Meeting my book critics at the AAG 2014

Writing my first book was an incredible experience. Empowering when words flowed. Exhilarating when thoughts came together coherently on paper. Frustrating when nothing seemed to make sense – in my head or on paper. Terrifying when writer’s block set in. Mind numbing when faced with the fourth, let alone the four-hundredth round of edits and proofs. Gratifying, exhausting, emotional – sometimes all at once depending on the moment. An experience beyond words really. It was therefore both exciting and terrifying to invite four academic colleagues to provide a public critique of my newly published book Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) Meeting – held this year in Tampa, Florida. The following is a summary of my author-meets-critics session.

Esteemed feminist geographer Janice Monk chaired the session in her capacity as the co-editor – together with Janet Momsen – of the book series Routledge International Studies of Women and Place. The introduction was followed by constructive criticism from the four panellists: Stentor Danielson from Slippery Rock University, Gregory Simon from the University of Colorado Denver, Sue Jackson from Griffith University and Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. The diverse disciplinary and research expertise of each panellist meant that topics in the book were discussed in interesting and alternative ways to many of my interpretations in the book.

Stentor questioned the necessity of theory with capital ‘T’ to bring out the interesting study details. In particular, he was referring to my use of French philosopher Michel de Certeau’s (1984) theory of ‘the practice of everyday life’, which I applied to understand the everyday dilemmas householders’ face when preparing (or not) for wildfire. Could the work of other theorists (e.g. Pierre Bourdieu or Anthony Giddens), not have been applied with similar end result? ‘Most likely’ was my response! I highlighted the tension early career academics have to negotiate in terms of displaying an in-depth understanding of theory without stifling our own creative energies. Finding the tomes of French philosophers hard work at the best of time, there is little doubt that I ended up using the analytic framework of de Certeau because there were several constructive pieces available (e.g. Shotter 1987, Bogue 1986) that helped me understand and apply it to my own work.

Stentor also highlighted my use of the concept of intersectionality – i.e. that social characteristics, such as gender, cannot be understood in isolation of others, such as class, education, disability, age, race and sexuality. This concept is key to understanding gendered dimensions of wildfire vulnerability and resilience. Stentor’s critique lay not in my use of the term but rather that the concept tends to be applied as an add-on instead of forming the baseline that structures a project from the outset. “Add intersectionality and stir”. I agree and this was certainly the case with this book project. I set out to understand changing local environmental knowledge at the rural-urban / wildland-urban interface. While age, class, education and ethnicity were on my radar, gender, sexuality and disability were not. I did not choose gender as an axis of analysis –  it chose me! Gendered dimensions of wildfire were everywhere in my data – in the narratives of householders, wildland fire fighters, and Indigenous elders alike. Intersectionality was an add-on for me but a crucial add-on. It helped me develop and understand the research in ways that also made me reassess and better understand who I am as a researcher and as a woman (a point reflected on in Chantel Carr’s thoughts on Day 2 of the conference).

Tracy Stuckey "Ranch Romance"

Tracy Stuckey “Ranch Romance”

Gregory used Tracey Stuckey’s powerful image “Ranch Romance” to highlight the importance of class in understanding vulnerability at the wildland-urban interface (WUI). How do realtors market these places to homebuyers, Gregory asked? Who builds in these areas and who moves in? Are these spaces inherently masculine, building on the findings that men place more emphasis on the community and lifestyle elements of living at the edge of city and beyond? This latter finding is ironic, Gregory pointed out, given that men simultaneously were found to be less trusting of their local community’s wildfire preparedness than women were.

I do not know much about the strategies used by realtors to market these properties. However, I do know that few interview participants in both Australia and the US were informed by realtors about wildfire hazards. Sales talk focused on the aesthetic value of views from ridge top locations or the space and privacy offered by inaccessible forested landscapes, not the speed with which fire runs up hill or the flammability of the surrounding vegetation. Why is this when flood risk assessments form a standard part of all property evaluations? A seemingly simple but lost opportunity to build communities that are at the very least more aware if not more prepared for wildfire? Granted, this may cause some sales agreements to fail but is that not a good thing if these residents know that they are incapable of doing the mitigation work or coping with the actual wildfire event?

