Samuel Truett, 42
Associate Professor, Department of History, University of New Mexico
I avoided history for years—perhaps because I found it hard enough to keep up with the present. As a child and then a teenager, I was in constant motion, following my wildlife biologist father all across the western U.S. and Canada. As he was chasing and counting critters between Tucson and Yellowknife, my brother and I became experts in the human species (always new kids on the playground, always trying to stay alive). It's a kind of childhood that prepares one well for anthropology (which I studied as an undergraduate), but it took me a while to parlay this into an appreciation of the past.
History came soon after college. After finishing at the University of Arizona, I spent $99 on a one-way Greyhound ticket to see the wild east, and began to work at a Xerox shop in Cambridge. I warmed up the equipment each morning at 5:30, and by 2:30 I was free for the day. I would take the T to the Boston Public Library, browse the stacks, take as many books as I could to the Arnold Arboretum and read until dark. It was a liberating year: I had time to read anything I wanted (and not just what I had to read for exams or papers), so each day I chose something different: astronomy or literary criticism or paleozoology or geography or modernist fiction.
I knew I wanted to go on to graduate school—I liked the idea of thinking and writing and teaching for a living—but I'd grown lukewarm on anthropology. I wanted to write about people, but in a more humanistic way. I also wanted to learn more about how people and the natural world had changed in tandem, perhaps because I'd been raised by an ecologist who taught me to read history in landscapes and not just in books. And mostly I wanted to preserve that feeling of wonder and serendipity that came from moving freely through the library. I worried that I'd eventually have to abandon my wandering ways, and settle on a single letter of the Library of Congress alphabet. I tried them out for size—the C's, the F's, the G's, and the Q's—and then one day I took a left instead of a right into one of the stacks, and stumbled across the field of environmental history.
The rest is history, as they say. Environmental history was just the beginning. It opened my eyes to the importance of staying in motion, of moving across the borders we draw to distinguish ourselves from other scholars, of seeing what things look like from the other side. To understand relationships between human and non-human worlds, environmental historians have learned to speak to geologists, ecologists, literary scholars, geographers, and so on: they've learned to browse the G's, the Q's, the P's. Similar nomadic, border-crossing habits underpin my interests in borderlands history. To understand how the U.S. changed in tandem with the world across its borders, I often find myself on the road: in other nations' archives, reading other languages, taking an outsider view. Environmental and borderlands histories are about place and rootedness— but they're also histories of the world at large, and the ways people and things and ideas move.
Perhaps it's due simply to my peripatetic upbringing and serendipitous turns of fate down dusty library stacks, but I'm increasingly convinced that historians can benefit from a life in motion. By keeping our minds moving across disciplinary, geographical, and temporal registers, we may be in the ideal position to keep our eyes on that fugitive subject we call the American past.
By Samuel Truett
About Samuel Truett
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