Episode 3: Bathsheba Demuth Evokes a Place

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For the third episode of Drafting the Past, I talked to environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth. Dr. Demuth is the author of the award-winning book Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, along with many articles and essays. She is an assistant professor of history and environment and society at Brown University.

Here’s the brief bio from her website: “I am an environmental historian, specializing in the lands and seas of the Russian and North American Arctic. My interest in northern environments and cultures began when I was 18 and moved to the village of Old Crow in the Yukon. For over two years, I mushed huskies, hunted caribou, fished for salmon, tracked bears, and otherwise learned to survive in the taiga and tundra. In the years since, I have visited Arctic communities across Eurasia and North America. From the archive to the dog sled, I am interested in how the histories of people, ideas, places, and non-human species intersect. My writing on these subjects has appeared in publications from The American Historical Review to The New Yorker and The Best American Science and Nature Writing.




Bathsheba Demuth 0:00
All of that kind of what it feels to me often like maintenance is actually so central. Like don’t skimp on it. Don’t feel like you’re, you’re not, quote doing the work. Like maybe it’s not words on a page, but it’s really essential to allowing you to put the words on a page.

Kate Carpenter 0:16
Welcome to Drafting the Past, a podcast about the craft of writing history. I’m your host Kate Carpenter. And in this episode, I talk to a historian whose work and writing I have long admired, Bathsheba Demuth.

Bathsheba Demuth 0:28
Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here.

Kate Carpenter 0:30
Dr. Demuth is the author of the award winning book Floating Coast: And Environmental History of the Bering Strait, as well as essays published in many places, including The Washington Post, the Atlantic, Orion magazine, The New Yorker, and others. Her work has also been featured in the Best American Science and Nature Writing and Best American Travel Writing Anthologies. Dr. Demuth is an assistant professor of history and environment and society at Brown University.

Bathsheba Demuth 0:56
In a lot of ways, I went to graduate school in history, because I was interested in writing. I was also interested in questions that I felt like could be addressed either by history as a discipline, and the training that you get in the discipline or by anthropology, I was really split, when I was applying to grad school. And what really settled me on history actually, is the flexibility of how you write history. It’s not a discipline that requires a particular kind of genre. I think historians do everything from biography to, you know, broad ocean spanning work. And it’s also one where the necessity to write in a certain kind of academic voice seems to vary a great deal. So I kind of had that in mind. When I went to grad school, I picked my program, in part because my advisor at UC Berkeley, Yuri Slezkine, very much cares about writing and, and spoke about it when we were talking before I accepted grad schools. But I also had no idea how to do it in a professional sense, right. And history PhD program trains you to do many things, but it doesn’t talk about that kind of writing side of the profession as being part of your professional life in some really key ways that talks about, you know, going to archives and assembling arguments and writing essays. But particularly when it came to public facing writing, I sort of stumbled into that about three years ago, two and a half years ago, I’m pretty new to it, in a lot of ways, and feel that I’m mostly figuring it out as I go. Because it’s not a part of my formal training.

Kate Carpenter 2:29
So I already knew that Dr. Demuth wrote her dissertation with an eye toward publishing with the trade press. Before this interview, I searched out her dissertation online, so I could get a sense of how it had changed before publication. And I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as different as I had expected. I asked Dr. Demuth, how she made time and space for writing such engaging narrative prose during grad school, and what motivated her to do so.

