Problems of Place: The Trouble with Fieldwork, or Troubling Embodiment

I could speak of body and place through visceral metaphors. 

Dislocation comes to mind. The word dislocation has come up in other essays for EHN’s Problems of Place series, but I don’t think other writers meant this word as viscerally as I interpret it. I think of dislocated joints. When joints dislocate, they don’t stay in place; they are dis-placed. My joints are less committed to place than my research is; they are not place-based. 

Yes, that is a pun. 

I could also describe my experience of problems of place through another bodily visceral metaphor: proprioception. Proprioception is kind of like a fancy word for balance. Clinically, it is described as joint-position sensing, a sense of knowing where all your joints are in time and space and having the ability to react accordingly. Proprioception can fail me; sometimes my joints encounter an unexpected contour of the environment and suddenly lose their sense of place. 

But I don’t like the option of using “Illness as Metaphor,” to borrow Susan Sontag’s phrase.[1] Academia far too easily flirts with the real, visceral, and embodied experiences of disability and chronic illness. It turns these experiences into convenient and inaccurate metaphors. 

Dislocation and impaired proprioception are not poetic metaphors for what it’s like to do—or not do—environmental history fieldwork. I don’t wish to theorise my body as a site of research; it’s a site of enough already.[2]

* * *

When I started my master’s degree in Environmental Studies in Scotland, I was using crutches. At the time, I used the language of being “on” crutches, instead of “using” crutches; I thought it was temporary, an injury that would resolve in a few weeks. On the second day of the program, we went on a field trip from Edinburgh to Dunbar to visit the birthplace of the iconic yet deeply problematic environmentalist John Muir. The trip’s aim was going to the place he was born and walking in his footsteps. 

However, I couldn’t walk in his footsteps. So when the group left for a hike along the coast, I returned to town by myself. I sat on a bench next to an abandoned church at the end of the high street. Later that day, one person told me I was a “trooper for doing this on crutches.” “This”? Did they mean the field trip? Or the degree? Another one joked that I had better be better by the time of our spring field trip, which was a walking-focused field trip up north near the Scottish Highlands.

This wasn’t the first time I was called a “trooper” for quietly enduring inaccessible conditions. A few years earlier, on a summer field course in ecology, I had another mysteriously-slow-healing injury that affected my walking. Nevertheless, I put on a smile and tromped around in tidepools despite my medical walking boot. I didn’t ask for adjustments or accommodations. For my endurance, I received a paper plate award for being the “trooper.”

Back in Scotland, several months later, I wasn’t “better.” I was still using crutches. I was still in pain. The field trip trainer for the “walking” experience left me a box of books to peruse in the art center’s café while the rest of the group went out into the woods. The box included field guides to all the landscapes and wildlife that I was not going to see. She told me they would visit the tree from Macbeth. Not understanding this reference, I picked up a Shakespeare volume from the box and read the entirety of Macbeth in the corner of the café while they were gone. When they returned, we made maps of our experiences. Mine was a map of the art center and the café with the lift/elevator as a focal point. Nobody called me a trooper when I showed my map.

I was a “trooper” when I went out on field courses or did fieldwork without complaining about inaccessibility. Without making people feel uncomfortable by drawing attention to the inaccessibility of the image of being “in the field” that they had constructed. 

I don’t want to be told I’m a trooper for enduring inaccessibility in pleasant silence. What I want is to not have to be a trooper. I want the conditions of my degree and my field of study to not require me or expect me to be a trooper.[3]

* * *

In his oft-cited environmental history manifesto The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, William Cronon writes: “But the trouble with wilderness is that it quietly expresses and reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject.”[4]

Reading Cronon’s critique of “wildernesses” was one of my entry points into environmental history. My aim here is not to respond to Cronon’s work on wilderness or its related concepts, but rather to reformulate his central thesis and to apply it to environmental history methodology.

Despite environmental history’s commitment to taking a closer and critical look at all the too-commonly-taken-for-granted aspects of ‘environment’—from wildernesses to native to invasive to natural, and much more—that same lens hasn’t been turned enough to a central methodology of environmental history. Fieldwork, even if it isn’t always described as fieldwork, continues to rise in prominence. New emphases on “going there” continue to pop up, and the environmental humanities—history included—are rapidly including field courses like the one I participated in during my master’s into their undergraduate and postgraduate curricula.[5]

As Ana Sekulić wrote evocatively in her recent piece for EHN, environmental history methodology often emphasizes a particular kind of embodied immersion in the landscape of one’s study. If you cannot embody that particular mode of engagement—a masculinist colonial-imperialist knowing of place through its conquering—you risk becoming, as she puts it, “overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy.” Sekulić writes:

Walking the talk: the idea that insight comes from a particular type of physical exertion in inhospitable terrains. The seemingly innocuous phrase whose rhyme captures the implicit link between able bodies and trustworthy knowledge. This is, of course, the core of the myth of the western frontier and wilderness, but its principles that privilege the able-bodied are built into other landscapes and other types of history writing. I tried walking and talking, until I couldn’t. If my legs cannot take me to certain spaces, can my mind truly know them?”

