Practicing in Place: The Environmental History Retreat
By Hayley Brazier — University of Oregon — firstname.lastname@example.org
noun – re·treat – \ri-ˈtrēt\
1: an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable
2: a place of privacy or safety: refuge
3: a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study, or instruction under a director[i]
Thoughts on Retreating
As a child growing up in Kansas, I did not know how to learn from the landscape. My formal education emphasized classroom knowledge while the extent of my outdoor education equated to a month-long summer camp called Back to Nature when I was ten-years-old. I became oriented with the Oregon Trail while playing a computer game, only to be interrupted by a hungry Tamagotchi pet beeping in my pocket. Social scientists have aptly named my cohort the Net Generation: we were encouraged to learn inside while developing fluency with computers, math, and standardized tests.[ii]
That is not to say I was completely detached from the outdoors. I grew up camping, hiking, and swimming in lakes, but I was never expected to learn from the environment on which I played. I could not identify the century-old wagon wheel ruts in the ground or the names of local tree species. I studied photosynthesis using a textbook, not a plant. I understood that Kansas was the breadbasket of the nation, but I never touched the corn or wheat. While I became a strong reader, I was not a strong explorer.
Now as an adult, retreating to the outdoors has a certain je ne sais quoi, a significance that I cannot quite define. Many social scientists have attempted to identify the importance of learning outside and their studies reflect that it is highly beneficial for children and adults. Outdoor education engages the five senses, creating a full-body immersion that stimulates more than just the brain. Studies show that students who participate in outdoor learning ranging from gardening to wilderness survival develop leadership and self-reliance skills while also becoming better caretakers of the environment.[iii]
While I am training to be an environmental historian, I want to avoid the educational pitfalls of my childhood. As logophiles, historians understand the past through documents that tell us a story of the human experience. But we often forget the physicality and tangibility of our ancestors. Documents cannot provide scale and sensation, and they cannot always tell us how altitude, rain, sickness, adrenaline, cold, and heat have affected human decisions. The physical research of a landscape is equally important to the documents accompanying that place. Environmental history retreats provide historians a glimpse into the shared human experience of corporeality.
Most science and environmental management departments figured out long ago that they should send their students to local field schools to learn the basics of their craft. How else does a forestry student identify the Latin names of tree species without practicing on the trees that surround them? However, this is not a routine practice for humanities students. In an age of digital scholarship, retreating to the outdoors seems comparatively old-fashioned to website design or GIS training. Many historians rarely use their own physical experiences to connect them to their research. There should be annual outdoor educational retreats to teach environmental historians how to read the landscape.
This focus on outdoor learning is gaining popularity in our discipline. At its annual conference, for example, the American Society for Environmental History incorporates outdoor field trips and group exercise. The Center for Culture, History, and Environment at University of Wisconsin-Madison holds an annual place-based workshop. And the Public Lands History Center at Colorado State University hosts a Parks as Portals to Learning with its graduate employees. As a graduate student, I have attended two outdoor retreats. While an MA student at Colorado State University in May 2013, I went on a three-day retreat in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. And this past September, during my first quarter as a PhD student at the University of Oregon, I participated in a three-day retreat near Mount Rainier, Washington.
Retreats are an innovative form of scholarship designed to entice environmental historians out of the archival and conference settings and into research stations, cabins, and yurts to begin collaborating in spaces that encourage a shared physical experience. As historian Jeremy Vetter notes, retreats offer scholarship that is “deeply immersed in place.”[iv] Retreats transform mountain trails, abandoned mines, agricultural fields, or rivers into landscapes of learning, where retreaters study the topography, informally present their research, and workshop their writing. On these retreats, I have learned to practice in place.
My dissertation may or may not involve the Colorado and Washington landscapes at which I attended retreats, but for me this does not detract from their usefulness. Environmental history retreats have deepened my understanding of how the human body functions outside: the physical energy it takes a human to scale a mountain, the weariness caused by the constant drizzle of rain, the size of a glacier in comparison to the human frame. While I am still digging my way toward a dissertation topic, I cannot help but favor histories that will provide access to their places. I attribute that inclination to the strong influence environmental history retreats have had on me as a graduate student.
