Mary Kuhn

 Climate change happens at such a large scale that it can be hard to interpret on an individual, day-to-day level in central Virginia. Its effects are more easily discernable, however, if we take a longer view and look at patterns over time. Ecologists have recently gone back and looked at the journals of Henry David Thoreau, for instance, whose meticulous records of temperature and bloom-out dates provides a time capsule of the climate nearly 200 years ago.

In spring 2019 I’ll be teaching a course on climate fiction. Climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” is a relatively new genre that invites readers to contemplate a rapidly changing climate—from realist portrayals of weird weather interrupting the everyday to post-apocalyptic scenarios set on fury roads and in distant galaxies. Literary representations of an unsustainable, warming world provide a point of entry for considering the social, political, economic, and technoscientific forces at work in shaping our current environment, and they invite us to think about our present moment in relation to past and future scenarios.

My dream idea is to collectively build a climate capsule of our own observations about the local environment while we read this fiction. I imagine this as follows:

We’ll spend two Saturdays sessions in early September at the Jefferson School’s Book Arts Studio learning how to use recycled materials to assemble and bind notebooks for the course. These will serve as the basis for continuous, semester-long documentation of a self-designed walking route around grounds—in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, himself a regular walker. These notebooks will incorporate observations of people, the natural environment, and air quality, which students will monitor in two ways: through their own sensory perceptions, and through a set of class-issued sensors. In regularly recording this information, students will practice blending narrative and data-driven forms of observing the world.

In early spring we’ll take our field notebooks on a field trip to Shenandoah to meet with a National Park Service staff member who works on air and water quality monitoring, expanding our walking range beyond Grounds. At the end of the semester, students will display their field notebooks for a public viewing before they go into the vault. Like Thoreau’s journals, these notebooks will be comprised of individual reflections, observations, and beliefs about the environment as much as collections of data. The journals will then be placed in Special Collections with a 25-year restriction notice, to be made available again in 2044. These journals will provide students with a way to imagine our current climate in relation to an unknown future, and will provide future researchers with a window into the ways that students in 2019 thought about the environment.


Cost of notebook workshop at the Book Arts Studio for 20 (19 students plus me): $75x20=$1,500

Cost of 10 air quality data monitors (to be shared among students): $80 x 10=$800

Van rental for Shenandoah National Park field trip: $80 + $60 for gas =$140

Food and drink for time capsule sealing party: $500


Total budget: $2,940