Literature and the Environment: A Conversation with Mary Kuhn

Associate Professor Mary Kuhn (From the University of Virginia Department of English)

Wondering what environmental research is like outside the sciences? Unsure about what role the humanities play in sustainability? Mary Kuhn, Associate Professor from the Department of English spoke to me about her research in the environmental humanities and shared valuable insight on these questions.

How did you become interested in research related to the environment?
I think experience is a great teacher. I’ve loved being outdoors for as long as I can remember, and in college I worked in backcountry huts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There I gained first-hand experience with the actual footprint of low-impact backcountry development. The hut “croo” carried food up and waste down the mountain twice a week; we cooked and cleaned and changed propane tanks, and we managed the renewable energy systems—wind, solar, and hydro—that otherwise powered these remote buildings. The facilities operated according to wilderness ethics and leave no trace principles, but we were still cooking for up to sixty guests a night, and that generates a surprising amount of impact, not to mention garbage. The experience of hiking trash and recycling down the mountainside strapped to my back was a really good lesson in the realities of consumption—especially when I forgot to tie the garbage bags tightly enough! But the huts also gave me afternoons on breathtaking ridges, adrenaline-filled hikes through summer storms,  and a community of friends knitted together by our shared love of these mountain places.

I’ve always been interested in environmental issues, but for a long time I had the perception that the canon of “environmental literature” in the U.S. was largely male, white, and privileged, with few exceptions. In grad school I encountered a range of nineteenth-century authors writing domestic fiction—fiction associated with the home and family—who were environmentally engaged, and who disrupted the idea that nature writing was the domain of a privileged few who could afford to light out for the wilderness. In many respects, the home is seen as the opposite of the wilderness or the wild, two concepts that are often invoked as central to environmental ethics. My work challenges that.

What, if any, connections do you see between your research and sustainability?
The history of bioprospecting in the nineteenth century is largely about finding and extracting resources for markets, and there are lessons for us about the ways in which cultural attitudes shape consumption habits. Nineteenth-century literature is full of fascinating observations about consumption. Domestic household manuals, for instance, tend to be scrupulous about budgeting. The concept of planned obsolescence is a modern one; the idea was to conserve, reuse, and maintain, rather than replace. At the same time, many literary authors were interested in where goods came from, and how they were produced. Transparency didn’t necessarily translate into what we think of as ethical sourcing, however. This is most obvious when we see how accounts of production so often made the use of enslaved labor look natural or essential.

Environmental research is often associated with the sciences. What role do you think the humanities play in sustainability?
The humanities have a huge role to play in sustainability. Literary narratives, for instance, invite us to envision the world from other vantage points, and can challenge our assumptions about how the world works. Stories increase our ability to imagine how other people feel—and I think that’s an incredibly important part of how we increase our civic engagement. How do we understand ourselves in relation to the lives of others? How do our actions impact people we’ve never met and environments we’ve never seen? Storytelling help us think about our values and our actions in the context of our own lives and the lives of others. I also think that sustainability is by necessity an interdisciplinary project: the humanities, the sciences, planning, and policy all need to work together.

What are some of the challenges that you face conducting research related to the environment?
My research primarily focuses on nineteenth-century literature, and so in part the challenge is the work of recovery: trying to imagine nineteenth-century environmental ideas and realities from a 21st century perspective.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing research in your discipline?
Talk to people! Ask questions. Professors and librarians are great resources. People who know a subject or a place well are great resources, and you can learn a lot from letting your curiosity guide you and asking thoughtful questions.


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