Transforming Forgotten Places, Transforming Learning

By Bethany Wiggin

South Philadelphia’s former creeks, marshes, and meadows are almost gone and forgotten. Simultaneously, local climate impacts—including sea level rise, storm surge, and heavier and more frequent rains—are returning water to these low-lying areas. The region’s historic wetlands are getting soggy, and by 2100, they will be very wet. Heavy with centuries of legacy pollutants from oil and coal refining, the water presents a kind of liquid archive for a landscape of extraction, one with few finding aids, catalogues, or guides. We have forgotten what and who has been put there.  

The author on the water in front of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refinery. April 2016. Photo: Bethany Wiggin.

In learning in and with this forgotten place, myriad questions float to the surface: What research methods are needed to make sense of this foreboding archive? What learning communities can apprehend it? And how, in my own sustained attempt to know and to re-present it, can I, a white academic, contribute to the realization of sustainable environmental futures in this place—futures that, to be sustainable, are necessarily diverse and inclusive?

Another paradox animates these questions. And this paradox prompted the sustained experiments in place-based pedagogies I’ve been working on for a few years now (including the 2018 field school, the On-Water Intensive, and a project called Futures Beyond Refining, launched in 2019 in the wake of a what was a “close call” for Philadelphia, the explosion of the oil refinery then operate by Philadelphia Energy Solutions).

Here’s the paradox: if wisdom sits in places, as anthropologist Keith Basso learned from his collaborators among the western Apache, how can learning communities apprehend what sociologist Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls forgotten places? Such places, Gilmore explains, “are not outside history. Rather, they are places that have experienced the abandonment characteristic of contemporary capitalist and neoliberal state reorganization.” The tidal Schuylkill River in south Philadelphia, flowing past Kingsessing (or Chingsessing, Lenape language, place where there is a meadow) and debouching into the Delaware River where the Tinicum Marsh once stretched for some six thousand acres, offers but one example of a forgotten landscape. Yet it is one all too familiar in the blasted landscapes produced by the economics of carbon-intensive extraction. It is nonetheless dotted with islands of hope.

The learning experiments I’ve developed and guided have been conducted in classrooms and in the field, and they have often involved experiential learning methods. I have undertaken them to probe how, “in the midst of ruins” we might “maintain enough curiosity to notice the strange and wonderful as well as the terrible and terrifying.”

Designing and guiding these place-based experiments in environmental humanities (EH) has provided sustained opportunities for reflection on the transformative premise and promise of EH. Its greatest critical purchase may lie, I believe, in its ability to generate and adopt new concepts and vocabulary, including the emergent field’s most prominent keyword, arguably its raison d’être: the Anthropocene. Considering it and other key concepts—including slow violence, ruination, and un-disciplining—in place has helped us to develop pedagogical techniques through which we put concepts into practices.

In an article which these words draw on, and which I’m writing with former PPEH Fellows, Martin Premoli and Luna Sarti, both deeply involved in these learning experiments, we sketch six learning practices for learning in and with forgotten places.

The Rising Waters research group, with Martin Premoli, Luna Sarti, and the author in Mumbai. January 2019. Photo: Bethany Wiggin.

Borrowing from swimmer-writer Roger Deakin, we began with the sense that “following water, flowing with it, would be a way of getting under the skin of things, of learning something new.”[1] Like others articulating the blue humanities, we challenged ourselves to realize water-y metaphors, including the river itself as a watery archive. Our work has been provoked by the history of the radical Black Atlantic and its ropes and ties to Philadelphia and its docks.

https://www.versobooks.com/books/1128-the-many-headed-hydra

Thinking especially with the figure of hydrarchy, we created a living open-source and open access archive of and for the river. It includes documentation of the university-based classes and field work we and others have conducted and contributed, and it also contains materials developed with community partners to engage broader publics with the river’s past, present and future. Our work Beyond the Lab will live in this archive of and for a forgotten place. Students urge we make it a “leaky” archive, where historical and other research materials can flow out, recirculating in place and animating visions of more sustainable, equitable futures.


[1] Link to the syllabus in the archive.

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