Bathsheba Demuth 2:53
So I think there were a couple of things at play, when I sat down and started trying to figure out how to write a dissertation, which I really thought of as the first draft of a book. It’s something that my advisor emphasized. And I know there’s really conflicting advice on that front, some people want them to be very separate projects, I really thought of this as like the first draft of a book length project. So I think I did have that in mind to begin with. And I did want it to reach as many people as I as I could. And some of that was sort of because of my own sense of obligation toward the story that I was telling and toward the place. And some of that was actually a very practical matter, because Floating Coast sits literally on top of two different national historiographies, I had people on my committee who were trained as Russian historians, and people in my committee trained as enviro- or not environmental but as American historians, and they don’t necessarily have a common set of ideas and books and things shared, right. So if I’m going to write about the Russian Revolution for my American readers, I have to explain it in ways that are relatively straightforward and interesting, and will keep them engaged. And the same thing if I’m talking about the New Deal for the Russianist on my committee, and none of the people at Berkeley on my committee were environmental historians. So none of them came to this project thing like, yes, I want to work with the woman who’s talking about whales, right? I was kind of foisting that on them in some ways. And I was also aware, because I had been told pretty explicitly early on that the geography of this dissertation, put it outside, what many people would find interesting, I was actually told that straight up by Richard White, who’s one of the founders of environmental history as a field who basically told me to get out while I could, and in many ways, it was one of the best pieces of advice I ever have received, although I completely ignored it. Because what I realized was I had to make this part of the world compelling to an audience of people who do not get up in the morning thinking about the Bering Strait. And that to me is a writing issue, right? How do you how do you make the place alive for people? How do you draw them in and that’s the only way to get them to the argument and in fact, as I was doing it, I realized that is the argument, that the two things are not actually separable in any real sense. I think that that’s, that’s why the dissertation came to look how it looked. And I was also writing it at Berkeley, which was a program that at the time gave grad students quite a bit of, of time, I knew that I had, you know, seven or eight years to get through the program, which is very different than what a lot of history graduate students have now, which tends to be five to six. And that was really important. It took me two years to write the dissertation writing it, you know, basically every day, and that is not always the conditions in which people have the time to write.

Kate Carpenter 5:36
Were there people you were looking to as inspiration, as you worked on your craft, or classes you took?

Bathsheba Demuth 5:41
Yes, I ended up reading a lot of people working in kind of long form nonfiction, who were not academics. And I think in this book, Barry Lopez’s work was particularly kind of my lodestar and useful for thinking, especially less about conveying the historical parts of the narrative, because he writes less about history, but more in the capacity to sort of summon a place, and to talk about the kind of more technical scientific concepts that emerge in parts of this book, in ways that are faithful to what’s happening. But also interesting and intelligible for a non specialist audience. I also read Moby Dick, frequently, just because I really like the language, I wouldn’t even read it like from back to front, I would just sort of pick it up, because it has all these short chapters and just sort of look at the way that Melville you know, uses verbs and kind of drops people into scenes that they’re not familiar with, and is, you know, fills them with pathos and humor and kind of human content, even when they are not things that you’ve necessarily experienced directly in your life. And I think just in general, I, by the time I was writing the dissertation, there was like the pile of books and materials that I needed in order to write a chapter. But in order to kind of think about the structure of the project itself, I was mostly reading kind of non historians and trying to reverse engineer, how do you make the structure part of the kind of big takeaway, how do you make paragraphs fit into a section? How many ideas can you put in a paragraph? How do you introduce characters? And how much do you need to know about them? Just kind of that technical stuff that I mostly learned from looking at other people’s writing and figuring out what made it alive to me and hoping that I could figure out a version of it for myself.

Kate Carpenter 7:30
When and where do you do your writing?

Bathsheba Demuth 7:32
I usually work in my office where I am now. And I had a little office in grad school, also, which just sort of progressively is the sort of archeological layers of books and papers accrete as I am working on something, and then I will finish a section or essay, and then I put them all away, and then that process kind of repeats itself. But at least I can close the door and keep it out of everyone’s life the rest of the time. And I am an incredibly routinized person, I get up in the morning, and I go for a run, which is where 90% of the actual thinking about writing happens, even if I don’t know, that’s what’s going on in my head. Sometimes I do. And I have to stop and like frantically take notes on my phone, and then I come home and get cleaned up and have breakfast. And usually my best writing is in the morning. So you know, I try to kind of protect the pre 1 pm hours, but I can often if I’m sort of in a groove, keep going after that. So yeah, that’s kind of the routine. And I can do that day after day. It’s extraordinarily dull.

Kate Carpenter 8:34
How do you organize your research as you’re going? I mean, you not only do a tremendous amount of research, but you also have a wide variety of approaches to research. How do you keep track?

