Facing the Anthropocene: History, Ethics, and Local Soil

As part of the KIE’s Facing the Anthropocene initiative, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, two graduate students were awarded 2018 Farm Fellowships this spring. Each of the two fellows is charged with working at Duke Campus Farm — alongside other interns, faculty, and staff — engaging in archival and field research on the history of land use and habitation on the Farm and the surrounding region. Topics they may choose to engage with include native land use, enslaved labor, environmental justice, food systems, future land use, and sustainable agriculture, past or present.

Photo courtesy of Duke Campus Farm.

Brett Stonecipher, a second-year MTS at the Divinity School and a 2018 Farm Fellow, describes his summer research project as focusing on “geographic place and theological imagination as they crystallize in language.” This helps explain how, within minutes of meeting, he and I are talking about Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the renowned 1941 book taking Alabama sharecroppers as its focus. He tells me he admires how Agee’s writing makes the familiar seem strange, how he is able to “reshape and re-enchant the vision of a landscape.”

“I am interested in the ways that place-focused writers — such as Agee, poet B.H. Fairchild, and others — use language to present re-enchanted visions of their places,” he says, “running counter to the disenchantment, linguistic and otherwise, that characterizes the Anthropocene.”

The 2018 Farm Fellowship he was awarded will enable Stonecipher to “think deeply about this farm site and its relationship to Durham’s past and present through both research and hands-on work, to encounter my driving research questions from the other side, [and] to devote attention to Duke Campus Farm through both manual labor and research.”

He summarizes his self-appointed task as “to intertwine the past and the present,” and hopes to writes about both in a way that reconciles them. Ultimately, he hopes to connect these questions to “immediate considerations of justice and land use” in Durham. By the end of the summer, he will have produced a work of prose that is accessible, inviting, and appealing to non-Anthropocene specialists.

“I hope to renew my own vision of Durham,” he says, “to learn to see it anew by attending to it, and then to share that way of seeing.”

— Emily Bowles