The Red Hook Community Farm Recovers after Sandy

Community farms took a hit from the storm, but this community farm in Brooklyn is rebuilding. This video is worth sharing with students because urban farming in New York is less well known than it should be, and the spirit shown by the volunteers, including students, is heartening.



CFP for 2013 ASLE Conference

The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE)
Tenth Biennial Conference, May 28-June 1, 2013.
University of Kansas, Lawrence

The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) invites proposals for its Tenth Biennial Conference, to be held May 28th through June 1st, 2013, at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. The decennial conference theme is intended to reflect some of the mostengaging current conversations within the environmental humanities and across disciplines, and to link those discussions to the transnational nexus of energy, labor, borders, and human and nonhuman environments that are so fundamentally “changing nature,” and with it the widely varied kinds of environmental critique we practice, art we make, and politics we advocate. Migrations–of humans, of non-human creatures, of “invasive species,” of industrial toxins across aquifers and cellular membranes, of disease across species and nations, of transgenic pollen and GM fish-have changed the meanings of place, bodies, nations, and have lent new urgency to the old adage that “everything is connected to everything.” Energies–fossil, renewable, human, spiritual, aesthetic, organic-radically empower our species for good and for ill, and make our individual and collective choices into the Anthropocene. And those choices are profoundly about Limits on resources, climate, soil, and water; about voluntary and involuntary curbs on individual and collective consumption and waste; about the often porous and often violently marked borders of empire, class, race, and gender.

For the full CFP and more information, click here.

Resilience after Hurricane Sandy

This op-ed was published in the New York Times today. In “Learning to Bounce Back,” Andrew Zolli argues that we need to think sustainability differently, by incorporating the idea of civilizational “resilience,” the ability to anticipate, resist, and recover from environmental trauma.

Writing in central New Jersey less than a week after landfall, I can only agree. The northern Jersey shore is, literally, a disaster area. Monmouth County, where I grew up, is entirely in the dark and cold. Atlantic City spent days under water. The people of Staten Island had to beg, on television, for relief, even as they pulled bodies out of the marshes. Hundreds of thousands in the Hudson Valley and Long Island remain in blackout. The subways are flooded. The bridges and rails of the NJTransit’s North Jersey Coastline were swept into the sea. Police guard the rest stops on the NJ Turnpike and Parkway to curb the fights breaking out over gasoline. Residents of the Lower East Side had to dumpster-dive for food.

It’s chapter one of the Zombie Apocalypse, because the undead are in charge of infrastructure and  climate policy.

At the height of the storm, as hurricane-force winds tore through my neighborhood, I stood on my porch searching the sky. I thought I saw lightning in the clouds. It was the transformers in the local power grid exploding, again and again, for over half an hour.

Resilience sounds like a good idea right about now. Those of us who teach the environmental humanities should consider teaching it to our students.




The Silly Season

Greetings from the Intermountain West, where the silly season is underway.  The Utah State Legislature is in session, and the first week or two are always the best show in town, since legislators show up with the pet projects they’ve spent all off-season dreaming up.  Already we’ve had the ineffable Chris Buttars suggest that public schools cancel 12th grade to save money, since many European countries don’t have such an extended school career.  They’re also in a mood to “send messages to Washington.”  In the words of the founder of the Patrick Henry Caucus, a states’ rights group, “this will be a session where citizens and the state government will unite together to push back against this leviathan called the federal government” (Salt Lake Tribune, 26 January 2010).  Health care and the stimulus package are likely targets of “message” bills. 

But my favorite is the pet project of State Senator Allen Christensen, who wants to kill any wolf that wanders across the imaginary straight lines that define our fair state – even if it’s protected by the Endangered Species Act.  Although it was pointed out to the senator that our Constitution’s supremacy clause means that federal law trumps state, he still wants to be on the record with such a message.  (There was also that messy War Between the States some time back that seemed to have settled federal vs. state sovereignty.)

No wolves are currently known to be resident within the state, and Utah has not written a wolf management plan, but this is hardly an academic question.  Several years ago a wolf from a Yellowstone National Park pack was trapped alive in Morgan County, only a few miles from my home.  Utah wildlife officers quickly boxed up the wolf and returned it to its home range.  Many biologists think it’s only a matter of time before Wyoming, Idaho, or Montana wolves find their way south to the Wasatch and Uintah ranges. 

So Utah wants to send a message to Washington.  Doesn’t Western Union still send telegrams?  Or perhaps they can Twitter our national representatives while they pretend to pay attention to the State of the Union address.

University of Arizona Environmental History Search

The Department of History at the University of Arizona invites applications for
an advanced Assistant or Associate faculty position in U.S. environmental
history/history of environmental science, to begin August 2010.

This position is part of a new university-wide hiring initiative in
environmental science and policy. The University of Arizona, one of the most
fertile campuses in the country for the study of regional to global
environmental change, is seeking to deepen its interdisciplinary strength in
environmental research. For more information see the UA Institute for the

We seek an established scholar with an excellent record of peer-reviewed
publications, grants, and teaching. Ph.D. in history, or a relevant discipline,
is required before date of hire. Preferred qualifications include expertise in
19th-century U.S. History; experience in graduate training and mentoring; and
experience in working on collaborative interdisciplinary grants.

