Sunday, June 30, 2013

Where I’m Coming From

Below is a short narrative I presented to the Environment Program at Loyola this past April. We begin each of our monthly meetings with a brief autobiography from one of the faculty members affiliated with the program; I've found these to be very inspiring and illuminating. I thought I'd post mine here.

I grew up in the woods of northern Michigan, foraging for morel mushrooms, catching bass in crystal clear inland lakes, and walking the lakeshore after storms sifting through assorted amalgams of plastic six-pack holders, driftwood, dead balloons, beach glass, and glacial rocks.
The place I call home, where my parents bought a small wedge of land in 1991, sits directly on the boundary of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: 35 miles of sandy beaches, steep cliffs, and rolling juniper dotted dunes that back up into pine and aspen transition zones, that then lead to deep rolling hills of maple and beech forests.
When I was in high school I watched some of my favorite hillsides get logged, cleared, and built on: gaudy luxury summer mansions thrown up double-time, echoing disjointed architectural dreams from other regions, distant coasts.
Around that time I read Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, and I relished fantasies of sabotaging the Caterpillar earthmovers that decimated the giant northern red oaks I loved to climb.
A couple years later, at a small liberal arts college in southern Michigan, where I majored in philosophy and English, I was introduced to the writings of Gary Snyder and Barry Lopez, and I began to draw connections between bioregionalism and poetics—or how we tell stories about the places we live, and in turn how habitats and ecosystems get into the stories we tell.
But one of my best if also hardest courses in college was a biology class called Michigan Flora—thank goodness for a liberal arts common curriculum. There were two of us students in the class (!), and we spent hours seeking out and identifying various species of plants, trees, and shrubs in the surrounding scrub forests and roadside ditches next to vast cornfields. I took this scientific knowledge home with me the next summer, and my sense of the place I called home became even more ingrained.
Later in college I started spending the summers in Wyoming, where I worked as a river guide on the Snake River within the wild, 27-mile corridor between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park called the J.D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. This was a beautiful area, but the lodgepole pines did nothing for me compared with the lusciously soft white pines back in Michigan, and the tourism industry of the American West made my woes about northern Michigan tourists seem quaint. My second summer in Wyoming, I also worked a stint on a trail crew for the National Forest Service, and got to know a good portion of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, clearing brush and maintaining rugged routes.
After college I was still drawn to this region, in part due to early forays into the literature of the American West, and I decided I wanted to move to a mountain town. After working another river rafting job in Arizona for a season, I found my way to Bozeman, Montana, where I had been accepted into a Master’s program in English. Every minute that I wasn’t reading for graduate seminars, working on papers, or teaching freshman writing, I obsessively fly-fished in the creeks and rivers that wind around the Gallatin Valley and eventually form the Missouri River.
In graduate school my interests in philosophy merged into what in English is called “critical theory,” and concepts from this interdisciplinary node shaped my Master’s thesis, which analyzed the strange language of ‘Nature’ in texts ranging from Terry Tempest Williams’s stark desert notes to glossy magazine advertisements for sport utility vehicles. I drew from eco-feminism, semiotics, and deconstruction in order to complicate the as-if simple messages of landscape, environment, and region embedded in literary and cultural texts of the American West.
But meanwhile, as I was working on my MA and fishing the rivers, something else weird was happening. I had taken a part-time job at the Gallatin Field Airport, eight miles outside of town, with the intention of simply making a few hundred extra bucks a month to cover my rent. But as it goes with some part-time jobs in life, I started volunteering to cover my co-workers’ shifts, and in a matter of months I learned all the various parts of the operation: loading bags, de-icing the planes, emptying the onboard toilet, operating the jet-bridge, pushing back the plane to the taxiway, creating itineraries for passengers...soon I was working nearly full-time at the airport, strange late and early hours that let me keep up with my studies (not to mention my fishing regimen).
