I specialize in U.S. Urban and Environmental History. After five years in the history department at Oberlin College, I joined the Growth and Structure of Cities Department at Bryn Mawr College, where I also hold the Johanna Alderfer Harris and William Harris, M.D. Chair in Environmental Studies. My book Nature Next Door: Cities and Trees in the American Northeast was published by the University of Washington Press on October 1, 2012, and I am currently at work on my next book project, Dead as Dirt: An Environmental History of the Dead Body. My publications include articles in Environmental History, History and Theory, and the Radical History Review.
I have been teaching U.S. environmental history, U.S. urban history, and recent American history since 2001, and have directed individual projects and independent readings on the history of urban planning, on the policies of New Urbanism, and on issues of environmental racism and environmental justice in American cities. My students often teach me as much as I teach them; my Bryn Mawr body seminar students from spring 2011 inspired my October 2011 Organization of American Historians' Magazine of History article "A Lively Seminar on Death: Teaching the Environmental History of the Human Corpse."
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 of my book projects explore these themes, and are projects of urban environmental history.
Nature Next Door: Cities and Trees in the American Northeast 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 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 project 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.