Editor’s note: This post is part of an occasional series entitled “Unearthed.” Launched by Heather Green in 2019 and currently edited by Heather Rogers, Unearthed features emerging environmental historians and environmental humanities scholars discussing what brought them to the field, why they value environmental research, and how it connects with life outside of academia. Find all the interviews from this series here.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your background (academic, life experience, hobbies, etc…)?
I’m currently doing my master’s degree in Montréal at Concordia University under the supervision of Dr. Anya Zilberstein. I did my undergraduate degree at Trent University with a double major in forensic science and history, and during my third year I did a year abroad at the University of Birmingham in England. Getting into environmental history felt like coming home. My parents always encouraged my brother and me to explore and follow our passions. I have always loved science but I was actually discouraged from taking science in high school. My teacher told me that I didn’t have the grades for it. I ended up abandoning my plans to be a scientist and wound up taking history and law.
I’d like to thank Mr. Panetta who encouraged me to pursue history after taking his classes, and who stayed at my school to ensure that I had his help in grade 12 as I was getting ready to apply to university. It turned out that I am, in fact, smart enough to be in science, so much so that I did an entire major in forensic science and finished my undergraduate degree on the Dean’s Honour Roll. I’ve now combined my two academic passions of science and history to focus my research on medical history, specifically in how it relates to botany, biopiracy, biocrime, and altered ecosystems. Aside from academia, I love listening to music, embroidering, traveling, photography, hanging out with my friends, drinking tea, making coffee as a barista, and going camping!
What brought you to the field of environmental history?
I fell into environmental history accidentally! I went to Trent knowing that I loved learning about the past but I had not yet found my niche (pardon the pun!) until I ended up in Dr. Kevin Siena’s class on public health and medicine. That was the day I realized that I could combine my love of science with my love of history. While at Trent and under the mentorship of Dr. Siena, I fell in love with herbals and decided to look into herbal medicine and botany. Now I am focused on how medicinal plants were moved around the world and how the medical marketplace adapted to them.
Getting into environmental history and botany felt very natural for me as I have been gardening and learning about plants for as long as I can remember. My mom is an avid gardener and so were both of my grandmas. As a kid, I had a little plot in the backyard where I could plant whatever I wanted and now my little apartment in Montréal is full of plants! Fueled by a love of plants and with the desire to help people understand both historical medicine and the natural world, I feel like I have finally found my home in academia.
What is your favourite part of doing environment-focused historical research?
That buying myself new plants counts as research! In all seriousness, my favourite part of doing environment-focused historical research is being mystified at how people use plants for medicine and the sheer awe I get from researching the natural world. The plants around us hold infinite knowledge and we are just starting to scratch the surface!
What part of studying environmental history most excites you? What is most daunting?
I love seeing how resourceful people were with the plants they had access to and how they used them before we created modern medicine and vaccines! The most terrifying and daunting part of studying botanical medicine in relation to environmental history is seeing the rising trend of people not vaccinating their children based on science that is so outdated and wrong that it could kill them. For example, A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, is a spectacular book on botanical medicine. However, it contains plants that we now know to be extremely poisonous listed as medical treatments. One example is foxglove which is listed as an emetic but can be undeniably deadly. Despite being incredibly toxic to humans, it is very easy to purchase and grow in your backyard.
Where is your favourite place to be?
This question has a lot of answers for me. Neither of my parents grew up in my hometown of Ottawa and I’ve always had an easy time carving out a space for myself wherever I go, so there is no one physical place that is my favourite. My dad likes to joke that since we come from such a big family no matter where I go in the world there will always be someone I know around the corner! My dad is from Saskatchewan and as a kid (and still to this day) my bones feel at peace whenever I visit the prairies. I also always feel at peace on a train. It’s truly a liminal space where anything can happen! I’ve never felt more at peace than when I was at the top of a mountain in Scotland in a horrific downpour in a desperate attempt to find highland cattle outside of Edinburgh. I did find them eventually but it took weeks for my boots to fully dry! Truly wherever there are friends and family, good food, warm (hopefully dry!) socks, plants, and laughter, my favourite place will be!
Other than your current focus, what is another area of environmental history that interests you?
Since I am in the first year of my master’s thesis, I won’t be changing my current research focus any time soon! However, I would like to study how mass graves altered how and which plants grew in the area. I am also interested in how uranium fever and the age of nuclear energy changed ecosystems based on plant migration and mutation.
Do you have a favourite book, podcast, film, work of art related to the natural world that you would recommend others check out?
My current favourite book is entitled: A Curious Herbal: Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the most useful Plants, which are now used in the Practice of Physick. Engraved on folio Copper Plates, after Drawings taken from the Life. By Elizabeth Blackwell. To which is added a short Description of ye plants; and their common uses in physick, 1751. Yes, that is just the title! This spectacular book can be accessed for free via the New York Public Library. It includes some of the most beautiful botanical drawings I have ever seen and is one of the first herbals published in the UK that includes plants from the so-called “new world” which of course was only new to those just encountering it. If I ever come into a decent amount of money I would like to own my own original copy, but for now, I am just thrilled that Elizabeth Blackwell’s work is in the public domain!
Why do you think environmental history is an important field of study?
I think as people who live on this Earth, we have a collective duty to try to understand how nature and the environment work so that we can make sure that the next generation gets to experience its wonders.
Where can folks follow your work or connect with you?
I am an old-fashioned historian so if postage was cheaper and less wasteful I would write letters! However, you can email me at email@example.com if you want to hear more about my research or just want to talk about plants!
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- New Scholars Community Reading Club: Raccoon - December 6, 2022
- Meet the NiCHE New Scholars Committee - October 28, 2022