When the Utah Museum of Fine Arts closed its doors January 18th to begin installing a state-of-the-art vapor barrier in the Marcia and John Price Museum Building, many thought its programs might go into hibernation for over a year as well. Not so. An ambitious attempt to continue its outreach, and even revisit how UMFA can better become the state’s signature art museum, is underway.
ARTLandish: Land Art, Landscape, and the Environment is a series of talks, films meetups, and more that explore our complex relationship with the world around us. This Thursday, June 16, the series continues with a moderated panel of scholars and Utah-based creative writers who, according to Mindy Wilson, UMFA’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations, will examine the relationship between man and nature in the literature of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.
Poet and University of Utah professor of English Paisley Rekdal will join Jeffrey McCarthy, UofU Honors College professor and director of the Environmental Humanities graduate program and USU associate professor of English Charles Waugh. Each of them brings a creative and criticial approach to better plumb the depths of humanity’s journey through and its cultural construction of the natural world.
Rekdal, the creator and editor of the community web history archive project Mapping Salt Lake City, has of late trained her own sights on “the way that animals and natural environments become human social constructs, as much as they are their own independent, material realities. Animals in particular,” she continues,” have been turned into the lens through which we see ourselves: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Often, to distance ourselves from each other, or to critique each other’s actions, we describe individual humans or groups of humans as animals; through this language, we continually try and reassert a fundamental and even ethical distance between us and animals, a difference that has grown increasingly murky as climate change and our understanding of the interconnectedness of all species alters our perception of our place in the world.”
This isn’t just about personification of our pets or the rise of high-profile animal rights groups like PETA. As a poet, Rekdal, who often can be seen walking her own dog Frank, a two-year-old American bulldog/pit bull, around the city streets she “maps,” says that: “To talk about nature and the natural is ultimately to talk about the human and the idea of humanness: not as something set apart, but as something devastatingly intimate with the natural.” Rekdal’s intense lyricism, particularly in relation to animal life, was recently featured in 15 Bytes’ regular feature Sunday Blog Read, a preview of her fifth collection, Imaginary Vessels, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press.
McCarthy’s recent book Green Modernism: Nature and the English Novel traces the cultural function of nature in modernist writing. “I am especially interested in the ways English authors deploy nature in an era of cultural crisis,” he says. “So my central claim is that nature moves from being a simple mode of Romantic escape and becomes, instead, a complex tool for cultural reinvention.” McCarthy studies modernist authors like Joseph Conrad, DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf to show that the natural world underpins both reactionary social views and progressive hopes for England reinventing itself after WWI.
“In all my literary criticism, nature is much more than setting for human struggles,” he says. “Rather, nature is an actor and a presence in the literature, just as it is in the world around us right here, right now.” Materialism in literature is more than a literary movement focused on the inner self, says John G. Peters who reviews the book. “McCarthy convincingly argues for an anti-Romantic, materialist conception of nature that alters the landscape of both Modernist and Ecocritical studies.”
While McCarthy’s era of literary criticism targets the years between 1900 and 1930, Waugh’s work examines the ways in which a particular American identity arose in relation to its natural spaces, and came to crisis in its experiences with Vietnam. “It’s no coincidence that the term ‘ecocide’ was coined to describe the American use of chemical defoliants during the war,” the cross genre environmental writer says. Winner of a 2012 NEA fellowship to edit and translate New Voices from Vietnam, an anthology of works by Vietnamese writers under 40, Waugh has situated the defoliation disaster in the historical context of a people who did not hesitate to wipe out grizzlies to foster a sheep raising industry, to destroy bison herds in order to starve Native Americans into submission, or to
allow nuclear fallout to blow into the Wasatch Front. His essays, fiction, and translations explore how the United States’s relationship with Vietnam can help Americans to see who we are and how that identity continues to shape the world.
A writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, critical academic essays, and translations, Waugh is co-editor/co-translator of a collection of nineteen short stories from young Vietnamese writers forthcoming from Curbstone Press in 2017.
The panel discussion, which is free and open to the public, promises to put a literary accent on a burgeoning environmental humanities scene here in Utah and throughout the Mountain West. The UMFA with its strong collection (now largely in storage) of western landscapes and its shows about the Beehive State’s famous landscape art (like the Sun Tunnels exhibit in 2012) is clearly determined to elevate the arts, this time through poetry and criticism which don’t need a gallery to be experienced and appreciated.