It’s Not Easy Reading Green

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This is the third in a series called “Get Outside!” about field trips and teaching environmental history outside the classroom. You can find the other posts here.

Name and School: Richard Pickard, University of Victoria

Course: ENGL 478 – Special Studies in Literature and Environment (Fall 2018). This is a variable content course, which means it can’t cover the same material in any rolling three-year window. This year’s version was entitled “It’s Not Easy Reading Green”; we focused closely on ecological grief (and rage), and the 15 students and I read several works of literature based in British Columbia along with numerous articles and chapters of environmental history, ecocriticism, and journalism.

As well as being a senior-level English course, ENGL478 can be used for credit toward the environmental studies major or toward a minor in human dimensions of climate change. Most years, one or more grad students from different programs use it as the basis for a directed reading course with me, but that wasn’t the case this time.

Trip destinations / types: We had two types of field trips in this course, mandatory on-campus excursions (meant to explore largely invisible sites of protest, injustice, and ecology: historic, contemporary, and forward-looking) and an optional off-campus excursion. I wanted students to think differently about the lands under UVic (as well as about UVic) after each on-campus excursion, and after the course was over.

Our off-campus excursion was to Sandcut Beach, where much of the action occurs in Theresa Kishkan’s beautiful novella Winter Wren, with a post-hike meal at long-time Sooke institution Mom’s Café.

Behind the falls.

How would you describe the different trips?
On-campus: eco-politic-academically decolonizing. Off-campus: making fiction real.

What was the rationale for the trips? How did they fit in the course? What did you hope to accomplish?
The on-campus trips were meant to unsettle the students about this place:
• the headwaters of Bowker Creek, which drains most of this part of Greater Victoria, can be found in the dredged pond in front of the University Club (formerly the Faculty Club);
• only about 125 years ago, what’s now the campus was inhabited and used productively as part of the traditional territories of the Songhees and Esquimalt peoples;
• one of the university’s buildings was constructed after a prolonged tree-sit protest was outflanked by the university.

Our readings were local and political, especially Rita Wong’s undercurrent and Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu, and so our irregularly scheduled walks were deliberately (if quietly) confrontational about the stories the university community tells about itself.
•The optional off-campus trip was on a Saturday. I wanted the students to see the physical place where one of our readings was set, to experience the collision between realist and real, fictional and material.

Falls, panorama.

What actually happened?
• Our on-campus excursions immersed students a little more deeply into the history and present of the land on which the university squats, and we ended up talking more about decolonization than I had expected to:
• On the grass quadrangle, we talked about the orchard that had been there before the university moved in 50 years ago, and about the Songhees village that had stood in roughly the same place until the site was first farmed 125 years ago.
• Outside the Medical Sciences Building, we talked about the tree-sit protest that had occurred there in 2002-03, as documented by Michael M’Gonigle and Justine Starke in their book Planet U — a protest which had been betrayed by the university.
• Walking the paths between and around buildings, we picked and ate Himalayan blackberries and Oregon grapes, and we talked about the history of both species. On one of our #FoodFridays, I brought in jelly made from each fruit for us to share on home-made bread. (Every Friday, a few people brought food and/or drink to share: there was no schedule, no sign-up sheet, just a sense of community.)

Jam and bread on #FoodFriday.

The off-campus excursion, though to my chagrin attended by only two students, opened up the place-attentive literature, namely Kishkan’s Winter Wren, in what I think were irreplaceable ways.

In the novella, Kishkan’s main human character (Grace Oakden) lives in a small shack at Sandcut Beach, above a waterfall which drops over a sandstone ledge four metres into the sand. Grace makes a practice of showering naked under the falls, and it’s a marker of her embeddedness here. When we visited in mid- November, what in summertime would be a trickle was hammering down, and it gave my students a very different sense of Grace’s independence and persistence. Similarly, Kishkan’s description of Grace’s move into the cabin, walking over a deep-humus soil with empty patches underfoot, is deeply evocative, but the students had barely noticed her description until they walked the same ground.

In the novella, Grace buys the cabin from Tom Winston, whose father is portrayed as having been a major buyer / plunderer of Indigenous cultural artifacts between BC and Alaska. Tom has been trying to undo and outrun his father’s heritage ever since. Our trip to Sandcut Beach couldn’t address that directly, and yet we found ourselves, albeit briefly, breathing Tom’s air and sharing his views.

In my view this was an irreplaceable experience, even if in some ways it has proved ephemeral.

From behind the falls.

What was the most productive or effective part of the experience for your students?
The excursions on campus, which were mostly about extremely local history, changed the way that my students understood UVic’s present (and potentially its future). This large institution has highly specific roots and stories, and a rich history of resistance and protest coexists with its fairly monolithic corporate façade. If you put these together, the university becomes a place to be influenced, rather than a place that influences, and achieving this awareness is an essential precondition before decolonization can really get underway.

The trip to Sandcut Beach worked because it made the fictional seem more real, and exposed the complicated degree of realness that underpins realist fiction. Winter Wren is about how to live in this place, but this 2017 novella was set mostly in 1974, and we were reading it in 2018. Visiting the place clarified that we shouldn’t have been reading Winter Wren as historical fiction, and it suggested that we shouldn’t read anything historical as if it’s located securely in the past.

What would (or will) you do differently? What words of advice do you have about field trips for environmental history classes?
Next time, if there is a next time (since with 15-20 students the course was roughly half full the last few times it’s been offered, and enrolment pressure), we’ll be outside more and we’ll be going further. Students respond incredibly well to anything experiential, and because the learning objectives of environmental humanities courses can be so readily grounded in place, we’re going out onto local grounds every chance we get. Universities need to be transformed, most pressingly for reasons related to decolonization and climate change, and field trips can help with that transformation.

Advice? Get outside the classroom, not because everyone likes to sit under a tree in the sun (though they do), but because the classroom isn’t a big enough venue for your ideas. It’ll change how you think about teaching, and it’ll change what your students learn in your course, how they learn, and what they imagine they can do in future with what they’ve learned.

And most importantly, keep in mind simply that you don’t need to aim high. Modest change is a great first step, and you don’t know how much impact a small change in your pedagogy might have on your students. Don’t let your own ambitions prevent you from experimenting!

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