In a 2010 Environmental History forum, Adrian Howkins eloquently addressed the “Have You Been There?” question. For many historians, there may be places that are too far, expensive, or dangerous to visit right now: Antarctica, war-torn regions, outer space, or depths of the Atlantic Ocean. In some of these cases, the documents pertaining to that place are not kept at the site itself, and yet we still trust that historians can describe the landscape even if they cannot physically reach it.[v] Visiting there does not provide historians legitimacy within our craft, those skills having been developed while researching in the archive and writing in the classroom. But it does seem that if an historian has the opportunity to go there, they should. Going there can provide historians a corporeal perspective on their topic, a sense of scale, of smell, of sound.
For environmental historians retreating in the western United States, there tends to be trails winding through the mountains. But there may be Saint Basil’s Cathedral for architectural historians or Kamakura for historians of medieval Japan. I acknowledge that the environments on retreats are not likely the same environments each retreater studies. Yet retreats provide a rehearsal, a mock stage on which we can learn to read the landscape. Because of my retreats, I can now recognize almost-imperceptible wagon ruts, the crumbling foundation of a homestead, or the melting stream of a muddy glacier. For historians, identifying those changes in the landscape can influence our interpretation of the archival evidence.
Thoughts on Planning a Retreat
The first environmental history retreat I attended was WEST Network in May 2013. I was the guest of my MA adviser, Mark Fiege. We converged at Pingree Park, a Colorado State University research station just a few hours away from the main Fort Collins campus. We were met by approximately fifteen other graduate students and faculty from Montana, Colorado, and Arizona.
The WEST Network was the invention of Jeremy Vetter, Paul Sutter, Michael Reidy, Mark Fiege, and Katherine Morrissey, who are located at public universities across the Rocky Mountain West. The WEST Network was a collaborative effort to combat intellectual seclusion and bring together environmental, science, and technology historians from four public universities. As Sutter remembers, “The idea was to create a network that was greater than the sum of our individual institutional strengths.”[vi] The WEST Network has become an annual event for this group of historians and their returning graduate students.
In September 2015, I attended a second environmental history retreat hosted at the University of Washington’s Center for Sustainable Forestry at Pack Forest. Pack Forest is located just a short drive from Mount Rainier and about a five hour drive from my PhD program at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Called the Cascadia Environmental History Collaborative (CEHC), the retreat was the product of Marsha Weisiger and Linda Nash’s desire to emulate the WEST Network concept for their West Coast peers. Now entering its third year, Weisiger and Nash invite professors and graduate students from nearby universities in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. In 2015, they also invited Environmental History editor Lisa Brady and the University of Washington Press senior acquisitions editor Regan Huff.[vii]
I emailed a survey of five questions to the founders of both the WEST Network and the CEHC. I asked permission from the retreat planners to use their email responses to help build this portion of the field note, and I am quoting pieces of their responses to supplement my perspective on the value of the environmental history retreat. While I would emphasize the importance of retreats teaching attendees to read the landscape, many of the organizers I surveyed emphasized the retreat’s ability to foster networking and friendships. Though it is possible for these connections to blossom at national conferences, those meetings are typically larger and increase competition for attendees to access peers or presenters. As Nash astutely noticed, “Conferences provide one avenue for extending networks, but you rarely make ‘friends’ at a conference; you make contacts.”[viii] While rooming, eating, and recreating together for multiple days at the retreat, students and professors familiarize with each other on a deeper level, allowing them to not only meet people from outside their university, but also get to know those whom they have merely passed in the hallways at their own.
