Unearthed: Ramya Swayamprakash

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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.

Ramya kayaking around Peche Island in the Detroit River; photo credit: Ramya Swayamprakesh

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

I am originally from India but now have lived in North America for a chunk of my adult life in addition to birthing an American. So, I have a confused sense of home. My academic background is a testament to my confusion – I have studied journalism, political science, science policy studies, urban design, environmental law, and now history. Yes, I have been in graduate school longer than most people take from high school to a PhD. Sigh.

I am a single parent to a toddler, so my hobbies are picking up his mess, trying to get him to not make a mess in the first place, reading to him etc. Outside of single parenting, I enjoy running, hiking, kayaking, i.e. being outdoors in addition to – and wait for it – reading.

What brought you to the field of environmental history?

I was about eleven when I camped out in a jungle for a week as part of a kids camp. We explored the forest, paying special attention to human effects on non-humans. That experience changed my entire relationship with nature and I became interested in understanding human impacts on nature.

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

My current research explores dredging in the Detroit River from 1865-1930. I argue that dredging – as a means to create efficient and effective shipping channels in the Detroit River – was a recasting of nature as infrastructure.

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

I wanted to be an environmental journalist, telling stories of how we could do better as a species. My first real job was as an environmental journalist, and I did not enjoy it as much. I realized I needed to study some more before I could tell any stories convincingly.

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

Finding what might seem like random stories. I recently wrote a piece about a pop-up town that came up on an island in the lower Detroit River from 1908-11 to house workers working on the Livingstone Channel. Once construction was complete, the town was disassembled and everyone packed up and left for the next project which happened to be the Catskill aqueduct. We talk about company towns and company sponsored housing, but I had never heard of a pop-up town.

The Lower Detroit River in all its infrastructural glory; photo credit: Ramya Swayamprakash

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

The most exciting and daunting parts are the same: the untold story. When I first started researching the Detroit River, I looked at the map and found this odd inverted v-shaped island near Amherstburg. I couldn’t believe it was natural. Now, almost six years later, I know enough to know that this was a completely human-made island (one of an few in the river) that was meant to house dredge spoils and regulate shipping traffic. The story of this island is extremely exciting but it has taken me the better part of six years to try and piece parts of it together.

Where is your favourite place to be?

On top of a mountain, or wetting my feet in a stream or the ocean – any place I can soak in nature.

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

Gosh, there is so much! One would be the history of hydraulic manipulation over time. A second would be the interrelated histories of pollution and stewardship.

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

My favourite books are The Organic Machine and Cadillac Desert. I really enjoyed watching Return of the River – it filled me with hope about what we can do when we put our mind to it.

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

Environmental history tells cause and effect stories that remind of our effects on the natural world. It reminds us of the fragility of our own existence.

Where can folks follow your work or connect with you?

I am on twitter at @ramyasway and my email is ramya.swayamprakash@gmail.com.

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Ramya is an Assistant Professor in Integrative, Religious, and Intercultural Studies at the Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Grand Valley State University in Allendale MI. A transnational and interdisciplinary environmental scholar who focuses on rivers, dredging, and the place of nature in the Great Lakes, Ramya’s research has been published in academic and public-facing avenues. She takes tea and dredging (not necessarily in that order) seriously. Ramya has also published work on dams in South Asia. As a survivor of domestic abuse and as a single parent, Ramya’s scholarship is driven by a commitment to social/ecological justice and equity. Website: www.riverborders.com Twitter: @ramyasat

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