Monday, April 2, 2012

Reflections on ASEH and Madison

Last night I stepped off an Amtrak train at Penn Station after 26 hours of straight travel. I left Madison, Wisconsin at 4:30pm on Saturday and arrived in New York City at 6:30pm on Sunday. It was an adventure.

The reason I had been in Madison was to attend the American Society for Environmental History's annual conference. I had attended the conference two years prior in Portland, Oregon. In fact, it was immediately after returning from ASEH - Portland that I decided to start this blog. (Thanks, Anna, for the inspiration!)

Madison provided similar inspirations as Portland had. And this, of course, is the whole point of attending academic conferences. Yes, it is nice to present a paper, receive feedback on it, and put an extra line on one's CV, but the real intellectual (as well as social and emotional) development takes place outside of the structured panels. This is where the inspiration comes from: in breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks, cups of coffee, and on long walks, one gets to know just about as many kind and interesting people as one likes. It is amazing to have "ASEH friends" - that is, people I see only once a year or less at these environmental history conferences, but who I consider to be dear friends. Perhaps I can count them on my fingers, but I wouldn't want to lose any of those fingers!

Anyway, for the purpose of decompressing everything I learned this past week at ASEH - Madison, here are my reflections on the conference:

Day 1: Arrival in Madison

I left New York City at 3:45pm on Tuesday afternoon. We arrived in Chicago at 9am-ish. Then I took a bus from Chicago (10:30am) to Madison (2:30pm). I had expected Madison to be "college-y," as the one thing I have always heard about Madison is that its culture is dominated by the University of Wisconsin campus and its tens of thousands of students and faculty. It is a liberal/progressive urban oasis in a relatively conservative, rural, agrarian state. This is, of course, an oversimplification. But something about Madison, while I was there, did smack of utopianism - its in the very design of the city, based on DC's street plan, where all roads lead to and from the State Capitol building. The Capitol grounds are truly public, open to various uses all hours of the day and night. The Capitol building is open to the public throughout the day. There are no security check-points or X-ray scanners (like at the NYS Capitol). One can just hang out in the Capitol building all day. This is a city built, it seems, for open and public government and participatory democracy.

The Wisconsin State Capitol

There is one other important street downtown: State Street. It is over one mile long, restricted to just pedestrian and bicycle traffic (and the occasional public bus), and it connects the Capitol building with the center of the University campus. Now what flows on this road between the University and the State is, I'm sure, money, power, and influence. Let's not fool ourselves. But when one walks along the street he or she only sees the happy college students lounging, walking, skateboarding, spending their money at (mostly) local establishments selling (mostly) local products.

State Street, looking towards the University

I went to college in a city where there was a real town-and-gown divide: Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. We always talked of the "Bates Bubble": our little protected, progressive world where students spent 99% of their time, ignorant of what life was like for the rest of Lewiston's inhabitants. I don't think Madison suffers from the same bubble, as the town and gown here appear as one, at least when you spend the whole week downtown that's how it seems. There must be a border between the Madison bubble and the "real world" beyond it, but I cannot place it. I do not think it fair to wholly condemn such bubbles. Better to have a bubble where people can experiment with democracy, sustainability, what have you, than to have no bubble at all. But it is important that those inside and those outside the bubble are always communicating and sharing with one another.

The view through my hotel window (at the Lowell Center, University of Wisconsin). The State Capitol building is omnipresent here, fostering an unusually vibrant culture of civic engagement and participatory democracy. On the other hand, under the rule of a despot (...Scott Walker?), who would want the state to be all seeing and all knowing, lording over the city like this?

At ASEH's opening reception I met up with some old friends and made many new ones. We went out for dinner and beers afterwards, and then I walked back to my hotel (on the UW campus) under a moonlit sky.

Walking through downtown Madison under a moonlit sky

Day 2: Four Panels and a Plenary

Woke up at 5:30am. Yup. Didn't mean to, but the birds starting chirping, and I couldn't fall back asleep. Had continental breakfast at 6:30. Then walked to the Monona Conference Center where ASEH was holding its conference.

