Unearthed: Kenny Reilly

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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: Kenny Reilly

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

I was born in Edmonton to parents who are both from England. Afterwards, I lived in Sackville, New Brunswick for four years and then moved back to Alberta for fifteen years. In 2018, I moved to London, Ontario for an MA in history at Western University. During all of this, I have cracked my head open, fallen out of moving vehicles, nearly fallen out of a sailboat in the Pacific Ocean, and been shot with a paintball gun. When I’m not doing these things, I play guitar (I once played on stage with Steve Vai), paint fantasy miniatures, swing kettlebells, and try new food in new restaurants.

What brought you to the field of environmental history?

I have one person to thank: Joe Anderson of Mount Royal University. He taught an undergraduate class in American environmental history, and I loved what we read and how he taught the material. It blew my mind to learn that pristine wilderness was socially constructed, that cities weren’t divorced from environments, and that one could examine the impact of nonhuman actors on societies. I used to think that the story of the environment was for scientists to tell, but I soon realized that it was a social story, a political story, and like most history, a human story.

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

Growing up, I wanted to get involved with the music industry, but I struggled to find musicians who were as competent and with the same interest in making weird music. I always liked history, though, but only when it got weird. Luckily, the introduction of plants, animals, climate, and landscapes promises to make the study of history even weirder.

In three sentences or fewer, tell us the focus of your current research. I am interested in the history of disabled engagement with nature. Looking at things such as nature trails for the blind, summer camps for disabled campers, and natural history museum programs for disabled students, I want to examine the experiences of people with limited sight who sought to interact with the environment in ways that did not involve sight. It is about the struggle between preserving wilderness and making wilderness accessible, the overlap of technology and environment, and how interacting with nature is a corporeal experience.

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

History is most exciting when it reveals that something we believe is timeless actually emerged in a specific context. Therefore, I find environmental history to be the most exciting when it deconstructs what we assume is natural or “just the way it is.” It tells us that change has happened and that change is possible. Regarding your second question, the most daunting part is integrating ecology, biology, geology, and general science into my analysis and communicating all of it to a diverse audience. It is probably why I embrace more of a cultural approach rather than a strict materialistic analysis.

Has the ongoing pandemic affected the way you think about your research or the field more broadly?

I now realize how entangled environmental history is with the history of global capitalism. After all, how can you discuss this pandemic without discussing the circulation of food or the treatment of workers in producing it? How can you discuss lockdowns without discussing the influence of fossil fuels on our day to day lives? It is also a reminder of how we have long tackled global issues like climate change and pandemics through the limited lens of nation-states.

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

Here lies the path to distraction. I am very interested in any insect, animal, or plant that has been regarded as a pest or as an environmental other, really. Those who know me well will know that kudzu vine holds a special place in my heart. Be on the lookout for a piece on kudzu in Atlanta and another piece on South Asian immigration history in British Columbia. I won’t say anymore because I fear that my answer, like kudzu, will take up too much space.

Where is your favourite place to be?

It has to be anywhere with a body of water that I can swim in. I love swimming. In fact, people said I spent more time underwater than on shore when I was younger. I find it so relaxing.

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

I recommend people check out Cattle Decapitation’s 2015 album The Anthropocene Extinction. They are a death metal band, so not everyone will like them, but they are a rare case of a band voicing explicit fears around climate change.

Where can folks follow your work or connect with you?

The most reliable form of contact will always be my Twitter account. You can find me @KReilly16. If you prefer, you can also contact me at kreill22@uwo.ca. I look forward to speaking with you.

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