Bathsheba Demuth 8:43
This is a really good question, because I think that we have all kind of stumbled into being digital historians, particularly in the COVID age, when even sources that we might have seen in a more corporeal form are now coming to us in PDFs. And I have a really kind of tripartite division of organizational labor that makes no sense, I don’t think, to anyone but me, but does allow me to go find particularly the kind of digitized sources I’m working with quickly. The books, I just sort of rely on muscle memory to find them in whichever pile, I have left them open in with their spines open. I mean, every librarian would just despair at my book treatment. But in terms of digital sources, I use Zotero. for things that are published in some form because it’s so good at pulling the bibliographic information from the internet. It’s really good at kind of assembling collections of books that I need to read for archival sources or even published primary sources. I use a program called MaxQDA that I started using in grad school. That’s a database that allows you to read and take notes on and flag and tag PDFs and Word documents and other kinds of audio files, text files, video, I found that particularly useful when I was kind of in the writing phase, and that I could be working with a variety of sources and, you know, realize that, you know, here are four things that belong in chapter three, but I’m working on chapter one, and you can sort of start putting them tagging them to, like, you know, reindeer migration, or climate, you know, various things that you know, are coming up down the road. And then when you start reading that chapter, you have all these breadcrumbs, you’ve left yourself. And it was extraordinarily useful when I was revising, because, you know, it was a couple of years out, I didn’t remember in which file, which year, which archives, sometimes I had found this tidbit, but I needed to go back and look at the full source again, and having that database really made that possible. So anytime I have the discipline to go through and really code, what it is that I’m working on thoroughly, I have never regretted it. The future self is always happy for past self having done that work, even if it’s not the most interesting in the moment. And when I’m in archives, I use just a very basic spreadsheet to be like, here’s the box I’m looking at, here’s what it’s in here are the dates it uses, so that I have that kind of metadata that’s outside of the database that I can search really quickly. It’s a mess is actually the, or it’s chaos, but I sort of know the route through.

Kate Carpenter 11:15
Are you a person who likes to have basically all the research done before you start writing? Or do you take more of an iterative approach?

Bathsheba Demuth 11:22
So this is a question that I feel I am trying to transition out of one mode and into the other. So with the first book, which came out of my dissertation, I had this huge luxury of doing the research before COVID, and be doing it in grad school when I was not teaching. So I spent a year going to archives in the US, I spent a year going to archives in Russia. And then after assembling all of that, and taking lots of notes, I turned up in Berkeley to write for two years and finish it. This is not how writing the second book, when you actually have a teaching job looks like for one thing. And for another, I haven’t been able to do most of that archival work over the last two years, which is sort of right when I would have been starting in on the second project, for obvious reasons the archives have been closed, travel has not been easy. So I’m trying to kind of feel my way into the methodology of writing with what you have. And then thinking about where the big questions remain, where are the kinds of sources that I feel are lacking, and really preventing me from pushing what I want to say in in a direction, but I am a little worried about it. Because I feel like there was something with the first book where I just kind of lived in tremendous confusion for about 18 months in those first 18 months of archival research where every day I got up and I had no idea what this was going to become, right, it was just a big tangle. There was lots of interesting things popping out of the archives. But I didn’t have a chapter outline, I didn’t even have a sense beyond working on both sides of the Bering Strait where it was going. And then it kind of all clicked into place. And I think it was because I had the capacity to just sort of swim around in the sources for a long time and not be worried about producing something that was coherent for anyone else, because it was definitely not coherent for me. And I think that imposing that order too early runs the risk of missing things, because then you’re sort of locked into the the narrative structure you’re, you know, have some attachment to the arguments you’ve started to make. And maybe they aren’t, you know, valid or they don’t stand up or they’re more complicated. Or, you know, you saw one tiny slice of things. So I’m having a really difficult time with the iterative approach in this. Even though it is what we have at the moment.

Kate Carpenter 13:42
What does the revision process look like for you?

