Video: Jon T. Coleman on getting lost throughout American history

Author: Todd Boruff


“The way that people imagined their environments influences how we understand nature and also how we treat different environments.” 

— Jon T. Coleman

Jon T. Coleman is professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on the overlap of social, cultural, and environmental history in early America and the American West. More information can be found at his faculty page.

Video Transcript

I do environmental history, early American history, and the American West.

I’m writing a book about getting lost, and the title is Led Astray: Getting Lost in American History. I’m interested in how human beings continually get lost in the North American interior, but how this experience changes quite radically over time. If you look at the early colonial time period you see how people got lost when they lost each other. It was very much a social experience, and over time it became a much more individualized experience.

Nature is part of human history and this kind of circular relationship between how humans influence the environment and then how the environment influences human beings. Getting lost is actually a really interesting way to to think about this relationship because the way that people imagined their environments influences how we understand nature and also how we treat different environments.

People can use satellite technology to locate themselves absolutely in space and that is not how human beings evolved to live on this planet. We evolved to kind of manipulate space with our imaginations. We create regions, we create all these different kinds of connections which guide us through space. And so, we no longer have to think about space so we might no longer think like we used to.

Notre Dame has been an ideal place. Environmental issues are central to the the place’s mission. Things like the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si has really energized students and also energized a lot of discussion about the environment and climate change, and in studying not only how this happens but also the ethics of how we understand and treat nature, and the different ways that people have interacted with nature over time.

Originally published by Todd Boruff at on May 23, 2018.