"We have some interesting discussions sometimes about life today being so focused on cyberspace, on communications that take us away from a sense of being in the physical world and engaging with others in a more embodied way."
Alf Siewers has always been intrigued by natural landscapes. Describing his childhood in Chicago, he talks less about modern urban features and more about the land where his grandfather's farm once stood - about a glacial-SEA ridge that ran through his neighborhood, an old Indian treaty line near his house, a remnant of an oak savanna preserved in a cemetery. || Ask the Experts: Alf Siewers on environmental humanities
Today, as an associate professor of English, Siewers explores the natural and otherworldly landscapes of the islands of northwestern Europe as described in medieval literature. "The perspective of living in an archipelago where you are both part of the sea and part of the land at the same time, I think really informs some aspects of the literature of the native peoples of Ireland and Wales," he says. "I think there are lots of interesting things to think about in terms of how the landscape shapes our thinking and experience, and how our thinking and experience shape the landscape in turn." Siewers' most recent book, Strange Beauty: Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape, will be released by Palgrave Macmillan in September 2009.
Contemporary fantasy literature related to the medieval period also interests Siewers. "Fantasy is a great imaginative space to be able to look at how we experience nature and how we learn about nature and the assumptions we have about it as we are growing up," he says.
For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy recounts a grueling journey to destroy an extraordinarily powerful ring that, among other things, turns its wearer invisible. Interpretations of the ring's symbolism abound, including in Siewers' classroom. "We have some interesting discussions sometimes about life today being so focused on cyberspace, on communications that take us away from a sense of being in the physical world and engaging with others in a more embodied way," he says. "And I think that spills over into changes in our experience of nature today, too." Siewers was awarded Bucknell's Presidential Award for Teaching Excellence in 2007.
Closer to home, Siewers is working to tell the unheard stories of the local landscape. As faculty coordinator of the Nature and Human Communities Initiative at Bucknell's Environmental Center, Siewers co-coordinates the Cultures at the Confluence river symposium, and with Professor of German and Humanities Katherine Faull is spearheading research for a proposal to extend a National Historic Corridor from the Chesapeake Bay along the Susquehanna River up to the headwaters in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"In many ways the Susquehanna Valley has been a kind of lost valley," he says. "It hasn't had its stories articulated on a national level as much as some other regions in the country." Toward that end, he has looked at the influence on American culture of the views of nature and Native Americans in James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking series, which is set in the Susquehanna Valley. In 2009, he co-coordinated the first Susquehanna Valley Summer Writers Institute. It enabled students to investigate their own local landscape even more thoroughly than he once did Chicago's as they traveled from coal towns to Cooperstown and explored the region through personal experience, reading and writing.
Posted Sept. 9, 2009
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