Bathsheba Demuth 13:44
This is a really good question. And I feel like it’s one that I did not talk about in grad school at all. It’s like the the kind of once you have a draft, what do you do with it? What I did was the first year after I finished, I basically didn’t look at my dissertation, I sort of put it away, I drafted an article that was based on a chapter of it. But that became enough of its own thing, it didn’t feel like I was directly in contact with my own writing all the time. And then on a very horrifying day, after about a year, I went and printed out the whole dissertation and read it, which I don’t know about you. But I find rereading my old words to not be my favorite activity. So I had to be like, alright, just sort of muscle through this and start to think particularly about how to take the five big chapters of the dissertation and split them into kind of a more sensible chapter structure for readers that should just not involve 30,000 words at once. Where to shorten things. Where did I repeat myself? I had, by that point, a long list of sources that I had found while I was working on chapters as I went that needed to you know, stuff that I found working on chapter five that needed to go in chapter one. So I knew I needed to do that work, but a lot of it was kind of thinking structurally initially, and then I just rewrote it front to back in one draft, sent that draft out for for peer review, for my manuscript workshop, I rewrote it again front to back based on that, sent it to my editor, got her notes back, did that a third time. And that was kind of the final version. But the thing I discovered is that each of those redrafting things takes less and less time. So the first redrafting took me most of a year. The second one after peer review took me three months. The one after with my editor’s comments took me three weeks. So you’re not signing yourself up for really rewriting your dissertation every time. And the fourth draft is magical, because you know what you want to say you’ve said most of it, and you’re actually at the place of kind of working at the sentence level and the paragraph level to make sure that it actually gets there. So it also becomes, to me a substantively different kind of intellectual activity between the first draft which I think honestly, whenever I write something the first time I’m writing it for myself, only just to try to figure out what’s going on. And then I have to go through it again and say, Okay, if you are not me, what do you need to know when? How can I bring you into this story? What is it that would be a metaphor that guides us through those kinds of things that’s not necessarily there, right off the bat.

Kate Carpenter 16:15
From a previous conversation, I already knew that Dr. Demuth had gotten her agent as she was finishing graduate school. This is pretty uncommon. So I asked her to tell me how that happened.

Bathsheba Demuth 16:25
So I ended up with an agent, because I was a finalist for a job at Vanderbilt. So I showed up in Nashville, Tennessee, at the airport, and the chair of the hiring committee, Helmut Smith, who’s a German historian picked me up very kindly from the airport. And the first thing that he said to me was, you should not publish your dissertation with an academic press, you should definitely publish it with a trade press. And I was like, Is this part of the job interview? Is this? Like, what are we what’s happening? And at the same time, you know, this, this is a thing that had been on my mind since I started grad school, you know, if the clouds part and the angels sing kind of scenario, but Helmut very kindly put me in contact with the agent that I work with now. And I spent the kind of summer right as I was finishing my dissertation, and starting at Brown writing my book proposal for trade presses.

Kate Carpenter 17:16
We’ve talked a lot about your process for books, but you also write beautifully in essay form. Does that process look different for you?

Bathsheba Demuth 17:24
Yes. So I have realized over the last few years that I really, really love the essay form, and the the essays that are in the, you know, three to 4500, 3000 to 4500 word range, which doesn’t really exist in academic writing, right? We historians basically write and have big journal article like things that are eight to 14,000 words, and books and book chapters. But there’s this other genre that exists for kind of a different audience that can be there. I mean, they’re they’re fact checked, they’re based in things that happened, I use the same source base that I use for historical writing, but they’re driven by questions that are framed very differently than historical ones. And part of why I like writing them is that they are a place to think about some of the questions that really preoccupy me as a historian, the ways that we’re supposed to relate to the places that we live, the nature of economic systems, and how they are enmeshed with our lives and constrained but also liberate our choices. What it is that the environment kind of speaks back to us all the time, and narrate them in ways that are not formulated around an argument in the explicit way that academic work tends to require. I find that they are some times can be much more playful, they are scene based, they require that you just really pull people into a conversation and a series of thoughts with you, not telling them what to think, but telling them how you came to think something or see something in a particular way. And I really enjoy that. It feels more conversational, I think. And there’s something a little bit adversarial about a lot of academic writing to me, like we’re always have kind of our fists up just in case somebody is coming for us. And I think essays are a very different form in that sense that they’re kind of trying to invite people into into a world with you.

