Unearthed: Cristina Wood

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Editor’s note: This post is part of an occasional series entitled “Unearthed.” Launched by Heather Green in 2019 and currently edited by Justin Fisher, Unearthed features emerging environmental historians in Canada discussing 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.

Photo credit: Cristina Wood

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

I grew up mostly in Ottawa, Ontario but completed my BA in history and environmental studies in Kingston. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, that major and minor combination prepared me for my current research interests. 

In Kingston, I spent a few years working with a commemorative organization on public history and education materials, which led me to an MA in Public History and Digital Humanities at Carleton University. A great part of living in Ottawa again was the ready access to hiking, camping, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. I moved to Toronto this past September to begin the PhD program in history at York University, and am still getting used to the bigger city. 

 What brought you to the field of environmental history?

I began graduate school interested in monuments and memorials and the stories they tell, but quickly found myself drawn to a wider range of sites of memory (trees, dedicated viewpoints, and natural history landmarks.) A wonderful environmental history course with Joanna Dean at Carleton was my proper introduction to the field, and before long, I was hooked!

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

My Master’s project used a digital humanities technique called “data sonification” to make songs from a few stories of the Ottawa River’s pasts. My current goal is to explore and bring alive the river’s environmental history in more breadth and depth – through its transition from a transit and trade artery to a regulated, recreational place. As I go, I plan to keep experimenting with digital and public history methods and creative public engagement. 

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

I find animal history, especially in urban environments, very engaging. I am so admiring of work I have read in this area that has innovatively used source material to better comprehend nonhuman actors. 

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

I never had a dream career growing up but can remember wanting to be a fiction writer or poet for a phase. Although this interest doesn’t overlap with my decision to study environmental history, it might explain my interest in the environmental humanities more broadly. I love creative storytelling in nature writing and poetry and try to do as much of that kind of reading as possible.

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

Studying the riverscape and talking to folks about it has helped me appreciate the myriad perspectives people bring to the spaces they inhabit. My favourite part of environment-focused research is imagining all the dynamism of the more-than-human and trying to understand a sliver of it.

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

I think the interdisciplinarity of environmental history work is both the most exciting and most daunting thing for me. I am fascinated with the unique biology, geology and chemistry of the river, and all of this is important in understanding its past. Bringing archival documents and material culture into the mix to develop a narrative is a challenge.

Where is your favorite place to be?

Maybe curled up with a book by the water somewhere! 

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

Too many podcast favourites to name, but I just listened to a great episode about the guano islands in the Pacific Ocean. The 99% Invisible podcast has lots of intriguing stories about urban design and built environments and their pasts. I just finished reading Toronto writer Kyo Maclear’s memoir/meditation Birds Art Life and enjoyed following her journey to urban birdwatching and beyond.  

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

I think that an understanding of the interconnected histories of humans and their environments is vital for living well in the present and future. As a field, environmental history is generally open and interdisciplinary, which is so important in the face of the multifaceted challenges of our times.

Looking south across the river at ice fishing huts, February 2020. Photo credit: Cristina Wood
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Cristina is an Ph.D. Student in History at York University. Her research project is a public environmental history of the changing Ottawa River from 1880 on. She completed her M.A. in Public History and Digital Humanities at Carleton University in spring 2019.

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