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.