Building connections between culture and the environment

York Environmental Studies Professor Cate Mortimer-Sandilands is using her Canada Research Chair in Sustainability & Culture to connect researchers in the broad area of environment and culture.

Right: Professor Cate Mortimer-Sandilands (left) with Nick Garside, a PhD student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies

This unique research network, centred around York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, makes York one of the few universities in the world with a focus on environmental cultural studies.

Environmental cultural studies highlights the fact that “nature” is a concept, practice, and institution constructed and shaped by social relations. For example, a “park” is not only created through making distinctions between parks and other categories of landscape, it is also infused with values and influenced by how parks are represented in art and literature, not to mention economics and politics.

Acknowledging that our ideas and practices of nature are shaped by culture opens up the opportunity to explore those cultural understandings and how they affect our multiple – and often contradictory – relationships to the natural world. “The Faculty of Environmental Studies has been engaged with these issues for a long time,” says Mortimer-Sandilands. “What I’m trying to do is highlight our strengths while creating connections that will move the field forward into a broader network of interdisciplinary conversations.”

Mortimer-Sandilands is accomplishing this goal in part by bringing researchers together at the Environment and Culture at York Wednesday Seminar Series. Inaugurated at a day-long workshop in March 2005, the series, which she has co-organized with PhD student Nick Garside, has been offering monthly sessions since the fall. One of the series’ aims is to broaden connections between researchers at York interested in issues relating to environment and culture – even if they don’t understand themselves as working in “environmental cultural studies.” For example, the well-attended March session featured presentations by Professor Vermonja Alston from the Department of English and Professor Rusty Shteir from the School of Women’s Studies.

Both presentations highlighted another aim of the series: to explore how ideas of nature relate to issues such as class, race, gender and sexuality. Alston’s presentation demonstrated how representations of nature in the Caribbean in 18th century literature reflect conflicting perspectives on colonialism, while Shteir spoke about 19th century visual representations of Flora, Goddess of Flowers and how they reflect women’s relationships to the science of botany in that period.

Mortimer-Sandilands is encouraging students to explore similar questions. As part of her efforts to build expertise in the area of environment and culture, she works with graduate students working in fields from co-housing to canoeing, prairie literature to pigs. She also collaborated with FES PhD student Lauren Corman and postdoctoral fellow Adam Dickinson to launch the Sustainable Writing Lab, which hosts a graduate course on writing and environment and several writing workshops open to members of the York community and lends its 10 laptop computers to students exploring questions of nature and environment through creative, expository, or experimental writing.

In addition, Mortimer-Sandilands is working with Professor Lorelei Hanson from Athabasca University to feature five panels on environmental cultural studies at this year’s Environmental Studies Association of Canada (ESAC/ACEE) meetings at the Congress of the Humanities & Social Sciences, which will be held at York, and is coordinating another international conference on environmental cultural studies, “Nature Matters,” scheduled for spring 2007. Mortimer-Sandilands is creating a unique research network that opens up new areas of inquiry and is making York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies a key centre for research in environmental cultural studies.