The Monona Terrace Conference Center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

View of Monona Lake from the Monona Terrace Conference Center, Madison

In the morning I attended panels on 1) Labor and Environment, and 2) Extractive Resources/Commodities. Both topics are of great interest to me, as my own dissertation looks at the way in which workers engaged with diverse environments through participation in extractive industries!

[Just FYI, I am not going to comment on anyone's specific paper presentations here, for I feel that that would be rude and unfair. If I had anything to share, I should have raised my voice during the Q & A sessions during the panels.]

Then I went out for yummy Nepalese food for lunch, but because I was presenting my own paper at 1:30pm, I had to leave the restaurant just as my food was served. So I jogged back to the Monona center with a spicy tofu dish in tow (which I did not get to eat until two hours later! But it was still good! Thanks to my professor for treating me to this yummy lunch. I'm sorry I had to "run and eat").

In 2010, when I presented in Portland, there was a glitch with my powerpoint presentation. See, I usually keep my laptop set to fall asleep after just 60 seconds of idleness. I do so to conserve energy. Two years ago I forget to reset those settings, so that during my presentation, almost every 60 seconds the computer kept shutting down and the powerpoint screen went blank! What a disaster! It meant that as I was talking I had to constantly twittle my fingers on the mousepad of the laptop to keep it engaged and awake. It was like having a narcoleptic computer! I should have brought smelling salts to hold under my computer's nose. :)

Of course I share this story because something bad happened again this time! This time, I suffered from too much preparation. I had practiced my presentation on my fiancee before leaving New York. I wanted to make sure the presentation wasn't too long, so I "rehearsed" the timings on powerpoint. I did not know that when you "rehearse" the timings, those timings are saved, and on future runs the powerpoint automatically advances slides based on the recorded timings!! So there I was in Madison starting to present my paper and suddenly the powerpoint started advancing on its own! This happened at least three or four times during the presentation - which means I was actually going a bit slower than I had rehearsed at home. Just like in 2010, it was very distracting because while I read my paper I also had to keep a constant eye on the powerpoint screen to make sure I was on the right slide. Damn you, powerpoint! :)

Otherwise, the panel went great. I got to meet a bunch of really kind and intelligent and creative scholars who I shared the panel with, and I think the audience was stimulated by our presentation. The theme of the panel was "Extreme Work Environments." I received important feedback from the scholars and advisors I most sought feedback from. So, all in all, it was a very productive experience.

Following my presentation, I ate my cold but still spicy Nepalese tofu dish (yum!) while attending a presentation featuring three wonderful friends presenting about the "health" of cities, and the people in those cities, during the Progressive Era in the United States.

Another view of the Wisconsin State Capitol

View of Lake Mendota and the University of Wisconsin campus (at left). This spot was one block from my hotel at the Lowell Center.

The Plenary

The ASEH conference plenary featured a talk by Jenny Price. Not only is she the author of the delightfully engaging book Flight Maps, but she is also a Los Angeles Urban Ranger, a blogger, and in many ways a "public intellectual." I have long admired her work in LA, where she gives walking tours of the concrete LA River. She seems extremely engaged with her local community. And she has eschewed the academic world in many ways, for she has a Ph.D., she is a trained historian, but she is not a Professor and does not spend all her time within the bubble of academia.

This is to say that Jenny Price is a real inspiration to me. Indeed, I mentioned her and her work in L.A. in my application letter for the Ph.D. program at Stony Brook.

Her talk was about Rachel Carson, for it is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Carson's landmark book Silent Spring (1962). She expressed her admiration for Carson, but also criticized Carson - in a way that made some in the audience appear a bit uncomfortable. But this is partly because Price was criticizing us just as much as she was criticizing Carson. She criticized our heroicization of her; she criticized our hagiography rather than historiography of her. The main thrust of Price's argument was that Carson's approach to the environment is no longer relevant to today's environmental challenges. Price believes the greatest challenge for current environmentalism is the class divide between those who can afford to be "green" and those who cannot. She argues that Carson has little to contribute to these issues, and if anything she reinforces some of the old ways about thinking about the environment that have held us back from dealing with the issue of class.

