This is the 8th in a series of posts written by recipients of NiCHE New Scholar Travel Grants to attend the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal.
The World Congress represented a series of firsts for me: first international conference, first environmental history conference, first visit to Portugal, first extended trip away from my young children – which is to say, I enjoyed every minute of the experience. The trip also brought home for me what a conference, at its best, can do. It provided intellectual stimulation, it offered much-needed sociability to counter-balance the solitude of academic research and writing, and it reminded me that I love what I do.
The paper I gave, “’Adams and Eves’ or ‘a bunch of naked hippies’: Nudists, Nudity and the Natural Environment in Postwar Canada,” offered a reflection on the distinctions in spatial organization and attitudes towards nature at Canadian nudist clubs versus Vancouver’s clothing-optional Wreck Beach. I argued that nudists saw nature as something that should be cultivated and improved upon – not something standing in opposition to culture but enhanced by it. Moreover, nudist ideas about nature found further expression in their efforts to tame and channel bodily impulses and desires. In contrast, Wreck Beach users tended to embrace a hands-off approach to the natural environment and the regulation of beach behaviour. Both groups, however, in the words of William Cronon, “appealed to nature for moral authority.”
My paper was version 2.0 of one I presented at the Directions West Conference in Calgary in the summer of 2012. At that time, I was six weeks out from submitting to defense my doctoral dissertation, a cultural history of nudism in postwar Canada, and I was struggling to get a handle on the final chapter, on which my paper was to be based. I wanted to explore how the physical environment framed the act of going nude — i.e. the relationship between nudists and their environment. A self-identified social historian, I found that this move into environmental history posed a mental hurdle, but the Directions West Conference provided an immediate impetus for thinking through and fleshing out my ideas. Body pun, I know.
Presenting on this topic two years later at the World Congress, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that experience. Whereas my first presentation served as a testing ground for early research formulations, and my head space was consumed with dissertation writing and editing, at the WCEH I was able to savour the conference experience and more fully consider connections between my own work and others – whether that of my Canadian co-panelists or the presenters at the other sessions I attended. The WCEH also helped dispel any lingering intimidation I had about whether or not I could legitimately “do” environmental history. I came away with the sense that it is the simple (or not so simple) act of grappling seriously with the relationship between people and place that constitutes an environmental history approach, something I hope informs all of my work in the future.
I have to admit that the informal parts of the conference – chats over coffee and lunch breaks, leisurely outdoor dinners in the old city – were the highlight for me, providing opportunities to meet a fascinating mix of scholars. The beautiful climate and setting of Guimarães, together with a well-organized conference program, contributed to a relaxed and congenial atmosphere. The academic life can be a solitary one, particularly for those of us who are neither graduate students nor tenured faculty. Presumably most of us historians embrace the solitude of the archive and (maybe less so) the writing process. But it certainly makes me appreciate the opportunities for direct interactions with colleagues – a chance to build connections, hear about work that we will want to integrate into our own and share with our students, and simply socialize with others who share our professional interests.
Finally, I came away from the WCEH with a renewed sense of passion for scholarship. In the midst of freezes to post-secondary funding and a tough academic job market, the conference reminded me that I do what I do because of the pleasure of following my intellectual curiosity. And it also demonstrated some of the many connections that can be drawn between past and present, Canada and the world, and the unique contributions of environmental historians to doing so.