The three key take-home messages for Paul was how both women and men suffer from structural biases when it comes to household decision-making, social constructions of gender, and gendered aspects of agencies that manage fire. “Patriarchy is bad for everybody!” he exclaimed. Paul found the book’s examination of the role of women in wildfire management particularly actionable. This followed praise from Gregory on how the book brings to fore how female wildland fire fighters both conform to and reject gender roles and gendered norms in a male-dominated profession.

Both Gregory and Paul highlighted the powerful narratives and the trauma that pervade the book. It was wonderful to be commended for both the originality of the research and the strength of my ethnographic work. To Paul the data and the book begged a psychoanalytic reading. This point opened up an interesting conversation about the preparedness and vulnerability of academic researchers to cope with the emotionally and politically charged narratives of disaster survivors. Few human geographers, including myself, are equipped through our education to process narratives in a way that prevents vicarious trauma (Lerias and Byrne 2003). While university ethics committees go to great lengths to ensure the emotional well-being of research participants, the mental health of researchers in disciplines such as human geography, is rarely given much consideration.

The ability or willingness to conform (or not) also formed a core part of Sue’s feedback but in the context of the book’s chapter on Indigenous fire knowledge retention (co-authored with Don Hankins from CSU, Chico). Referencing the ‘fire-stick farming’ hypothesis by archaeologist Rhys Jones, Sue emphasised that it is in the heavily modified landscapes of the rural-urban interface that we need to ask whether western knowledge communities, which seem to be slowly facing up to Jones’ challenge of ‘what do we want to conserve?’ to reflect on their land management reference points, leave sufficient room for Indigenous people to do the same? It seems that all too often Indigenous perspectives on fire and fire knowledge need to comply with a primitivist notion of indigeneity in order to be regarded as legitimate. Having worked in remote Australia for over 20 years, Sue was very aware of the spatial dimensions of the politics of authenticity examined in the book in the context of both knowledge of and rights to country.

The knowledge trajectory idea that frames the chapter provides a means of illuminating the dynamism of Indigenous knowledge. But more than this, Sue pointed out, the chapter asks what part gender played, and continue to play, in enabling these adaptations to changing circumstances. This gender-inflected perspective tends to be lacking from accounts written within the fields of natural resource management. When knowledge transfer is studied in the wider literature on Indigenous resource management, the focus is on knowledge exchange across cultures or between generations, not across genders.

Sue highlighted how powerful Chapter 5’s relational constructivist perspective on gender is in examining the interesting process by which new relationships with post-colonial bureaucracies are enabling the exchange and transfer of knowledge. Sue found the interplay between the policies of national parks services and Indigenous knowledge transfer fascinating. However, Sue thought it worthwhile giving more thought to the issue of returning Indigenous fire knowledge and burning practices to its ‘rightful gender’ traditionally. The book acknowledges that pre-colonial era fire knowledge was not strictly demarcated as the domain of men, so what does that term mean here, Sue queried? It might also be fruitful in future work to give closer attention to hegemonic masculinity as it plays out within Indigenous communities.

All of these comments and ideas are much welcomed, as the AAG 2014 marks a point from which I need to decide how to further develop this research. I am grateful to Stentor, Gregory, Sue and Paul for their stellar feedback and a dynamic author-meets-critics session. After years of research and writing, their interest and constructive criticism was personally a much-needed stamp of approval as well as a breath of fresh air.

You can follow @DrCEriksen on Twitter, watch a recent interview with Christine about her new book, or read several other posts written by Christine for this blog, including Known unknowns in New Orleans, Reflections from the fire front and research in its ashen wake, and Landscapes of uncertainty in California.

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