Price's book Flight Maps dealt with the history of how Americans have known nature through consumption. Price's plenary talk continued this theme with a biting critique of "green consumerism." She criticized this 21st-century phenomenon of what she called "virtuous" consumerism: purchasing "green" cars, "green" homes, "green" food. The problem, she contends, is that only relatively wealthy Americans can afford to be "virtuous"/"green" consumers. I certainly cheered Price on - at least on this point. She is right to read "green" consumerism as "virtuous" consumerism. She used ample evidence to show us how corporations are even using the "green" brand to make consumers feel good about their consumption. For example, I use a stainless steel water bottle instead of drinking bottled water, which makes me feel good about myself. Same thing about biking around Manhattan. Same thing about taking the 24 hour train ride from New York to Wisconsin. She is absolutely right. I love bragging about these things, because I feel like I am doing the "right" thing, but how often do I check my class privilege - that class privilege that allows me to make these "virtuous" choices?

This is of course a huge and controversial issue, and one that we need to discuss - not just amongst ourselves, but in cross-class conversations. Class is a funny issue of course. For I make only about $20,000 a year, which puts me squarely in the lower 50% of Americans. And for living in Manhattan (which makes me appear "high class"), my income bracket is actually quite "low class". This shouldn't be too surprising. Just down the road from us is a public housing project where most households make under $40,000 a year. But the majority of people there are people of color. And I'm white. Something about being white and living in Manhattan makes people think I am upper class. But if I was black and told you I lived in Manhattan, you would just assume I live in Harlem, right? The interesting thing here is that even though I make only $20,000 a year, I still try very hard to buy organic (and thus more expensive) foods, even though people of the same income bracket a few blocks away may never buy those same kinds of foods. We may think so differently about food, but we make the same income, so are we of the same class or of different classes??

And this is my little beef with Price's talk. "Class" is not as stable and defined as she makes it sound like. For I am absolutely the "green"/"virtuous" consumer she criticizes, but I do not have the type of wealth she expects one to have in order to be this kind of consumer. This is partly because class is not just a reflection of one's own present standing in the world, but also that of his or her upbringing and heritage. Perhaps it is because I grew up in an upper-middle class suburban home that I am "green," whether or not I can afford to be so now. And this kind of class, based on heritage, maps in very important ways on top of race, nationality, language, etc., as well. And all this needs to be unpacked and carefully thought over.

Anyway, Price's suggested solution to 21st-century environmental problems is that, since everyone should benefit equally from environmentalism, no matter their race, gender, or class (and of course I agree), we cannot make a better world simply through better consumerism. Because not everyone has equal access to consumer power, and thus the choices made by the "green"/"virtuous" consumers result in consequences that are not equally advantageous for all people. And can we really rely on the world's rich people to invest their money in such thoughtful ways that all people, regardless of class, will benefit equally? I don't think so. Think about all the "green"/"virtuous" Apple users in the U.S., for example, who are using less paper yet facilitating the exploitation of young migrant workers in Southern China.

So, Price says we need to change laws and regulations and policies, not consumer behaviors. But I wonder if we will confront the same problems here as well. For class also determines one's access to political power. One person, one vote, yes, but a low-income community in the South Bronx fighting an environmental injustice does not have the same political power as the Sierra Club or Nature Conservancy. Who is setting the environmental agenda but those with access to money and power?

Let's leave it at this: the relationship between class and environmentalism is an unresolved and extremely problematic issue that we must address. But how?

Day 3: Field Trips!

One thing I love about ASEH is that the conference includes a day for fieldtrips. Most environmental historians like exploring environments, so interest in fieldtrips is very high among our membership. I attended a fieldtrip led by Anna Zeide, a University of Wisconsin grad student, food blogger, and all-around thoughtful and inspiring person, oh, and also, a great friend.

But I started the day with my own little fieldtrips: to the State Capitol, and to the Wisconsin Historical Society and Wisconsin Historical Museum.

