New CHE director Lynn Keller brings passion for environmental humanities

January 4, 2017

Every year, faculty and graduate students from the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE) file into a bus to begin a four-day journey across Wisconsin.

This place-based workshop, centered on a different topic each year, is something Lynn Keller, professor of English and newly appointed CHE director, sees as one of the most important parts of the center’s annual programming – one she’s looking forward to helping organize for the next three years.

Workshop topics have included energy, landscapes of health and illness, urban agriculture and more. This year, participants will examine climate change in Wisconsin.

“We’re traveling together on a bus, sharing these experiences,” says Keller. “Wherever we go, people talk to us, we take tours, and sometimes those experiences are very emotionally powerful. Maybe you’re seeing some really devastating environmental damage or something really inspiring. There’s an emotional dimension to that intellectual experience that I think often we’re deprived of in an academic environment.”

These encounters create community and build relationships among faculty and students across disciplines – something Keller believes sets CHE apart.

“We talk about the ‘CHE space’ sometimes,” Keller explains. “It’s a way of indicating the feeling that we create something special, in which really good, productive exchange can happen intellectually that’s also supportive in personal and social ways.”

“CHE is very devoted to a
sense of history and knowledge
of human and environmental
interactions over time, because
there is a sense that we do
need to learn from the past,
and understand where we
are in terms of where we’ve
come from.”

Keller comes into CHE leadership with 35 years under her belt in the UW-Madison English department. She’s been a CHE faculty associate for more than seven years, first getting involved when she decided to turn her study of contemporary poetry toward environmental studies and ecocriticism. In 2015, she was named a Guggenheim Fellow, resulting in a book manuscript provisionally titled Nature’s Transformations: North American Poetry of the Anthropocene.

Like most English majors, Keller is someone who loves to read. Both books and the outdoors have meaningfully impacted her life while growing up as well as in academia. But it took her some time to find the connection between the two.

“I felt split after my undergrad experience. I was thinking, do I want to live off of the land or do I want to go to graduate school? I saw them as opposite things, and it wasn’t until well into my career that I saw a way I could bring those two ideas together,” says Keller.

This is where CHE felt like an obvious fit.

CHE is the home of environmental humanities at UW-Madison. Faculty, staff and students associated with the center come from an expansive list of departments, including but not limited to the humanities – history, botany, landscape architecture, English literature, geography and more. Through attending CHE colloquia, Keller realized that she could connect her love of literature and poetry with environmental history and science.

Now, the bond between the environment and the humanities seems obvious to Keller.

“Humanities and the arts have a huge role to play in addressing the problems we face. I can teach scientific and social understandings of environmental issues through people being moved through stories,” Keller says. “CHE is very devoted to a sense of history and knowledge of human and environmental interactions over time, because there is a sense that we do need to learn from the past, and understand where we are in terms of where we’ve come from.”

As director, Keller hopes to sustain the programs and initiatives CHE’s founding members and former directors Gregg Mitman and Bill Cronon put into place. While maintaining its strengths, Keller would like to gain increased national visibility for the center and find additional ways to help graduate students succeed post-college.

“These are big shoes to fill. I believe that the people who created this center created a wonderful thing, and I want to make sure that it continues to be strong,” Keller says. “CHE is a place where people come and belong, and I think our activities and programming really foster that sense of community.”

What she’s reading

Enjoy these works recommended by Professor Keller:

  • Ecocriticism by Greg Garrard – If readers are curious how literary scholars turn their work in environmental directions, Garrard’s Ecocriticism is an excellent, readable overview of the field of environmental criticism.
  • Well Then There Now by Juliana Spahr – This is a book that contains work in both prose and poetic forms, and one of a dozen that Keller writes about in her forthcoming book on contemporary ecopoetics.
  • My Year of Meats and All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki – For the reader who prefers realistic fiction, Keller recommends two books by Ozeki, both of which are engaging novels that address environmental issues.
  • The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of mass extinction in the Anthropocene.
  • Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which blends natural history, botany, conservation science and Native American traditional environmental knowledge.