Montana State University

Snow geese deaths inspire lessons to be shared in Nov. 10 provost’s lecture at MSU

October 23, 2014 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

MSU historian Tim LeCain will be the second featured speaker in this year’s Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).

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BOZEMAN – Tim LeCain has investigated the 1995 deaths of 340 snow geese that landed in Butte’s Berkeley Pit and the 1905 deaths of thousands of animals that grazed in contaminated pastures near Anaconda.

He compares environmental disasters in Montana’s past with catastrophes elsewhere and pens “crackling good yarns” about his findings. In the process, he wins awards for his writing and research and sometimes changes his views about humans and nature.

The Montana State University historian will explain at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 10, when he gives the second lecture in this year’s Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series at MSU. LeCain will speak on “Death in Butte’s Berkeley Pit: What 342 Dead Snow Geese Tell Us About the Nature of Humans.” The lecture in the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium is free and open to the public. A reception will follow.

“It’s a great honor,” LeCain said about his selection as a lecturer. “I think it is very wise and useful for some of the faculty at Montana State University to be able to present their research to a broader audience, to be able to reach out to the community and show them how the university is creating new ideas, new knowledge, new ways of thinking.”

He didn’t always plan to analyze environmental tragedies, LeCain said. At one point along his path to becoming an associate professor in MSU’s Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, he wanted to become an engineer. Then he switched to historian of technology. More recently, he described himself as an environmental historian. After seeing how copper mining affected Montana and Japan in similar ways and observing how oil and coal changed various cultures, he now considers himself more of a historian of materials.

Obviously, his career and thoughts have evolved, LeCain said.

LeCain grew up in Missoula and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at MSU. While pursuing his doctorate in history at the University of Delaware, he realized that living among factories and chemical plants wasn’t for him.

He still remembers how he felt flying home one summer over the Bridger Mountains, LeCain said. As the airplane banked a bit, he saw sunlight reflecting off the forests and unfenced landscape. He wondered how he could live anywhere else than Big Sky Country.

LeCain now lives in Bozeman with his wife and two young children. It just happened that they live on Rose Street, a fitting location for someone who loves planting roses and had a grandfather who felt the same, LeCain said.

His professional life focuses on much grittier environments. His upcoming book, “The Matter of History,” talks about a 1905 lawsuit where Montana farmers and ranchers charged that pollution from the Amalgamated Copper Mining Company, better known as the Anaconda Company, killed thousands of cattle, horses and sheep, destroyed immense swaths of crops and polluted creeks and rivers. The same book describes how snow geese blew terribly off course while migrating from the Arctic to California. They landed in the Berkeley Pit and died from water so toxic that it might have been car battery acid.

The deaths, at first, seemed to symbolize what happens when nature and humans collide, LeCain said. He then started thinking that humans might be completely natural, too. If so, maybe technology could be considered natural because it was produced by humans.

Author Diane Ackerman suggested in her book, “The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us,” that humans are such a force of nature that this geological age should be declared the Age of Humans, LeCain said. He disagrees and says he doesn’t like the idea. He will propose in his lecture that humans think more modestly of themselves. Perhaps humans are an expression of nature instead of its shaper.

“We need to kind of get over ourselves,” LeCain said. “This planet may actually have it in for us.”

LeCain has won numerous awards, fellowships and grants for his work. Among them was MSU’s Wiley Award for Meritorious Research and Creativity in 2012. In 2007, LeCain and Regents Professor of History Brett Walker won a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to compare the environments and technology related to copper mining in Montana and Japan.

LeCain’s first book, “Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet,” was selected as outstanding academic title for 2009 by the review journal of the American Library Association. The book also won the 2009 George Perkins Marsh Best Book in Environmental History Prize from the American Society for Environmental History.

From the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2012, LeCain was a senior fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich.




Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or