My recent research interests encompass selected areas of historical geography, environmental history and historiography. I am fascinated by the interpretation and portrayal of the relation between humans and nature, and how and why those interpretations have changed over time. This necessitates investigations into philosophical, theoretical and methodological aspects of reconstructing the past. This includes critiques of both ‘conventional’ and ‘post-modern’ perspectives. While the broad historical geography of environmental management provides the context, much of my work focuses on the political processes that shaped the development of forest conservation in general and state forestry in particular. I try to maintain a comparative approach in my research to allow for spatial variations in environmental, socio-economic, cultural and political factors – a perspective which often gives some insight into historical change as well.
My honours, masters and doctoral research dealt, respectively, with the economic geography of the timber industry, pioneer settlement in forested lands, and the historical geography of forestry policy. I have previously worked as a teacher and a professional historian dealing with local and regional development. I regularly contribute to curriculum design in geographical education from primary to tertiary level, promote community-based historical research, and am a founding member of the Australian Forest History Society.
I am currently involved in three interrelated research areas. The first involves extending my studies of the formation of forestry policy in south-eastern Australia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This involves moving from a conventional ‘top-down’ investigation of the parliamentary debate on forests and forest use in Victoria and South Australia (in my PhD thesis), to a systematic comparative study of popular moves toward, and reaction to, forest conservation at the local and regional level. A small but diverse range of initiatives by individuals, community groups, institutions and corporations promoting and establishing forestry for various purposes fuelled processes which were eventually instrumental in altering both the natural and cultural landscape. For example, late nineteenth century Local Forest Boards were both an ends and a means in this regard, but due to a range of external pressures and internal conflicts proved unsuccessful. A comparison is made of local debates from pro- and anti-forestry communities across the colony. In many cases, the political strategies used in the forestry debate were similar to, and learned from, the agitation for other public goods and social infrastructures, notably water supply, railways, sewerage reticulation and energy supply; but an understanding of the various forest-products markets is also critical. A significant historical-geographical aspect emerging from this research is the role of the press in the forestry debate at many scales from the local to the international. In particular, the complex patterns of communication through the various newspaper networks has proved a fruitful focus as well as an important adjunct to my studies of the official state documentation of forest policy and management.
Five research papers have been stimulated by systematic surveys of the popular press on forest management issues. This current research was carried out in 2001 and 2002. The first (Legg 2002) provides preliminary results from the initial survey of local political agitation and highlights geographical variation in forest conservation across Victoria during the 19th century. The second (in press 2003) describes the results of a survey of the portrayal of nature in general, and wildlife in particular, in the metropolitan press in Victoria, 1838-1948. A total of 22,000 items (editorials, articles, reports, letters, etc.) was identified and analysed from four different newspapers. Two of these newspapers were marketed specifically for a rural audience. Using the identified items, an historical narrative is provided of the principal themes and issues in each period (generally by decade), along with a discussion of the use of newspapers in environmental history research. A third (in preparation) focuses on the role of the Victorian goldfields in general and the Ballarat community in particular in forest conservation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The influence of key individuals and organizations is highlighted, along with the nature and impact of their arguments. The local Mining Boards, Miner’s Unions, and Mine-owners’ Associations receive special attention, and this is related to the forestry debate in parliament and the changing historical geography of the forests that supplied timber to the mines. The fourth paper (in preparation) deals with the complex and occasionally vitriolic debate on the climatic influence of forests. The context, nature and political influence of this debate for forest conservation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is discussed, especially in relation to Victoria and South Australia. Finally, I am preparing a paper on early private afforestation in Victoria. This refers to a number of forestry initiatives by private landowners in the mid-19th century principally on the lightly-wooded plains of the Western District (for shelter, aesthetics, and timber), and later in the century as part of a broader move to plant acacias to supply bark for the leather tanning industry. These initiatives generally pre-date and were independent of state-run forest management. Nor were they related to laws offering financial incentives for tree-planting similar to those introduced in South Australia and New Zealand.
A second and related research interest concerns the use of environmental history in the reconstruction of past environments. This necessitates the incorporation of techniques from both the humanities and natural sciences, for example in consideration of the human impact and in broader analyses of environmental change. One application is in a multi-disciplinary research project examining environmental change in rivers in south-eastern Australia during the Quaternary. Another concerns the use of historical documents in interpreting the nature and extent of land degradation from individual land holdings to regional landscapes. Still another area involves the use of historical documents for applications in restoration ecology, particularly in vegetation analyses.
Finally, from both a theoretical and pedagogical perspective, I am interested in critiquing the development of the discipline of environmental history (including its relation to historical geography).
Teaching Responsibilities With a background in economics, politics, history and both physical and human geography, my teaching interests and duties are broad. The latter includes urban and economic geography, Third World development, environmental management and environmental history. I am Undergraduate Teaching coordinator and Honours Programme coordinator, and am involved in curriculum design, enhancement studies and transition programmes.