Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Five Minutes with a Fellow: Matt Kelly

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Five Minutes with a Fellow offers a brief glimpse into what inspires researchers in the environmental humanities. The interviews feature current and former fellows from the Rachel Carson Center.

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Matthew Kelly is a senior lecturer in the history department of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. A historian of Ireland by training and with considerable interest in the history of Poland, he has developed his interest in the history of landscape during the past few years. He completed his PhD at the University of Oxford, where he was also a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow.

How does your research contribute to discussions around solving environmental challenges?

By focusing on the recent history of Dartmoor National Park, my work seeks to say something about the complexity of land use politics, exposing not only the various interests that seemingly have to be accommodated in a democratic society but also the statutory limits placed on what governments can do. Campaigners enjoyed a degree of success when they understood the intricacies of the policy-making process and took seriously the influence of public opinion, particularly when the material interests of ordinary people were at stake. For instance, it was not easy to persuade a community that suffers water shortages on an annual basis that constructing a reservoir in an apparently barren upland or “waste” was a bad thing. My work suggests conservationists and preservationists rarely succeeded when they took a blasé attitude towards people’s livelihoods or failed to recognize that environmentally harmful occupations embed practices and values that shape community identity.

What is one change you would like to see happen to achieve a sustainable future?

I’m very attracted to the rewilding agenda. As a means to restore biodiversity it has intrinsic value, but I also like how it questions our assumptions about our immediate environment and provides eminently achievable ways of making a difference locally. As an historian of modern Dartmoor, I’m acutely conscious of how rewilding challenges much that has long undergirded nature conservation in the uplands. We accept that the Dartmoor “wilderness” in its present form is the product of grazing, especially by sheep, and we have few illusions about the role played by agricultural subsidies in the maintenance of this highly valued landscape; we’re not, however, ready to contemplate the less penetrable Dartmoor that would grow were it left largely to its own devices.

What is your favorite piece of environmental literature?

As a latecomer to the environmental humanities—I also work on Irish political culture—it has been both unnerving and exciting to be reminded that we exist in academic ghettos, the key texts and thinkers in one area of a history barely known to those in others. Still, Donald Worster’s elegantly pitched essays are instantly recognizable as the work of great stylist working in a classical tradition and David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature (2007) makes perfect sense to me as a consummate work of history, though I know the US fellows won’t take me seriously until I’ve got to grips with William Cronon’s Changes in the Land (2003)—they’re not Don and Bill to me. British landscape history is not without its virtues and W. G. Hoskins’ seminal The Making of the English Landscape (1955), though reactionary and unsophisticated by contemporary standards, helped me to look differently and Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory (1995), which I read for pleasure as an impressionable undergraduate, left me marveling at what history writing could be. But none of these works enthralled me as Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972) did when I was nine or ten. It nurtured my sense of wonder, that powerfully instrumental sensibility. It also boasts a perfect opening line. ‘The primroses were over.’ Must reread. Have the eco-critics already got to it?

Who has been a big influence on your work and life, and why?

Summer holidays spent on the disused farm in west Devon belonging to my Polish-speaking great-grandmother exposed me to a damp, mossy, woody, unruly natural world. Long since sold and now partially “developed,” it seems extraordinary that we had all to ourselves a small wood and a field and gates to climb and fences to squeeze through and gorse to build dens in and fruit to pick. I’ve tried to say something about this in my Finding Poland (2010). Babcia had nothing to say about the environment, but she inadvertently broadened my experience of it.

Where is your favorite place to spend time with nature?

Growing by a twelfth-century church built on the plug of a volcano on the western edge of Dartmoor National Park is a hawthorn tree shaped into a frayed comma by seemingly perpetual sou’westerlies. Its stance tells of the struggle that is survival. To the west, undulating river valleys, to the east, rising uplands, and down below and all about the evidence of humans-in-nature, humans-as-nature, nature-as-human.

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