vividly, and compellingly if we want to promote a progressive environmental ethic.”
Weisiger’s teaching therefore puts a strong focus on writing. In addition to her courses in world environmental history, borderland and Native American history, she also teaches seminars specifically oriented toward the craft of writing about history. As with activism and communication, she believes that historical understanding spreads because of good writing.
Of note among her own publications is Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country, a history of livestock grazing, cultural identity, gender, and environmental justice on the Navajo Reservation. Her process depended on historical research and the craft of writing, but also on a host of interdisciplinary endeavors which seem to follow environmental studies—Weisiger notes that “I drew on archaeological and ethnographic studies, oral traditions, and range ecology, as well as archival materials and field visits with scientists. I even chartered my own aerial survey of the Navajo reservation to get a landscape perspective.”
At the time this landscape was relatively near her professorship at New Mexico State University, but today Weisiger is delighted to call Eugene home. “During my graduate training, I dreamed of landing a job teaching U.S. western history at UO, but I never thought that dream could come true. Academics don’t generally get to choose where they live. When at last the opportunity arose, it was in large part the UO’s strong program in environmental studies that drew me here, along with the environmental ethos that pervades the university and the Willamette Valley.”
We are glad to have her! To learn more about Dr. Weisiger, please visit her website here.
Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.