Editor’s note: This is the first 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 grew up in Calgary but left home to do my undergraduate work at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2008. I came to Laurier with the suspicion that I would be interested in majoring in Religion and Culture and this interest was quickly confirmed for me. From there I wanted to continue with religious studies and to further develop my anthropological approach, so I joined the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto in 2012 to complete my MA which I wrote on cultural safety and indigenous midwifery practices in Toronto. After my MA, I continued on to do my PhD at the Department for the Study of Religion where I am now a doctoral candidate. I returned to Calgary after this decade to complete my archival work and fieldwork in 2018.
What brought you to the field of environmental history?
I think I might have taken the scenic route to get here. When it comes to the environmental part of ‘environmental history’ I found myself drawn to the field the more certain I became that I wanted to study place, land, and labour as central categories of meaning in people’s lives. I became interested in history through the process of researching my current project and discovering how much imagining about the past and historical legacies were appearing in my ethnographic experiences. In studying religion, I am working to understand what stories, practices, and other tools play a role in how communities and individuals situate themselves meaningfully in the world. Environmental history is key to this effort, both in revealing how place and land shape people’s spiritual worlds, but also in connecting contemporary relationships to place with that place’s past.
In three sentences or fewer, tell us the focus of your current research.
My current research focuses on how oil in Alberta is a key symbolic element in imagining what a ‘good life’ is and how someone might go about living it. My project is endeavouring through archival and ethnographic methods to discover how the work of oil extraction — and the religiously configured context of colonial settlement that enabled it — shaped an inheritance of values about land use, labour, and aspiration and the ways that those values now circulate in contemporary Alberta.
Other than your current focus, what is another area of environmental history that interests you?
Continuing on the theme of symbols of aspiration, I am really interested in the origins and legacies of luxury leisure in the Rockies and how participants in this imagine what it is to be in the mountains spirituality, restfully, and, of course, what wealth has to do with that. Moving away from aspiration, I am also interested in returning to one of the themes that sparked my interest in oil – the experience of spiritual despair and mental health crisis in oil cultures.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Does that overlap with your decision to study environmental history?
For most of my childhood and adolescence I was working towards eventually being in film. I was a movie buff and spent a lot of time doing dramatic training before becoming disillusioned. So I have traveled a long way to get to my current work. That being said, I think my love of film was based in a deep curiosity about other people’s stories as well as a vulnerability to being enchanted by place, so maybe there is some overlap.
What is your favorite part of doing environment-focused historical research?
My favourite part of doing environment focused historical research is that the focus on place, land, and labour makes me feel very connected to historical people and to my contemporary interlocutors. In my experience, environmental history is unique because of the ease with which it can be a shared topic. I have been surprised and delighted by how excited people are to speak to me about their own experiences or about discoveries I have made in the archives.
What part of studying environmental history most excites you? What is most daunting?
I am most excited by the enthusiastic response I mentioned above. Environmental topics connect people in a way that I think will be constitutive of ongoing questions of value, meaning, and our shared places. I can also find this same thing daunting, that there are so many diverse lives interacting with and experiencing a place, and that the land itself has its own story that I may not necessarily be able to read or hear.
Where is your favorite place to be?
Anywhere along the banks of the Bow river.
Do you have a favorite book, podcast, film, work of art related to the non-human world that you would recommend others check out?
I have many! But just to pick one, last year when I was in Calgary doing fieldwork I got to see the Mary Anne Barkhouse exhibition Le rêve aux loups at the Esker foundation gallery and it was so incredibly helpful and interesting for articulating categories of home, the natural world, domesticity, and wildness (https://eskerfoundation.com/exhibition/mary-anne-barkhouse/ ).
Why do you think environmental history is an important field of study?
I think that questions about environmental history are important because they are key to people’s lived experiences. They are also urgent. Conversations about environmental history are essential as people in North America attempt to imagine a future that navigates the realities of climate change; a project for which it is crucial that people confront the values they have inherited and either reject them or wield them with intention.
Where can folks follow your work or connect with you?
I can be connected with on twitter @JEBrunton.