Faculty Feature: Eric Robertson
Eric Robertson is teaching the Environmental Humanities Program writing seminar in Spring 2022. He is currently on the faculty of the Honors College at the University of Utah. He teaches the writing courses and helps develop the curriculum for the Ecology and Legacy minors. His research and published works are in queer ecology, exploring how nonprocreative bodies find themselves within social narratives and to what socio-biological ends queer bodies might become integral participants in human ecology. Eric is also an alumni of our program. He graduated in 2013 and wrote a novel for his project, The Salted Earth, which was awarded the top prize in the Utah Arts and Museums Original Writing Competition. Eric is an editor with saltfront and Dark Mountain.
In January 2022, I talked with Eric about queer ecology, the Dark Mountain Project, and the writing seminar he's currently teaching.
Brooke: What drew you to queer ecology as a field of study? What topics are you currently exploring in your research?
Eric: I suppose that it comes from a fairly personal standpoint. I'm part of the LGBTQ community. I have always been interested in juggling science, biology, and ecology with the humanities. When I had the opportunity to come into the EH Program as a student, there was a course on behavioral ecology that was taught by Kristin Hawkes. I jumped at that. She's one of the top anthropologists in behavioral ecology. She's kind of a legend. I always had behavioral questions at the front of my mind. Why don't I want to have kids? Why do I have a particular sexual orientation? The social side of those questions I got with queer theory, but I didn't have the ecological pieces, the physiological pieces, until I studied behavioral ecology. So that's how I came to queer ecology, merging the creative work that comes out of queer theory with the science from behavioral ecology.
Right now, I'm looking at the specifics of what we call alloparenting, which focuses on non-reproductive members of extended families, how they can come into the nuclear family, and how they've always been a part of family structures. Fieldwork studies in hunter gatherer communities show that non-reproductive individuals were helping to provision for the kids. Those kids wouldn't have survived from the main mating pair had they not had grandma, the gay uncle and the gay aunt, the disabled uncle and the disabled aunt. The extended family then is a huge part of the success of human societies. Now, in our culture, we focus so much on the individual. How can we turn to these extended families to reestablish what it means to be ecological within a human context?
I’m also exploring how the origins of art fits into a more ecological extended family. When examining artistic traditions and religious traditions, it looks to be that people who were not neurotypical and people who were not reproductively active were actually the people who started to invent things like language and religion. Because they didn't have offspring themselves, they had the time to actually bring forth things like philosophy and cave painting. I argue that we wouldn't have human society without these individuals that are outside of reproductive heteronormativity. We have a much more complicated history than what we've been examining. Darwin basically looked at the behavior of boys to speak to the behavior of all humans. Well, we know that motherhood and female relationships are just as powerful and have just as much influence on evolution. So that’s also true for these individuals that are outside of that traditional evolution paradigm. I'm using a text called The Survival of the Friendliest, which talks about cooperation, and how cooperation is just as important for human evolution as competition.
Brooke: You're also an editor with saltfront and the Dark Mountain Project. What do these two projects mean to you? What stories do the projects seek to tell?
Eric: I'm trying to think who said this, this might be a Buddhist quote, but it's about the joyful participation in the sorrows of the world. That's not something that our culture in the West, particularly in America, does well. We just want the exceptional. Oh, there's the problem, let's go fix it. We can’t just sit with something. I was initially drawn to Dark Mountain because there was an article called ‘Dark Ecology’ in Orion Magazine by Paul Kingsnorth, who was one of the big environmental authors in Europe for a long time. He just kind of said, ‘I can't do it anymore.’ He started Dark Mountain, and it set my hair on fire. When I was a student in the Environmental Humanities Program in 2011 and 2012, I took the stance—and it wasn't super popular—that we're not going back. We can't stop this. This is hundreds, thousands of years of decisions that humans have made to get us here. This is an evolutionary process that is now playing out. We're not going to stop it; we're not going to turn back. So, how do we live through it? How do we become resilient? How do we adapt? In the beginning, The New York Times and several publications didn't have nice things to say about Dark Mountain. Because it sounded pessimistic. It was dark, right? People read it like, oh, just give up. But that's not the case.
In Dark Mountain, there is a concept called ‘withdrawal’ that was really exciting for me, and that's what we've tried to do in saltfront. Instead of trying to do something about climate change, how about we just simply stop doing the things that are damaging? Which means we have to withdraw from a lot of stuff within American society and consumer society. How do we start to live with that? With reproduction, when people say, ‘I don't think I want to bring kids into the world,’ why can't we embrace that as enthusiastically and with as much joy and optimism as we do when the newlywed couple says, ‘Oh, we're pregnant!’ at the Thanksgiving dinner? We raise a glass to them, why can't we raise a glass to the non-reproductive couple? Why can’t we allow that to become an esteemed part of human ecology? With saltfront and Dark Mountain, we start with the body. Where do we live? How do we live? How do we approach our bodies? How do we define what a body is and is not for?
saltfront and Dark Mountain also step back from terms like nature, wilderness, restoration, terms that have been in the traditional canon of the old guard environmentalism. We drop the term environmentalist. Because while we've been focusing on the ecosystems and the habitats of other creatures, we haven't examined our own habitats. The tagline for saltfront is ‘studies in human habit and habitat.’ Everybody says we have to go into the wilderness to be regenerative, to become spiritually awakened, to get back to a real sort of self. What does that say about our built environments? That says that we've built environments that are actually damaging to us. So why don’t we turn our focus to our built environments? I should be getting just as much inspiration in my own yard, in my own home, as I do when I'm at the top of a mountain. saltfront and Dark Mountain turned away from that more privileged position of getting in a car or flying to a national park to reinvigorate our lives before returning to our awful existences in cities. That’s actually the dark part of it. We’re turning to face the darkest parts of human nature and still find joy in the process.
