Aaron Sachs



My general focus is on nature and culture: I wander through parks, cemeteries, and wilderness areas (often with my kids), stare at landscape paintings and photographs, and re-read Thoreau, all in an effort to figure out how ideas about nature have changed over time and how those changes have mattered in the western world. Currently I'm writing a book called Environmental Justice: History of a Timely Idea, which explores a theme I've been working through since 1995, when I published a pamphlet for the Worldwatch Institute entitled Eco-Justice: Linking Human Rights and the Environment.  

My primary appointment is in the History department, but my Ph.D. is in American Studies, and I remain fully committed to interdisciplinary approaches. In my graduate teaching, I work with students not only in History but also in English, Science and Technology Studies, History of Architecture, City and Regional Planning, Anthropology, and Natural Resources. On the undergraduate level, I teach courses ranging from an overview of environmental history to seminars on consumerism, the American West, the meanings of wilderness, and the road trip in American culture. Often I come back to intellectual traditions of dissent.

Another strong interest is in creative writing, and for more than a decade I happily served as the faculty sponsor of a radical underground organization called Historians Are Writers (HAW!), which brought together Cornell graduate students who believed that academic writing can be moving on a deeply human level. I also seek to support innovative history writing through a book series at Yale University Press, called New Directions in Narrative History (John Demos and I are the co-editors).

I was also the founder and coordinator of the Cornell Roundtable on Environmental Studies Topics (CREST), which for a decade brought together faculty and graduate students across all the environmental disciplines on campus.  The COVID pandemic has made intellectual community much harder to sustain, but I look forward to future possibilities.  



Research Focus

  • American cultural
  • Intellectual and environmental history



Stay Cool: Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change (NYU Press, April 2023).


Up from the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times (Princeton University Press, June 2022).  Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the Biography category. 


(John Demos, co-editor): Artful History: A Practical Anthology (Yale University Press, Feb. 2020, in the series New Directions in Narrative History). 


Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition (Yale U. Press, Jan. 2013, in the series New Directions in Narrative History).  Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.  Paperback came out in March 2014.


The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (Viking, August 2006).



“A.J. Downing and American Culture,” Hudson River Valley Review 33 (Spring 2017), 29-38. 


“Lewis Mumford’s Urbanism and the Problem of Environmental Modernity,” Environmental History 21 (October 2016), 638-59. 


“American Arcadia: Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Nineteenth-Century Landscape Tradition,” Environmental History 15 (April 2010), 206-35. 


“Letters to a Tenured Historian: Imagining History as Creative Nonfiction—or Maybe even Poetry,” Rethinking History 14 (March 2010), 5-38. 


“Civil Rights in the Field: Carey McWilliams as a Public-Interest Historian and Social Ecologist,” Pacific Historical Review 73 (May 2004), 215-48. 


“The Ultimate ‘Other’: Post-Colonialism and Alexander von Humboldt’s Ecological Relationship with Nature,” History and Theory, Theme Issue on the Environment, Vol. 42 (Dec. 2003), 111-35. 



“The Lessons Moby-Dick has for a Warming World of Rising Waters,” The Conversation (online), November 2021. 


“As Herman Melville Turns 200, His Works Have Never Been More Relevant,” The Conversation (online), August 2019. 


“A Different Kind of Wildness: Environmental Humor and Cultural Resilience,” Thoreau Society Bulletin, Winter 2019. 


“My Atlantis Complex,” podcast in the “What Makes Us Human” series, published by Cornell University, October 2017. 


“The Hidden Music of Words,” The American Scholar (online), October 2016. 


“Urban Refuge: How America’s Cemeteries Became Places of Repose for Both People and Animals,” Orion (November/December 2015). 


“Wallace Stegner’s Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: A Calming Influence,” invited article for the series “Reading Lessons” on the American Scholar website (July 2015), available at https://theamericanscholar.org/wallace-stegners-where-the-bluebird-sings-to-the-lemonade-springs/#.VcyCqbc1dPR


“The Bookroom,” invited article for the series “Writing Lessons” on the American Scholar website (Feb. 2015), available at https://theamericanscholar.org/the-bookroom/#.VQi22mazBFU


“The Light Bulb and the Oil Spill: Two Modern Fables,” article for Cornell’s Climate Change Forum (September 2014), available at: http://climatechange.cornell.edu/the-light-bulb-and-the-oil-spill-two-modern-fables/


“Back to the Neotechnic Future: An Online Interview with the Ghost of Lewis Mumford,” The Appendix (July 2014). 


“Better than Yosemite?  Mount Auburn from the Perspective of Environmental History,” Sweet Auburn (Summer 2014). 


“Take a Walk through a Cemetery,” radio essay for “The Academic Minute,” WAMC, Public Radio, aired on May 14, 2013, available at: http://www.wamc.org/post/dr-aaron-sachs-cornell-university-graveyards-and-urban-parks


“America’s Other Best Idea: Revisiting Mount Auburn,” Boston Globe, Ideas section, Sunday, January 13, 2013. 



“Energy in U.S. History,” in Jon Butler, ed., The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, online at http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/browse?t1=ORE_AMH:REFAH019 (2015).  


“Stumps in the Wilderness,” in Brian Allen Drake, ed., The Blue, the Gray, and the Green: Toward an Environmental History of the Civil War (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015).  


“Looking Backward (Not Forward) to Environmental Justice,” in Michael Renner and Thomas Prugh, eds., State of the World 2014 (Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute and Island Press,   May 2014). 


“Walking Meditation,” in Bob Beatty and Carol Kammen, Zen and the Art of Local History (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014). 


“Cultures of Nature in the Nineteenth Century,” in Douglas Sackman, ed., Blackwell Companion to American Environmental History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). 



Review of Andy Horowitz, Katrina: A History, 1915-2015 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 2020), California History 99 (Nov. 2022), 121-23.


Review of Phoebe S.K. Young, Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement (New York: Oxford U. Press, 2021), Journal of the Civil War Era 12 (Sept. 2022), 419-22. 


Review of James Schlett, A Not Too Greatly Changed Eden: The Story of the Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks (Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 2015), Hudson River Valley Review 34 (Fall 2017), 103-106. 


Review of Ann McCutchan, River Music: An Atchafalaya Story, with the CD Atchafalaya Soundscapes by Earl Robicheaux (College Station: Texas A+M University Press, 2011), Louisiana History, Vol. LV (Fall 2014), 480-83. 


“Our Common Traumas,” Review of Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), and David G. Schuster, Neurasthenic Nation: America’s Search for Health, Happiness, and Comfort, 1869-1920 (New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2011), American Quarterly, Vol. 66 (March 2014), 235-43. 


Review of Donald Worster, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (New York: Oxford U. Press, 2008), American Historical Review, Vol. 114 (June 2009), 795-6. 


“Special Topics in Calamity History: A Review of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth,” Reviews in American History, Vol. 35 (Sept. 2007), 453-63. 


Review of Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: The Radical Social Thought of Elisée Reclus, John P. Clark and Camille Martin, Eds. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004), Historical Geography, Vol. 33 (2005), 256-8. 






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