Kate Carpenter 19:13
So in all of your writing, both in the book and in essays, place plays such a major role. And of course, that’s true for many environmental historians, but for you place really comes alive. How do you do that?

Bathsheba Demuth 19:26
I mean, I’m glad that it works first, because you never know as a writer, right? If you send these things off into the world with crossed fingers and closed eyes, hoping. I think one thing I do frequently when writing is I go back to the notes that I’ve taken in the places that I’ve been that are either similar or the same to where I’m writing about, and I take a lot of photographs when I’m working up north. So that helps me kind of bring back what did it look like? Usually the visuals kind of come with a sense of the other kind of sensory world that’s associated with it. And then I try to think about what is it that if you haven’t been to a beach on the Russian side of the Bering Strait, for example, what is it that’s surprising, if you’ve not been there before? What are the things that would be helpful for a reader to know about what this place looks like or smells like or you know what direction the wind is coming from, and include those things, because I think just at a sort of sentence level, it helps you get away from kind of cliches and be really specific. And I think then hopefully, for readers, it kind of gives you a visual or a sensory relationship with the place as much as you can have through a piece of writing. And I have found that helpful, not just when talking about kind of direct experience, but in approaching sources that are historical sources are often so full of people remarking on details that are so striking about the worlds that they’re in that, you know, it was so cold this one winter that the stones in our hearth inside the cabin cracked, or did, they just kind of bubble up all the time. And I started to realize that those details give some ability to kind of project that sensory experience into past spaces that I of course, can’t ever enter and none of us can directly but to give them a little bit more lived-in kind of corporeal feeling, which I think for environmental writing is important, partly because sometimes we’re describing past states that don’t exist anymore, kinds of cold that don’t exist anymore. And in some cases, because it just makes it feel less, less like a thing that has kind of stopped having any influence over human lives, right? If you can actually show the ways that these these places exist and are felt and participate in making people experience their days.

Kate Carpenter 21:46
To talk more concretely about how she approaches writing, I asked Dr. Demuth to talk me through the opening paragraphs of an essay that she recently wrote for Granta. The essay is called “On Mistaking Whales.” I’ll link to it in the show notes and you really should go read the whole thing. It’s beautiful. But here’s the opening of that essay: “Before a gray whale becomes a home, or a barrel of oil, or a metaphor, before she enters the realm of human meaning, she is a being complete in herself. Born as most gray whales are on an early January day off northwestern Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, her mother swims upside down, tail lifted, straining up, up, and she emerges head first not into water but into the air. Two thousand pounds of smooth pewter muscle born facing the sky. For the next three months, she practices pacing her breaths, the rise to the surface that keeps her from drowning in the water that is her home. In the calm lagoons, she grows more than a ton each month.

In April, the gray whale and her mother begin traveling north. They are often in sight of land, desert scrub becoming grassland, grassland turning to redwood groves and temperate rainforest as they move up the long arc of the North American continent. Their nearshore waters are punctuated by din: the ports of Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle and Vancouver, each calling in its braided lanes of shipping traffic. In June, as they reach Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands, there is less clamor. They have swum more than 4,000 miles not for quiet but for the Bering Sea’s pastures of clams and tube worms below them in the muck, creatures that have rounded generations of the whale’s kin in blubber. As mother and calf scoop up the benthic riches, muddy blooms rise and trace across the sea’s surface.”

