Scholarship that transcends politics and geography.
Stradling’s work has attracted enough attention that he was tapped, by the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society’s editor, David Turpie, to co-guest edit (along with the University of Maine’s Dr. Richard W. Judd) that journal’s Spring, 2017, issue: “Environment and Environmentalism in Kentucky.”
That might have surprised some. Why would the Kentucky Historical Society turn to outside academics to lead an exploration of the Commonwealth’s environmental history?
After all, this is a state with a rich body of environmental literature — a place which produced agrarian novelists Wendell Berry and Gurney Norman, environmentally-conscious poets like Silas House, and Erik Reece’s seminal text on the devastation coal mining has caused to Middle Appalachia’s water sources and ecological systems.
But, excepting Reece, most examinations of Kentucky’s environment have proceeded under the mantle of creative writing. Few scientific inquiries specifically focusing on Kentucky’s environment have been published, Stradling noted; fewer still incorporate the full historical context of the problems they look at.
“Mountaintop removal — we know a lot about that story. Surface mining is partly a Kentucky story that we know pretty well,” he said. “Outside of that, there’s very little [on the] environmental history of the state of Kentucky. So, there’s a lot of potential there.”
Although environmental history has become a hotter topic for Southern scholars in recent decades, particularly vis-à-vis environmental changes associated with the antebellum South’s King Cotton economy (consider the litany of texts on “Agriculture and Slavery's Impact on the Land” listed here).
But environmental scholarship about the so-called Border States region “is kind of a gapper,” Stradling asserted.
“Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia? They’re just not Southern enough,” he observed. “They don’t really have that plantation economy that Southern historians are interested in, so they get left out of a lot of that mainstream Southern history.”
“There’s not a really good history of the Ohio River — one of the most important rivers in the world. Just hasn’t been done yet,” Stradling lamented.
“States are not containers of any real environmental boundaries,” he said. “We’re more connected to Kentucky by the Ohio River than we are divided by it.”
Stradling believes that there is strong opportunity for students to extend scholarship that blends historical niches, that develops more robust understandings of our complex region and world.
“The interest of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society in environmental history is a sign of the maturity of the field,” he said, smiling.