The successful candidate will be expected to pursue an active research agenda
leading to publications in peer-reviewed scholarly venues; collaborate on
interdisciplinary grants and research related to environment topics, especially
with UA faculty associated with the Institute of the Environment; effectively
teach undergraduate and graduate history courses; advise and mentor graduate
students; and actively contribute to department, college, and university
service committees and participate in professional organizations and public

The department seeks individuals who are able to work with diverse students and
colleagues and who have experience with a variety of teaching methods and
curricular perspectives. As an equal opportunity and affirmative action
employer, the University of Arizona recognizes the power of a diverse community
and encourages applications from individuals with varied experiences,
perspectives and backgrounds M/W/D/V.

Salary is commensurate with qualifications and experience. To apply, please go
to (job number: 44430), complete the on-line faculty
application, and attach a letter of application describing research and
teaching interests and experience, curriculum vitae with the names of three
professional references. To ensure consideration, candidates must apply to this
on-line posting. The additional materials – CV and Letter of Application- may
either be included with the on-line application, or may be mailed directly to
the Search Chair at the address below. Review of applicants will begin 2/15/10
and will continue until the position is filled.

Prof. Katherine Morrissey
Chair, U.S. Environmental History Search Committee
Department of History
Social Sciences, Room 217
P.O. Box 210027
The University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona 85721
(520) 621-1586 or 626-8429
Fax: (520) 621-2422

Catholicism on the Border

The mission San Xavier del Bac outside of Tucson lies on the border of the Tohono O’odham nation; the O’odham built it, and it is very much their parish. Like the Yaqui and the Tarahumara, the O’odham are often said to have their own style of Catholicism that blends pre-Spanish O’odham culture with Roman Catholicism. Though I wonder to what extent this kind of local, “folk”  Catholicism is all that different, in degree of syncretism and structure, from other ethnic Catholicisms that blend the local and the general, I certainly saw evidence of a lively blending at the church itself.

Here is a picture of the front of the mission:


Beautiful, but standard mission style so far.

In a post below, “Our Lady of the Borderlands,” we see a mural from inside this mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe, featuring the classic Guadalupe colors of sky-blue mantle with stars, pink dress, and brown skin: a mestiza madonna, but without direct O’odham influence, as far as I can tell.

The monstrances and censer below tell a different story. (A monstrance is used to display a consecrated host for adoration as the Body of Christ; the censer holds smoking incense during the liturgy.) Here they are:


The monstrance on the left is a typical Baroque sun-pattern, with the rays of sunlight representing the grace of the Eucharist. To the right is a monstrance decorated with the expert basket-weaving the O’odham are known for–there are baskets in the background and the extreme foreground, right. The censer on the left is decorated in similar fashion. What these patterns mean I am not qualified to say, but they certainly represent an indigenous aesthetic applied to important Catholic instruments.

In the side chapel, there is yet another level of Catholic iconography represented: a gathering of plastic saints:



Notice that there is a sticker inside the central Guadalupe that reads “HOORAY!”

Compare this to the traditional statue of Saint Anthony in the main church:


And to the hand-carved statue of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Mohawk who will most likely be the first American Indian saint of the R.C. Church, also in the main church:


And finally, my favorite: old-style paintings of corn, bees, and quail in the mission just outside the main church:




All in all, a dazzling display of Spanish, popular, and O’odham aesthetics, all within feet of each other.

I would like to thank the O’odham community at San Xavier for its willingness to share its church with the rest of the world.

Metanarratives of History and the Environment

It was captivating, for someone who studies stories for a living, to listen to historians critique their own metanarratives about the border phenomena we encountered during the institute. I was fascinated by the universal condemnation of “declensionist narratives,” that is, histories structured by a pattern of decline: Anglo settlers come in and ruin everything; indigenous peoples disappear; rivers dry up; soil is depleted; species go extinct.

I sympathize: in American environmental literature, film, and criticism, the narrative of apocalypse remains a dominant strategy: think Almanac of the Dead, The Road, The 11th Hour, ________________ [insert your favorite apocalypse here].

Modernist anthropology and folkloristics had the same problem: the folk are disappearing, so collect their culture before it’s gone.

Couple things: first, a note about the joy of apocalypse. Declensionist narratives are satisfying because bad behavior gets punished, especially in the wake of empire. The evil imperium gets what’s coming to it–look at the mess you made!–and the righteous remnant gets to preach about it. There is a strong sense of closure combined with a satisfying ethical critique.

The trouble starts when the story continues: the indigenous peoples persist; citizens keep drinking the polluted water; the bears invade the suburbs; the empire, still unsmited, begins to feel guilty after the fact. Declensionism faces the next part of the story, where closure is disrupted and ethical ambiguity asserts itself.

Postmodern theory attempted to deal with this problem by emphasizing the constructed nature of narrative and the messiness that escapes narrative structures. Most famously, Fredric Jameson asserted that heterogeneity without a norm was the central effect of postmodern culture (though for Jameson, this is merely an effect of late capitalism, so the apparent chaos was really a function of the Marxist metanarrative of capitalism’s self-destruction).

