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.