Ask the Experts: Alf Siewers on environmental humanities
March 24, 2011
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Alf Siewers, associate professor of English, teaches at the intersection where the humanities and the natural environment meet. We ask Siewers, one of three professors leading the second offering of Bucknell on the Susquehanna this fall, about his scholarship.
Q: Explain what you mean by environmental humanities.
A: Environmental humanities is a growing interdisciplinary effort at institutions around the world, and at Bucknell, aimed at bringing qualitative perspectives to the usually quantitative issues involved in environmental studies. In other words, issues about values and the way in which social behaviors and cultural ethics shape our environment to a large degree.
We can think about the environment scientifically, and that's very important. But changes have to come through social behavior. And that is related to cultural values and, ultimately, on my side of things, with storytelling and how we imagine and form narratives about our lives in relation to nature and the environment.
Q: What are some of the things that Bucknell is doing in this area?
A: We've already seen Bucknell play a key role in the emergence of the Susquehanna heritage trail that's being considered by the National Parks Service. It's a way to increase focus on conservation and related issues along the river. Greater awareness on the part of people in the region about place and landscape and heritage contributes to greater caring and appreciation for the area. I think a lot of people living in the area already have that, but it's not always connected on a regional scale.
Another project at Bucknell is the Stories of the Susquehanna Project. That is a series of books that the Bucknell University Press will be partnering with the Environmental Center on, to emphasize a kind of storytelling-humanities approach to a whole range of issues from natural history and Native American history to community studies and literary history as they relate to the nature of the region. We hope to produce volumes accessible to the public as well as to scholars. They'll have a strong online component with GIS (Geographic Information System)-style mapping, a digital atlas and curriculum for schools.
Q: The Susquehanna Valley River Region seems to be a rich area for study and analysis on so many levels.
A: Going back to prehistoric times and early contact times this was a key corridor for Native Americans going from the Great Lakes region and to the Chesapeake Bay.
There were some really important early contacts between Native Americans and Euro-Americans here. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the period I'm focused on in my own work, the area also saw some really important figures involved in forming new or adapted ideas about nature from their engagement with the Susquehanna Valley. It was perceived as both a frontier and a kind of Eden-like area at that time, right after Indian removal. A lot of people were re-imagining or projecting their imaginations onto the area.
Q: Who were these people?
You had writers such as James Fenimore Cooper writing his "Leatherstocking Tales" at the Susquehanna headwaters. You had Susan Fenimore Cooper there also - his daughter who is credited as the first published American woman nature writer and is being rediscovered by readers today. And you had at the Susquehanna Confluence Joseph Priestly, an internationally renowned scientist and religious philosopher. He was very influential on a number of America's founding fathers in his views on science and nature.
Samuel Coleridge, one of the great romantic poets right at the center of the Romantic Movement in England, wrote about the Susquehanna Valley at this time too. He imagined a utopian project here, and what happened to that utopian project in Coleridge's mind in relation to his disillusionment with certain aspects of science as it was developing parallels in some ways the resistance by the Coopers to American enthusiasm for exploitation of the natural world in the Susquehanna Valley at that time.
That was the same time frame, paradoxically, that saw not coincidentally both many utopian visions of the valley and the beginning of large-scale exploitation of its natural resources - lumber, coal and the growth of industries whose effects are still with us in the valley today.
Q: This ties in with your Scadden Fellowship, right?
A: This past fall I received a Scadden Fellowship to work on an interdisciplinary project about those views of nature as they were emerging in the early Susquehanna Valley and how they influenced early American culture and American notions of wilderness and nature up to the present day.
Particularly, I am focusing on the Coopers, Coleridge and Priestley and their later influence. For example, James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales" were very influential on American notions of wilderness and early American conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt read them while he was growing up, and they had an influence on his work on establishing the National Parks system. As part of that project, I'm involving students who are working on their own related research projects.
Q: All of which is why you're looking forward to being one of three professors leading Bucknell on the Susquehanna this fall, right?
A: We'll travel from Cooperstown to the Chesapeake. Last year's program had a greater focus on science and policy. Our program will be more focused on the humanities and community cultural studies, including as core faculty also Associate Professor of Geography Adrian Mulligan and Professor of German and Humanities Katie Faull. The core course that all the students will take focuses on the region's human and cultural geography and environmental issues such as Marcellus Shale gas drilling.
The literature course I'm teaching will cover the issues I've mentioned. Katie's course is going to be on transatlantic notions of nature in the 18th century as they developed in relation to Native American cosmology. Adrian's individual course will, among other things, be on different waves of immigration into the area, changing perceptions in the area in terms of how it would have been perceived by Native Americans as opposed to, say, Irish immigrants. It will carry us into really interesting areas of study such as the Scots-Irish Paxton Boys, whose massacre of Indians in Lancaster set the stage for continental genocide, and the Molly Maguires, an Irish immigrant network of coal workers protesting against inhumane conditions, who were accused of being a subversive, violent, secret society in the 1800s.
We'll be doing short video documentaries of the region. We'll be doing oral history interviews. We'll be doing online mapping using Google Earth and GIS, creative and nonfiction writing, along with more traditional kinds of research papers involving innovative environmental philosophy. There'll be opportunities for both discussion and lecturing and learning by the students at the actual locations that we're talking about. It's a great opportunity as an instructor to be able to do something that goes beyond the classroom, something that expands the walls of the University beyond the campus.
Q: As the first faculty coordinator of the Environmental Center's Nature and Human Communities Initiative for the past couple of years, what are some other things you're been involved in?
A: We have a website that is about to go up for another environmental humanities project that was done last summer — the Susquehanna Valley Summer Writers Institute. Last summer, that received outside funding to support several student writers' research on Marcellus Shale from a community storytelling standpoint. We'll continue that this summer.
We're trying to see how the University as an institution can contribute to environmental writing and research that old-style media used to aspire to do. Direct connections possible at universities between writers and scientists and those engaged in community studies can shape a special role for students in reporting on regional environmental issues today.
We've also been supporting the development of Environmental Connections courses in the humanities but also the social sciences. That's a new curricular requirement as part of the College Core Curriculum. For example, three English courses that I am teaching are Environmental Connections courses.
Colleagues in classics, religion, philosophy, history and foreign languages all have done work or are interested in doing work in environmental humanities. Students are very interested in environmental studies - the number of students in the major has been increasing. But they're also very hungry for a connection between work they're doing in environmental studies and the values and human sides of it.
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