Considering the embodiment of time as method in environmental humanities
Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh &
York University, Canada
Aadita Chaudhury is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Program in Science and Technology Studies (STS) at York University, Canada. With a background spanning environmental studies, STS, political ecology, cultural studies and interdisciplinary arts practice, Aadita explores how scientific inquiry and the arts can configure nature as a site for embodied experiential knowledges, and future world-making. She has been part of research projects and networks at the intersection of arts, ecology, technology and transnational social and environmental justice in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and India.
During her EARTH Scholarship exchange, Aadita investigated how the embodied individual and collective experiences of time help environmental researchers better attune to local specificities of the climate crisis. Based at the Edinburgh College of Art of the University of Edinburgh, Aadita explored local ecologies, literary and performing arts, myths and stories, along with body-centred practices to contextualize Scottish experiences of nature in multiple sites across Edinburgh. Through direct immersion into these cultural and ecological landscapes, she explored methodologies that show how situating the body as part of ecosystems can transform environmental imaginaries, ethics, and praxis, and how practices such as ecopoetry and ecosomatics can be potent tools in inquiry.
Aadita’s EARTH Scholarship project was concerned with questions of temporality, embodiment and placed-based ecological timescapes and how they inform environmental research. While in Edinburgh, Aadita found herself contending with the task of conducting environmental research for multiple projects while navigating disparate temporalities and geographies. In her exploration of Edinburgh’s environmental histories and cultures, she found that the production of environmental knowledge is always being mediated by the tension between the ever-present pull of the deep past and the body’s contemporary orientation to time and place. While attending to histories of specific sites within Edinburgh, Aadita looked towards ecopoetry and ecosomatics as a way of navigating methodological orientations to place-based research. Given Scotland’s unique ecologies and engagement with the arts and literature as a means of contextualizing climate change, Aadita’s research showed how the local specificities of the environment can inform a more connected environmental ethic that encourages conviviality and solidarities across individuals, communities, and spatial and temporal contexts.
Stone above storms, you rear upon the ridge:
we live on your back, its crag-and-tail,
spires and tenements stacked on your spine,
the castle and the palace linked by one rope.
A spatchcock town, the ribcage split open
like a skellie, a kipper, a guttit haddie.
We wander through your windy mazes,
all our voices are flags on the high street.
From the sky’s edge to the grey firth
we are the city, you are within us.
Each crooked close and wynd is a busy cut
on the crowded mile that takes us home
in eden Edinburgh, centred on the rock,
our city with your seven hills and heavens.
– Valerie Gillies, from Cream of the Well: New and Selected Poems (Luath, 2014)
Edinburgh’s landscapes provide a rich backdrop to discerning and developing one’s deep time sense of self. I have begun to the use the phrase “deep time sense of self” to refer to one’s orientation – encompassing both cognitive aspects and embodiment that considers oneself in the context of deep time histories of place. As I have explored, this deep time sense of self can be a very instrumental tool in refining methodologies of environmental research
While in Edinburgh, I found myself navigating several research questions and orientations. Along with my main project for the EARTH scholarship on temporality and embodiment in the context of environmental research, I also had the responsibility of wrapping up my PhD dissertation that is partly based on wildfire science in northern California. In my positionality as a researcher, I found myself drawn to two significantly disparate places – and along with that came a unique sense of embodiment and temporality while being situated in place in Edinburgh.
My context of conducting environmental research involving two divergent landscapes, however, is not uncommon for environmental researchers. Most of the time, there is a linear sequence of events. At first, environmental researchers may gather data in a specific field site, and then take it back to their institutional or personal home base for further analysis. This creates a chasm – between the research site and the research process – as well as that between the research site and the researcher themselves. Temporality becomes an important tool in understanding these points of divergence. As my mentor, Dr. Michelle Bastian has explored, while much of industrial society, including ecological research, runs on the assumptions related to the linear nature of clock-time, actual timescapes that exist in ecology often follow a different sequence that makes it difficult to map it directly onto linear clock-time (Bastian 2012).
In prior research, feminist, anticolonial and ecocritical scholars have often conceptualized the body as a site for the interaction of multiple histories and their associated landscapes. If one were to reject the trappings of Cartesian dualism – a philosophy that is entrenched within the subject-object orientation in many ways of doing field research in environmental studies (Kanngieser and Todd 2020), one may begin to see the body’s knowledges as part of the whole self. As the body becomes informed and attuned to local landscapes, the self can also orient to it in a way that seeks to build relational ways of relating to it in the context on environmental inquiry.
One of the forms of environmental inquiry that has been crucial to navigating the rich cultural and biophysical landscapes in Edinburgh, as part of developing novel methods and theories for environmental research has been to consider the pedagogies related to ecopoetry. In my conversations with the poetry community in Edinburgh, ecopoetry was distinguished from nature poetry in the way that it orients the poetic voice as part of and in direct relationship to the natural world, not simply an observer of it. In the context of the climate crisis, ecopoetry serves as a vehicle for the embodied self to be affected and moved into an orientation of relationality to local and global ecologies. In our conversations, several scholars of poetry have also mentioned that part of the task of poetry is about refining the quality of attention on phenomenon. This refinement process is not simply cognitive – but encompasses emotional responses that are unique to histories of place, communities and individuals involved in poetic exchange. Accordingly, ecopoetry can be a key tool in the development of environmental attunement.
In my explorations of the deep time sense of self, perhaps the most potent landscape I have come across is Ravelston Woods, in the northwestern part of the city. An urban nature reserve, Ravelston Woods is the site of an ancient woodlands with lots of native species. In my visits to these woods and engaging with site-specific surveys of pluralistic sonic atmospheres that include urban/industrial and “natural” sounds of local animal and bird species, I came to attend to a specific kind of deep time sense of self. Interestingly, the sonic landscape that captured the naturecultures of Ravelston Woods parallels the surprising cosmopolitan history of Edinburgh itself. The site in unique in Edinburgh as the rock formations present here are sedimentary sandstone, unlike the volcanic igneous rock that animates much of Edinburgh. The sandstone cliffs have also been queried over time to create some of foundational buildings in Edinburgh, including the Holyrood Palace. In this way, Ravelston Woods’ present connects one to the storeyed histories of Edinburgh and the soundscapes in the current site reflect the many changes Edinburgh has undergone in the modern period. Beyond the modern period, it highlights the unique geology of the site in contrast to the volcanic history of Edinburgh’s ancient past. The site is also a rich cultural landscape that connects its present and past states to broader conversations about the ontology of forests.
Limestone cliffs in Ravelston Woods
As Edinburgh’s human history dates back to pre-historic times, its naturecultural entanglements leading up to the present have a complex legacy. Any individual environmental research in the present must orient to this deep past in order to fully be in equitable engagement with the landscape here. In this way, the present and futures of generating place-based knowledges can be facilitated in ongoing relationships between the present self in relation to deep time histories, diverse ways of relating to time in present and past communities, and the consideration of more-than-human worlds that intersect and often operate beyond the rigidities of linear timescapes.
Bastian, Michelle. “Fatally Confused: Telling the Time in the Midst of Ecological Crises.” Environmental Philosophy 9, no. 1 (2012): 23–48.
Kanngieser, AM, and Zoe Todd. “3. from Environmental Case Study to Environmental Kin Study.” History and Theory 59, no. 3 (2020): 385–93.