“What are you studying at school?” people ask me.
“Environmental Humanities,” I tell them.
“Oh,” they always reply, with the edge of a frown at the corner of their lips. The brave ones will say, “Um, what is that?”
But six semesters into my time here at Sterling, I’ve gotten pretty good at answering that question.
“Humanities is the study of the human experience,” I will say, “with specific focus on our cultural products. The traditional humanities disciplines are: visual and performing arts, religion, literature, philosophy, language, history, and geography. However, I also think that food should be considered a humanities too, because what’s more universally human that the rituals we have around producing and consuming food? By that token, environmental humanities explores the influence of place and nature on our cultural products, and our culture itself.”
At this point, most people become excited and proclaim I go the coolest college they’ve ever heard of.
(They are right.)
What is the human experience, and how does our environment shape it? When you look at the word environment, it does mean nature, but more broadly, the root “environ-” really just means our surroundings. We can have social environments and political environments in addition to the natural world. So literally, environmental humanities is the study of how our surroundings shape our species.
One of my favorite ways to embrace environmental humanities is through crafting. In the fiber studio, one bag holds a combination of clumpy Wensleydale wool and balls of cattail fiber. Into the second vessel I discard the picked-through fibers, fluffed and lofty. The residual pollen tickles my nose and I keep sneezing. My fingers work steadily and rhythmically just as I know the fingers of thousands of generations of humans have before me. The genetic memories housed in my brain release themselves through my fingers, pulled out of me with this wool and cattail fiber.
I am blending animal and plant. In my day-to-day life, there are many times I feel like I am both animal and plant. Sometimes I build heat and energy inside my body as I hike through the woods, or seek out birds, or stretch and loosen my muscles and self through yoga, like an animal. Other times, I sit and ponder and lie low to the ground, watching, experiencing stillness, touching, smelling, and moving with the sun and the breeze, like a plant.
Here in the fiber studio, the two worlds unite, and I am the one uniting them.
This is what crafters do. I am making things myself. I am shaping the world into what my imagination desires. By the sheer force of will, I am bringing something new into existence. I can reshape the universe. I can take this raw material and turn it into something beneficial for me, for my community, for the world.
Because humans make things. To make and create is to be human. Humans make money and computers and electronics and business plans. We also make clothing and music and art and grow food and tell stories. We make families and communities and civilization.
I like to embrace the humanities through my hands because they remind me of what is real. They ground me in what I am capable of. I am a touch-oriented and tactile person. I can put clothes on my back and tell the stories of my elders and preserve food for the winter.
I am a subsistence-provider, vision-maker, existence-creator, story-catcher, and community-builder. But, most important of all, I am an environmental humanist, and if the environment plays a role in your human experience (I promise you it does), you are one too.