Scot McFarlane ’09 on His River Research

Scot McFarlane answered a few questions by email, explaining the origin of his interest in the Androscoggin River and the rigorous research he did his senior year to support his thesis.

Bowdoin Daily Sun: Why did you decide to tackle this particular topic and this particular thesis?

Scot McFarlane: I guess it depends where you start. I’ve always been a river-rat. I spent my first two summers at Bowdoin doing ecology research on Merrymeeting Bay with John Lichter and every winter I duck hunted and smelt fished there, in this beautiful, degraded and recovering ecosystem, of which the Androscoggin happens to be a major tributary. I was also inspired by former Bowdoin Professor Franklin Burroughs’ book Confluence, which describes the bay’s riches both natural and cultural. And then the project more or less fell in my lap when Matt [Klingle] told me about the recently opened Lawrance papers: Walter Lawrance the Bates chemist who spent thirty-plus years managing the Androscoggin and happened to keep very detailed records from that time.

BDS: Can you describe, briefly, the research you did to support your thesis?

SM: Most of the research actually involved learning the context of water pollution and management in the U.S. I read, scanned, and skimmed a lot of books and articles. I spent a lot of time at Bates’ Muskie Archives too, going through all of the Lawrance papers and also any other school publications that mentioned Lawrance or the Androscoggin. The Lawrance papers were great because they not only had all of his scientific data and his personal notes, but he also did me the favor of copying nearly every article written about the Androscoggin. The rest of my research took me to various other archives and libraries throughout the state such as the attorney general papers in Augusta at the Maine State Archives or the unpublished manuscripts at the Maine Historical Society in Portland. I even received a very helpful paper from a researcher studying the history of pollution control on the Willamette River.

BDS: Can you describe the main strengths of your thesis and how you think your arguments might be received within the field?

SM: I’d like to think that the strength of the paper lies in my description of the Androscoggin River, something which left no archive or paper trail of its own, and that the reader understands what a stinking bubbling mess the river had become such that people threw up crossing the bridge and could not think straight. I argue that despite explanations otherwise that the conditions on the Androscoggin helped to shape both the environmental movement and Lawrance’s “scientific” decisions. I hope that understanding the Androscoggin’s role in shaping politics (including the Clean Water Act), science and communities will enrich the field of environmental history. (Also, maybe if enough people discuss the Androscoggin then spell-checker will stop telling me that it is misspelled.)

BDS: What did you study at Tufts? What are your career goals? How has your honor’s thesis project affected your current studies and career plans, if it has?

SM: I was at Tufts last year while earning my M.A.T. and teaching Humanities at Codman Academy Charter School. Currently I teach fiction writing at a small charter school in Kings Valley, Oregon and I am also starting work with the Chemeketa Community College’s High School programs. Right now my career goals are pretty simple, to teach my students to the best of my abilities. Having spent four years working on a single paper I understand the ups and downs of the writing process. Hopefully I can share my experience with my students and teach them to work through the frustration of writing and to find joy in it instead. I spent a lot of the time answering questions posed by Matt, my editor and the anonymous reviewers, and then found myself having to ask even more questions of my work; the work often humbled me, but realizing how little I knew about environmental history’s possibilities has made me want to continue in this field.

BDS: And what most compelled you to try to publish your article in Environmental History? Were you totally thrilled when it was accepted?

SM: I guess it just seemed like the obvious if ambitious choice given my article’s argument, and I think most importantly I had Matt’s support. I certainly would not have tried or kept trying to publish in EH unless Matt had told me I had written a good paper worth sharing with a broader community. On top of that I felt like it was a story worth sharing; so yes I was thrilled when it was accepted, it felt really good.