Transforming the Central Valley: body, identity, and environment in California, 1850-1970

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Transforming the Central Valley: body, identity, and environment in California, 1850-1970

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Title: Transforming the Central Valley: body, identity, and environment in California, 1850-1970
Author: Nash, Linda Lorraine
Abstract: In this dissertation, I provide a cultural history of environmental change in California's Central Valley. Complicating the assumption that projects of environmental transformation have proceeded from the belief on the part of European-Americans that human beings were separate and distinct from the non-human world, I focus on the perceived relationships among human bodies, the natural environment, and Anglo-American identity over little more than a century. In the nineteenth century, as Anglo-Americans sought to colonize the Central Valley and displace its former occupants, they looked to the natural environment both to foreshadow and to legitimate their own success. In that world, most believed that the environment could directly shape human beings in both physical and moral ways. In the first three chapters, I describe nineteenth-century concerns over travel, agricultural labor, and the problem of miasma and disease---focusing in each case on how concerns about the human body influenced environmental understandings, and on the Anglo-American belief that the environment called for and required human beings to complete and to "finish" the landscape that they encountered.Turning to the twentieth century, I examine how these understandings were recast as modern technology and engineering professionals increasingly mediated human relationships with the environment. I describe the two major engineering projects undertaken in the valley---the construction of the Central Valley Project, a stupendous effort to reorganize the valley's hydrology in the interest of irrigation in the 1930s and 40s, and the construction of a modern freeway system between roughly 1945 and 1970. In these chapters, I pay particular attention to the ways in which these large-scale environmental transformations were bound up with concerns over the place of vulnerable human bodies in a natural-technological world. I argue that, from a cultural standpoint, works of modern engineering represented an attempt to reveal the underlying order of the nature through the application of technology on the one hand, and to harmonize human bodies with the modern environment on the other. In this sense, twentieth-century engineers both invoked and rewrote the nineteenth-century discourse of environmental finishing.
Description: Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Washington, 2000

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