EHTV Episode 03: Archival Intimacies, New Encounters in Atlantic Canada

This month, EHTV takes us to Atlantic Canada alongside two environmental history graduate students as they explore historical sites and archives in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in a superb video shot and produced by Sinead Earley, featuring Kirsten Greer. You can read a full account of their journey in Kirsten’s recent article from The Otter here. Sinead describe’s this episode as follows:

This past May, fellow doctoral student Kirsten Greer and I travelled from Kingston, Ontario, to the eastern shores of Canada. We were both appreciative of the chance to attend the Canadian History and Environment Summer School in St. Andrew’s by the Sea, New Brunswick, but we also took the opportunity to explore further afield. By way of a rather bumpy video recording we documented our fieldwork, from St. John to Musquash to Halifax, in a short piece called Archival Intimacies: New Encounters in Atlantic Canada. I welcomed the occasion to set aside my writing tools and pick up the video camera.

EHTV is a forum that allows me to express what I consider to be two very important aspects of academic scholarship:

1. It draws research out of an institutional setting, away from boxed offices and confined corridors, and into the public sphere. It is important for research to have such lines of access and expression.

2. It allows researchers to move beyond logocentric forms of communication (perhaps very important for environmental historians studying a ‘silent’ nature) and allows us to develop alternatives to the pressures and competitive asphyxiations of the “publish or perish” culture that exists in academia. Cinematic mediums can convey emotion, motion and urgency in ways that the written word sometimes cannot.

In addition to merely making the outcomes of our research public, I also think it important to show how we gather our information, and how we situate ourselves within our research methods. It became evident to me throughout our trip to Canada’s east coast that designing one’s own ‘archival trail’ can be complicated and demands rigorous work. Lengthy communications with archivists, museum curators, government employees and local historians must take place prior to visits; coordination is tricky; these trips dig into our dwindling funding coffers and we must be very efficient with the identification, retrieval and recording of pertinent materials. Regardless of the toils involved, archival adventures always reveal unexpected findings, and keep us on our toes. They also give us the opportunity to reflect upon why and how we do the work we do.

The work of Hugh Raffles is heavily laden with such methodological questions. He delivers a most fascinating treatise on insects in his most recent work Insectopedia (2010), but his philosophical meanderings explore much more than the arthropods of the world. The ‘object’ of study, what specimens and artifacts of historical research are is evasive, most particularly, as Raffles points out, when the beings we may study (birds, trees, rivers, fires, soils, energy) have ways of being that are so radically different from our own. It is important for students of environmental history to respect their sources. As Raffles laments: “What pitiful poverty of imagination to see them as resources merely for our self-knowledge!” (p. 200) I try to think of these concerns as I move through museums, archives, herbariums or landscapes, and try to make note of the presumptions and judgments that guide my experience. Perhaps exposing these questions through film may convey a more embodied impression of academic fieldwork.

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Sean Kheraj is an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. He researches and teaches in the areas of environmental and Canadian history. In addition to being a co-editor of niche-canada.org, he is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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