Finding the Words: An Account of E is for Environment, CHE’s 2016 Graduate Student Symposium

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Erstwhile, a history blog produced by graduate students at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Edge Effects is pleased to re-post this reflection from Julia Frankenbach, a participant at CHE’s 2016 graduate student symposium, E is for Environment. The original post can be found here.

On a Saturday morning in early March, an unfamiliar rosy light filtered through curtains. Expecting a rosy sunrise, I looked from my window on the fourth floor of a conference center in downtown Madison, Wisconsin and noticed instead that the day was gray and that the glow seemed to emanate from the buildings themselves. It was the kind of light that seems to self-amplify, pressing in cozily from containment. A long-time dweller in rural places, unaccustomed to the behaviors of light in urban space, I tried to jot down the way the light looked as it magnified from the glassy walls of University Avenue. But I quickly realized that I lacked the words. I searched awkwardly for terminology that belied the majority of my experiences in places marked by sloughs and spurs, talus and timber lines—in vain. I lack a vocabulary for the urban environment. Even in this time (and place) of interconnection when lingos and dialects seem increasingly to bleed into one another and all things can become rhetorical, it remains possible to lack the words. Speechlessness abounds. Language is specific, selective, malleable, and mortal.

E is for Environment Poster. Design by <a href="" target="_blank">Garrett Dash Nelson</a>.

E is for Environment Poster. Design by Garrett Dash Nelson.

Related ideas lay at the heart of the 2016 graduate student symposium, hosted by the Center for Culture, History, and the Environment (CHE) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The symposium invited scholars representing 14 disciplines to confer in consideration of a key question: what do we mean when we talk about “the environment”? In a public world in which the “environment” has entered common parlance and an academic world increasingly enriched by environmental work, the term has grown increasingly capacious. Consequently, the “environmental past,” while a phrase of crucial importance to the work of symposium attendees, has become insufficient in itself. In an effort to rediscover its scope, the symposium hosts asked each attendee to come to Madison prepared to articulate a supplementary or alternative term for “environment.” The resulting glossary gave shape to the complex of meaning that inhabits the word. Discordances, especially, prompted symposium attendees to think not simply about conjuring alternative terms but about language itself—especially the temptations of habit that are inherent to it. After a weekend of thinking closely about what my words want to say, I am convinced of the necessity for close attentiveness to language. Shedding residues of habit and creating new vocabularies allows one to more incisively challenge status quos and better notice transformative potentials for the future. The symposium’s title, “E is for Environment: New Vocabularies for the Past, Present, and Future” captured this collective hope.

A supplementary vocabulary: process, cultural landscape, interaction, creation, composite, inside, infrastructure, connection, scaled, value, limits, temporal, workscape, mythology, resonance, landscape.

After a successful first day of paper workshops, attendees gathered to hear keynote addresses from Dr. Paul Robbins, Director of the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and Dr. Kate Brown, Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Dr. Robbins expressed the need for a vocabulary for fear, desire, and other powers of the psyche that, so unquantifiable, remain too often removed from the stories we tell. In Robbins’s view, a strong example exists in the writings of wilderness preservationist John Muir, who, despite his marked silence on Native peoples throughout his well-known writings on California, intimately wove Native Americans into his later reminiscences on his youth spent in Wisconsin. Robbins argued that the Native haunting in Muir’s later writings suggests the historical linkages between documentary erasure and the silences suggestive of traumatic memory repression. We must learn, in other words (that are my own), to more readily and comfortably connect the disorder of historical erasure to the dis-orders of the human psyche.

Dr. Kate Brown delivers the keynote address the first night of the symposium. Photo by Marcos Colón.

Dr. Kate Brown delivers the keynote address the first night of the symposium. Photo by Marcos Colón.

Dr. Kate Brown built on Dr. Robbins’s stirring words with a series of reflections on how people forge renewal, continuity, and survival in radioactively contaminated places. As country people in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster assembled a set of directives for life on contaminated ground, radioactive fallout circulated in the surrounding swamplands and concentrated in food chains and bodies, eroding organs and speeding up the natural aging process. Time, in other words, sped up within the human body. Meanwhile, the surrounding Red Forest existed—and still does exist—in a state of biological stasis because its soils and waters are too contaminated to support bacteria, fungi, and other agents of decomposition. In the Red Forest, therefore, there is no new life and no decomposition to complete death. In a sense, therefore, time has stopped. This “multiverse of temporal orders” near Chernobyl suggested to Dr. Brown that historiographical emphasis on time and chronologies may be overrated. In places like Chernobyl, Brown urged, history works more like “a shifting kaleidoscope of images,” similarly to the workings of memory. Near Chernobyl, time does not occur in unvarying intervals. Like radioactive fluid, memories seep through cracks of consciousness, and places seep through time at vastly different rates. The challenges of the Anthropocene, Brown concluded, demand a vocabulary and a narrative form that can better accommodate its dis-chronologies.