Bathsheba Demuth 23:40
It’s important to note that that first sentence probably took me the better part of a week to write. And it wasn’t that I was writing other parts of the essay. During that week, this wasn’t the only thing on my, you know, Word document. But it took me that long because I am a terrible outliner of essays, I don’t necessarily start them knowing where they’re gonna go, I tend to start an essay like this, knowing that there’s a place in mind, this one was commissioned, it was for an issue of the journal that talks about travel writing. So I knew that I was working within and, or at least, you know, kind of in conversation with this genre of travel writing and why it should exist, and should it exist. So I had those questions in mind because of the condition for the essay. And I had talked with the editor about where it would be placed. So I knew I was writing about this trip to Chukotka. And I had sort of settled on writing about gray whales, because I had a lot of material about them that didn’t end up in the book. And there had been kind of a lot of discussion about gray whales in the last couple of years since the book came out, but that’s all pretty general. Like that’s not a structure. It’s not a point. It’s how do we get from here to there? So I can spend a really long time writing these opening segments of an essay because what I’m really doing is trying to figure out what the darn thing is about. And in this case, I realized that the kind of, since it was a piece of travel writing, the journey that I wanted to take readers on was, you know about being in this place in Chukotka, but it was about also thinking about whales as beings that you can go to see, but they also have these kind of independent lives. And so that’s where you get the first sentence from, it actually kind of maps out where the whole essay is going, walks you through different ways people have known whales, but then turns to thinking about the whale herself, and what a gray whale is in the world. And that just comes from sort of what we know of them, and what people have observed of them. And, you know, the opening paragraph also let me do some work that’s just kind of important for any essay, which is telling you where in the world you’re going to be, and how you’re getting there. So you know, we kind of follow the whale to the North Pacific, follow her, see why she goes to the North Pacific, you know, because it’s sort of important for her as a as a being. And that’s, that’s something that I have learned about this kind of non academic writing is, there are certain things you need to be able to tell readers pretty early on, so that they can orient themselves. And finding an entry point into an essay that allows that to happen is important. So that’s the kind of slow way, I basically I was constantly revising the same sentence over and over again, and then writing just a lot about whale behavior, and then kind of paring it down into this.

Kate Carpenter 26:28
How do you bring writing into the classroom now that you’re also a professor?

Bathsheba Demuth 26:32
That’s a really good question. Because I think that of the things that I find give students at all levels, like from first year to finishing grad students, stress, it’s writing things, which I understand because, you know, it’s, it’s the best worst thing or the worst best thing, you know, I love to do it. And then in the middle of any project, I sincerely wonder why it is that I ever said yes, or signed myself up for it. And it’s really personal, too. And so there’s this terrible moment in the piece of any, or in the life of any piece of writing, where you have to hand it over to other people. So I understand why there is lots of stress. And so I’ve started to think that part of my role as somebody who talks about writing and has writing as part of my coursework is to first of all be frank about that, right, to not pathologize it, not say it’s abnormal to feel exposed, when you hand in a piece of writing, or it’s, it’s okay to, it’s okay to not have your first draft be perfect. I think that that’s something that students I work with, at all levels still, really struggle with. And so I’ve started actually bringing into class, what a well edited first page of an essay looks like from editors that I’ve worked with, like, this is something that’s going to be published, and it comes back to me with lots of notes on it. And that’s normal. That’s how it should be. It’s collaborative, it’s okay to get feedback. That’s the only way that we make our writing, not just better, but bring it up to the thing that we actually had in mind, we cannot do that alone. So try to demystify some of that process. And then also talk really explicitly about what good feedback looks like, because I think another… you can either like not want any sort of like, keep the feedback away from me, or feel sort of obliged to take in everything anyone has ever said, and try to somehow harmonize it in what you’re doing, which is impossible, at some level. So learning to kind of identify what kinds of writing interventions are really helpful when it is that you can kind of see or you just disagree, right? And in any kind of editor editee relationship I’ve been in, there’s been places where I’ve been like, no, I really don’t want to change that. It’s important it’s said that way. Even at the level of copy editing, being like, I know that that’s grammatically the correct way to say that, but I’m not going to call the animal a what, I’m going to call it a who, and I’m not going to negotiate on it. And so, you know, I think thinking of it as a give and take rather than a thing where you just sort of have to absorb everyone’s criticism, sometimes people are wrong, and sometimes they’re transformatively correct. So talking about that.

