Rhizomes: An Interview with Hayley Goodchild

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Editor’s note: This is the seventeenth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Hayley Goodchild, a program coordinator with Peterborough GreenUP and a part-time landscape designer.

Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?

My first encounter with environmental history was in a fourth-year course on early modern Europe. I wasn’t even a history major—I studied international development as an undergraduate—but I needed an elective and I had enjoyed the handful of history courses I had taken until then.

The course was taught by Kevin Siena, a medical historian of early modern Britain. I was interested in contemporary issues around the environment, food security, and social justice, so he recommended I look at Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature for a historiography assignment. It set in motion my interest in history, and environmental history specifically.

I worked as a research assistant for Kevin the following year, decided I liked archival research, and applied to a handful of MA programs. At no point did I feel a deep calling to academia as a profession, which probably should have given me pause, but it was enjoyable enough work and I was good at it. My decision to study at McMaster was driven by the opportunity to work with environmental historian Michael Egan, and their very competitive funding package. I was a first-generation scholar who was already $30,000 in debt, so funding mattered a lot.

My research shifted to environmental history in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canada, particularly around the industrialization of food and agriculture. My dissertation examined the Ontario craft cheese industry as a deliberate project of rural reform that transformed small-town southern Ontario, even as it was shaped in unanticipated ways by non-human nature and global capitalism.

Although I enjoy writing and research, I spent a lot of time in graduate school doing non-academic things, such as a season of landscaping, working with my union, and growing food. I knew I wasn’t going to pursue an academic career by about two-thirds through my PhD. Call it a gut feeling. I’m grateful that my supervisor, Michael, supported me regardless.

Sadly my career clarity ended there. Well-meaning friends joked that I should become a craft cheesemaker, the obvious alt-ac path for an expert of the nineteenth-century cheese industry. In their defense, I had taken a week-long cheesemaking course to better understand the nature of working with milk. As fun and useful as that was, I knew cheesemaking wasn’t for me.

A cheese vat in motion at the University of Guelph food science lab in 2013. I took a cheesemaking course to better understand the material I encountered in the archives. Photo by the author.

There were many clues that I would pursue hands-on, landscaping-based work, but it took me ages to piece them together, an irony I can appreciate as a trained historian!

One memory that stands out is the first time I attended an ASEH conference (in Madison, Wisconsin). After two days of networking and presentations, I was exhausted. The next day I skipped the morning session to visit Picnic Point. At the time I chalked it up to being an introvert in desperate need of some quiet—which was true—but in hindsight, it signalled where my interests really lay. After that I treated every conference as a chance to explore new gardens and landscapes. It didn’t matter that most of my academic travel was in the winter. One of my favourite trips was to Philadelphia for WHEATS in early 2013, when I spent my spare hours taking photos of sleepy community gardens and bare allées.

Exploring winter landscape structure in Philadelphia, 2013. Photo by the author.

A year before I defended, my partner and I relocated from Hamilton (a city of 500,000 people) to Peterborough (pop. 80,000). It was a difficult and unexpected move. I quickly realized that finding good work would be a challenge, despite having many contacts from my undergraduate days at Trent University. My PhD funding ended around the same time, which didn’t help. It took me another year to defend while piecing together whatever work I could find in the meantime—teaching, transcription, retail.

The silver lining was our new backyard garden. At a quarter-acre, the lot is large by urban standards. It was already partially landscaped when we moved in, and we’ve since made it our own by adding a 400-square-foot vegetable garden, building a greenhouse, and planting more native species. It became my creative outlet, a place to learn and decompress. I spent hours tending to the vegetable garden, composting, and tinkering with the existing landscaping to make it more resilient. That’s really when everything began to click, and I realized I wanted to delve more deeply into landscaping and hands-on environmental work.

Building a passive greenhouse in our urban backyard, 2019. Photo by the author.

Around the same time, I landed a couple of short-term contracts with Ontario EcoSchools (now EcoSchools Canada), whose goal is to support environmental leadership and climate action in schools. My job was to assess applications from schools throughout southern Ontario wanting to become recognized EcoSchools. It was lots of fun. Students took me on tours of their school gardens, and told me all about environmental campaigns they organized. After my assessment contract ended, Ontario EcoSchools hired me to write a final report about one of their climate initiatives. I’m convinced my experiences with them were pivotal for landing the job I have now, because it signalled a shift back to the non-profit sector after many years in graduate school (I had worked for a couple non-profit organizations during my undergraduate degree, including a small environmental charity that helped low-income Torontonians establish community gardens and access natural spaces, as well as the much larger Greenpeace Canada).