One setback of traditional conferences is what Weisiger refers to as “passive engagement with the discipline.”[ix] If not presenting a paper, conference attendees often camouflage themselves amongst a sea of scholars. But at the retreats I have attended, organizers required every single retreater, graduate student and professional alike, to present some portion of their work. This practice is a great equalizer for what is typically a hierarchical relationship. As a student, it has been fulfilling to have my mentors take interest in my research and give their undivided attention to my questions.
Retreats can boost graduate enthusiasm, but they can also act as a recruitment tool. As a faculty member at CU Boulder, Sutter noted that one function of the WEST Network was “to help us compete” with other universities “for quality graduate students.”[x] From a graduate student perspective, I personally considered Weisiger and Nash’s annual CEHC as a real benefit to attending the University of Oregon for my PhD because I had such a rewarding experience attending the WEST Network as an MA student.
On both the retreats I attended, we relied on the environmental expertise of the attendees to guide the group. It may be that among any number of environmental historians, someone is an experienced outdoors person, former park guide, activist, or scientist who can speak to a specific environmental topic. For example, at the CEHC retreat, we took a day trip to Mount Rainier National Park where Mark Carey led the group along the Moraine Trail to the Nisqually Glacier. Carey once worked as a ranger at the National Park before being trained in history and glaciology. The Nisqually Glacier was an important visual to supplement the group’s reoccurring discussion of the Anthropocene, as the glacier has retreated significantly since scientists began studying it in the 1850s.[xi] Another example, at the 2013 WEST Network retreat, Vetter’s background in science prompted a spontaneous discussion of the surrounding conifer and deciduous tree species.
On these retreats, I have appreciated every opportunity to go outside and hear the scholarship of my graduate peers and professors. Weisiger and Nash hosted an outdoor book share, where retreaters hiked to a nearby location and discussed the books with which they most enjoy teaching. And in 2013 at the WEST Network retreat, Reidy delivered his research on the history of mountaineering while standing on top of a peak in the Rocky Mountains. As you can imagine, the backdrop could not have been more apposite.
For the CEHC retreat, Weisiger and Nash organized a number of indoor informational sessions, a necessity in a region where it continuously rains. Meeting in the main lodge, we workshopped graduate and faculty papers alike, watched the documentary DamNation with a post-film discussion, and participated in the increasingly popular “Anthropocene Slam,” where retreaters presented objects that represent the dilemma of our current, contested epoch. One object presented in the slam was a new, plastic recycling trashcan required by the university’s maintenance staff to replace a decades-old metal can, which had been doing its job just fine. Particularly useful for me were the sessions meant to introduce graduate students to academic publishing. For example, Lisa Brady used a draft of Jake Hamblin’s current research to discuss Environmental History’s acceptance standards. And helpful for both the graduate students and professors, University of Washington Press’s acquisition editor Regan Huff workshopped Alessandro Antonello’s book proposal.
I have found that it is beneficial that retreat organizers maintain a low cost of attendance. It may be feasible to provide two rates, one for professors and one for graduate students, but ideally the cost will not range over a few hundred dollars a person. For both of the retreats I attended, the history department provided my funding. Without funding, however, I still could have afforded the $212 graduate student cost of the 2015 CEHC retreat, which included travel to Washington, three nights in a furnished cabin, and three meals a day. During travel to both retreats, I carpooled with people in my program, another way to reduce costs and the consumption of fossil fuels.
To keep costs low, the best location for retreats are university research stations. For those historians within the United States, it is useful to know that all land-grant universities operate a research station.[xii] These stations are usually located a few hours from the main campus and host students from forestry or science departments. Typically, they are also available for private bookings and come equipped with cabins, bathrooms, meetings spaces, and a cafeteria.
For those historians outside the United States, organizers can talk to the scientists at their universities to see where they send their own students to perform field research, as these can also be ideal spots for environmental historians.[xiii] Rustic locations, such as research stations, are not only inexpensive but also lend themselves to a richer experience for attendees. Keep the group small, the keep the itinerary simple, and keep the cost low. These are the keys to not only a successful environmental history retreat, but also a successful scholarly experience.
