Guest Post: Carolyn Fornoff reflects on engaging publics

Carolyn Fornoff is the Coordinator of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH). A field that is rapidly institutionalizing, EnvHum aims to value and promote work that engages both academic and non-academic audiences. In this post, Carolyn reflects on how she and other PPEH Fellows and Friends, in her words, “took the notion of public engagement to entirely new terrain.”  


Patricia Kim and Carolyn Fornoff taking a break from pulling in passersby on the Schuylkill River Trail during the pilot project’s first open house, October 17, 2015.

In academia we often come back to the question of how to engage a broader public with scholarly work. Rather than envision the university as an ‘ivory tower’ from which knowledge ‘trickles down’ to the public, the aim is to rethink how in the 21st century—with its vast array of new platforms for communication—we might bring academics into dialogue with activists, artists, and community groups, all of whom are invested in tackling similar problems (from different angles) so that we might learn from each other. But what does it mean to really engage the public? One of the goals of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) is to create an academic culture that is invested not just in rigorous scholarship about the environment, but also in public scholarship. That is, to craft a program whose events will interest a wide cross-section of scholars from different disciplines, as well as captivate a broader audience.

To this end, the first symposium of the academic year, Faith & Environmentalism, part of the Program’s ongoing Curriculum for the New Normal, was timed to coincide with the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia (and co-sponsored by the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought & Culture) to increase attendance by visiting Catholics. Consequently, not only did the presenters represent a wide array of takes on faith and nature across time and space—ranging, for example, from Classics prof Cam Grey’s presentation on pagan interpretation of environmental crisis to Rabbi Ilana Schachter’s discussion of nature in the Old Testimony—but the audience itself included students, scholars and practitioners of faith. This intersection of attendees brought lively debate to the Q&A roundtable, as well as to conversations following the official program.

After giving my own talk on liberation theology, poetry and environmentalism, I was approached by a Peruvian priest who was in Philadelphia for the papal visit.



Carolyn Fornoff speaks at the PPEH Symposium on Faith and Environmentalism. Poet Ernesto Cardenal is shown here kneeling in the background slide.

We began to talk about his experience with liberation theology in Peru, and dove into the merits of liberation theology versus theology of the people, and how these branches think differently about the overlapping articulation of class and environmental violence. What was most powerful about this conversation was how it brought my research’s investment in historical and literary analysis into conversation with concrete contemporary relevance. It pushed my frame of reference beyond the text and into dialogue with public discourse and religious practice.

Whereas the symposium on Faith & Environmentalism brought together a public that was already invested in these debates, PPEH’s first open house for WetLand on the Schuylkill trail took the notion of public engagement to entirely new terrain. How to engage a public that was not purposefully intending to attend an event about the environmental humanities? WetLand, an art installation by PPEH artist-in-residence Mary Mattingly, is both a houseboat and an experiment in sustainable living. After some difficult negotiations with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, we were able to dock WetLand under the Walnut Street Bridge for two weekends in October.



With Philadelphia’s City Hall in the background, Carolyn Fornoff and I have nothing but smiles after long negotiations to obtain permission to use the City’s Park and Recreation dock under the Walnut Street Bridge over the Schuylkill River in Center City.




On Saturday, October 17th from 11-6, we set up an information table alongside the path of the Schuylkill River Trail and began our efforts to get passersby to come aboard and explore the boat. The Schuylkill River Trail is a path that follows the bank of the Schuylkill River for a distance of 23 miles. Every weekend, people walk, bike, and run along the path for exercise, to enjoy the autumn sun, or to get over to 30th Street train station. After having set up our WetLand information table adjacent to the trail, we quickly realized that few people were stopping to visit with us—likely out of the suspicion that we were trying to sell something. But the striking visual of WetLand, with its multi-colored exterior made from recycled materials, was catching the eyes of many as they jogged past. Soon, we modified our strategy and began to call out to bikers or runners as they sped by, “Come check out our boat!” Surprisingly, about one out of every three people would slow their pace and take a break from their workout to hop aboard. Children, dogs, and adults alike delighted in stepping out onto the Schuylkill River, exploring the houseboat refashioned into a lab of sustainability and art installation, a glimpse of how we might take refuge from the world, but can never truly escape it.

The open house at WetLand was public engagement at its most expansive. Philadelphians of all stripes who might not normally attend a university event or be interested in talking about the environment stepped onto the floating vessel and told us about what they think about climate change and how it is affecting (or not) their lives.


Some of our favorite visitors to WetLand at our first open house.

The curiosity and willingness to experience something new on the part of the public that came aboard WetLand points to the possibilities that an artist-in-residence brings to Penn and to scholars of the environmental humanities at large. Public input pushes us to think about the intersection of environment and culture in concrete, everyday encounters, whether it is with the bodies of water that run through our city, or the different ways in which people walk alongside or travel over them.


Guest Post: Kate Farquhar hosts an open house on WetLand

On October 25th, Kate Farquhar hosted the second of two open houses on WetLand while we were docked at the Walnut Street Bridge on the Schuylkill River in Center City Philadelphia. She reflects on it in this guest  post:

Taking stock of the WetLand openhouse a month ago, our dockside conversations and experiments now seem inextricably interwoven with this year’s final season. The unseasonably warm, breezy day debuted collaborative tests among friends and introductory encounters with strangers.