Four panels over the next two days gave attendees many opportunities to engage with the challenges set forth by Robbins and Brown. The first panelists attended to the problems of life that is lived through languages hemmed in by institutional knowledge. Speakers weighed in on conflicts ranging from: the disparate language ideologies at work in a Cameroonian zoo; to the tensions between historic preservationists and landscape architects at Badlands National Park; to the fault lines separating “environmentalist” sensibilities from evangelical Christian culture at Hope College; to the disjunctures of Western thought expressed in the isolationist intellectual mentality of academic departments.

A paper workshop at the E is for Environment symposium. Photo by Marcos Colón.

A paper workshop at the E is for Environment symposium. Photo by Marcos Colón.

Speakers at the second panel challenged common assumptions about the “modern” moment. While one presenter elaborated the unintended gendered consequences of new “modern” water collection procedures in Punjab, India, another challenged the association of American “environmentalism” with the post-World War II era by arguing for the significance of Progressive-Era American ideas linking breakfast cereal, technology, nature, and bodily health. Remaining panelists, respectively, explored the rhetorical role of modern urban infrastructure in fulfilling narratives for the creation of heterosexuality, and argued for the need for environmental humanistic work that connects across distances and disciplines.

Presenters at the third panel, titled “Tense Transformations,” captured the thought processes inherent to moments of transformation. They explored, respectively: the integration of different timescales by early-twentieth-century scientists to solve environmental problems; China’s evolving “green” vocabulary; the significance of ideas about the landscape to the twentieth-century political visions of laborers in a Bolivian mining town; and the deliberations of an early Massachusetts society as it contemplated cutting off an oxbow from the Connecticut River.

Participants at the E is for Environment symposium. Photo by John Suval.

Participants at the E is for Environment symposium. Photo by John Suval.

The fourth and final panel, “Do/Tell,” featured scholars who spoke about the making of landscapes and the telling of their meanings. I spoke on the Nevada landscape’s memory of its Hispanic cowboy labor history, and my co-panelists, respectively: argued for the significance of non-places for reinforcing the myth-laden spatial identities of Mormonism; explored the auditory making of the “ecological self” in Shangri-La, China; and queried place-based responses to modernism and “modern” insecurities provoked by high levels of mobility.

The centrality of the “environment” to such diverse queries suggests the term’s capaciousness. At the closing roundtable, Drs. Sarah BeskyScott Kirsch, and Nancy Langston urged persistence of the symposium’s critical project by considering other “cursed words.” “Resource,” according to Dr. Besky, is a term that, when wielded uncritically, often reinforces a false distinction between extractive and productive forms of labor and industry. “Resource” tends to imply absolute forms of value that reside nugget-like in the land, making agricultural things seem light-weight and secondary in intensity to the “resource extraction” of various mineral industries. “But how is agriculture not extractive?” Dr. Besky asked. And how is mining not productive? This got me thinking about the way the term “resource” also obscures the difference between need and desire. Resource is a perspectival term. To take a “resource” for granted is to erase its host’s prior complicity in a much-more-than-human world.

Drs. Sarah Besky, Nancy Langston, Scott Kirsch, and Paul Robbins participated in the closing roundtable, Cursed Words. Photo by Marcos Colón.

Drs. Sarah Besky, Nancy Langston, Scott Kirsch, and Paul Robbins participated in the closing roundtable, Cursed Words. Photo by Marcos Colón.

Dr. Scott Kirsch prompted the hall to reconsider the term “technology,” which, like “environment,” has become so vast as to mean almost everything. “Technology,” in contemporary usage, implies usefulness, for technology is essentially something that works. Indeed, it is uniquely alluring because, in its serviceability, it seems to exist outside of politics. However, Dr. Kirsch cautioned, nature, too, has received the same definition. It, too, is something that works, something that assembles all entities into a whole (this phraseology derived from Bruno Latour). The implied functionality in the term “technology” also fails to take into account increasing rates of dysfunctionality—planned and unplanned—as things fade into and out of usefulness and operability. Kirsch concluded that we need to move past “technology,” by which we usually mean things much more specific.

Finally, Dr. Nancy Langston encouraged the audience to reconsider the term “stakeholder,” which, she argued, is ripe with the assumption of a zero-sum game over a set of limited resources in which someone must win and everyone else must lose. The inflexible combativeness inherent in the term makes it an unhelpful one in the search for common ground. Dr. Langston proposed “community” as a corrective. “Community,” she argued, is a term that, though it does not imply shared ideas or goals, can link differently-identified groups through place, a thing that is distinctly lovable.

The 2016 CHE graduate student symposium was an exciting, humbling place to be, think, and rejuvenate. Sincere thanks to the organizers and the broader CHE community for a rich meeting of the minds. Read the symposium program here.

Featured image: E is for Environment participants at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum for a service outing on Saturday of the conference. Photo by Mike Bjork.

Julia Frankenbach is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She specializes in environmental and rural labor history in the American West and is particularly intrigued by histories of cowboy work and interspecies relationships in landscapes of labor. She writes regularly on human-horse relations, wildness, nativeness, and varied experiences of belonging (and not belonging) to place in the American West.  Website. TwitterContact

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