[i] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Retreat,” accessed 1 February 2016, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/retreat.
[ii] For a discussion of the Net Generation, see Pierre Walter, “Greening the Net Generation: Outdoor Adult Learning in the Digital Age,” Adult Learning 24, no. 4 (Nov 2013): 151+.
[iii] Walter, “Greening the Net Generation,” 151+.
[iv] Jeremy Vetter, email to the author, 17 January 2016.
[v] This paragraph is in conversation with Adrian Howkins’s, “’Have You Been There?’ Some Thoughts on (Not) Visiting Antarctica,” Environmental History 15 (July 2010): 514-519.
[vi] Paul Sutter, email to the author, 26 December 2015.
[vii] Marsha Weisiger, email to the author, 12 December 2015; Linda Nash, email to the author, 5 January 2016.
[viii] Linda Nash, email to the author, 5 January 2016.
[ix] Marsha Weisiger, email to the author, 12 December 2015.
[x] Paul Sutter, email to the author, 26 December 2015.
[xi] National Park Service, “Mount Rainier Glaciers,” accessed 1 February 2016, http://www.nps.gov/mora/learn/nature/mount-rainier-glaciers.htm.
[xii] Michael Reidy, email to the author, 21 December 2015.
[xiii] Paul Sutter, email to the author, 26 December 2015.
*Cover Photo: Pack Forest Research Station, Washington. Photograph courtesy of the author.
The editorial team of Environmental History seeks letters of interest for the position of Book Review Editor. The successful candidate will be responsible for managing the entire book review process for the journal from deciding which books will go out for review, determining the best reviewers for each book, working with reviewers to ensure the quality and timeliness of reviews, and working with the production team at Oxford University Press on the copyediting, proofing, and publication of reviews. On average, the Book Review Editor oversees reviews for 125-150 books each year.
Basic duties include: working with the Forest History Society staff who do most of the initial processing of books received for the journal; communicating with reviewers by email and regular mail; managing and organizing reviews for publication; working with OUP Production staff on all aspects of publishing the reviews; maintaining and expanding the reviewer database (currently consisting of over 500 reviewers); submitting two reports, one each spring for the ASEH Executive Committee and the Forest History Society Board of Directors and a briefer one each fall for the FHS Board; attending the annual ASEH conference; and keeping open lines of communication with the Editor-in-Chief.
Minimum qualifications: a PhD with expertise in Environmental History and its related fields; excellent communication and organizational skills; high fluency in written English (all reviews are written and published in English); authorship of at least one peer-reviewed monograph; membership in ASEH, FHS, or both.
Preferred qualifications: support from an institution (such as course buy-out or graduate assistance).
Interested individuals should send 1) a brief (3-page) CV with contact information for two references and 2) a letter of interest addressing their qualifications and their reasons for applying to the position to: Editor-in-Chief Lisa M. Brady at email@example.com.
Deadline for receipt of materials is March 15, 2016. Top candidates will be contacted for informal interviews with the Editor-in-Chief at the ASEH annual meeting in Seattle (phone or Skype conversations will be scheduled for those who are not attending the meeting).
Using digital techniques to broaden participatory approaches in environmental history: the Snow Scenes Exhibition
By Alexander Hall – Coventry University – firstname.lastname@example.org
Joseph Hardman had a way of capturing a disappearing way of life. The photographer documented changing landscapes, local events, personalities and regional traditions from the early 1930s to the 1960s. Based in Cumbria in the North-West of England, Hardman covered up to 200 miles a week, usually by taxi, to document a rural way of life that was undergoing significant change. Much like the work of famous US landscape photographers and photojournalists, such as Ansell Adams and Dorothea Lange1, Hardman’s photographs present a great resource for environmental historians in their attempts to narrate cultural and landscape histories that have often left few textual records.