Over time the bizarre environment of the airport mesmerized me, including all the ways that people were syphoned in and out of this signature region via the eerily generic terminal building. I worked at the airport during the state-of-exception called 9/11, and I watched the norms of air travel morph and twist with the swinging politics of that time.
When I finished my Master’s program, I turned in my United Airlines uniform and headed West once again, this time to Davis, California, where I had been accepted into a PhD program in English—this was the place to be for studying eccentric topics where nature and culture collided. At UC Davis, under the Pacific Flyway where every day the paths of migrating birds and Air Force cargo planes intermingle, I continued to study 20th-century American literature, environmental aesthetics, and critical theory.
At Davis I worked as a Research Assistant for my professor Timothy Morton as he wrote his books Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought. Tim’s ideas about the construction of Nature capital ‘N’ in literary history had a profound influence on me, and consequently inspired me to ask different sorts of questions about the roles of literature, poetics, and narrative with respect to concepts of environment.
All the while, my airport work experiences were simmering in my brain. It occurred to me somewhat gradually that I had spent lots of time in a particularly rich—if also particularly fraught—kind of ecotone.
I started to notice weird airport scenes in a wide range of literary and cultural texts, and started to keep records of these strange instances, and how they depended on notions of place, space, and environmental awareness (or not). I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on this topic, which then formed the basis for my book The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight, which I wrote during my first couple years at Loyola University New Orleans.
Over the past four years at Loyola I’ve continued to write about air travel, always coming from an oblique environmental sensibility. And I’ve started to write a book about my home, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which I’m thinking of as a sort of 21st-century Walden—modestly place-based, but rife with larger questions and puzzles about what nature means in contemporary American culture.
My interests in environment filter into all of my courses, in the sense that the detail-oriented kind of literary reading I teach is translatable to ecological perception: how different organisms and habitats interrelate and co-shape one another.
In a more literal sense, the course I taught a couple years ago called “Environmental Theory” was a philosophical adventure (for the students as well as for me), and I look forward to teaching another iteration of the course in the near future. Next semester, I am teaching a Literature and Environment course, and I’m very excited to introduce students to a range of ways that literary texts rely on, invent, and explore notions of environment.
I’m currently working as co-editor for a series of essays and books called Object Lessons: these are pithy essays and beautifully designed short books on single objects and the lessons they hold. My collaborator on this series is Ian Bogost from the Media Studies Center at Georgia Tech. He’s bringing what we might call the technological angle to the project, and I see myself as bringing an environmental or more ecological angle to the series. In brief, we’re hoping to create a series that is equally appealing to media studies scholars and naturalists—a series that productively blurs and challenges the nature/culture divide.
Ideally Object Lessons will be a long running series of essays and books covering all sorts of different things, such as honey, hurricane, heliotrope, Velcro, volvaria, copper wire, cruise ship, cilium, silt—the list
 of possible topics is quite literally endless, and cuts across the boundaries of human invention and natural dissemination. My hope is that by focusing on single things, in succinct and accessible essays, we can then better appreciate how all these things coexist (and when they don't) in this world, or in this life, or whatever it is that we mean when we call on ‘environment’ to do rhetorical, moral, or political work.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Reflecting on & Experimenting with "Prismatic Ecologies"

