Digital Feature

The Wild All Around

The environmental humanities help us see our own nature. 

HUMANITIES, Summer 2020, Volume 41, Number 3
Published on

In 2018, a couple dozen Hoosiers lowered themselves into kayaks and embarked on an uncommon adventure of the White River. Such a trek would have been unthinkable 20 years ago when the river experienced a massive fish kill that spread for 50 miles and killed 4.6 million fish. Nor was that the White River’s first environmental emergency—many decades earlier, it had been overwhelmed by pesticide discharge from the agriculture industry. The visitors were aware of this troubled ecological history, and were on White River to learn more about it.

Organized by Indiana Humanities—one of the nation’s 56 state and jurisdictional humanities councils—the Next Indiana Campfires program offers state residents opportunities to get out into the wild and take part in a curated experience of environment and literature. Facilitators with academic backgrounds in environmental humanities—a broad interdisciplinary field that involves history, anthropology, philosophy, ethics, literature, art history, and environmental and climate science—assemble a booklet for each tour, complete with four or five poems, essays, and excerpts, all meant to be read out of doors and help participants think about their relationships to their environment and to each other.

Emergence of Environmental Humanities

Humanists have long been interested in nature, but today’s environmental humanities trace its beginning to the 1960s and later protests for cleaner air, water, and natural areas—a movement in which literature played an important role. Particularly influential was environmental writer Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which detailed and critiqued Americans’ liberal use of pesticides and chemicals to tame and control nature. Carson’s conceptualization of the human body as an ecological artifact, permeable and vulnerable to the chemicals around us, was revolutionary. By breaking down the intellectual boundaries that separated our interiors from the exterior world, Carson showed that we humans have a lot in common with animals, plants, waters, skies, and geological formations.

As the environmental movement began to take shape, the federal government established the Environmental Protection Agency. President Richard Nixon drafted requests to Congress to improve water treatment facilities, set national air quality standards and guidelines, fund research to reduce automobile pollution, organize cleanup efforts of federal facilities, determine treatments of oil spills, and propose a tax for lead additives in gasoline. In 1970, the first Earth Day was observed by millions of people worldwide. Attendees carried posters and signs declaring, “Save Your Earth; You Can’t Get Off.”

Responding to government action, universities quickly established programs in environmental humanities to understand our broader responsibilities to animals, humans, and natural worlds around us. Scholars also wondered how analyzing our relationship to the environment might help us improve democracy. They argued that environmental crises, like the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the Flint water crisis in Michigan, illustrate the importance of a political system in which everyone has a say. Focusing on ecological citizenship also allows us to address the significance of care, compassion, and justice toward communities that occupy little natural or ecological space. “The discipline’s recent influence from speculative fiction, sci-fi, and graphic novels by black and indigenous authors,” says Montana Humanities Executive Director Randi Lynn Tanglen, “has helped academic and public humanities scholars imagine a more sustainable relationship between humans and the environment and rethink what it means to be engaged as ecological citizens.”

In addition to connecting us to broader issues of governance, environmental humanities have the capacity to help us understand ourselves and our personal experiences. Katy Didden, a poet and assistant professor of English at Ball State University, has written collections of work that she describes as “travel lyrics set against the large-scale tectonics of the natural world, featuring craters, volcanoes, glaciers, and waterfalls.” By thinking through these mammoth earthly processes, Didden works through her relationship to her deceased father, a naturalist himself: “I found that the naturalist’s impulse to observe, name, and record lent me a vantage point and a vocabulary for articulating grief.” Her scholarship models how environmental humanities might help us reflect on change at planetary and personal scales.

Environmental Humanities in the Public

With its roots in public engagement, the environmental humanities are by no means restricted to conversations that take place inside the ivy-covered walls of the university. In many cases humanities practitioners, like members of state and jurisdictional humanities councils, have not only communicated sophisticated ideas about climate change, ecology, and the current geological era but also contributed thought-provoking programs that have meaningfully shaped the discipline itself. In doing so they have helped ensure that the environment persists as a key topic in everyday conversations. 

Council programs have encompassed a wide range of activities, from trail hikes in New Mexico and yoga sessions for war veterans in the Northern Mariana Islands, to traveling exhibitions and documentaries on the centrality of water in local communities. In 2020, the North Carolina Humanities Council announced its two-year initiative, “Watershed Moments,” that built upon the traveling Smithsonian exhibition “Water/Ways.” In addition to panels with environmental journalists, the council screened documentaries that commented on environmental crises and equity. The Wisconsin Humanities Council has likewise privileged issues of water in its programming; one of the efforts explored community resilience in light of the catastrophic 2018 flood that led multiple dams to fail and cause massive destruction.