This quotation brings me back to the problem of fieldwork in environmental history. Specifically, it brings me to the trouble of fieldwork. One key problem here is environmental history fieldwork’s relation to troublesome bodies—or, more accurately, the bodies of those who trouble the very ways environmental history understands itself. Those whose embodied experiences challenge environmental history’s modes of knowledge production and highlight different ways of knowing the places environmental historians study. 

The trouble with fieldwork in environmental history is that it quietly expresses and reproduces the very values its devotees seek to reject. It isn’t enough for environmental historians to break down the taken-for-granted nature of nature. We must also break down the taken-for-granted assumptions of the field of environmental history about “the field” and where and how legitimate knowledge is produced. Whose body performs fieldwork? Whose body fits into the image of fieldwork? And what does it mean when one’s body doesn’t cooperate with place-based research and fieldwork? In addition to the question of the researcher’s embodied experience of fieldwork, the fetishization of fieldwork extends to the sites of fieldwork, too. Which places are “the field” and which ones are not? What and where is the field in “fieldwork”?[6]

* * *

“The field” is not just out there in supposedly challenging environments—be they urban, wild, rural, or suburban. Doing environmental history does not require climbing every mountain or fording every stream. It does not require glorifying pain, whether that pain is from physical exertion outside or hours spent hunched over tiny handwriting in the archive. Doing place-based research is an embodied and place-specific process. It is a commitment. It is an ethos. But it does not need to involve traditional images of fieldwork or archival travel. Changing those images and expectations is crucial. As EHN contributors Ana Sekulić, Celeste Henerey, and Teresa Pilgrim all demonstrate in different Problems of Place pieces involving walking, incorporating embodied place-based experiences into environmental history methods does not have to be an exercise in reifying problematic tropes of the rugged masculine explorer, conquering landscapes in his quest for knowledge. Embodied approaches to place-based environmental histories can instead be formed around care, empathy, contingency, community, accountability, and accessibility. 

Fieldwork in environmental history too often fetishizes both the body and the field. And both deserve better. 


[1] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978).

[2] There is an excellent range of work considering “the body” as a site of theory and “embodiment” that inform this piece. A small sampling of the thinkers who have influenced me includes: Tao Leigh Goffe on coloniality, mapping, unknowability, and the body in “Unmapping the Caribbean: Toward a Digital Praxis of Archipelagic Sounding,” Archipelagos Journal (2020); Jaipreet Virdi on pain, embodiment, and history in the series “Painful Realities,” Wellcome Collection (2019); Johanna Carolina Jokinen and Martina Angela Caretta on embodiment and “fieldwork” in “When Bodies Do Not Fit: An Analysis of Postgraduate Fieldwork,” Gender, Place & Culture 23, no. 12 (2016); the work of Sandy Ho, Mia Mingus, and Alice Wong on the Access Is Love website; Alice Wong (ed.), Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2020); and “Editorial” (as well as all other writers’ contributions) in the special issue on “Bodies of Nature: Survival Lessons from Disabled Communities,” in Orion Magazine 40, no. 4 (Winter 2021).[3] The “trooper” idea relates to what’s been described as the “SuperCrip” trope and “inspiration porn.” Both problematically frame disabled people as “superhuman” or “inspirational” whilst ignoring structural barriers
and the need for systemic change. For more, see e.g. Imani Barbarin’s work on the Crutches & Spice blog and the late Stella Young’s “I Am Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much,” TED talk (April 2014).

[4] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1995), 69-90.

[5] Adrian Howkins, “‘Have You Been There?’ Thoughts on (Not) Visiting Antarctica,” Environmental History 15, no. 3 (2010): 514-519. See also Sarah Pickman’s reflection on Howkins’ “going there” on EHN (July 16, 2021). Johanne Bruun’s Arctic Cultures blog on conducting polar history work in/outside the field is also helpful on these ideas. I’m also working on related forthcoming piece; the link will be added here when that piece is published. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the development of field-oriented environmental humanities curricula but has not halted or reversed it.

[6] The question of ‘going there’ and where ‘there’ is also raises significant questions about the environmental impacts of research, which Howkins also observes. See also Diana Valencia’s piece on “The Carbon Footprint of Environmental Research” for EHN (October 24, 2019) for more on this dilemma.

*Cover image: Point Reyes Lighthouse. Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: a steep cement staircase with metal handrails heading down a cliffside to a lighthouse station. Vast blue ocean is visible beyond the lighthouse and rocky cliff edge.]

Edited by Asmae Ourkiya, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.

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