History is defined as the study of past events, but as one Montana State University professor continues to show, the discipline still benefits from a modern approach.
Rather than focusing mostly on human history, as many historians do, MSU Regents Professor Brett Walker chooses to study human history in the context of local and global ecological systems.
“Humans refashion the natural world, but the natural world also refashions us,” Walker said. “Environmental history has forced historians to radically rethink the processes by which Europeans conquered Amerindians, for example. Now, smallpox is as important as Western technologies or cultures.”
The distinction is important to Walker, who has become one of MSU’s most celebrated professors and is also regarded as one of the world’s top environmental historians.
Recent honors that have helped put him on the map include winning the coveted John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for scholars, artists and scientists across the nation, as well as the prestigious George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history.
Those who know him well say Walker represents the very best of what is possible as a university professor. Not only is he a world-renowned historian and scholar, but he is an equally dedicated teacher, as devoted to helping his students succeed as he is to his own career.
“He is an ambitious intellectual who has always been keen to take on unconventional challenges: a wider community of interlocutors, a higher-profile set of responsibilities, and a bigger terrain in which to operate than those for which most historians settle,” said Kären Wigen, professor and chair of the history department at Stanford University.
David Cherry, head of the MSU Department of History and Philosophy, calls Walker one of the top half-dozen environmental historians in the world.
“Brett has an internal drive for excellence,” Cherry said. “He wants to be a great scholar, and he’s also somebody who is passionately committed to his students. He wants to be first-rate at everything he does.”
Walker is a self-proclaimed “professional animal” who takes his work and career very seriously, yet he’s also given up a professorship at Yale University in order to teach at MSU.
“People told me I was crazy (for leaving Yale for MSU),” said Walker, who has taught history at MSU since 1999. “I probably am.”
Still, since then he has been offered teaching positions at Stanford and again at Yale, among other universities, but he has declined.
“I always have a hard time leaving Montana,” Walker said. “Those of us who are here know it’s fairly seductive to live here.
“I like the lifestyle and the space here,” added Walker, who enjoys deer hunting with his extended family, mountain biking from his door and being able to make it from Bozeman to a ski lift at Bridger Bowl in 18 minutes.
But if Walker’s professional choices are surprising, they represent a life full of unexpected turns and seized opportunities.
The 47-year-old Bozeman native is equally at home competing in citizen skiing and mountain bike races as he is vying for coveted academic fellowships. He grew up in Oregon and, in part, on a wheat and barley farm in Cascade, Mont., where he says he began skiing before he could walk.
For most of his childhood, he had aspirations to become a farmer, like others in his family before him. He was a ski racer growing up, which prompted him to enroll in the College of Idaho, a small liberal arts college near Boise, Idaho, after graduating from West Linn High School near Portland, Ore., in 1985.
“I wasn’t really interested in academics then,” Walker said. “I went to college for no other reason but to ski race.”
But he serendipitously found himself in a fascinating history class, Modern Western Civilization. That class, and another class on the history of American ideas, as well as its professor, changed the course of his life.
“By today’s standards, Professor Howard Berger’s style was ‘old school,’” Walker said. “He walked to the front of the classroom with old yellowing notes and a piece of chalk and delivered riveting lectures. You were literally on the edge of your seat. No electronic gimmicks, only excellent storytelling. He was very personal, which is something I needed.
“(Berger) really presented history to me in a way that made it powerful and meaningful in understanding the contemporary world,” Walker added. “I wanted to be like that.”
It wasn’t long before Walker found himself focused on his studies with a new career aspiration: to become a professor.
But Walker’s path to becoming a celebrated professor and internationally recognized scholar wasn’t entirely straight.
In fact, his first applications to graduate schools in European history all were denied. So, he decided to go to Switzerland instead. There, he skied and worked as an assistant cook and handyman in a chalet in Verbier, a resort in the Swiss Alps.
While he was in Switzerland, Walker learned from a friend about an opportunity to teach in Japan. He jumped at the chance and quickly moved there to teach at a private school. He said he soon fell in love with the country.
“Japan is a very interesting country to study, with one of the world’s most powerful economies concentrated in a country that is about the size of Montana,” he said. “It really captured me.”
Perhaps it is because the country captured Walker’s interest that it has played such a prominent role in his career.
After teaching in Japan, Walker moved back to the U.S. to continue his studies. He received a master’s degree in East Asian history from Portland State and then entered a doctoral program in Japanese history at the University of Oregon. While earning his doctorate, he researched at Hokkaido University, in Sapporo, Japan, on a Fulbright Fellowship. On returning to the U.S., he taught at Washington State University in Vancouver, Wash., and Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. After completing his doctorate, he accepted a position as an assistant history professor at Yale University. Landing a position at Yale so soon after earning a doctorate from a lesser-known university in the West was regarded as a big jump that “really shook the field,” Walker admitted.
But, environmental history, particularly that of East Asia, was seen as pioneering, and Yale was interested in having an environmental historian of Japan on their faculty, Walker explained. He added that his first book, on Japan’s northern frontiers and its indigenous peoples, also drew on comparative history from the Western U.S.—an approach that was regarded as highly innovative.
Still, “teaching at Yale was a huge deal for me,” Walker said. “It’s not often that Montana kids who go to Portland State end up holding teaching positions at Yale.”
But as prestigious as it was, the position also had its drawbacks.
