• Elly Evans

On Curiosity & Research

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

I have 2 weeks to go before the end of this semester, and I would like 3 more weeks please/these 2 weeks cannot go by fast enough. Such is the way of school I suppose, too much work to finish in too little time but with a desperate desire for all the work to just be over as fast as possible.

I'm 3 semesters into my graduate degree with 2 semesters left to go. The program - Applied Geography & Geospatial Sciences - sounds more complicated than it is. The bulk of my classes are GIS and cartography related, learning GIS software, performing spatial analysis, making maps, a little bit of computer coding and statistical analysis for good measure. I balance it out taking human geography classes, learning about how we think about and interact with nature, how space matters in human/environment interactions, equity in urban geography and environmental justice. I have a love/hate relationship with school. It makes me feel all kinds of weird and icky feelings (cough*impostor syndrome*cough) but is also a place where I feel comfortable, validated, and productive. I love doing research and learning and writing. I do not love homework and I could write a whole post on why I hate exams and think they are an awful terrible incredibly poor measure of accrued knowledge.

In my program we get to decide whether or not we want to write a thesis, it isn't a requirement for the master's degree. Most people choose not to write one, because let's be honest here its a lot of goddamn work. I chose to write one, a decision I am alternately very happy with and completely regret. One of the reasons I chose to write a thesis is to give myself a chance to explore a topic that is intellectually stimulating to me, in the midst of a degree that is mostly technical and computer science-y. It has been a fulfilling and scary journey so far, and will surely get both better and worse in the next year.

Something I'd like to do with this blog is use it as a space to document the process of researching and writing my thesis. For myself, I hope doing this will make me feel less alone in the process, give me a place to work through some of my thoughts, concerns, ideas and issues, and even be in and of itself an academic study in what it means to be an ethical researcher and have transparency in the research process. For others, I hope this can be a space to feel less alone in your process, and maybe even learn a little bit along the way.

But, before the process there has to be the thing that the process is working towards! My thesis is exploring how social media is impacting, shifting, and influencing how people come to know and understand nature and wilderness. My abstract is posted here if you're interested, take a look! I'm using Instagram as a platform, and looking at a few hashtags that represent different communities in the outdoors. I've always been interested in the social construction of nature - the idea that what we define as "nature" and "wilderness" is really a product of what society has told us about those places. The creation of wilderness demanded the removal of indigenous populations (since a wilderness must be free of humans). The discourse around wilderness has defined it as masculine (think the stereotypical "mountain man," "outdoorsman," et cetera) places to escape the feminizing influence of the big city. Mainstream media has represented the traditional outdoor recreator as a white person who can afford a lot of nice gear. TL/DR nature and wilderness have historically been understood and represented as places for wealthy white men to play.

This has, of course, shifted over time. I am a woman who loves going really fast on a mountain bike, camping, long distance hiking, and generally being exhausted and dirty and outside. And while I never necessarily felt excluded from these activities and the spaces I do them in, I also never really saw a lot of other women out there doing them alongside me, mostly what I saw was what you'd expect (cough*white men*cough). I am also a woman who loves Instagram, no damn shame. And I found a community in that virtual space, other women (a lot of them!) who were also out there doing the things I loved to do which made me feel even more empowered and encouraged to do them. And beyond that, I found representations and definitions and understandings of nature and wilderness that I had not been previously exposed to, images of people participating in outdoor activities that I had never seen in traditional media or in outdoor spaces themselves. If representations matter (and they do), what are these alternative outdoor representations on Instagram contributing to the wilderness discourse? How are they impacting the people and communities who are underrepresented in outdoor spaces? How are they impacting or evolving that outdated discourse about nature and wilderness being spaces for rich white dudes?

And this is how research begins. Through personal experience and observation, which turn into thoughts and ideas and questions. And now I'm in the thick of it, muddling my way through my first major research project and not really knowing what I'm doing but hey at the end of the day it'll all work out right???

For those of you interested in the social construction of nature, wilderness discourses, and representations, here are a few books (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, academic) that I love and that have informed a lot of my thinking. I've linked them all to my favorite local book store, Tattered Cover, but I'm sure you can find them at your local store or library!

Black Faces White Spaces

Dispossessing the Wilderness

Uncommon Ground

The Word for Woman is Wilderness

Desert Cabal


Braiding Sweetgrass

Simians, Cyborgs & Women

The Colors of Nature

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Blue Horses

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