Reconsiderations of past, present, and future in a new environmental humanities book

Featuring contributions from scholars representing a range of disciplines, ‘Timescales: Thinking Across Ecological Temporalities,’ is an outgrowth of the Penn Program for Environmental Humanities.

For a geologist, 200 million years may seem like the blink of an eye. To a historian, the 18th century is still highly relevant. And to researchers grappling with climate change, future scenarios provide a compelling reason to act now.

In the new book, “Timescales: Thinking Across Ecological Temporalities,” Bethany Wiggin of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) and co-editors Carolyn Fornoff and Patricia Eunji Kim, both alumnae of Penn and PPEH, bring together reflections from experts in a variety of academic disciplines on the relationships between past, present, and future and what that means for a planet in crisis. 

book cover titled Timescales: Thinking Across Ecological Temporalities
The new book “Timescales” puts scholars from diverse disciplines into conversation about climate change. (Image: University of Minnesota Press)

With climate change and the rise of the Anthropocene—the era in which humans are shaping Earth’s processes—underlying the contributors’ essays, artwork, and conversations, “Timescales” aims to unearth new ways of thinking about time and the urgency of a response to the challenges that face humanity.

“We’re not certain of what will come of this, but putting an oceanographer in conversation with a scholar of English literature, for example, can create new ways of thinking,” Wiggin says. “We think that these are the type of interdisciplinary conversations we need to build the knowledge communities of the future.”

Experimental origins

The driving force behind the book traces back to the very early days of PPEH six years ago. Fornoff and Kim were both in the first class of PPEH graduate fellows—Fornoff a doctoral student in Spanish and Portuguese, Kim in history of art—and had “vibrant conversations” with Wiggin and their peers about what they wanted from their experience in the program. What emerged was a conference, also titled Timescales, held in the fall of 2016. “We invited a diverse group of scholars who were also at different career stages,” Wiggin says. “It was a great mix, and we had a really generative dialogue.”

The conference itself took an experimental approach. Some portions were held in the Libraries’ Kislak Center, while others were at Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia. Presenters shared remarks from the PPEH Lab at WetLand, a floating art installation docked at Bartram’s on the Schuylkill River developed by artist Mary Mattingly in partnership with PPEH. 

“The feedback we got from the conference was overwhelmingly positive,” Wiggin says. “Not only the quality of the inquiry and discussion, of course, but also the participants’ willingness to experiment. We were inviting them to be part of a collaborative research experiment about how to think across time scales.”

Transdisciplinary collaboration

As PPEH’s initiatives continued to expand and evolve following the conference, Wiggin, Fornoff, and Kim decided to use the Timescales event as a springboard for a book, which would also serve to showcase the program’s activities for other scholars working in environmental humanities, or anyone interested in engaging with the field.

“We wanted to model a style of writing that proved you could have deeply rigorous work that was also widely accessible,” Wiggin says. “We also wanted to show that the act of thinking across disciplines is as vital as thinking deeply in a single discipline.”

The work’s structure plays off a musical framework. Three sections of essays and conversational “chitchats” between scholars are interspersed with “etudes” that showcase some of the artistry that PPEH artists in residence have produced; the work is bookended with an introduction and a “coda” from Wiggin, Fornoff, and Kim. 

“Music offers one way to think about time,” Wiggin says, “so we ended up borrowing musical forms to organize the book.”

Contributors include members of the Penn community: geophysicist Jane Dmochowski, who coauthored a piece with Yale University’s David Evans reflecting on climate change and the “deep time” of geoscientific studies; graduate student Paul Wolff Mitchell, who wrote about a group of so-called “hoop walkers” in the American West, noting the rhythm and seasonality of their work to rewild land and harvest seasonal crops; and lecture emerita Marcia Ferguson who wrote on theater and the environmental humanities.

Other contributors, such as the Pig Iron Theater Company’s Dan Rothenberg and collaborators Troy Herion and Mimi Lien began to develop the opera “A Period of Animate Existence” during a residence with the program. The production, documented and discussed in “Timescales,” weaves together different perspectives of human time and life cycles against a backdrop of rapid change in the natural and technological world.

At a book launch event held last month, Fornoff offered examples highlighting how climate change challenges the notion of events taking place in discrete time frames. “We open the introduction talking about how the greatest source of ice in Antarctica, the Totten Glacier, was detached from the bedrock in 2016, and the way in which this brings into high relief this collision of temporalities: Of deep time, of this ice shelf that was formed millions of years ago; the present, in which this ice shelf is rapidly melting; and the future, in which rising waters will disproportionately affect island nations and island peoples, as well as coastland communities.” 

Fornoff noted that the environmental humanities, by inviting transdisciplinary thinking, allows researchers to confront topics such as the time scales of environmental crisis, which may be “too unwieldy to tackled from any singular disciplinary position.”

While Wiggin notes that “an academic book is very long in the making,” and thus can’t always speak to concerns that are primary in the moment it comes into the world, “Timescales” does reflect overarching concerns of PPEH, she says, which “attend to how we—unequally and often unjustly—have made and remade Holocene worlds, reducing diverse lifeways and habitats.”

And for the concern of climate change, she hopes the book serves as a model for collaborative and creative work.

“While this book has 21 authors it is in a real sense the product of a community of practice,” Wiggin says, “one engaged in designing and conducting experiments in research and pedagogy for the climate changed.”

Bethany Wiggin is director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities and an associate professor of German in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures in the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts & Sciences.