2003 Student-Faculty Fellows: Bard College at Simon's Rock
Sacred Landscapes, Eco-cultural Tourism, and Nature Conservation in Northwest Yunnan
Mentor: Christopher Coggins, Division of Social Studies
Students: Nicholas Ballenger ’03; Kristen Garringer ’04; Tessa Hutchinson ’03
Research trip to China postponed to Summer 2004 because of 2003 SARS Crisis
Abstracts of Reflections and/or Research
This period of field research has taught me about the challenges of conducting fieldwork with a team, and the success of our work to date has made me a firm believer in the powers of collaborative research. The use of documentary film-making, even when carried out in a more or less exploratory fashion, introduces a new set of possibilities for future fieldwork and teaching. In northern Yunnan we have observed that there are numerous people and institutions that can make various kinds of claims on sacred landscapes (local people, entrepreneurs, tourists, and conservationists), and that these landscapes are extremely susceptible to commodification. In fact, landscape commodification is inevitable with the re-emergence of capitalism in China, and social conflicts over land tenure are inevitable but not necessarily irresolvable. Our fieldwork has been a research project in its own right, but it has also been a superb round of preliminary work for my longer-term project on sacred forests in China.
Research Abstract: Students have shared the preliminary results of our work in a slide show on the campus of Simon’s Rock in June and through a weblog that we kept current through most of the trip. We are currently preparing to embark on the time-consuming process of translating interviews and logging scenes for our video. This process will allow us to excerpt quotations and other data for our publications. We are also preparing to begin transcribing and collating field notes, and putting them in a format for presentations and publications.
This experience in China has helped me to see that if there is to be meaningful economic and social progress in this world it will depend on unprecedented levels of cooperation, both locally and globally. I am still considering a number of options for my career. After the China trip, I have considered becoming a videographer, a GIS analyst, or a cultural geographer. At present I am teaching middle and high schoolstudents about computers. Though one would imagine that China would be far from my mind in the classroom, it is not. Though I have yet to commit to work as a geographer or professional academic; I have for now chosen to teach because, having seen the human devastation wrought by economic and environmental poverty and powerlessness, I want to take some small action against the entropy represented by careless development. For the time being, working with children is the thing in my life which most represents that action, working in my community, with people who are fundamentally affected by some of the same pernicious forces I saw at work in China. There are people in China whose work I respect greatly, leaders in their villages and towns. Though it aggrieved me to see how difficult an uphill battle it is to develop sensible and sustainable systems, particularly sustainable human systems, it was that work which also struck me as most necessary if we are to survive the material conditions of our own successes.
I have always been inspired by the prospect of working to aid rural people in the developing world to find ways to continue, or to begin, to live sustainably with their environments and landscapes. This trip was quite helpful in disrobing my rosy vision of sustainable development of its quixotic cloak. I now know a few people whose lives (and their children’s lives) are being lived, daily, in the midst of these shifting sands. This, above all else, has altered my approach to, and thoughts about, the future of development in a globalizing world. I left asking myself not, “Do I want to be involved?” but “How?”
The ASIANetwork-funded trip to China has affirmed for me the importance of living responsibly, compassionately, and consciously in relation not only to all people, but also to the environment and the earth’s resources. This has become a personal goal – one which germinated in the rural mountains of my childhood – and it continues to be overarching in all areas of my life, including my academic interests. These values, and my experiences in the mountains of NW Yunnan, have fed a strong desire to work with rural mountain people to create sustainable livelihoods, economies, and communities.
My research experience in China this spring proved educational and stimulating on multiple levels. It was rewarding to have reached a point in my education and career at which I was able to confidently and somewhat proficiently pursue research in China. To be at that point felt like a culmination of all of the travel and educational pursuits I had undertaken during my undergraduate career. The other aspect of the trip that I found valuable was the opportunity to engage with so many interesting and highly motivated activists, environmentalists, and researchers. These interactions provided me with motivation to pursue graduate education in order to become as effective as possible in my support of environmental protection and sustainable development in China. This opportunity for research in China showed me how far I have come in my learning, but equally as valuably, it showed me how much further I can go.
Venues for Sharing
Before leaving the United States, Nick Ballenger designed a weblog to share our experiences in the field with viewers everywhere. The “blog” is still running. On returning to the campus in June (when I was still in China), the students gave a public screening of our digital photos of the trip and described our research to members of the college community. An article on our research will also appear in the alumni news magazine, and each of us contributed extensive quotes for it. Our most important means of sharing our results will be: (1) the documentary, which we will use for educational purposes (I plan to use it in classes on East Asia, China, Tibet, and Political Ecology) and perhaps show in film festivals; and
(2) An article that we will write for publication in The Geographical Review, The Journal of Cultural Geography, or the Wittenberg Review, or another journal.
This summer and during my sabbatical (one or two semesters during 2005-2006), I plan to continue to conduct field research on this subject and to write a book on the sacred forests of China.