Councils have employed the power of storytelling to engage communities that are differently abled. California Humanities, for example, has supported the popular podcast The World According to Sound, which airs on NPR’s All Things Considered. The short 90-second episodes explore the world by engaging our aural senses. Topics have included everything from waterfalls, sand, and ants, to textile manufacturing.

A key theme for these public environmental humanists has been the question of how communities of color have experienced the changing environments around them. In 2017, Oregon Humanities created This Land, a multimedia project that collected and told stories about land, home, belonging, and identity. As part of the effort, African-American, Native American, and Hispanic community members uncovered how policies and laws have shaped systems of power and land ownership. More recently, Humanities Guåhan created “Taking Root: Growing Youth Empowerment for Island Sustainability.” The project connected at-risk middle school students with environmental scientists and college faculty to explore the connections between culture, environment, and heritage.

Councils have also been quick to respond to urgent environmental crises, ranging from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and Hurricane Sandy in New York. In response to the 2014 Flint water crisis, for example, Michigan and Maryland humanities councils embraced physician and author Mona Hanna-Attisha’s retelling of the story in What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City (2018). Both councils ensured that copies of the book were easily available to those eager to read them—Maryland, for example, left “wandering books” in myriad public spaces, from bus stops to doctors’ offices to coffee shops. The councils also released reading guides, complete with discussion questions that asked readers to reflect upon their own experiences of place and environment. Questions included: How do laws and policies enacted decades ago still shape the present day and future? How does your family’s history remain alive in your own life? And what ethical and civic responsibilities do leaders have to their communities? The councils also brought Dr. Hanna-Attisha on author tours around their states, which were attended by thousands of people.

Transforming the Discipline

In addition to making academic ideas about environmental humanities accessible, state and jurisdictional humanities councils have contributed to the notion that environmental knowledge is place-specific rather than culture- or nation-specific.

The Next Indiana Campfires program takes this point seriously. By focusing on the White River, the program highlights connections between urban and rural environments and their codependence upon one another. Leah Nahmias, program director at Indiana Humanities, notes that while the program addresses the current academic embrace of human-animal connections, it most importantly creates a guide for how the humanities can help create new cultural practices.

 “The humanities provide the tools to figure out how to care for the world,” she says. “By coming together, we can think through the challenges we are facing and come up with new habits that have positive effects upon the environment.” To encourage environmental appreciation beyond middle and upper class white communities, Indiana Humanities collaborated with the local public housing authority to offer special outings that addressed issues related to police harassment along the river as well as assumptions about who is expected to be present or absent in such natural settings.

In addition to getting out into nature, the Next Indiana Campfires program offers participants a fresh perspective through readings. Facilitator Jason Goldsmith, associate professor of English at Butler University, says that being on site “allowed us to weave between physical site and literary reflection quite provocatively. It is one thing to read poems about wildflowers in your living room, and quite another thing to read these poems out in the middle of a meadow as the flowers are blooming. They become charged with meaning.” Didden was impressed with the way the context of place shaped ensuing conversations. She wonders “if it made a difference, for example, to discuss certain texts by the river versus the woods.” These opportunities could also be extended to changes in weather, seasons, and terrain.

After their trek, participants convene around a campfire over s’mores, food, beer, and other refreshments. This is yet another opportunity to reflect on the experience and share observations. On one occasion, the group spoke about the idea of extravagance, as prompted by Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. From bluffs and ridges, young and old trees, and popular and endangered species, participants contemplated what work could be done to restore these natural and often overlooked “extravagances” of life and death.

The environmental humanities help us notice the interdependence of things from local history to health to our forests and streams and animal life. Environmental humanities offer the tools with which to see these connections and to engage in deep reflection. Its lessons have become, if anything, more meaningful during the pandemic, which has moved us to explore the rivers, trails, and parks outside our homes and the plants in our homes. Indiana Humanities, for example, recently transitioned its Next Indiana Campfires program to the virtual realm by embracing slow TV—a marathon-like coverage of a mundane event in its full length—to discover typically inaccessible natural places. Other councils have likewise aimed to ensure that the wild is on our minds, even when we are at home.