Place as Present: Revisited

Editor’s Note: We’re celebrating EHN’s one-year anniversary this week! And that means we’ll be posting a piece every day to mark the occasion. Last year, one of our most-read pieces was the one by JessicaMDeWitt. Today, she’s back. And gives us an update to her original #problemsofplace piece.

“I may continue in academia, and I may not. For the first time in my life this uncertainty feels like freedom.”

I ended my original Problems of Place essay with this quote last December. I was overwhelmed by the reception to this piece at the time. My inbox was flooded with kind words from folks who related to what I had wrote and thanked me for putting into words some of the fears and feelings that they too were experiencing. These responses signalled to me that we need to continue to talk about these issues more. Honesty and openness are empowering. They create connection. It is in the silences and dark corners that insecurities and misconceptions thrive and grow.

When I was asked to write a piece for EHN’s first anniversary, I soon realized that I wanted to write an update to my original piece. And thus, what follows is a window into the mind of an environmental historian who is continuing to live, sometimes uncomfortably, in the present for perhaps the first time in her life.

Choice or Circumstance?

Some things have changed since my first essay. Most notably, I finished my PhD program this past spring, which was a massive relief. But the rest of my life post-grad school is relatively the same. Mobility, as the Problems of Place series denotes, is often the prerequisite for future daydreaming in academia. I continue to live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Saskatoon is my present. And it is my foreseeable future.

Dr. DeWitt and Fans.

Staying in this place is partly choice and partly circumstance for me. I can’t leave Saskatoon right now. I applied for Canadian Permanent Residency last September, and because of the specifics of my application I can’t leave Saskatoon until it is processed. This process could take another seven months or more. I can’t apply to tenure track jobs right now. Because I don’t have Permanent Residency yet, I’m not eligible for the vast majority of Canadian Post-Docs. And me and my partners are also both unable and unwilling to move to the United States right now or move around every year or so chasing after visiting professorships.

But to boil down my current stasis to circumstance is not entirely accurate. I’ve been rejoicing in this down time and have loved the excuse—yes, this recovering perfectionist still needs an excuse for rest—to slow down my life and enjoy the here and now. To be perfectly blunt, I was burnt out. I still may be burnt out. Even after several months of rest.

The Dormant Environmental Historian

I made a conscious decision to take the summer off from academia and job hunting. I still ruled social media, marketed NiCHE, and wrote some blog posts, of course—one can’t expect this Dr. DeWitt to go entirely underground—and I still fretted a bit, but I haven’t thought about my research or written academically or seriously considered what is next for about five months now.

This down time has made me think of those memes that circulate periodically about how nature isn’t in full bloom all the time. It runs on a cycle. So too does the historian, and this environmental historian has been dormant.

In this time, I’ve recharged my batteries. I’ve read for fun. I moved and continued to redefine what love and family can look like.  I’ve gotten to know my new neighbourhood. I’ve deepened my connections to my community. I’ve mentored youth. I’ve connected with the nature in my backyard, neighbourhood, and city. I’ve listened to what my mind and body need.

What has been the result of this period of dormancy? I can honestly say that I’ve never felt more calm in my life. I’m not anxiety-ridden right now. I’m not anticipating the next possible disaster. I’m not continuously striving for that possible future. I just am. It’s glorious.

As I slowly climb out of this period of dormancy this fall, I have one goal: to preserve this calmness by any means necessary.

Author’s backyard.

Environmental Historian as Identity

I can’t wait for academia to decide if it wants me. I have too many zeros on the end of my student loan debt. I need to live my life. I need to earn some money. And so, this Fall I’m moving forward and applying for non-academic jobs in Saskatoon. If I land a great job before next academic job season or before I can move around the country, then great. If not, then I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. I’m going to consider the opportunities, both academic and non-academic, that come my way one by one.

But as the reality of leaving academia, even temporarily, becomes a real possibility, I find myself pondering what it is to be an environmental historian. I don’t mean being a professor or writing peer-reviewed articles. I mean as an identity. Because, for me, being an environmental historian is an aspect of my identity, not a job.

Being an environmental historian means looking at the world and all its intricate natural and unnatural parts in ways that other people don’t. It means being able to gently challenge people’s perceptions of the world, to open their eyes to something new. It means thinking too much about parks and being slightly annoyed when everyone wants to talk to you about them. It means being slightly annoyed when people don’t want to talk about parks with you. It means being able to write the hell out of most subjects. It means seeing beauty in the abandoned parking lot. It means having empathy for non-human animals…

If you were never to work again in your field, what would remain? It is these aspects of our identity that connect us to the here and now.

I encourage all of you to sit and think about what being a [environmental] historian (or biologist or anthropologist or entomologist, etc.) means to you? If you were never to work again in your field, what would remain? It is these aspects of our identity that connect us to the here and now. They do not rely on deadlines or awards or empty email inboxes. They nourish us. They connect us to other beings and the environment in which we live. And they encourage us to live in the present.