At the recent conference for the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), I dared my rental car company by lingering in Lawrence, Kansas for an extra couple hours, squeezing out some additional time so that I could go to a panel I was very excited about, but thought I would have to miss: it was organized around Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's forthcoming collection Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green.

I had heard of this book from Tim Morton (who has a chapter in it), and was intrigued to say the least. Then I met Jeffrey at ASLE (he attended the panel I organized, on "Weather Machines"), and we hung out a good deal throughout the rest of the conference; we really clicked, one of those rare encounters that is perfectly timed for innumerable and incalculable reasons. Needless to say, the panel on "Prismatic Ecologies" was excellent and stimulating—and it continues to brew in my mind. I'm eager to read the entire book, and based on what I heard in this panel, and what I know of many of the other contributors (such as Stacy Alaimo, whose plenary talk at ASLE was utterly compelling), I can imagine assigning it in my Environmental Theory course at Loyola in the future.

Just in time to avoid late fees from Enterprise, I made it back to the airport: Kansas City International, a classic (and practically instantaneously obsolete) early-1970s drive-to-gate design. Here's a breathtaking view of one of the terminals from the perspective of the shuttle bus window, en route from the rental car hub:

This airport is curious for the ways that the rental car hub both anticipates and rather undermines the actual airport experience. When you drop off your car, you have to wander through a cavernous terminal wherein the different rental companies are staged almost like airline check-in counters, then trudge down an escalator bank, only then to wait in a gloomy, smoggy bus garage...finally to be ferried over to the low profile C-shaped terminal buildings. By the time you get to the airport, it feels weirdly anti-climactic.

Once through security, I ordered lunch at a baseball-themed pub that served large plates of food accompanied by plastic forks and knives. As I worked on (the phrase is appropriate here) a bratwurst the size of my arm, I thought back over the conference with feelings of intellectual excitement and curiosity. (Later, reading Jeffrey's reflection on ASLE, as well as Steve Mentz's, I was heartened to see that I was not alone.)

Sitting in the airport restaurant looking out over the tarmac, I sipped a Stella Artois and scrolled through the #ASLE13 twitter feed. At some point someone retweeted a story about "hot pink slugs" that existed on some high mountain somewhere far away. This sent me back to the Prismatic Ecologies panel, and, inspired by the gauntlet thrown down by the panelists' various 'shades' beyond green, I decided to take a walk in the woods—but a very simple and ordinary walk—to see how many different colors I could find, and what they might tell me. (I also had the thought to map prismatic ecologies at the airport, but that will be a different project for another time.)

This desire to go out in the woods was then interrupted (and bolstered, too) by several flights and attendant airport layovers, followed by a 1300-mile drive across the country (long story).

But now I have done it. I went for a completely routine walk behind my summer home in northern Michigan, keeping an eye out for prismatic ecologies. As I quote from the speakers on the panel below, I should say here that these were notes taken on the fly; my apologies if I've bungled anything in hastily jotting it down. And I should admit from the outset that I've taken 'prismatic ecologies' in an almost ridiculously literal way, walking in the woods and then nature writing about it. It's just an experiment.

As I walked along a familiar trail back toward the forest, the first thing I noticed was how the newly emerging sapling sugar maple leaves were a brilliant pink against the more mature kelly green growth. I was just twenty yards from the house, and already I was confronted with the fact that, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen put it, "you can't totalize green into a single system"—the tiny pink leaves in June were reminders of the late spring, and the called attention to other processes and things that resisted static coloration. I found myself looking around and zooming in and out, from the weird speckled gray glacial stones under my feet to the even weirder glowing maroon buds at the tips of the white spruce limbs. Indeed, I found that, in Jeffrey's words, "rainbows are perspectival"—the spectrum makes you take on different perspectives and adjust phenomenological registers accordingly.

Considering the maroon buds on these spruce trees, I recalled how Lowel Duckert had offered the counterintuitive insight that "the color maroon is never alone." Even as I was isolating the buds and taking note of their color, which I'd never before noticed, I was given over to the realization, as Lowell put it, that I was not "marooned from things, but always co-implicated with them." I found myself wondering if the white spruce was a native species (turns out it is), and recalling my own thwarted efforts as a kid to climb up one to retrieve an errant frisbee (their branches become a thick matrix, and the needles very prickly; I have muscle memory of my thoroughly scratched teenage body).

Further along the trail, I passed through a sumac stand, an aspen grove, and then entered the darker climax stage forest. Among the maples and beeches, I paused to look at a decaying stump of a bigtooth aspen.

The brown chunks seemed simultaneously to be stacked intricately and falling randomly on the ground. It was true, as Steve Mentz had pointed out, that "brown is a connective color, but it can stain, too." The decomposing aspen stump was indicative of the shifting succession of my region, how the shoreline along Lake Michigan gradually changes from dune grass to junipers to pines to oaks...on and on, working through species and working them back into the soil, one day probably to be engulfed by glaciers again. The stump was an exception to the other trees, and evidence of a logic at work. I was reminded of Steve's open question about what happens when "blue turns to brown," which I took to stand for any number of slow or sudden transitions when ecosystems shift and events rupture what we thought things were supposed to look like.

Next I entered a wide valley, where bracken ferns used to grow up as high as my waist and so dense that lying down under them was like being in a miniature forest. Now this valley is flattened and covered with deep tread marks; it is the site of the logging extravaganza that I wrote about last summer.

