Unearthed: Hailey Venn

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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.

City of Vancouver Landfill, Open House of June, 2018. Credit for all photos: Hailey Venn

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

I grew up in Greater Vancouver, pursuing my bachelor’s and now master’s at Simon Fraser University. My committee is composed of Tina Adcock (Sr. Supervisor) and Joseph E. Taylor III.

The pandemic has put some hobbies on hold – first and foremost, Magic: the Gathering, the card game – while others have come more to the forefront. I taught violin up until 2017 and had to tuck the instrument away when things got hectic. Pulling the instrument out of the spare room has helped make COVID-19 lockdown far more bearable.

A consistent hobby has been the management of a house hippo Instagram account which, on occasion, allows me to share snippets of my research with a global audience. To be fair, the activities of @HenryTheHeartsomeHippo are mostly frivolous and designed to make my long-distance partner laugh, but by now Henry has been personally thanked for the joy that he provides to those well beyond Canada. (Adding further incentive, the success of Henry’s account has driven a frustrated Joseph Taylor out of his own office when he heard of Henry’s following.)

Henry the Heartsome Hippo alongside Dr. Mathisen the rabbit. Mathisen – named after a central figure of my second thesis chapter -was salvaged from the forest next to the landfill when Warren Nottingham (one of my oral history participants) gave me a tour of the property last spring. Presumably, the rabbit was thrown away after he lost an ear, plucked from the fill by an eagle, and then promptly discarded again by the bird.

What brought you to the field of environmental history?

I have one key mentor to thank in this regard: Tina Adcock. I loved everything about her 200-level Social History of Canada course, from what she taught to how she taught it. The environmental history content was an area I instantly became intrigued by. I immediately developed a desire to better understand the world by pursuing the subfield in my undergrad studies. That quickly progressed into a master’s pursuit after seeing a front page story of the Vancouver Sun (pictured above). The February, 2016 article emerged amid a regional concern with declining bald eagle counts, yet the landfill proved to be a haven for those birds who sought a steady food supply provided by gulls rather than salmon. This got me thinking about landfills in particular as intersectional spaces and intricate ecosystems.

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

My thesis centres on the Vancouver-operated landfill, sited in Delta, BC since 1966. The case study stands at the intersection of discard studies, BC political history, and high modernist theory, though the thesis posits that mundane modernism might be the best way to describe such structures and the relations they produce. This landfill represents a maintenance of cost-effective landfilling, rather than awe-inspiring “progress” tied to grand engineering innovation.

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

Deep down, I always knew that I was bound to teach. (Grade school classmates consistently voted me “Most likely to come back to teach,” so I guess I must have given off the ‘teacher vibe.’) As a kid, dolls failed to capture my interest, but animals (and especially turtles) always proved a source of fascination. While Jumoka the turtle did not push me to study chelonian biology, it’s safe to say that I could have leaned more in the direction of social history had it not been for my long-held interest in understanding ecosystems.

One of our many SFU Department of History mascots and always
in attendance when students have a paper day.

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

I suppose one of the greatest joys of centring one’s research on leachate (the liquid waste produced by a landfill) is that one can inspire both activists and engineers to go beyond their intellectual comfort zones. Studies which centre on landscapes – namely, intricate and non-static subjects – provide immense potential to challenge how the public understands different histories. Activists and engineers alike can benefit from both parties entering a conversation which situates leachate management in historical context. Activists need to appreciate the nuances of hydrogeology while engineers need to accept that many of their assumptions are the product of generalizations.

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

I’m inclined to answer both with diving into historical engineering reports/literature and then making that content comprehensible to diverse audiences. It has not been easy to unpack what postwar landfill engineers got right, what they got wrong, and how the ambiguities of such knowledge created loopholes for political bodies united against citizen resistance. That said, the work has been more than worth it.

Where is your favourite place to be?

Those who have followed me since my undergrad days know that I have a soft spot for a tiny tourist town named Harrison Hot Springs. The community is located less than two hours out of Vancouver, nestled in the south side of Harrison Lake. Generations of my family have vacationed at Harrison and I have nothing but fond memories of it. Through conducting a semester of research in that location prior to my master’s, I built up a collection of local stories which continue to surprise even the locals.

Harrison Lake, BC, photo taken on south shore.

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

Harrison and similar communities fascinate me, and I also have an interest in Women’s Institutes of BC. During my undergrad, I stumbled on these social structures, designed to ‘educate’ and regulate the activities of suburban women during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The timing to pursue such research further did not line up, but it is an ideal passion project for the future.

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

My interests being what they are, I recommend that folks pick up Martin V. Melosi’s new book, Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City.

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

Not to beat a dead horse here, but we are seeing the value of historical perspectives amid the current pandemic. Scholars and laypersons alike greatly benefit from understanding how such issues need to be understood within their spatial and temporal contexts, but also how institutions are at the centre of social, political, and environmental turmoil. Whether it is epidemiology, climatology, agricultural studies, or discard studies, such fields reveal how pursuit of “modernity” in turn creates consequences, harm which tends to impact those already marginalized.

Where can folks follow your work or connect with you?

My Twitter account (@HaileyVenn) is probably the best way to reach me as I will be switching institutional emails in the near future. (The fall-back is turtleviolinist@shaw.ca.) My thesis will be published through SFU’s Department of History this year.

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Hailey Venn

Hailey Venn is an MA candidate at Simon Fraser University. Her thesis, centred on the Vancouver landfill situated in Delta, is tentatively titled "Dumping like a State: The High Modernist(?) Project of the Vancouver-Delta Landfill, 1958-1981."

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