On Trees and Arboreal Values

TNS-Laura Auricchio

In an interview, Laura Auricchio, Chair of Humanities and Associate Professor of Art History, discusses her collaborative research project that brought scholars together to contribute to a forthcoming volume on arboreal values.

1. What is the aim of your current research project?

The goal of this project is to foster conversations among individuals working with various methodologies and in fields of inquiry to point the way toward an emerging, hybrid discipline of tree studies. By augmenting traditional approaches from literary studies, art history, history of science, and intellectual history with insights from recent scholarship in environmental and forest history, ecocriticism, post-colonial criticism, and visual and material culture, as well as newer fields such as ecomusicology, the 21 scholars who contributed to our volume aim to rediscover the many kinds of value accorded to physical trees in the Age of Enlightenment. The volume documents a widespread awareness that human and arboreal lives were inextricably entwined, throughout Europe and across the Atlantic in both urban and rural cultures. Looking at 18th-century cultures through this lens of arboreal discourses and practices enables us to trace not only changes in the modalities of resource management and planting practices, but also far more expansive concerns involving shifting conceptions of nature, social identity, physical health, and moral well-being.

2. How does this tie into bigger questions currently facing your field or topic?

Our project complicates the received wisdom concerning interactions between nature and culture in the Age of Enlightenment. For much of the 20th century, the Enlightenment was too often seen as a radical break with a holistic, harmonious past, a break that was understood to have led inexorably to humanity’s instrumental and ultimately destructive domination of nature. In contrast, the volume contributes to a wave of recent scholarship that has begun dismantling the “monolithic bogeyman” of a single Enlightenment trajectory reified in such texts. Inspired in large part by new directions in postcolonial and global studies, much current work deploys pluralist paradigms that reveal a variety and complexity of period attitudes towards nature. More specifically, we are following the lead of scholars who emphasize that a range of scientific principles and paradigms coexisted in this period; our essays show, for instance, that the material and economic utility of logs and timber were often invoked as rational reasons for the care of living trees. Sentimental and proto-ecological explanations were frequently given as well. Multiple strains of reasoning coexisted within the era’s burgeoning public discourse about the value of wood.

3. What was the initial aim of your project and how has it evolved over time?

We had originally hoped to include papers that addressed not only Europe and North America, but also the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and South America. In other words, we aspired to a truly global, rather than merely trans-Atlantic, scope. Unfortunately, perhaps because my coeditors and I all specialize in Europe and/or North America, the essays in the volume all address these areas. In the end, perhaps this made for a more cohesive volume.

4. How was your project funded or supported?

The project has received support from The New School Provost’s Office’s competitive Faculty Research Fund (FRF), supplemented with funding from my own General Faculty Research Funds and a Research, Scholarship, and Creative Practice award from the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons. The FRF grant enabled me to hire an editorial assistant who is a graduate student in Parsons’ MA History of Decorative Arts and Design program. Her assistance has been invaluable, as she copy edited all of the essays for conformity with the publisher’s house style, compiled the volume’s bibliography, and served as primary contact for all administrative correspondence.

5. How do you plan to build upon or sustain your research project?

In the fall of 2012, I will be offering a new course entitled "Garden Design: A Cultural History", which will draw upon some of the research for this project. In addition, I plan to discuss the possibility of a symposium on the cultural history of trees in conjunction with internal constituencies (e.g., Environmental Studies, Global Studies, History, etc.) to coincide with the publication of the book and the class.

6. In carrying out this research project, what were some of the outcomes that you’ve experienced, both anticipated and unanticipated?

For me, the most rewarding outcome was the experience of working with, and learning from, scholars in a wide range of disciplines. As an art historian, I have worked collaboratively with other art historians (on exhibitions, for instance) but my coeditors on this project were scholars of English literature (Cook) and French literature and culture (Pacini), and the contributors came from a far broader range of fields and from every corner of the Anglophone world. Cook, Pacini, and I wrote the introduction collaboratively, through a series of round robins, and our different disciplinary perspectives and knowledge bases made for a stronger, more original contribution than any of us could have produced alone. This project has also introduced me to colleagues at The New School with whom I had not previously crossed paths.

Invaluable trees: cultures of nature, 1660-1830 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation) will be published in August 2012. Click here for a table of contents and a description of Laura's latest book.

7. Laura’s advice in the areas of sponsored research and grant seeking: 

First, I would recommend thinking about research as part of one’s job here. Each faculty member should identify his or her most productive/valuable times of the day or week, and protect those hours for research. With so much going on, both at the university and in New York, it requires a concerted effort to protect time for research.

Second, I would recommend keeping apprised of funding opportunities both inside and outside of the university. There are not a large number of funding opportunities available outside of the university for scholars in the humanities and those that do exist generally have only modest funds to offer. But by piecing together various sources of internal funding, I have been fortunate enough to enjoy all of the research support that I have needed.

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