2020 Year in Review

Hedges trimmed to spell 2020

Every December, the Edge Effects editorial board reflects on all the environmental thinking, writing, art, and research we’ve had the great fortune to publish throughout the year. As 2020 (finally) comes to a close, we want to offer not a “best of” list but a record of the essays, podcasts, and exhibits that have given our editors the gift of a new perspective during these long and brutal months—a chance to look again, to ask new questions, and to re-imagine what protest, justice, and flourishing together might mean in the days ahead.

With deep gratitude to our contributors and readers, members of the editorial board want to share with you a list of some notable—and perhaps overlooked—pieces we’ve published in 2020. The recommendations below are just a starting point, so we hope you’ll venture back into our archive and subscribe to enjoy what’s coming next. Here’s to 2021.

Cryogenics” by Jen Rose Smith

Snow-covered glacier
La’, Eyak, Alaska. Photo by Jimmy Boy.

I have heard for years that glaciers are disappearing. This is usually all I hear about glaciers before the focus shifts to larger narratives of climate change. Distant (for many), cold and icy, glaciers are a perfect symbol for a looming future of loss. Jen Rose Smith (Eyak) pushes past the simplistic symbolizing to animate ice. Smith and generations of ancestors before her have lived in relationship with glaciers. She understands how the ice is alive. Her piece is essay, poetry, personal prose. Like the glaciers, it slips and slides, fracturing bounds. As I now more than ever work to shed the white colonizer lens with which I was trained to see the world, Jen Rose Smith asks me (and any reader open to the challenge) to look again, differently, at the stories and histories which have brought us to this precipitous moment. – Marisa Lanker

School Food Politics: A Conversation with Jennifer Gaddis” by Faron Levesque

The Labor of Lunch book over

Food access has emerged as one of the central issues facing families, local communities, and mutual aid groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over these past ten months, I keep finding myself drawn to the work of UW–Madison professor and school lunch program expert Jennifer Gaddis. Since the closure of Madison public schools back in March, Dr. Gaddis has been vocal about the need for all families to participate in Madison Metropolitan School District’s free curbside meal pickup program for kids 18 and younger. She’s a critical voice in our community, and I’m glad she joined Edge Effects on the podcast earlier this year to discuss her new book, The Labor of Lunch, in which she makes the argument for “real food and real jobs” in school cafeterias. This episode is a must-listen for anyone interested in the connections between food justice, health, labor, and the environment. I especially enjoy the moments when she shines a light on the critical but societally undervalued care work of cafeteria workers, “bringing intimate, unseen labors into full view,” in the words of interviewer Faron Levesque. – Richelle Wilson

Fugitive Seeds” by Christian Brooks Keeve

Photograph of person with hands in a pail of seeds.
Slash pine seed sown on land use project in Macon County, Alabama, as part of the Tuskegee Project. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1937.

2020 has put front and center the legacies of colonial violence on people, places, and environments, leaving us hungry for stories of resistance and freedom. Way back in February, Christian Keeve found such stories in seeds—superficially simple “packages of genetic information and carbohydrates” that hold unruly new life. For seedkeepers past and present, the saving and smuggling of seeds constitute fugitive acts that maintain cultures, foodways, and ecologies in the face of oppressive systems. Keeve skillfully sows a diverse intellectual garden of plant studies, Black geographies, food sovereignty, and plantation logics that is a must-read for anyone interested in just and sustainable food systems. Beyond the compelling stories it tells, their piece is full of clever turns-of-phrase that will make you smile with delight and pause to think deeply about their implications. – Ben Iuliano

La Lucha Yaqui: A Conversation with Mario Luna Romero” by Gizelxanath Rodriguez and Ben Barson

Río Yaqui, Sonora, México. Photo by Tomas Castelazo, 2009.

In this podcast, Gizelxanath Rodriguez and Ben Barson of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective talk with Yaqui activist and tribal secretary Mario Luna Romero about the historical, legal, and political conflicts between the Yaqui people and the Mexican government over control of the Yaqui River. I recommend it to our readers not only because it’s Edge Effects’s first Spanish-language podcast and something I’m proud to have worked on, but also because of the urgent request Luna makes near the end of the interview. He encourages listeners to share the conversation widely and emphasizes that the “information war is really important right now.. . . keeping our own means of communication and information alive. . . is really important.” This year, perhaps more than any other year I can remember, has underlined Luna’s point. – Nicole Bennett

Making Meaning in an Age of Data: A Conversation with Heather Houser” by Min Hyoung Song

In an equally delightful, challenging, and thought-provoking conversation with Min Hyoung Song, Heather Houser discusses her book, Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data. Covering a wide gamut of concerns at the intersection of environmentalism and digital culture, Song and Houser’s conversation spans questions on COVID-19, artistic mediations of climate data, and the role of race in the environmental humanities. My opinion is perhaps somewhat biased given that I helped edit the podcast, but I was especially drawn to Houser’s insightful comments on aerial and satellite photography of planet Earth. I was so interested in Houser’s comments, in fact, that I added her book to my preliminary exam reading list! –Doron Dornov

Faking Niagara Falls, A Visual History” by Daniel Macfarlane

A row of industrial buildings with water flowing from outtake pipes down a cliff into a river
Industrial area near the waterfall in the later 19th century. Photo courtesy of Niagara Falls (New York) Public Library.

