My research, like my teaching, emphasizes the intimate connections between social processes and built and natural environments, and the importance and influence of “nature” in unexpected places. Both my recent book and my current project explore these themes, and both are works of urban environmental history.
Nature Next Door: Cities and Trees in the American Northeast was published in 2012 by the University of Washington Press. The book explores the transition from farm to woodlands in the northeastern United States and the relationship of that transition to the early-twentieth-century growth of northeastern cities. It emphasizes the interactions between cities and their hinterlands, arguing that it is no coincidence that the most heavily urbanized part of the country has experienced the most dramatic return of trees. Rather, the desires of city people and their physical needs encouraged and required the return of the forest. City dwellers bought abandoned land for country retreats, and they fought to have other parcels set aside for nature study, for recreation, and, perhaps most crucially, for watersheds. This emphasis on the urban origins of and dependence on the new eastern forests underscores the interactions between natural and cultural landscapes and the implausibility of separating the two.
Dead As Dirt: An Environmental History of the Dead Body is my second book project. It examines the environmental history of dead bodies in the twentieth-century United States. Changes in funerary practices and technologies of body disposal have shaped American environments, landscapes and lives — especially in our largest cities — as have changes in material bodies themselves. The modern American corpse is toxic: mercury in teeth, metal in joints, silicone in breasts and batteries in chests have all made body disposal newly complex. This book follows the material journeys of corpses to uncover connections between human bodies and histories of technology, property, politics, and thought. My focus remains on the “nature” of human remains, reconfiguring the place of people and of urban places within environmental history, not merely as actors and as settings, but as constituent parts of dynamic ecological systems.