Danielle Toronyi of Peak Discharge – an environmental noise group – gauged underwater sounds from the Schuylkill’s tidal banks. Local horticulturists Kylin Metler and Robin Rick hosted a plant clinic to distinguish plant specimens and answer questions brought from passersby. Artist Jacob Rivkin and I made an instructional video showing how to concoct seed bombs, to better broadcast tips for spreading native plants.

<p><a href=”″>How To Make Seed Bombs</a> from <a href=”″>Jacob Rivkin</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

In my work as a landscape architect and teacher, I constantly search for words to help me contextualize my actions as participatory within a larger world. Standing out from my memories of our friendly talks in the warm air, the words gauge, distinguish and broadcast resound.

Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (my favorite source for storied vocabulary lineages), but deployed in sentences I’ve composed as follows:

GAUGE:  the measurement of the depth of a liquid content, to ascertain the capacity or content of (a cask or similar vessel)… To render conformable to a given standard of measurement or dimensions; also to gauge up, to set bounds to, to limit

Gauging is the method by which tides were measured before microwave technology and acoustics – it’s also an informal method of evaluating fluid commodities.

DISTINGUISH: to perceive distinctly or clearly (by sight, hearing, or other bodily sense); to ‘make out’ by looking, listening, etc.; to recognize… To mark…  to be a characteristic of; to characterize… honour with special attention

With the use of all five senses, a practiced observer can distinguish organisms as characters distinct from their contexts.

BROADCAST: to scatter (seed, etc.) abroad with the hand… To disseminate (a message, news… performance…) from a … transmitting station to listeners and viewers; said also of a speaker or performer

Broadcasting the year’s fruit can mean throwing seeds by hand or reaching out to an audience – or – in our case – both.

Posing the larger context for Danielle’s exercise, I’ve learned that this October was the warmest on record for our region, implying a cascade of small and large local (but globally-connected) consequences including rising tides. Prefiguring Kylin and Robin’s clinic, definitive precedents were set by the plant intelligence researchers with this year’s publication Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence. Describing plant communities’ interconnected intelligence networks as more sophisticated than the internet, its authors reverse the notion that plants are specimens to be entered in a catalog. Plants are presumed to have their own drives. Grounding my workshop with Jacob, this fall yielded an extravagant harvest of fruit, nuts and berries to our region – constituting a mast year, with beneficial repercussions for wildlife that rely on those crops. Each theme I’ve called out above refers to modes of thought that transcend the science vs. humanities duality that pervades much of our culture. Relatedly, they reference pre-modern, non-specialized ways of doing things that still matter.

Guest Post: UPenn Theatre Arts on WetLand

By Amanda Shur

On a beautiful Tuesday morning in October, one University of Pennsylvania Theatre Arts class made the trek down to the Schuykill River to board a boat.  It was an unusual and unprecedented class for Dr. Marcia Ferguson’s Introduction to Directing class, an exercise in eco-theatre.  No one was really sure what to expect going into the class, nor was it possible for any of us to fully grasp what the WetLand project even was before boarding the installation currently docked in the Schuykill.  At the boat, Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Sarah Standing of CUNY were waiting for us.  As we boarded the boat, we were all somewhat surprised by the comparison between the inside and the outside of the structure.  On the inside, WetLand looked like any normal boat, complete with electricity from the solar panels–a stark contrast to the dismal appearance of a sinking house from the outside.


Students in Dr. Marcia Ferguson’s class discuss eco-theatre on WetLand with PPEH guest, Dr. Sarah Standing. Photo credit: Brooke Sietinson/Penn Arts & Culture. 

For the photo album of the workshop on WetLand and the ensuing roundtable on Avant Garde Theater & Climate Change click here. And, PPEH Fellow Ruben Post writes about the roundtable here.

As the cars zooming by on 676 subtly wavered in the background as the boat rocked above the light waves, Dr. Standing began a discussion on what eco-theatre is.  We discussed what we personally felt were main environmental concerns, occasionally interrupted by the slight bump of the boat against the dock.  We came to the understanding that eco-theatre can be any form of theatre ranging from realism to the absurd, and not necessarily site-specific, but unified by a focus on environmental issues.  As the class delved into a discussion about our personal ecological concerns, the conversation grew serious, with some students mentioning how overwhelming and emotional these topics can be.  This, Dr. Standing explains, is exactly why we have eco-theatre: to come to terms with these overwhelming feelings and emotions, and convey important messages about the state of our environment.

From there, the class split into groups of three to devise pieces in 10-minute rehearsals, inspired by the concerns we’d just raised and the environment of the boat.  The variety in the scenes produced was incredible: from abstract tableaux about rising water levels to full-blown melodrama scenes about air pollution, we demonstrated that eco-theatre can be nearly anything its creators want.  Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Standing even pressed students to perhaps incorporate song into their pieces.  Eco-theatre, we learned through practice, was not the abstract and distant theatre we’d imagined, but could be completely accessible realism.

As a train horn screeched across the river, we came to a close discussing the installation itself.  It premiered in 2014 at the Fringe Arts Festival, with artist Mary Mattingly actually living on the boat for three to four weeks.  I began to notice for the first time my surroundings–the microwave in the corner, the outlets all around deriving their power from the solar panels on the roof of the boat.  I finally came to terms with the project.  While a sinking house on the outside, the WetLand project was a fully functioning house boat on the inside–a message both inside and out about our possible future should water levels continue to rise, and an experimental production of eco-theatre.