Last year, whilst working as a research assistant in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham, I came across Hardman’s recently digitised collection, containing over 4,500 wonderful photographs depicting rural life and landscapes in the UK. I came across the photographs whilst doing research for an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project called Snow Scenes, which was attempting to expand regional understandings of snow and severe winters in the UK by collecting personal weather memories and connecting them with archival research on past extreme winters. As the project’s case-study region was in Cumbria, Hardman’s adopted home and the subject of the vast majority of his work, I immediately knew this vast collection could play an important role in our research. I painstakingly began to go through the images, identifying each one relating to snow, ice, or winter conditions. Fortunately for the project, Hardman’s interest in the seasons and the agricultural calendar meant that I counted over 500 images that depicted winter conditions in our case study region.
The images would be a valuable secondary resource for the project, helping us to bridge the gap between the personal memories we were collecting and documentary records. However, I was also keen to use the images as part of the participatory methodology we were developing, somehow using these striking visual aids to encourage communities to participate and submit their memories. The methodology we were developing sought to engage a broad cross-section of the case study community by collecting their memories of periods of extreme cold using a combination of traditional methods, such as focus groups, and digital technologies, such as social media. Adopting a multi-faceted approach for participation, the design of the project was guided by both the medium and the content of the submissions we received. The memories, submissions, and artefacts collected were then to be explored and analysed in the context of historical and archival records from the area, including regional newspaper archives, county and school records, local oral history collections, and meteorological records. This methodology, which relied on an integrated model of public engagement, allowed participants to become more than passive informants to our research, creating a meaningful dialogue within local communities.2
Key to this approach being successful was a need for us to be flexible as the project developed and as initial archival and participant sources were gathered and analysed. So, still pondering how best the project could utilise this newfound resource, I began reading up on Hardman, his collection, and the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, where his archive is held.
Joseph Hardman (1893-1972) moved to Kendal, Cumbria in 1911 from the metropolis of Manchester, and it was here he developed an amateur interest in photography. Encouraged by the sale of a few of his photographs to local newspapers, in the early 1930s Hardman made the leap becoming a professional freelance photographer and set about documenting a rural way of life that was undergoing significant change. His photographs won many awards and featured in local and national newspapers and magazines. Hardman’s vast collection shows he had a deep understanding of the landscape of the region. His photographs often feature a lone figure – a shepherd, a walker, a milk maid – engulfed in the grand terrain of the Lake District and surrounding regions.
After his death in 1972, Hardman’s family donated his vast collection of glass plate negatives to the museum, who in recent years have worked hard to digitise them, making the images available in the public domain via their online photo library. When the collection was donated to the museum, unfortunately it was not accompanied by Hardman’s notes, so details such as the date, subject and location of most images were unknown. The museum has attempted to add as much meta-data to the archive collection as possible, asking local community members, trawling maps, and comparing Hardman’s photographs against other archival images they hold. It dawned on me that Snow Scenes may be able to help the museum gather more information about the photographs and promote the collection more generally, whilst also using Hardman’s images to generate discussion amongst our project participants.
So, upon my next trip to the region, visiting archives and recruiting participants in shops, pubs, community centres and libraries, I went armed with print-outs of six Hardman photographs depicting winter scenes, which I suspected were all on, or close to, Lake Windermere. Using my quest to locate where the shots were taken as an opening gambit, I asked those I encountered if they remembered the lake ever freezing, and about their memories of winter in the region, leaving them with a postcard, via which they could submit their memories to the project.
With the help of locals that I spoke to, keen use of my trusted Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure map (1:25,000 scale), and Google maps on my smartphone, I managed not only to find five of the depicted locations, but to pinpoint the exact spot where Joseph Hardman had taken the photographs from over fifty years earlier. Upon returning home and comparing the changes, or sometimes lack of changes, between Hardman’s images and mine, and inspired by websites such as History Pins and WhatWasThere, I decided to experiment using graphics editing software to merge and blend the originals with my new digital photographs of the locations.3 I hoped to create something that would not only look visually interesting and stimulate conversation, but may also help participants see locations they know well today in a new light, connecting their local past and previous severe winters to today.
