Knowing nature

CU professor looks into the interconnectedness of culture and nature

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Adam Perry | Boulder Weekly

Environmental history conferences have often frustrated University of Colorado history professor Phoebe Young. She grew dissatisfied with “listening to people who had really interesting things to say but examined material nature as if culture didn’t really matter.” That frustration led to Rendering Nature: Animals, Bodies, Places, Politics.

Young edited the book along with longtime friend Marguerite Shaffer, an American studies professor at Miami University of Ohio. In the collection Shaffer, Young and 10 other writers shed light on historical instances when nature overlapped with how people relate to the physical world.

The essays cover a variety of subject matter throughout myriad time periods. For instance, one essay finds Thomas G. Andrews detailing the fascinating life of an American slave who — due to covert fishing, farming and trading — was able to find freedom by navigating his way alone from Georgia to Philadelphia. In another unforgettable piece, Connie Y. Chiang delineates the story of Asian Americans who, while stuck in internment camps during World War II, made significant scientific and agricultural contributions benefiting the very nation treating them with fear and hatred.

Young also produced the book’s final piece, on how the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon “failed to capitalize on connecting the environmental challenges that we face and the kind of social inequalities that were at the heart of that movement.”

Recently, Young talked with me over coffee about the “Anthropocene” — humanity’s ongoing profound effect on the Earth — and Rendering Nature’s portraits of natural and cultural landscapes. I was immediately surprised at the professor’s enthusiastic response to the question of whether Rendering Nature is an activist attempt to affect a society at a crossroads.

“Yeah, I think more and more,” she said. “I think originally we conceived [Rendering Nature] as talking to other scholars out of frustration with our disciplinary fields, but then we decided that was too narrow. We weren’t just trying to convince the American studies people or the environmental historians who aren’t going to change their minds, so we really pitched people who may not know about this [subject].”

Young said she believes that discussion of our planet’s danger, in the face of at least partly human-created warming, cannot be adequately discussed without connecting it to socioeconomics and the complex and important relationship between nature and culture.

She went on to explain what is unfortunately not obvious to many who write about environmental issues: “If we are going to be of any value in this kind of public discussion around [social] equity and sort of environmental crisis, we have to think about these things together.”

At first, the essays in Rendering Nature can seem disparate — in both the subject matter and the eras they touch upon — but Young believed they all point to necessary environmental action, “even if individually they may not seem to.”

One of the most fascinating essays is John Herron’s “Stuffed: Nature and Science on Display,” an in-depth history of the “Panorama,” a large multistory diorama featuring plants and more than 120 stuffed animals of North America. It was assembled for the 1891 World’s Fair in Chicago and was considered a “wonder of the world” when unveiled. Today, it is a curiously cultural, historical and artistic relic, one that Herron wrote embodies “a particular historical moment of how we see nature, but more importantly … how our renderings of nature structure how we see ourselves.”

In its early days, the panorama — originally intended as a massive trophy case of stuffed animals — was frequented by the middle class and served as “a pleasant reminder of America’s preindustrial world.” As the panorama has physically and culturally aged, it has become something closer to pop art, and it piqued the curiosity of scholars interested in its profound, and mostly accidental, juxtaposition of nature and culture. In hindsight, what’s perhaps most striking about the 120-year-old panorama is that it did not include human beings, although as many as 20 million people lived in North America before European settlers arrived.

As a middle-class white person living in an affluent — and only ostensibly progressive — mountain town, it’s hard not to feel responsible for many of the negative ways in which nature and culture have overlapped. Young told me that her life as a professor and scholar is crucial in her efforts to stay inspired and forward thinking — and not so guilty — in the face of our society’s detrimental treatment of not just the Earth but also the people who inhabited our nation before it was industrialized.

“I feel like at least I’m in a profession where I get to engage with smart and interesting people,” she said. “[In the] environmental history class that I teach, an overwhelming majority are environmental studies majors. These are kids from strong science backgrounds [who] want to make change. They take culture into account and don’t believe in sort of blank-slateism or wilderness as pristine and un-peopled. To be able to communicate these perspectives to them is rewarding, and I feel like some of my burden of feeling that way is lifted through doing my job. So yeah, I feel a little guilty in Boulder, but I love living here.”

It’s easy to glean from Rendering Nature’s essays that humans are most successful as a species when our goal is survival and not power or even simply entertainment. The essay “Beasts of the Southern Wild” discusses how slave owners and overseers were “the most ferocious beasts” in the old American South. In particular, it reveals how a human who is focused solely on survival — an escaped slave — can resourcefully utilize, but not exploit, his or her surroundings to transcend a terrible situation. Today we must similarly utilize, but not further exploit, our surroundings to survive global climate change.

While in nature it seems like the more powerful a species gets the better chance it has of survival, with humans the more powerful we become — building, consuming and wasting on a mind-boggling scale — the worse our chance of survival has become as we threaten to destroy our only home. But Young feels that environmental activism is “more complicated” than the oftused slogan, “Think Global, Act Local”; she believes a better moral might be, “Act Locally, But Engage Politically.”

“It sounds more academic,” Young said, “but the thinking part is just one piece of the puzzle — in order to solve these kinds of really complex problems we have to engage properly. A lot of environmental histories like to break it down just to the material facts — ‘We only survive just because of our biology.’ Our argument would be that, no, you need culture to survive as well. Once we start thinking of ourselves as interconnected with a community of beings then, really, I think it can offer a perspective change.”

To some, Rendering Nature might sound unapproachable outside the academic audience, but its educational essays are all written with personalities and intentions that are accessible, enjoyable and even motivational.

“We are historians to study the past,” Young explained. “We want to be able to sort of point out that we have to pay attention to the interconnectedness of different places on the globe and different communities within the nation, and that you know these relationships between humans and nature have been constructed, and they’ll have to be reconstructed.”

Reconstruction no doubt begins with realization, and a book like Rendering Nature is a great start.