Brooke: The Dark Mountain Project and saltfront are currently partnering on an issue themed 'Confluence.' What inspired that theme? What topics will you cover?
Eric: Confluences of all kinds—viruses, world populations of Homo sapiens, the confluence of rivers. How do we merge with things, instead of trying to dam them up? Or redirect an entire flow when we see something awful coming? What about a river of plastic garbage or toxins? How do we learn to deal with that in an up close and personal kind of way? Of course, the Great Salt Lake is a perfect example. We have to live with the fact that if that lake bed is exposed, the entirety of 150 years of industrialization in this state will be exposed. The lake is static, there is no outflow. We’re coming into still water. So the Great Salt Lake is a cool metaphor that we examined for this issue. Nick, who's one of the main editors at Dark Mountain, and I discussed that this idea of confluence is something that we don't take seriously because we try to avoid or protect ourselves against what we have to merge with. How do we merge with this toxic air? Does it mean that while we have an inversion in the state, there is no joy to be had? Do we become despondent? Or is there a way to mix all those things together?
Some of these ideas came to me when I visited the Three Creeks Confluence Park. I had some critiques of it. They uncovered three creeks, but what could have been green space was covered with crushed granite paths and herringbone brick, and the trees have these little cement collars. Then they spent how many millions of dollars on these bike paths to bring wealthy people along the bench in their lycra biking shorts into this poor neighborhood. I wondered, are we doing things in a sound ecological and a sound social way when we create these parks? As I was examining this park, I also read about the kayak court. A judge decided to get her clerks together, paddle the Jordan River in kayaks, find homeless folks, and offer them the opportunity to clear their record so they could gain housing and employment. I thought that’s an interesting confluence of the human and the built environment. So the idea of confluence for me was about, how do we meet ecological processes with our social standards in a more equitable way?
Brooke: You're teaching the writing seminar this semester. What are your hopes and plans for the course?
Eric: We’re introducing Dark Mountain, and we've already had Nick Hunt chime in on our first day of class, who's the editor out of the UK. He has released some books on walking that are blowing up in Europe. He's in the top tier of travel writers in Europe at the moment. We'll bring in another head editor, Charlotte Du Cann from the UK, to talk about her work with food cultures. We'll have a queer theorist, a colleague of mine from UC Irvine, who has a book called Bad Environmentalism about humor and the taking everything less seriously approach to environmentalism. That sounds flippant. It sounds like you're just giving up, right? But quite the contrary. We will talk about things like the queer art of failure from queer theorist Jack Halberstam, which is about accepting the fact that you are of a different ilk. There’s a beauty in not achieving goals, there's a beauty in stepping back and letting life kind of just wash over you instead of constantly striving for something. We’re also looking at the filmmaker Derek Jarman, who died of AIDS and in his last years created this remarkable garden in one of the harshest landscapes in the UK. His garden is now a national heritage site. We’re exploring the notion that even in disruption, there is beauty. We’re exploring how to accept a temporal nature of our own lives. That brings in deep ecology.
We’re also looking at some new research on cognition called the extended mind. That looks at three different kinds of cognition that we tend to ignore. The first is embodied cognition. When we walk, our brains light up. When you write with pen and paper, your brain goes crazy; when you're writing on a computer, it shrinks. So we always write with pen and paper first. Then there’s situated cognition, which involves getting up and out of classrooms, homes, away from the TV screens. Of course, that comes from our evolution. We were ambling creatures, that's how our brains developed. Then, the last one is distributed cognition. We cannot think without other people. This is where the text Survival of the Friendliest comes in. When we're isolating ourselves on our social media platforms, we may think we're connecting, but we’re not. That's not distributed cognition, that’s distributing content. So we’re using this research on the extended mind as a template to explore how the embodied nature of our cognition can help to influence our own creativity.
Brooke: In addition to being an instructor this semester, you are also an alumni of the program. What was the focus of your research while you were a student? What memories stand out from your time in the program?
Eric: It's not an understatement to say the Environmental Humanities Program changed my life. Queer ecology was the focus of my research. And all of a sudden, I also fell into writing a novel. I wrote a novel for my thesis, and it ended up winning our state’s award for first novel. Of course, the influence of Terry Tempest Williams stands out. It’s hard to wrap my head around the amount of people and material that she exposed us to from all over the world. We had photographers come in, performance artists, scientists. We were walking, we were outside. That was no question foundational. Then I worked with Kristen Hawkes on behavioral ecology, as well as Katherine Stockton, who's one of the preeminent queer theorists in the country. So I had the behavioral ecology, queer ecology, and put it together with creative fiction writing. I had a lot of help.
Centennial Valley stands out in my mind. Also, this notion of checking in before we start class to talk about where you are emotionally, where you are with your ideas. I also appreciated the small cohorts. That’s just kind of a blessing these days, to be in small cohorts. Now I’m now an instructor in the Ecology and Legacy Program in the Honors College. So that's been a great segue for me to come from EH to the Honors College.
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