Internet algorithms help produce sameness and play a role in stabilizing representations of our environments. When I googled Niagara Falls today, I received hundreds of variations of the same image of foamy icy-blue water tumbling down into the rapids of the Niagara River. But Daniel Macfarlane’s exhibit on remaking the Niagara Falls historicizes this familiar landscape. It shows the many forms of Niagara Falls, including the Niagara “ice bridge” around 1900 and thin veils of the dewatered Horseshoe Falls in mid-twentieth century. This exhibit is a striking reminder that the line between natural and man-made environment is not as clear as it seems.  – Weishun Lu

Fences Tell a Story of Land Changes on the Navajo Nation” by Kelsey Dayle John

A horse stands at the edge of an open golden prairie.
Some fences are physical and others, like reservation boundaries, are imaginary. Photo of Navajo Nation land by Kelsey Dayle John, 2019.

Kelsey Dayle John’s essay, part of the Edge Effects Indigenous Land and Waters Series, uses a deceptively simple landscape feature, fences, to cover a lot of ground. This beautifully written essay integrates poetry and interviews to show how fences map a history of physical, legal and imagined borders for the Diné. At a time when travel and in person field methods feel like a distant memory, this essay reminds us of their vital importance for understanding landscapes, when “culture and land are one.”  – Clare Sullivan

Legacies of the Sagebrush Rebellion: A Conversation with Jonathan Thompson” by Robert Lundberg and Alexandra Lakind

Close up person wearing denim jacket that says "Sagebrush Rebellion"
Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

In this podcast, Jonathan Thompson of High Country News gives a vivid account of the history of the Sagebrush Rebellion and the ways its legacy continues to shape how lives and lands are managed in the American West. Thompson’s new book Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands, is due out in 2021, and there are few people who can so masterfully narrate the complexities and contradictions of the American West, or the problematic myths that surround it in the American popular imagination. For this conversation, Robert Lundberg and Alexandra Lakind of BLM x BLM curate a thoughtful list of questions that foreground the issues of justice and equity that are entangled in land management debates.  – Carly Griffith

On Being the (Only) Black Feminist Environmental Ethnographer in Gulf Coast Louisiana” by Frances Roberts-Gregory

Woman wearing glasses poses in front of colorful mural.
Frances Roberts-Gregory. Photo courtesy of the author.

Frances Roberts-Gregory’s essay is a beautiful insight into how to conduct ethical fieldwork. While traditional ethnographic methods are extractive and full of, as Roberts-Gregory writes, “colonial fuckery,” there are people working hard to do ethnographic work in more equitable ways. Now that many anthropologists and ethnographers are rethinking their methods and projects due to COVID-19, it’s important to return to pieces like this to help us envision how to do fieldwork better. This is a great read not only for ethnographers but for all folks who have found something that they love in academia even though academia doesn’t love them back.  – Juniper Lewis

How Wendy Red Star Decolonizes the Museum with Humor and Play” by Salma Monani and Nicole Seymour

Woman sits on green grass between a deer and a wolf. Lake and mountains in background.
 “Spring” (Four Seasons). Image by Wendy Red Star, 2006.

During this lonely year of staying home, mourning losses from afar, and spending much too much time wallowing in a seemingly endless parade of devastating news, I’ve been especially grateful to the Edge Effects contributors who refuse to fall into “doom and gloom.” If you’re like me and you’re looking for a dose of something stronger than despair, check out Sarah Jaquette Ray’s “Ok Doomers! The Climate Generation Has Arrived,” Evelyn Ramiel’s “An Ecological Case for Cuteness,” and Nicole Seymour and Salma Monani’s “How Wendy Red Star Decolonizes the Museum with Humor and Play.” Seymour and Monani pair their fabulous readings of Red Star’s exhibits with snippets of a new interview with the artist; it’s funny, smart, and just the thing to shine some light on that “doom and gloom.” –Addie Hopes

The Queer Ecology of Steven Universe” by Gardiner Brown

Three figures on a blue beach at night watch meteor shower.
The Crystal Gems and Steven watch a meteor shower together in the show’s final moments. Image from YouTube.

Two of my favorite things are magical stories that center ethics of care and planning for the revolution. Both are found in Gardiner Brown’s essay (the first essay I worked on as an editor here at Edge Effects), where he explores the ways the cartoon Steven Universe brings radical care to a rebellion against environmental harms and prohibitions on queerness and disability. The essay and cartoon present a queer ecological ethic that doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of planetary harm, but shows up to living-with, where “harm is undone as well as it can be and new harm is prevented.” In pandemic-June and now, in pandemic-December, this essay gave me the magic and hope I needed to know a more pleasureful post-pandemic future is possibleand it doesn’t have to be perfect.  – Justyn Huckleberry

Featured image: Hedges clipped to spell “2020”; they are, like their subject, more than a little awry. Photo by Akash Kumar Nayak from Pixabay.