8:15am, Wisconsin Historical Society. After being told numerous times to go see John Muir's clock, I did. And here is a view of part of it. I have known some study-nuts, but I can't even imagine being John Muir's roommate at the University of Wisconsin with THIS THING in the room!

Wisconsin Historical Society

Inside the dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol

Looking up within the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol

Third floor view of the Rotunda inside the Wisconsin State Capitol

Wisconsin Supreme Court room, inside the State Capitol

This mural was on the wall in the Supreme Court at the Wisconsin State Capitol. It shows an early meeting between an Indian nation (the Menominee, perhaps? I don't remember) and Euro-American settlers. Funny to have a picture like this on the wall in the Supreme Court, for "justice" back then was pretty informal, based on the power of might, not necessarily right. Perhaps the mural is a reminder of how far we have come, and hopefully not a model for how we should proceed.

Another room at the State Capitol. I can't remember what the room is used for, but the colors are just beautiful!

Four murals in the room highlight transportation "progress" over time. This one shows transportation as Wisconsin's Indians knew it, before Euro-Americans brought "progress," with automobiles, steamboats, railroads, and airplanes, as depicted in the final mural. Notice the beautiful skylight on the ceiling.

The Senate Chamber at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Notice how all the desks face the center. That's unusual, I think. Apparently the majority party sits in the outer row and the minority party sits in the inner row. I know splitting up the parties is common, but I don't understand it. Wouldn't we all get along better if senators just sat alphabetically and made new friends?!

Anna's Fieldtrip

At 12:30pm we - about 30 participants - gathered at the restuarant L'Etoile in downtown Madison. The fieldtrip began here, with a local-foods lunch, and presentations by local food and farm enthusiasts. I willingly gave up my veganism for the afternoon in order to try a delicious sandwich with provolone on it. Yum. In fact I had two!

We heard from the head chef and owner of L'Etoile, who inspired us with stories of just how far he will go to source local food for the restaurant. He has contracts with hundreds of local Wisconsin farmers for the ingredients that we were then munching on. Thinking of our fancy lunch and all the farmers we were supporting through our "green" consumerism, I thought back to Jenny Price's plenary talk about "virtuous" consumerism. Were we really making life better across the board for people and nature in Wisconsin by eating these local foods, or were we merely feeling good about ourselves for being "green"? This important question remained unsolved for the moment.

We also heard from a local food writer, who explained to us that Wisconsin cuisine is more than just cheese and beer. That's funny, because everywhere we went on Madison evenings, menus contained more cheese and beer than I could ever imagine. I wondered: how much is the association of cheese and beer with Wisconsin the product of food marketing versus the reflection of real, local traditions? We learned that Wisconsin's number one export is cranberries, but how come we don't see Wisconsin sports fans wearing big cranberries on their heads rather than blocks of cheese? This whole association between food, agriculture, culture, and identity is a fascinating nexus. For someone who dislikes both cheese and beer, could I ever really be a Wisconsinite?

Finally we heard from a gentleman who runs an urban farm/community farm/CSA/farm education project on the outskirts of Madison. It is called Troy Gardens / Community Ground Works. More on that later...

Anna leading the field trip orientation at the lunch location

After lunch we got on a bus and traveled to a Community Center that offers alternative high school programs for at-risk teens and also houses a food pantry for low-income Madison residents.
We ended up standing by the community center's compost pile for an unusually long period of time. But ASEH folks had so many questions. I think we were just mesmerized by the size and color of the pile. The assortment of undecomposed vegetables on top were fun to look at. And when the gentleman scooped up some of the bottom layer compost and we saw how hot and steamy it was, everyone had an audible reaction. It's kind of funny when you think about the relationships between humans and nature, and that a group of environmental historians/academics might get most excited about a big pile of compost. But perhaps it is because so few of us every spend the time to actually watch things decompose.

A beautiful compost pile decomposing before our eyes

Then we traveled on to Troy Gardens...