Kate Carpenter 29:05
Do you have a writing community that you’re a part of?

Bathsheba Demuth 29:08
This is a place where I have gotten unbelievably lucky. And it’s, I don’t know what fluke of geography has produced this, but Providence and the kind of greater Providence area has a really unusual density of people, particularly people writing about the environment. So Elizabeth Rush, who wrote the book Rising, is my neighbor. She’s like five houses over for me. Rebecca Altman, who writes these beautiful work on plastics and is working on what is going to be an absolutely field transforming book on plastic. She lives half a mile away from me, we go walking every Saturday morning. Kerri Arsenault, who wrote the book Mill Town, she’s a little further away, like she has to kind of get in a car. But it’s close enough that I see her fairly regularly and talk to her quite often. And so there’s this kind of core group and there are other folks who are kind of associated with us and it’s a loose end kind of always evolving group of people. But those are the core folks that I maybe not daily, but pretty close to daily have conversations with about what it is they were writing or how terrible it was that we chose to write about this or look at this amazing thing we found. And that has been, it’s been really transformative, I think because none of those women are writing in a specifically academic mode. So it’s a very different writing community than I have access to through the kind of formal workshops and things like that, that are extremely generative and helpful, but are also not the folks that I’m texting to be like, I am stuck in paragraph five, and I’m never going to get out.

Kate Carpenter 30:36
Outside of your own community, are there historians or maybe nonfiction writers more broadly that you really look to as people writing in a way you admire now?

Bathsheba Demuth 30:45
Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s a long list and one that I feel like every time I rattle something off, I forget somebody who I really care about, I think that the work Rob MacFarlane is doing is really has taken the kind of, quote unquote, nature writing genre, and, and kind of pulled it in directions that the 21st century really requires and needs. So he’s someone who’s writing I always look forward to. Jessica J. Lee, her book Two Trees Make a Forest, I think is another place where you see the kind of intermeshing of historical tools that come out of the academy, kind of mixed with memoir, producing something that’s kind of its own new genre, it’s similar to Kerri Arsenault’s Mill Town to me in that way that it is really working between genres, doing interesting things with nonfiction, you can see that it’s like so carefully researched, and and thought about at the kind of empirical level, but is kind of married to a narrative structure that that pushes it in, in a lot of other directions. Those two folks come right to mind. I really, it’s not an, I don’t know, I never know where to categorize poetry in the world of fiction or nonfiction, I feel like it just transcends those two categories completely. But Joan Naviyuk Kane, who’s an Inupiaq poet, her work is something that I keep close kind of at all times. I think it’s really, it has kind of a transformative way of using language and moving between English and Inupiaq, in her in her latest work, and thinking about place linguistically in ways that are really beautiful, and, and challenging, right. And partly, that’s challenging just because I’m not trained to read poetry. So I always feel like I come to it as a real rube. But, but love it anyway. I don’t know there’s there are so many I feel like particularly in the world of environmental writing, that there’s this been kind of recent, very recent, in fact, to kind of turn to thinking about it as a political form, I think, in large part because of the climate crisis, kind of yanking it out of the what Kathleen Jamie calls the lone enraptured male mode of writing and into something that’s thinking about community creation and power. And you know, those things that are really kind of bread and butter questions for historians, but putting them together with narrative forms that bring us into the present and can be accessible to different kinds of communities.

Kate Carpenter 31:27
If you could go back and give writing advice to your graduate school self, what would you, what would you advise her?

Bathsheba Demuth 33:14
I think one of the things on just a practical level is the the activities that feel like they are auxilary to writing, the reading of things, taking notes on them, putting them in your database in a way that makes sense. Not leaving 45 tabs open on your browser, assuming that you’re going to remember why they were important to you in six weeks when your browser crashes. All of that kind of what what feels to me often, like maintenance is actually so central, like don’t skimp on it. Don’t feel like you’re, you’re not quote doing the work. Like maybe it’s not words on a page. But it’s really essential to allowing you to put the words on a page and not feel like you have lost something or, and I think on the losing something front, just never assume you’ll remember it. Like if you have an idea or a scrap of a thought or suddenly remember something that you read and exactly where it says just write it down, like have a system for leaving yourself really generous notes about what you’ve been thinking, and sometimes you’ll go back to them and be like, That is hilarious. What was I? What on earth was I thinking? And sometimes you’re like, that’s what I had been trying to say, for the last, you know, three weeks and I actually just crystallized it on a run four months ago and left myself a note about it. And I I often I think I have a kind of desire to to always be writing and therefore sometimes give short shrift to some of those other things which are just as important.