As I walked along this small wasteland, bracken fern fiddleheads just starting to reclaim the space, I spotted a smooth blue stone, and I knelt down to look more closely at the rust colored scratches on the stone: scrapes from the giant log skidder as it rolled over the valley, dragging giant white ash, sugar maple, and red oak trunks. And this blue stone sent me back to Eileen Joy's provocative segment of the panel, how she talked about a "blues ecology"—comportments such as depression, sadness, and melancholy, and how these things figure into ecological awareness. Eileen posed the question, "Do these only take place inside one? Or are they also in the world, atmospheric?" My complicated feelings about and perceptions of the aftermath of the logging operation in the woods spoke to this problem, and the blue stone at my feet became a scarred objective correlative.

Vin Nardizzi was not able to make the conference, but I was lucky enough (thanks to my colleague Hillary Eklund) to hear Vin speak at Loyola earlier this year from his chapter in Prismatic Ecology, about when ecosystems tarry with monstrosity and manufactured hybridity, and green becomes greener. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by this sensation even when nothing seems wrong, but the forest looms around me and reminds me that I am both in it and outside it, a conscious mapper of species, property lines, and trails, and another mere mammal passing through.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Object of Object Lessons

Ian & I wrote the following paragraphs as part of our initial proposal materials for Object Lessons. I thought it might be helpful by way of further explaining the rationale behind the series.


These days, we usually think of “technology” as a synonym for new innovations in industry—computers, mobile devices, and the Internet, of course, but also energy consumption and resource management, logistics and transport, and so forth.

But we could also understand technology as a much broader category, one that includes almost anything that is made by someone (or something), or that makes something else in turn. In addition to new marvels, technology also encompasses much more mundane things. Some of the most influential and widespread technologies go unnoticed and undiscussed.

For example, the rubber band, first invented in the mid-19th century, remains a ubiquitous, viable device for holding things together. Plastic garbage bags are lightweight and water-tight, thus making wet waste more easily managed. Corrugated paper in the shape of cardboard boxes fly around the globe carrying any number of consumable products, from the cheapest disposable toys to the latest iPhones. The intermodal freight container makes it possible to move goods by ship, rail, and truck, thus facilitating the global distribution of all sorts of other objects—like garbage bags and rubber bands. Meanwhile, crows gather bottle caps and sticks to construct and decorate nests in the tops of basswood trees, whose own seedpods are shaped like sailplanes to better disseminate across ice and snow in the winter.

In all of these cases, some material object transforms the world, sometimes in obvious, immediate ways, other times in a more subtle fashion.

When we talk about technology today, we ought to think across scales, eras, materials, even species. Marshall McLuhan gave the name “media” to anything that influences or alters our perception and experience in the world. Today, we might say that “technology” is an equivalent concept, but also an even broader one: media and technologies are anything whatsoever that influences the nature or experience of anything else—not just people, but also animals, ecosystems, industries, and more.

This is the rationale behind Object Lessons, a regular series in The Atlantic’s technology channel covering focused yet eccentric studies of singular objects and the lessons they hold. Contributions will ordinarily be essays (2000 words on average), drawn from authors in industry, academia, design, and beyond, written for a broad and general readership. The resulting contributions will expand the scope of The Atlantic Tech, while also opening the channel to a readership that might not think of themselves as “technology” enthusiasts. At the same time, Object Lessons will also invite authors to connect historical and natural things, or seemingly “untechnological” objects to today’s technology culture.

While every Object Lessons essay will stand on its own, the column will also serve as a testing ground for possible book-length projects (of roughly 25,000 words) for a corollary series published by Bloomsbury. Far from exhaustive studies or complete histories, we envision the Object Lessons books as intelligent and imaginative provocations, small books that are a pleasure to hold and read—books that leave the reader ruminating on whatever ordinary thing appears on the cover. They will be pithy, affordable, and beautifully designed books on a wide variety of things, written by authors from an equally wide range of fields and disciplines. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Object Lessons

Ian Bogost and I have just officially launched our new series of essays and books, Object Lessons.

Read, play, propose an essay or a book!