We should also mention Antonio Gramsci who, of course, described the process by which a dominant culture commands assent from the dominated through cultural cooptation. Metanarratives are always political: it’s hegemony, stupid.

Though Jamesonian, Gramscian, and other critiques of civilization-building narratives are crucial to a responsible historical method, stories have to be structured nonetheless, so the question remains: What other narrative structures are available besides the declensionist structure? And which are most appropriate to the borderlands?

There are the traditional ones, of course–everything is always getting better through rational means (progressivism); we are building the city of God/the revolutionary nation (messianism); we can scratch and claw our way to success on the backs of the losers (Social Darwinism); nothing means anything (nihilism); incremental adaptation wins out in the end (evolutionism); there will be survival after much destruction and suffering (collapse and rebound); and so on.

My experience of the borderlands, and my modest knowledge of its history, suggest a number of alternate stories:

1. Several old things get broken into several new things: Northwest Mexico, the Apacheria, and the Pimeria Alta become the American Southwest, reconfigured indigenous nations, the new Mexican Northwest, and the shifting, porous borders among them.

2. Bioregions persist through the reconfiguration of political boundaries: Border patrols come and go, but the Sonoran desert is the Sonoran desert.

3. Imaginary homelands cling to the border: Aztlan, the Anglo-Protestant Superstate, the Hippie Kingdoms, the Restored Pleistocene Ecosystem: all of these virtual states, which are also structures of desire, influence the politics and culture of actual states.

and, perhaps my personal favorite,

4. I have no idea how where all of this is going or how it’s going to end.

Since the same problems of narration afflict our teaching as well as our research, it seems to me that our choices must also be informed by the stories we think our students should hear.

I hope that readers will share their strategies for narrating environmental history and borderlands history to undergraduate audiences.

The Ethics of Restoration

We have been privileged, in the last several weeks, to witness wildlife and riparian restoration projects that include bison, Aplomado falcons, Bolson tortoises. and prairie dogs; we have seen streambeds saved from extreme erosion. We have also discussed more radical plans to reintroduce species, like the cheetah, that were made extinct in North America just after the last ice age, through the “restoration” of proxy species from other continents, with the view to recreate, as much as possible, the environment that predated human settlement.

These investigations led to debates about what restoration means; how to choose a point in history as the goal of restoration;  if it is just to extirpate “alien”  or “invasive” species; and what principles should inform the answers to these questions.

Though many of us concluded that a true or complete restoration is not possible–that successful efforts include our desires for the future in a mosaic with the available past–it is clear that this work of repair is crucial to the preservation of biodiversity and functional wildland corridors across international borders. That immigrants use such corridors to avoid official border checkpoints makes restoration in the borderlands a more political issue than it might seem at first.

Even a glance at the history of the term “alien” shows that the same kind of pejorative language is used for unwanted peoples as well as unwanted species. Immigrants who have been invited into the borderlands can quickly become “vermin” or “weeds” once their original purpose has been served. Many of us decided that we did not want to continue to refer to species as “alien” in light of this history of political violence against “alien” ethnic groups. At the level of ecology, however, I think it is necessary to assess the effects of an introduced species on its host ecosystem when judging the effects of our own actions on the larger world. We considered the effects of tamarisk on desert riparian ecosystems, and I concluded that the tamarisk, which dries up the soil around it through its high water demand, should, if possible, be controlled in the name of a functioning river environment. This application of a Leopoldian principle–the good of the biotic community as the center of “good” itself–suggests that introduced species should not be allowed to destroy ecosystems, but need not be exterminated. The false choice of inaction versus purification suggests that environmentalists should be careful not to import the language of eugenics into theories of restoration.

Immigrants are not alien invaders bent on destroying our home; humans are all one species. That’s my thought here at the 4th of July.

Happy 4th from Bisbee, AZ, “The Copper Borderlands”

We’ve spent the last several days exploring Bisbee, AZ, one of the great centers of copper mining, and home to the Copper Queen mine. (Pictures to follow.) I must admit that I have always thought of strip mining as one of the iconic environmental evils: it destroys mountains, leaves new mountains of tailings, pollutes rivers and riparian communities, belches smelter smoke into the sky, and sometimes buries whole towns. I’m not sure my impression of mining has changed because of Bisbee, but my understanding of what happens to mining communities has changed. It’s been decades since the smelters ran around here, though the tailings may soon be reprocessed to extract every bit of metal from the soil. In the meantime, Bisbee has changed from mining town to hippie kingdom to tourist destination. I find it surreal to witness boutiques and antique shops only miles away from a baseball field where, not a hundred years ago, striking miners were deported at gunpoint in cattle cars. It’s even more interesting to see the museums, bookstores, and businesses incorporate that history into displays and merchandise. Bisbee’s proximity to Mexico, and its history as a working town that attracted immigrants from Europe and Asia, and investment from Wall Street, makes it a temple to labor with a big fat cosmopolitan streak.

Attention, New Yorkers: there are already New Yorkers here!