Troy Gardens exists adjacent to a housing development that originally threatened to swallow up the whole parcel of land. But community groups were able to fight to protect some of the greenspace, which they then converted into the CSA farm and community garden plots. The housing project appeared like a nice place to live. Many houses had solar panels, and unlike most suburban-style developments, residents appeared free to use their lawns and properties as they pleased, growing food, hanging out laundry, etc. We were told that the majority of units were priced for low-income homeownership. But the impression I got from the place, just from the outside, was that it was a little suburban haven for "green" consumers - the ones Jenny Price criticized. People here live close to the land, yet while still maintaining their "green" houses and cars. All the kids of diverse backgrounds who take advantage of Troy Gardens, where do THEY live? Can they hang out at the farm whenever they want, or are they bused in? What kind of "community" participates in the community farm? What are the demographics? These are all important questions, but I could not put them into words at the time. They just hung out in the back of my mind.

The Youth Garden plots at Troy Gardens

I really enjoyed our time at Troy Gardens. After I graduated from college, I interned for a community gardens non-profit in New York for a summer, and had a pretty happy time just hauling, digging, and plowing stuff. I loved exercising my body in the outdoors. The community gardens community was an open and friendly one, although of course a bit strange in that those funding and administering the operation were largely white and well-off (the "virtuous" environmentalists, as Jenny Price might say) and those using the community gardens were decidely more diverse, with many low-income families and people of color. This issue of race and class with gardening and farming can be a touchy one. One participant on our field trip asked the guy from Troy Gardens if anyone ever questioned the idea of encouraging young black urban kids to "connect with nature" through farming, because, of course, their ancestors had been enslaved and forced to work on farms in the United States for centuries. I am not sure if this is a useful question. But I am even less sure that there exists an adequate answer to this question.

Walking through restored tall-grass prairie at Troy Gardens

Academics in nature. Somehow strangely strange.

That evening I attended the Graduate Student Reception and won a raffle again! (I have won a raffle at every ASEH conference I have ever attended. I swear it is not rigged.) I got to talking with old and new friends, and drank locally-produced rum. Yum.

A group of us went out for dinner and drinks and stayed out until midnight. Of course these are the best moments of academic conferences, and for me, they seem to only happen at ASEH. Grad students in environmental history are truly a lovely group of people. I don't know what it is about us. But I am thankful for all the friends I made in Madison. :)

Day 4: Departure

Very tired this last day. But I still managed to attend two more panels, have lunch with a new friend and mentor, and even purchase some locally made cheese to bring home to my cheese-loving fiancee. I didn't take any photos my last day. It was one of those days when you wake up and feel like "I've had enough of Madison."

And so I left Madison in somewhat of a hurry, rushing to catch my bus out of town at 4:30pm. I had stopped looking at the Capitol building everytime I walked past it. It was already becoming less interesting day by day. I imagine people who live in Madison don't even notice it anymore, except when 100,000 people are gathered there to protest legislation that would strip away the collective bargaining rights of public employees. (Remember that?)

For me, the New Yorker, Madison was a quiet and thoughtful place to be for four days. This environment of mellow spaces and kind people fostered very intentional and thoughtful connections between conference participants. I thought to myself that if the conference had been held in New York City we probably would have been a lot rougher with each other and I would have spent a lot less quality time with old and new friends. So, I thank Madison and ASEH for the rejuvinating conference experience! Here I am back in NYC, and when I finish these reflections, I will close the book on Madison and open up my dissertation again. I feel ready to jump back into my scholarship, thanks to the many wonderful professors and grad students I spent time with in Madison who encouraged me to "add oil," as the Chinese say, and keep pushing forward! ("Forward!": the state motto of Wisconsin.)

The iconic "Forward!" statue on the ground of the Capitol faces State Street on a rainy morning.


  1. What a beautiful travelogue! I have so much to comment on about many of these points, but I think it will have to wait until a longer lull in my vacation. Still, this was such a delightful entry to read, to see my experiences and my town through your eyes and your eloquent voice. So happy to have had you in Madison, and on my field trip. More soon.

  2. Thanks, Anna, for reading! And thanks for providing the inspiration. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on the field trip. You were a wonderful host!