Laura Ogden engages with ‘Swamplife’

ENGAGEMENT editors recently connected with Laura Ogden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Florida International University, to talk about her new book, Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades (2011, University of Minnesota Press).  During our conversation, Dr. Ogden explained some of the ways in which her work addresses issues of social and environmental justice beyond the confines of the academy. This interview is the second in an ENGAGEMENT series that explores how environmental-anthropological book projects have profound and important impacts on the world around us.  The first interview was with Paige West.

Laura Ogden, author of the new book Swamplife

EE: What is the theme of your new book?

LO: First, I would like to thank you for this opportunity to talk about my book and to have a conversation about engagement.  My book has several themes – but the main concern is to try and think about how the Everglades, as a landscape, comes into being through the shifting dynamics of multiple species, including people (hunters and scientists), alligators and mangroves.  As part of this central concern, I was interested in using some ideas from philosophy (particularly Deleuze and Guattari) to experiment with writing landscape ethnography.  I was also interested in doing justice to the lives of rural, working-class people who are associated with the Everglades, while at the same time playing a bit with the myth of the Everglades outlaw.

EE: How does your book address broader questions in environmental anthropology?

LO: My work lies at the intersection of political ecology and science studies.  Like many environmental anthropologists, I am very interested in mapping the ways in which nature’s politics foster the inclusion and exclusion of certain people and certain other species.  I have extended traditional concerns in political ecology by asking about the politics of other species and, in doing so, about what constitutes the human.

EE: How did you engage with different communities while you were doing the research for your book?

LO: My book is based on collaborations with several different groups of people associated with the Florida Everglades.  Certainly my book would not have been possible without my close ties to alligator hunters in the Everglades.  I spent about ten years interviewing hunters, starting with an oral history I wrote right after I finished my MA in anthropology.  This was a collaboration with a dear friend, who was like a grandfather to me.

I have also been very fascinated by what used to be called the natural sciences.  Even though I belong to the generation of anthropologists who were trained at the height of the science wars, and I have written critically about scientific metaphors, I just love what scientists do – the fieldwork, the obsessions with algae, forest canopy ecology, wading birds, etc.  I have been very lucky to be able to learn about how science makes the world in specific historically constituted ways. I really cherish my collaborations with scholars in the N.S.F. Long-Term Ecological Research Program – they have helped me understand ecology from the “inside” and avoid some of the easy assumptions we tend to make about science in the abstract.

EE: What is the key message or key point you hope people take away from reading your book?

LO: Well, that depends on the reader.  But, in general, I hope to humanize the Everglades a bit.

EE: What are the broader contributions of your work to debates over environmental conservation and its implications for social and environmental justice?

LO: My work with Everglades hunters has been important to those communities in ways I never anticipated.  Over a decade ago, I used the term “gladesmen” to describe the white hunting culture associated with the Everglades (I published a book with that title).  Over the past few years, the term has become fairly political in that hunting groups and others now use it to assert their rights to the landscape and as a way of forcing a place at the decision-making table.  “Gladesmen” was not a term people used traditionally – it just worked for me.  Now, there are clubs of self-described gladesmen, websites, and the like.  While this has been gratifying in some ways, it also has contributed to public discussions about culture that are not particularly helpful.  These discussions feel, to me at least, like an ongoing effort to establish an “authentic” Everglades history and culture – which seems static and exclusionary as well.  Still, poor people have really paid an enormous price so that we can have national parks, including those in the Everglades, and I am grateful if my work can remind us of that price.

EE: How is your book being used beyond the academy?

LO: Each thing we create (books, films, articles, talks, etc.) we do for different reasons and different audiences.  I wrote Swamplife because I wanted to think about some ideas about animals and humans, and I also wanted to write it like the kinds of books I like to read.  The books I like tend to be ethnographic, about ideas, and also attentive to writing – I love Kathleen Stewart’s book Ordinary Affects, as an example.  So, this book was not really intended as a book that speaks to policymakers or conservation organizations.

I have several projects that engage conservation organizations in the US and in Chile, where I am working now.  Those collaborations will shape the outcome of my next book, which is going to be about ethics and what I am calling “animal diasporas.”

Thank you again.

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