An Ode to Environmental Humanities

This post was written by Carlee Schmidt Reber, HC Student Fellow

My college experience could be summed up in a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

While I hope Holmes’ mantra inspires me to seek new knowledge for the rest of my life, I can’t deny that university life is a hotspot era for expanding the dimensions of my mind. In just the first three days of classes this semester, I tried seeing art like an ancient Mesoamerican and learned that college students are to thank for the blessing of fine-free public restrooms in America. I can’t even conceptualize how to imagine the amount of mind-stretching insights I’ve had over my four-year degree (though the environmental humanities section is probably the biggest expansion, but I’ll come back to that in a minute).

The ideas and knowledge I gain here aren’t just intellectual trophies. They are experiential forces, shaping my identity and carving out the way I see the world. This formative nature of ideas is especially clear in the power of theory.

Though an enigmatic term, “theory” is nonetheless meaningful in academic circles; I would define it as different lenses that enable us to see real world dynamics at play in works of art. I’ve found that, as I wear the glasses of Marx or Latour or Nixon, I inevitably glance away from artwork and see the world through the same lens. Just as with the artwork, something comes to light I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise—and it’s a revelatory experience.

Because my emphasis in the Humanities major has been environmental, the theoretical ideas that have possessed me most often have been in the realm of ecocriticism. I’ve experienced Thomas Mann’s statement, “If you are possessed by an idea, you find it expressed everywhere, you even smell it.” I see the Anthropocene in Wonder Woman and interpret the dragons in How to Train Your Dragon as symbols of nature. I even have some ecocritical musings about the significance of the creatures in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The obsession may sound intrusive, but I love the way it enriches my experiences with the arts.

When I explain what I mean by environmental humanities major, I always describe it as “the study of how people understand their relationship to nature as expressed through the arts, culture, and religion.” It wasn’t until writing this introspective post that I realized when I give that definition, I’m also saying that nature is inextricably linked with culture. Nature used to be a place I went, but now—with the lens of ecocriticism imbued into my mind—I see nature everywhere. The realm of humans isn’t the lack of the natural, but a deeply intertwined relationship of humans with our natural world.

The intertwined view contrasts with the traditional concept of wilderness that is deeply rooted in the American psyche. Wilderness is the place where humans and their impacts are not present. It is the pure and undefiled nature. Humans are the worst pollutant to the wilderness seeker—even as we covet a solitary experience with the nature we feel other people would taint. As problematic as the idea of wilderness is upon reflection, it resonates and repeats itself all over our culture.

Even after all my studies, classes, and discussions, I have a hard time not using a wilderness discourse. Wilderness is our culturally taught idea about what nature is, and it shows up in the stories we tell in literature, film, Instagram posts, and to our friends after a weekend hike. The arts are how the concept perpetuates itself through generations.

Our hope, then, is that this is the same way our perception of the human relationship with nature can change. Your humanness is not a pollutant of nature; you are just much a part of nature as the wilderness. But we won’t believe this, we won’t see this, without stories and narratives and ideas that help us feel it. That is the significance of environmental humanities.

Without my studies and ponderings and the long papers I labored over, I wouldn’t have developed a new sense of nature. Now I can’t not think about it. And I couldn’t be happier about the new dimensions of my mind.

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