Our relationship with nature forged in literature, too

Environmental studies is usually about the human impact on nature – ozone depletion, wilderness encroachment, water pollution, acid rain. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands adds another dimension to the approach to the subject. She goes beyond ecological science to examine our relationship with nature as social and cultural as well as physical and biological. When the Canada Research Chair sandilandstalks about sustainability, she forages among many disciplines to gain an understanding of the relationship between humans and their environment. “Sustainability needs sociology, history and literary criticism as much as it does zoology, botany, and geology.”

Left: York VP Research & Innovation Stan Shapson presents environmental studies Professor Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands with a Canada Research Chair certificate

“I find that issues related to environmental politics and culture require a constellation of approaches and insights that cannot be located in a single tradition,” she states on her Web site. “I find, in particular, that an interdisciplinary approach grounded in the humanities has much to contribute to environmental studies. Philosophy, history, cultural studies and literary criticism offer modes of thinking and asking that are often left out of environmental research located in the social and natural sciences.”

As CRC of Sustainability and Culture, Mortimer-Sandilands plans to strengthen interdisciplinary environmental cultural studies at York by building an international research network of scholars in the field. She will develop a Web site, and organize a York workshop for the spring of 2005 and an international conference on sustainability and culture the following spring. She also plans to organize a national roundtable as part of the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation Conference at York in the summer of 2006.

She will also pursue environmental literary research, because, she suggests, the first voices raised against environmental degradation were literary ones. She will be conducting “ecocritical” readings of literary texts to see how ideas of nature, environment, ecology, and sustainability were articulated with ideas of race, gender, sexuality, modernity, nationhood and technology. Her current work examines the ways lesbian writers, such as Jane Rule and Dionne Brand, include ideas of nature, place and sustainability in their writings about same-sex friendship and eroticism, and lesbian cultures and identities.

She also plans to develop a Sustainable Writing Laboratory as part of her research into the use of creative writing as a tool for critically (re)imagining sustainability in both academic and other communities. This research invites students, colleagues and other participants to experiment with different forms of writing as way of exploring, extending and communicating their understandings of sustainability.

Mortimer-Sandilands joined York’s Faculty of Environment Studies in 1994 just as she was completing a doctoral dissertation on feminism, ecology and democracy. She has three degrees in sociology. “I was excited about the vibrant climate of interdisciplinarity that FES offered; here was a place that would allow me to pursue some of my particular academic passions in the developing, highly interdisciplinary fields of environmental political theory and environmental cultural studies.”

Mortimer-Sandilands’s current projects include two monographs: A State of Nature? National Parks and Struggles for Canadian Identity and Ec(c)o Homo? Writings Toward a Queer Ecology. She is also preparing a research project proposal, Floral Observations and Animal Companions: Lesbian Histories of Nature Writing, for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.