The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush
November 4, 2013
Review By William Morrison
THE NATURE OF GOLD is in several ways a path-breaking work since, although there is a large literature on Yukon environment, there has been very little written on the environmental history of the Territory, and the works that have been published, notably Yukon Wildlife: A Social History by Robert McCandless (1985), have had a much more conventional approach. McCandless was interested in the subject from a fairly predictable standpoint, but Morse takes a largely different tack. She follows the Klondikers to the west coast, up the inside passage to the north (calling them “rushers” – not the usual nomenclature – where did that word come from?), across the passes, and down the Yukon River to the diggings on the creeks, and then draws theoretical lessons from her narrative. The book’s theme is that technology altered and distanced the relationship between miners and their environment; for example, as Morse says in the introduction, it “eliminated the space between the places where pork and beans were produced, and where they were consumed … made it very easy to forget that pork and beans came from anywhere specific at all” (11). Readers looking for a straightforward account of flora and fauna will be disappointed, for this is not so much a history of the physical world as a philosophical investigation into the relationship between humans and the natural environment.
The descriptions of mining activity and the excellent illustrations are Nature of Goldys greatest strengths, for Morse has a keen eye for detail and has done a great deal of mining herself – in the diaries and other records left by miners. The book is full of instructive and illuminating detail, for which the reader will be grateful. Oddly, though, some important aspects of environmental activity seem to have been overlooked: dredging, for instance, which was a major cause of environmental alteration, is mentioned only twice in passing. However, it is the lessons drawn from these records that give me, at any rate, concern. Morse’s technique is to give examples of activities in Yukon that involved the environment and then to draw theoretical conclusions from them; such accounts of activities followed by conclusions are the backbone of Nature of Gold. Here is an example, one of many, taken from the beginning of Chapter 4, “The Nature of Gold Mining,” where she quotes Bill Hiscock, a miner from New Zealand:
“We got some miles up the Bonanza before we came to any claims being worked. Then we began to see a windlass with a heap of dirt; and gravel being frozen to all depths has to be thawed out, with wood fires, usually put in in the evening and left to burn during night time. In the morning the thawed earth, from 4 to 5 inches to 8 or 90 inches, is hoisted by windlass in a wooden bucket, tipped out and in 20 minutes it is frozen solid again and remains there until the spring comes.” (89)
So far, so good. But then Morse goes on to make her point:
“Like the labor of transportation, the labor of mining was an intensely cultural process through which miners carried their industrial economy north, including the commodification so characteristic of Yukon transportation. Like transportation, the actual work of digging gold from the earth also connected miners to nature, to heaps of dirt and gravel, frozen to all depths. Such labor brought miners new knowledge of the natural world and transformed the gold creeks into new places.” (89)
On first reading, this passage may seem profound. But then questions arise: what labour is not cultural, and what does “intensely cultural” mean anyway? From elsewhere in the book it seems that transportation was commodified because men had to pay to ride steamboats instead of walking, but was that not true wherever travel was mechanized, as, for instance, in the United States when it became possible to take a train from New York to Chicago? Of course the work of digging gold from the ground connected Yukon miners to nature; just as digging potatoes from the red soil connected Prince Edward Island farmers to nature. What seems at first reading to be a novel interpretation turns out, on further thought, to be rather commonplace.
To take another example: Chapter 6, “The Nature and Culture of Food,” quotes a lively description of a festive dinner and then proceeds to draw an environmental lesson from it:
“Meals like these holiday feasts revealed the miners’ creative culinary efforts. They also revealed the nature and culture of food during the gold rush. The miners’ food, like all food, was natural; it came from nature. Fish-goose stew a-la-Bonanza, moose roast, and moose stew came from local nature, from nearby creeks, rivers, and forests, provided most likely by Native hunters who fueled a steady market… Such foods forged direct connections to local ecosystems and to local peoples … most of the miners’ food – bacon, beans, flour, sugar, potatoes, canned vegetable and fruit – came across great distances from the agricultural empires of North America.” (139)
The key sentence in this paragraph is the third one, which indicates that miners’ food was like all other food. True, it “forged direct connections to local ecosystems”; that is, it was locally grown or harvested, just as were the carrots grown in market gardens and sold at local markets in every small and medium-sized town in the United States at that time. But it was the same food, so what special point is being made here?
The “new history” that knocked the old political history off its pedestal a generation ago contributed tremendously to our understanding of the past, but Nature of Gold, it seems to me, strains too hard and without much success to dig new and deeper understandings of environmental processes from the frozen soil of the Klondike.
McCandless, Robert. 1985. Yukon Wildlife: A Social History. (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1985).