The posting for my current position opened in 2018, just as I was finishing my first and only year of sessional teaching at Trent University. It combined report development, community engagement, and sustainable landscaping opportunities. My research and writing skills were definitely part of why I was hired. I knew I was a good fit for the role, but it was still a surprise when I was offered the job. I’ve been at GreenUP ever since, and recently started freelance landscape design work on the side.

In sum, my professional development has definitely been rhizomatic! It’s a good analogy.

What do you like most about your current position? What things would you change about it, if you could?

My role at GreenUP, an environmental non-profit charity, is wonderfully varied. I began as a coordinator of a project called Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods, where I led the development of three ten-year, neighbourhood-scale climate change action plans and supported the installation of many demonstration planting projects in the greater Peterborough area. Now my portfolio encompasses a wide range of programs. I’ve done everything from delivering workshops to designing on-the-ground projects with community residents and other stakeholders. A lot of the work I do focuses on green infrastructure, urban stormwater, neighbourhood resiliency, and climate change. While I had a general understanding of climate change and community engagement prior to this work, plus a fair bit of gardening experience, the majority of my knowledge has come from the job itself.

Most of all, I enjoy designing and installing sustainable gardens and green infrastructure projects. It’s empowering to turn an area of underused pavement into a garden that absorbs urban runoff, or enhance the urban forest through community tree planting. I love how multifunctional each project is. For example, we recently installed 500m2 of therapeutic gardens at a local children’s health centre. Each zone of the garden provides opportunities for children to use all their senses, engage in nature play, and practice their communication and gross motor skills. At the same time, the 900 plants we added will sequester far more carbon than the tired sod that dominated the space.

Preparing to plant at Five Counties Children’s Centre in Peterborough, Ontario. Photo by Leif Einarson (GreenUP).

Individually, the impacts of these demonstration projects are modest, but it feels important—vital, even—to spend my time getting carbon in the ground, and preparing communities for the impacts of climate change. After all, we have less than a decade to avert climate catastrophe. 

If I could change anything about my current position, it would be the nature of non-profit funding. Donors tend to invest in the shiny, innovative stuff at the expense of long-term programming. It’s hard to keep projects going, especially if their impacts aren’t easily quantifiable. Of course, that challenge isn’t unique to the non-profit sector…

Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current position?

In my experience, grad school is about moving between two modes of learning: the deep, patient kind that comes from writing a dissertation, and an efficient approach to learning that’s necessary to pass comprehensive exams, or teach a course on an unfamiliar subject. I’m constantly encountering new-to-me skills and bodies of knowledge in my current job. Thanks to my graduate training, I can distinguish when something requires sustained attention, versus a quick introduction.

The GIS skills I developed during my PhD have also been useful. We need maps to communicate project impacts, and spatial data to make programming decisions. I’m a GIS novice, but it still makes a difference for a small organization like GreenUP, where everyone is multitalented by necessity.

Sometimes I even write about environmental history for our weekly column in the Peterborough Examiner and Kawartha Now. (For example: this piece on the connections between environmental history and neighbourhood-scale planning.)

Another role for my environmental history background is emerging as I shift more toward landscape design: namely, the ability to bring historical analysis to bear on prospective landscaping projects. How have the existing land uses, vegetation, and the built environments in a place been shaped by various social, political, and ecological developments? I think that lens will help me design successful, well-integrated landscapes, being mindful, of course, that unintended consequences are inevitable!

What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?

Critical thinking, research, and strong communication skills are important, but they aren’t enough on their own. There are many skills I didn’t acquire in graduate school that I’m only developing now: native plant identification, drafting, and a deeper understanding of ecology, to name just a few. Some of this I’ve learned on the job, and I’ve also gone back to school part-time (a Landscape Design Certificate at X University).

I don’t think it would have been reasonable to expect all these skills from a humanities degree, even one as interdisciplinary as environmental history. But I might have refocused my dissertation to take better advantage of those interests had I known where I was headed career-wise.

What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history?

Some advice: use your dissertating years as an opportunity to develop technical skills related to your research topic or method: GIS, ecological field sampling, a second language, etc. Not only will it strengthen your research, it can also give you something concrete to put on your resume later on.

A reflection: I sometimes wonder if I should have done a different graduate degree, or perhaps a college diploma. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. Six-plus years is a long time to spend in a profession you might eventually leave! On the other hand, I think I would be a much poorer coordinator and landscape designer without the research skills and critical worldview environmental history provides.

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Hayley Goodchild

Hayley (she/her) is an environmental program coordinator and landscape designer with strengths in residential and neighbourhood-scale green infrastructure, co-design, educational workshops, and report development. She defended her PhD dissertation at McMaster University in 2017.

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