Unearthed: Michelle Murphy

Image courtesy of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

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Editor’s note: This is the third post in an occasional series entitled “Unearthed,” edited by Heather Green and co-sponsored by Unwritten Histories, in which emerging environmental historians in Canada discuss what brought them to the field, why they value environmental history, and how it connects with life outside of academia. Find all the interviews from this series here.


Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background (academic, life experience, hobbies, etc)?

I am a current PhD student at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation. Last June, I completed my  Master of Art in the same faculty with a focus on mountain park history. I also hold a BSc with a focus on biology and food science. After my undergraduate degree, I was employed as an advisor at MacEwan University for several years, which is where I developed my interest in pursuing graduate studies.

Growing up, I spent a significant amount of time with horses – and as a result developed a passion for show jumping. Many hours were spent at the barn; I think this sparked my love of the outdoors. Eventually, I became interested in hiking and scrambling in the mountains and this passion has been the catalyst for my research focus. The rest of my time is spent with my two wonderful dogs who force me outside in all weather.

What brought you the field of environmental history?

My perspective is interdisciplinary – I am drawn to exploring and incorporating ideas of science and history into my research. Studying past human-environment interactions is exciting and relevant to addressing modern issues. I also enjoy the research process.

In three sentences or fewer, tell us the focus of your current research.

I am currently finishing up my coursework and am in the process of exploring topics to narrow down a focus. My MA research looked at ski resort developments and conservation politics along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I intend to continue my research in the same region to investigate the environmental impacts of recreational developments and facilities. I have an interest in trail-making for different recreational uses and am interesting in incorporating HGIS into my studies.

Other than your current focus, what is another area of environmental history that interests you?

Human-animal relationships and human-environment relationships are of considerable interest to me. I am intrigued by stories of historical interactions between humans and wild animals, and also between humans and companion animals (like horses and dogs) as they travel through the mountains. I also am curious about natural hazards and safety issues in mountain landscapes – avalanches, flooding, storms, etc.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Does that overlap with your decision to study environmental history?

I had many interests growing up. At one point, my goal was to be a professional show jumper – which I don’t think really overlaps with my current work! For many years, I also hoped to go to vet school to become a large animal veterinarian (specifically equine). I fell into the environmental history area and I found it really resonated for me. It brings together a number of my passions and provides a broad examination of topics.

What is your favorite part of doing environment-focused historical research?

Aside from being able to travel to the area I am studying, I enjoy imagining the landscape as I am reading, researching, and writing about it. The idea of writing about a place I love excites me and motivates me to continue forward with my research.

What part of studying environmental history most excites you? What is most daunting?

What excites me is being able to imagine the place I am writing about. I am fascinated by the past and the uncovering of interesting archival material to create a historical narrative. It can also be daunting, not only the neverending supply of material to be uncovered, but also trying to connect the pieces to create meaningful stories about the past.

Where is your favorite place to be?

Probably either in the mountains or surrounded by dogs and/or horses (or a combination of all of these things would be the best)!

Do you have a favorite book, podcast, film, work of art related to the natural world that you would recommend others check out?

For podcasts, I enjoy the Mongabay Newscast and Mountain Nature and Culture Podcast. I love art (although cannot create any myself) and my favourite artists are Shannon Ford and Patrick Markle. I have so many favourite books;  but a recent read that was fascinating  was Inner Ranges: An Anthology of Mountain Thoughts and Mountain People by Geoff Powter.

Why do you think environmental history is an important field of study?

Studying historical interactions with our environment is critical in our understanding of current problems; especially as we work towards new solutions. Environmental history provides a space to disseminate knowledge through narratives that transform our thinking.  I think it also acts as another means to share knowledge between different audiences.

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Michelle N. Murphy

Michelle is a PhD student at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation. Her research examines the environmental and cultural history of the Canadian Rockies from an interdisciplinary perspective. Michelle has also completed an MA from the same faculty, and a BSc. from the University of Alberta, Faculty of Agricultural, Life, and Environmental Sciences

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