Kate Carpenter 34:43
Can I ask what you’re working on these days?

Bathsheba Demuth 34:45
Yes. I feel like this needs giant, you know, 2020 sized asterisks around it still. I’m working on a history of the Yukon River watershed, which is the big river that starts in what is now Canada and goes through Alaska to the Bering Sea. And I was in the kind of preliminary month of research on this project up in Alaska in March of 2020. So decamped from Alaska, kind of as COVID was working its way across the country, and therefore haven’t done a lot of the archival work on it. But what I’m interested in, in this part of the world is the way in which different human communities have generated different ways of bringing non human things into political culture, and mostly through what we would call rights. So do fish have rights? Do fish grant people rights? Do trees have rights? Do people have rights to trees, which people have rights to the trees? Who gets to decide those questions. So thinking of those kinds of legal orders as a way in which human beings and other kinds of beings enter a political conversation together. And because it’s a shared ecological space, which apparently is just the thing I come back to all the time, that has kind of multiple different political cultures, represented from the long and continuing Indigenous traditions to the British and Russian Empires, to the US and Canadian nation states, who answered these questions very differently from each other through time, and kind of leave legacies, or in the case of Indigenous nations and contemporary nation states are still really working out who has sovereignty, who gets to answer the question of where do the rights come from? So that’s from 30,000 feet where that project is. At the level of the ground, there are many, many questions, because I simply haven’t done most of the work. But I’m hoping to be headed north next month, viral variants willing, to actually start answering some of those questions.

Kate Carpenter 36:37
Toward the end of the interview, I also asked Dr. Demuth if there was anything else about writing that she wanted to say, and I love what she added.

Bathsheba Demuth 36:44
I think one thing that that maybe didn’t come up, and it’s related a little bit to teaching writing is that I think, in sort of discussions of academic versus non academic writing there, sometimes it’s kind of a split made between narrative writing and writing that has an argument to it. And I think that as historians, splitting those two things, and separating them really kind of walls us off from the tools that are in narrative itself, which is that the narrative itself is an argument, right? How you tell a story is part of why the story matters, who comes first, who gets to speak? How much kind of page time different issues get, how things are described, what gets described? What the kind of emotional or affective experience of reading is, those are not separate from argumentation, I don’t think, or they don’t have to be. And I understand why not all pieces are driven in that direction. There’s a, you know, there’s a clarity to sort of removing that narrative structure and sort of just saying what you’re going to argue that’s really appropriate for some kinds of genres. But I also think that, you know, if you’re working in archives, and sort of have the responsibility toward people’s stories and the trajectories of communities through time that not necessarily thinking that the parts of writing that deal in emotions and scene making and specifics of place are somehow separate from what it is that you’re arguing, I think the two things can really be kind of melded together. And that what some of the most durable and interesting narrative nonfiction does is, is that work.

Kate Carpenter 38:25
That was very well said. Thank you so much. As always, I can talk about writing all day, and I really appreciate you taking the time.

Bathsheba Demuth 38:33
Yeah, I really, I so appreciate this podcast. I wish it had existed when I was in grad school and was like, you know, I felt like there were all these things we talked about all the time and like how to sit down and write was not one of them, even though we all had to be doing it.

Kate Carpenter 38:47
I too am grateful to these conversations, and I am grateful to Bathsheba Demuth for joining me today for this one. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. As always, you can find show notes and a transcript on You’ll also find links to the articles and books that we’ve talked about in this conversation there. Please share the podcast with someone else you know who would like it and in the meantime, happy writing!

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