Re-examinations of the past, present and future in a new book on environmental humanities

To a geologist, 200 million years may seem like the blink of an eye. For a historian, the The 18th century is still very relevant. And for researchers grappling with climate change, future scenarios provide compelling reason to act now.

In the new book, “Timescales: Thinking Across Ecological Temporalities,” Bethany Wiggin of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) and co-editors Carolyn Fornoff and Patricia Eunji Kim, both Penn and PPEH alumni, bring together thoughts from ‘experts in a variety of academic disciplines on the relationship between the past, present and future and what this means for a planet in crisis.

The new book “Timescales” engages researchers from various disciplines to discuss climate change. (Image: University of Minnesota Press)

With climate change and the rise of the Anthropocene – the time when humans shape Earth’s processes – underpinning the essays, artwork and conversations of contributors, “timescales” aims to find new ways of thinking about the time and urgency of a response to the challenges facing humanity.

“We’re not sure what will happen to this, but putting an oceanographer in conversation with an expert on English literature, for example, can create new ways of thinking,” says Wiggin. “We believe these are the kind of interdisciplinary conversations we need to build the knowledge communities of the future.”

Experimental origins

The driving force behind the book dates back to the very early days of PPEH six years ago. Fornoff and Kim were both part of the first batch of PPEH graduate fellows – Fornoff, PhD student in Spanish and Portuguese, Kim in art history – and had “heated conversations” with Wiggin and their peers about it. that they expected from their experience in the program. . What emerged was a conference, also titled Timescales, which was held in the fall of 2016. “We invited a diverse group of researchers who were also at different stages of their careers,” says Wiggin. “It was a great mix, and we had a really generative dialogue.”

The conference itself took an experimental approach. Some games were held at the Kislak Center libraries, while others were at Bartram’s Garden in southwest Philadelphia. Presenters shared remarks from the PPEH Lab at WetLand, a floating art installation docked at Bartram on the Schuylkill River developed by artist Mary Mattingly in partnership with PPEH.

“The feedback we received from the conference was overwhelmingly positive,” says Wiggin. “Not only the quality of the survey and the discussion, of course, but also the willingness of participants to experiment. We invite them to participate in a collaborative research experience on how to think across timescales. “

Transdisciplinary collaboration

As PPEH initiatives continued to expand and evolve after the conference, Wiggin, Fornoff and Kim decided to use the Timescales event as a springboard for a book, which would also serve to introduce the program’s activities to d other researchers working in environmental humanities, or anyone. interested in getting involved in the field.

“We wanted to model a writing style that proved that you could have deeply rigorous work that was also widely accessible,” says Wiggin. “We also wanted to show that thinking across disciplines is as vital as thinking deeply within a single discipline.”

The structure of the work plays on a musical frame. Three sections of essays and “chitchats” of conversation between researchers are interspersed with “studies” that highlight some of the art that PPEH artists in residence have produced; the work is accompanied by an introduction and a “coda” by Wiggin, Fornoff and Kim.

“Music offers a way of thinking about time,” says Wiggin, “so we ended up borrowing musical forms to organize the book.”

Contributors include members of the Penn community: geophysicist Jane Dmochowski, who co-authored with David Evans of Yale University on a reflection on climate change and the “deep time” of geoscience studies; graduate student Paul Wolff Mitchell, who has written about a group of so-called “hoop walkers” in the American West, noting the pace and seasonality of their work to reforest land and harvest seasonal crops; and lecturer emeritus Marcia Ferguson who has written on theater and the environmental humanities.

Other contributors, such as Dan Rothenberg of the Pig Iron Theater Company and collaborators Troy Herion and Mimi Lien began developing the opera “A Period of Animate Existence” during a residency with the program. The production, documented and discussed in “Timescales”, weaves together different perspectives of human time and life cycles in a context of rapid change in the natural and technological world.

At a book launch event last month, Fornoff offered examples highlighting how climate change challenges the notion of events taking place within distinct time frames. “We open the introduction by talking about how the largest source of ice in Antarctica, the Totten Glacier, broke off the bedrock in 2016, and how it highlights this collision of temporalities: deep time, of that plateau ice that formed millions of years ago; the present, in which this sea ice is rapidly melting; and the future, in which rising sea levels will disproportionately affect island nations and peoples, as well as coastal communities. ”

Fornoff noted that the environmental humanities, by inviting transdisciplinary reflection, allow researchers to confront topics such as the timescales of environmental crisis, which may be “too complicated to address from a unique disciplinary position ”.

While Wiggin notes that “an academic book takes a very long time to make”, and therefore cannot always address the concerns that are paramount at the time it comes into the world, “Timescale” reflects the global concerns of PPEH, she says, which “deals with how we – unevenly and often unfairly – have created and remade Holocene worlds, thereby reducing the diversity of lifestyles and habitats.

And for the concern of climate change, she hopes the book will serve as a model for collaborative and creative work.

“Although this book has 21 authors, it is in a real sense the product of a community of practice,” says Wiggin, “a person committed to the design and conduct of research and educational experiments for climate change. . “

Bethany Wiggin is Director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities and Associate Professor of German in the Department of Germanic Languages ​​and Literatures at the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.


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