“Being a young assistant professor at Yale was brutal,” he said. “It was also rare to get tenure. When the job in Japanese history opened up in Bozeman, it was very seductive. I had always told myself I’d move back if I could.”
He decided to accept the position at Montana State and has been at the university since 1999. Over the years he has won MSU’s biggest awards, including the Charles and Nora L. Wiley Faculty Award for Meritorious Research. In 2008, he was also named a Regents Professor, which is the highest honor given to faculty members in the Montana University System. Walker remains MSU’s youngest Regents Professor. And, he is only the fourth MSU professor to win the Guggenheim Fellowship. He is using the $48,000 prize, which he won last spring, to pursue a global project on asbestos.
The project—which Walker intends to result in a book—examines the possibility of global poisoning as industrial infrastructures around the world are destroyed by terrorism, war or natural disasters, or as they begin to decay. For example, one chapter will examine how the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center affected first responders in New York. Walker plans to focus other sections on asbestos exposure in South Africa, Canada, China and India. The fellowship will help fund travel to those and other places to enable Walker to conduct interviews, do research in archives and carry out other fieldwork.
Tying asbestos exposure and environmental problems around the globe to the destruction of architecture is just one example of how environmental history can provide important information to help people better understand the world, Walker said.
In an age where climate change threatens to radically transform human life on Earth, environmental history has become more important than ever, Walker added.
“Climate change signals that historical time lines and geologic ones have converged, meaning that the historical event of the industrial revolution, with its combustion engine and greenhouse gases, signals the beginning of the geologic epoch of … a predominantly human-fashioned Earth.”
When Walker selects a research topic, he said he not only looks for something that has educational value and an interdisciplinary component, but he also requires the research to have “contemporary relevance.”
“There needs to be some component to the work that will contribute to the betterment of the human condition,” Walker said. “We don’t talk a lot about social value anymore, but that is actually what university research is supposed to be about.”
Colleagues recognize Walker, who has authored three books, four book chapters, eight refereed or solicited articles and numerous book chapters, as a prolific and impressive researcher.
Gregg Mitman, William Coleman Professor of the History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, said he admires Walker’s “fearless commitment to novel research methods that reach across the sciences and humanities.”
For example, when Walker was working on a book about wolves in Japan, Mitman said, Walker felt he needed to better understand the animals. Walker’s approach was virtually unheard of: he chose to volunteer in a winter study conducted in Yellowstone National Park so that he could learn about the behavior, ecology and health of wolves firsthand.
“I don’t know any historian who would have taken the time to do that,” Mitman said. “And it really mattered for how [Walker] thought and wrote about the history of wolves in Japan.”
Tim LeCain, a professor in the MSU Department of History and Philosophy, said Walker’s most remarkable achievement has been to “single-handedly bring cutting-edge environmental history methods to bear on Japanese history.
“After Brett’s [published work], no one doing Japanese history, or perhaps even Asian history more broadly, can afford to ignore environmental factors,” LeCain said.
And, Wigen noted that Walker’s commitment to environmental and social justice strengthens his research. She pointed to his environmentalist convictions and personal experiences in the wilderness as an integral part of his book about wolves in Japan.
“The Lost Wolves of Japan made a splash, both in Japan studies and in environmental history,” Wigen said. “….No one was really paying attention to animals in the Japanese history field until he started pushing this agenda. It’s one example among many of how he has pushed at the boundaries of the discipline, and set a new agenda for the next generation of scholars.”
Walker’s life outside of his research is equally full. He has raced in National Off-Road Bicycle Association competitions in Montana, Washington and Idaho for years, including several national competitions where he enjoyed podium finishes in the masters’ category. He’s close with a large family contingent that lives in Cascade, Great Falls and Missoula, many of whom are MSU alumni. He keeps a sailboat in the San Juan Islands, so that he can return to the Pacific Northwest, where he sails with his brother and father and writes for Sail magazine. Walker lives with his partner, LaTrelle Scherffius, in Bozeman.
And, as devoted as Walker is to his own research and writing, he is equally dedicated to his students, according to his colleagues.
Walker says he seeks to spark his students’ interest in learning, just as his former professor at the College of Idaho inspired him.
“We live in a fairly anti-academic culture sometimes,” Walker said. “I like to introduce students to the power of knowledge and learning.”
In a practical sense, Walker believes that students must be able to distinguish fact from opinion and express themselves clearly. To that end, he spends a lot of time working with students on their writing skills.
Cherry observes that Walker also pushes students to be better than they thought they could be, and he devotes himself to finding career opportunities for his students. Walker also shares his resources.
For example, Walker was recently named the Michael P. Malone Professor of History, a prestigious designation given to a faculty member in MSU’s Department of History and Philosophy. The honor provides $3,000 per year for three years to support the recipient’s research efforts.
Rather than using the funds for his own work, Cherry said Walker gave all of the funding to his graduate students so that they can travel to conduct their own research, present papers at conferences and participate in professional development opportunities.
Cherry added that Walker’s unselfish actions reflect not only his caring personality, but also his longstanding ties to Montana and desire to see others from the state succeed.
“Part of the reason Brett has stayed here is that he really does have a deep commitment to MSU, the people here and the state,” Cherry said. “He wants to see this institution be the best it can be, and he thinks he can contribute to that and make a difference here.” ■