Enthused by my initial results, but still unsure how these new digitally altered images may be any more use for our research than Hardman’s originals, I showed the images to the head of the Hardman digitisation project. The staff at the museum liked the composite images so much that they asked me to produce 14 more to be exhibited in their coffee house exhibition space. Using more originals from Hardman’s collection and a few other famous photographs held by the museum, taken by the nineteenth-century photographer Henry Hebert, I continued to geo-locate further images, photograph them, and blend the old and the new together. In doing so, I began experimenting with some of the many archival photographs that contained people. Many of Hardman’s photographs feature a single figure or groups of people surrounded by breathtaking Lakeland views. These shots, often depicting people at work or play, add a haunting element to the composite images I created. The figures in the images, such as those playing ice hockey below, emphasise the change that has occurred in the region over the last century, with their clothing, demeanour and activities, at odds with the world we are familiar with today.
Whilst the exhibition, which ran from January to the end of March 2014, gave the museum the chance to promote the Hardman collection, it also allowed us to further promote our project by placing information and participatory postcards on all the tables in the coffee house. We also subsequently used the composite images to generate discussion at community events and workshops held as part of the project. Through the serendipitous creation and display of these digital images we reached an even wider set of potential participants and greatly increased the number of submissions we received to the project. Further, the process of creating the images and then discussing them with local communities allowed us to explore the role images play in forming people’s memories of extreme weather; shown in a recent study to be of importance to how people engage with the issue of anthropomorphic climate change.4
During the process of creating the merged images I was struck by the fascinating landscape changes often revealed. In an exact reversal of my expectations, it was the buildings, walls, fences, and other directly created human artefacts in the shots that had barely altered. Instead, it was the non-built environment that had changed the most. Obviously things had grown, but more than this, hedges had disappeared, field uses had changed, and large plantations had come and gone.For me the changes highlighted by these composite images reflected wider changes in Cumbrian life and some of the tensions faced by communities in the region. The images made me question the role of national parks in conserving an environment, and ponder how physical changes in land-use have been connected to changing economic and social dimensions of communities.
A full slide show of the images can be found on Snow Scenes Flickr page. Also, I strongly encourage readers to take a look at the Hardman Photo Library and if you recognise any locations or people in the images, or think you can date any of them, please do get in touch with James Arnold at the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry. The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council under project code AH/L50354X/.I created the photographs as a way to explore changes to the Cumbrian landscape, bring historical records to life, and to generate discussion amongst Cumbrians about their memories of snow and winters past in the region. Through this short essay I hope that the photographs have caused a few of you to consider in more detail how imagery, new digital techniques, and meaningful public engagement can greatly enrich environmental history research. As David Biggs asserted in March’s Environmental Field Notes essay, “by detecting new patterns in studies of historic imagery, we can greatly enhance the diversity of storylines, perhaps even avoiding tendencies to fall into declensionist or techno-positivist trajectories.” For Snow Scenes, attempting to collect people’s memories of climate extremes that were often declensionist, techno-positivist or, most commonly, simply nostalgic, the digitally altered images gave us a way of pushing participants to consider the role of changing landscapes, technologies and social conditions when comparing extreme winters over the past seventy years or so.
1. For just two of many examples of environmental histories that feature the work of these specific US photographers see Mark Stoll, “Milton in Yosemite: Paradise Lost and the National Parks Idea,” Environmental History 13 (2008): 237-74 and Kenneth M. Sylvester and Eric S. A. Rupley, “Revising the Dust Bowl: High Above the Kansas Grasslands,” Environmental History 17 (2012): 603–633.
3. I used the open source vector graphics editor Inkscape, available free online. Other popular raster editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop or GIMPwould have been equally, if not more, capable of achieving the same results.
4. Brigitte Nerlich and Rusi Jaspal, “Images of Extreme Weather: Symbolising Human Responses to Climate Change,” Science as Culture (2013): 1-24.