Looking at ‘wastelands’ through a humanities lens

Aleppo, Syria degraded ruin
Aleppo, Syria, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Today, Aleppo is a war-torn, environmentally degraded ruin.

This fall, Nancy Y. Reynolds and Anne-Marie McManus launched the Mellon Sawyer Seminar,  “Grounding the Ecocritical: Materializing Wastelands and Living on in the Middle East.”  “Wastelands” refers to places with material and environmental degradation, ruin, and decay, as well as the social and natural life that inhabits them. “Ecocriticism” is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment.

Nancy Reynolds and Anne-Marie McManus

Nancy Reynolds (left) and Anne-Marie McManus are principal investigators for “Grounding the Ecocritical,” a Mellon Sawyer Seminar, which begins this fall. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Reynolds is an associate professor of history and McManus is assistant professor of modern Arabic literature and culture. Both have joint appointments in the Department of Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures in Arts & Sciences.

The seminar will explore ecological, technical and literary accounts of wastelands in the Middle East and the ways human and nonhuman life coexist within these ‘wasted’ spaces.

Reynolds hopes the seminar will be a “pop-up center” for the study of environmental humanities in the St. Louis region. She notes that WashU and St. Louis are strong in terms of environmental studies, policy and sciences. But she also sees a place for addressing the human experience of environmental degradation caused by climate change and other factors.

The seminar encompasses courses, lectures, workshops, films, local events, and reading groups. It is funded by a $175,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Read a Q & A with Reynolds and McManus in the Source.