Unearthed: Caitlynn Beckett

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Editor’s note: This post is part of 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 Regina, Saskatchewan and completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. During this time, I spent the first few years of my studies ‘undeclared’, hopping between majors in Fine Arts, Biology, and finally International Political Studies. In the summers of my undergraduate degree, I worked for Saskatchewan Parks as a park interpreter in Southern Saskatchewan. My favourite part of this job was taking school groups on hikes and organizing cultural and environmental events in the parks. I specifically remember programs where we taught kids how to identify frogs, how to eat the inside of a prickly pear cactus, and explained the cultural significance of bison. I really loved connecting stories to the plants, animals and places around me. I have always been interested in interdisciplinary research, which meant that, as an undergraduate student, I struggled to find a place to fit. Thankfully, my graduate studies in Geography have provided a space to jump between these different interests. While I had always wanted to complete a Master’s degree, doing a PhD had not been a part of the plan, but when given the opportunity to continue working with a wonderful, supportive department on a project that I love, I couldn’t say no. Now, I am a PhD Candidate in Geography at Memorial and am spending my summers working in Yukon.

What brought you to the field of environmental history?

As a part of my International Studies degree, I took an environmental history class (to cross off the history requirements for my degree) that ended up really peeking my interest, bringing together my love for history, international politics, environmental policy and biology (shout out here to Dr. Jim Clifford at the University of Saskatchewan). This class also made me think more critically (and politically) about the fields of biology and environmental sciences more broadly – something that was lacking in the rest of my education.

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

My research investigates mine remediation projects and processes across Northern Canada. I analyze how remediation projects are defined (historically and contemporarily), how nearby communities become involved (or resist), and how different types of remediation narratives reflect colonial environmental management techniques, land dispossession, and Indigenous resistance. Mine remediation (which includes other practices such as restoration, reclamation, and rehabilitation etc.) provides an opportunity to re-create, or fix landscapes that have been destroyed – both environmentally and culturally. However, these opportunities to confront environmental violence are often overlooked in favour of technological fixes that sweep complex histories under the rug of revegetation.

(Thermosyphon Inspection, Giant Mine Site, May 2016 with Natalie Plato and Caitlynn Beckett. Photo Credit: Sally Western)

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

More broadly, I am interested in the cross overs between environmental history and histories of science (or science and technology studies).

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

I don’t think I have ever had a clear vision of what I want to be ‘when I grow up’, even though that doesn’t make for a great story. As I mentioned, I never planned to do a PhD – that just happened because I loved the research I was doing and felt accountable to the people, projects and processes that I have become involved in through my Master’s work. I have really just taken opportunities as they presented themselves. In a similar way, my decision to incorporate environmental history work into my research in geography has come about organically, and builds on the work of the many other wonderful researchers I’ve had the chance to work with.

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

 My favourite part of environmentally-focused history, and geography more broadly, is that there is ample space within the research to combine historical research with contemporary policy work and activism. My PhD research is historical as well as participatory and action-based. I am so lucky to have the opportunity to work directly with communities to develop research objectives and questions. Through participation in remediation planning processes and environmental assessments, the historical research I do can directly support communities’ interests and long-term goals for remediation and land use.

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

As mentioned above, my favourite part of environmental history is the ways in which the discipline can bring together multiple narratives and methods. I enjoy piecing together the different stories of remediation using archival analysis, interviews, and participatory action research. The most daunting part is connecting this research to larger questions surrounding environmental change and destruction in such a way that is strategic and leads to broader action against environmental violence.

Where is your favorite place to be?

Even though I’ve spent the past four years living between St. John’s, Newfoundland and fieldwork sites in the NWT and Yukon, I always yearn for my prairie home, and make sure to schedule annual visits to the grasslands. I have really loved the many opportunities I have had throughout my graduate work to travel and live across Canada – but it is hard to constantly move around, forgoing the chance to make a place your own. In this sense, my attachment to the prairies, no matter how far away I am, provides some semblance of home as I follow my research work from place to place.

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

Podcast – Cultures of Energy, which is hosted by anthropologists at Rice University, but there is a lot of great content about environmentally focused research, energy, mining and conversations surrounding climate change and the Anthropocene.

Where can interested folks follow your work or connect with you?

Twitter! @CaitlynnBeckett. There is also more information about my Masters research on NiCHE and the Toxic Legacies website. Or, check out my profile with the MUN Geography Department.

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Caitlynn Beckett

PhD Student at Memorial University of Newfoundland
I am currently a PhD student in Geography at Memorial University in St. John’s Newfoundland, where I also completed my MA in 2017. I am a settler scholar from Treaty 4 Territory and grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan. My research interests include processes of mine remediation, environmental justice, impact assessment and community engagement in resource extraction across Northern Canada.

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