In about 1969 (in the middle of my graduate school years at Stanford) I was galvanized by General Systems Theory, thanks to books by Walter Buckley, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding and W. Ross Ashby... and probably also thanks to the The Whole Earth Catalog, and certainly to the many late-night conversations with several similarly-inclined friends. I think we were in search of grand and dynamic frameworks as antidotes to the static and mechanistic 'structuralist' models of Talcott Parsons et al., and were surely influenced by ideas leaked from cybernetics, but this was long before 'cybernetics' was common coin. I think my hold on the details of General Systems Theory was rather tenuous, but a lot of what I was reading SOUNDED right, or at any rate righter than a lot of other ideas that were in circulation at the time, and I appropriated what I could. As I now reconstruct my subsequent enthusiasms, I tumbled first into ecology and then into geography as I sought for frameworks to develop my dissertation research upon.
I've been reassembling the library that provoked me in those graduate school years, and filling in some of the missing pieces (materials I should have read or could have read more intelligently, commentaries on the time and its assorted intellectual fashions) and now and again discovering that others have labored in similar groves (e.g., Alan Scrivener, who has been vastly more consistent than I --see also his magnificent Cybernetics in the Third Millennium). I can't really explain WHY I'm retracing the steps, except to say that it's diverting to look at what and how I thought at various points along the path to the present. Occasionally I've been pleased with what I've found in notes and journals and books --thinking that I was onto something, or recognizing a particular turn I made thanks to a reading or a conversation. The reconstructions are imperfect, but I fancy there's a discernable coherence and a direction that connects to what I tried to do in 18 years at Acadia, and what I then escaped into in 13 years at Washington & Lee. I don't see any grand lessons for anybody else, and indeed I'm finding that what I thought and read and did was very much a product of the times in which I was thinking, reading and doing. Many of my enthusiasms are decidedly vieux jeu in the light of turns taken by the several disciplines I pillaged 40 years ago, but in general I'm glad I didn't try to hang on through their evolutions.
Anthropology as it was conceived and practised in the 1960s tended toward the exotic in locale and subject matter, and the fieldwork that preceded the dissertation was a sacred rite of passage. While in principle one could do anthropology anywhere, the general expectation was that appropriate fieldwork sites were in the cultures of non-Western, or at least non-American, or at the very least non-white peoples (Native Americans were, and ethnic minorities became, fair game). I became involved with Nova Scotia (initially because a return to Southeast Asia was impractical by 1970 or so) via cartographic serendipity: I had been considering New England from a Regional Systems perspective, and was looking at Maine on a map that included the Canadian Maritimes. I remember my gaze drifting across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia, and recall thinking "Nova Scotia... I don't know anything about Nova Scotia..." and going to the main library at Stanford and returning with an armload of books. The first I read was Thomas Chandler Haliburton's Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (1829), and I was transfixed. I ordered a large detailed map of the province and tacked it up on the wall of my office and continued to read. At some point I noticed a particularly dense pattern of roads in one area and began to wonder why... and found that they defined the Annapolis Valley, which I discovered was the primary agricultural area of Nova Scotia, specialized in the production of apples. "Agriculture..." I remember thinking. "Don't know anything about agriculture..." and so back to the library for another pile of books. I started to say that I intended to do fieldwork in Nova Scotia, to study agriculture... and nobody said "you can't do that", so I kept reading and thinking and looking at maps. Gradually the open questions emerged: how did the Valley function as an economic/ecological/demographic/cultural Region? How had it evolved over the preceding century? Such questions were as much geographic as anthropological, and my approach to them was profoundly influenced by the work of JOM Broek (geographer, and father as it happens of a college friend of mine) on the Santa Clara Valley of California (today's Silicon Valley, but during the years when Broek was studying the region, a specialized agricultural region). Broek's dissertation (The Santa Clara Valley, California: a study in landscape changes, 1932) seemed like a model worthy of emulation.
My Special Examination Bibliographies (October 1971) turned up as I rifled through the archives, and I've found it interesting to meet an earlier version of myself in its pages. At the time it was a novel (even audacious) presentation, consisting of an introductory essay, 6 pages of tables allocating books and articles to topical subdivisions, and 10 pages of topical bibliography (Regional Systems) and 8 pages of area bibliography (North America). Composed on a manual typewriter (awash in strikeovers) and pasted together, it's certainly inelegant as such things would now be judged, but there's an unmistakeable elan that is pretty recognizable (I mean... who starts a North America bibliography with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and means it?). I doubt that any of my Committee members ever savored it as I did, but reading through it today I confess myself pleased with the enterprise it laid out.
My research proposal (April 1972) was another brave leap into territories unfamiliar to the Anthropology of the time, and was probably more Geographical in its aims than most anthropologists would have found congenial. I had the great advantage of a Committee Chair (G. William Skinner) who overawed everybody, and he was entirely supportive of my plans. The proposal sailed through the approval process, and I was soon afterward off to Nova Scotia to try to carry out its grand ambitions. Of course one's plans for research are quickly trumped by field realities and unimagined opportunities.
It took another 4 years to finish the dissertation (including typing it myself, on a rented Selectric), but finished and accepted it eventually was, again largely thanks to Bill Skinner's support. I've always felt that the dissertation was a means to an end (completing responsibilities; hoisting the Ph.D. flag; ensuring job security; escaping the subject), and I've never been pleased with the document or the aftertaste of the process. I certainly learned how little I really understood about the subject matter, and I was never tempted to try to turn it into a book, or to wring scholarly articles from its dessicated body.